Thursday, October 19, 2017

Theater Review: Teresa Deevy’s ‘The Suitcase Under the Bed,’ From the Mint Theater

Although its mandate to rediscover long-neglected works has primarily covered the U.S. and Great Britain, the Mint Theater has also brought welcomed renewed attention to notable past Irish playwrights, such as Lennox Robinson (Is Life Worth Living?, reviewed here), Hazel Ellis (Women Without Men), and today’s case in point, Teresa Deevy (1894-1963). It is one of the anomalies of the theater world that a playwright with such an acute ear for characters’ speech struggled for virtually her entire adult life with the burden of deafness.

Remarkably, Deevy succeeded in getting six of her plays produced in the 1930s by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. But by the middle of that decade, with the company leaving the orbit of founders Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, she ran afoul of the literary politics of the time and could no longer get her work performed there.  For most of the rest of her productive working life, then, she turned to the radio, producing a dozen original works for the B.B.C. and Radio Éireann, in addition to adapting some of her other works for broadcasting.

After being elected to the Irish Academy of Letters, Ireland’s highest literary honor, Deevy went pretty much from here to obscurity. Then, seven years ago, the Mint Theater made her an object of serious re-evaluation with its production of Wife to James Whelan, the play rejected by the Abbey in 1936.

The title The Suitcase Under the Bed refers to where all of Teresa Deevy’s writing was stored for decades. Deevy’s grandniece showed them to the Mint Theater’s Artistic Director, Jonathan Bank, who ended up staging the world premiere of three of them—Strange Birth, Holiday House, and In the Cellar of My Friend—along with her best-known one-act, The King of Spain’s Daughter, staged by the Abbey in 1935.

Not all the plays work effectively, but collectively they testify to Deevy’s willingness to try new forms—and to the Mint acting company’s versatility in playing different characters in the same evening.

The most impressive of the discoveries, Holiday House, is the kind of light-as-air comedy that Noel Coward might have tried if he had ever spent substantial time in Ireland. A family gathers at their mother’s seaside home for a late summer holiday. Derek, married for a few years now, finds his carefully cultivated savoir-faire sorely tested as he copes with unsettled business involving ex-fiance Doris (Ellen Adair); her haughty, jealous husband, Derek’s brother (Aidan Redmond); and Derek’s rattled wife Jil (Gina Costigan). Witty repartee flies back and forth, as the quartet try to remain civilized even as they veer inevitably toward verbal sniping.

Redmond had other opportunities to shine. In The King of Spain’s Daughter, he depicted an authoritarian patriarchal figure who gave his daughter Annie a choice: wed his younger coworker, Jim (A.J. Shively), or work in a factory. The play depicts a time when women—particularly high-spirited rebels like Annie (played with willful, headlong romanticism by Sarah Nicole Denver) —had few choices in life. And, in Strange Birth, he played a middle-aged postman proposing marriage to a skittish maid (the estimable Ellen Adair).

Holiday House and The King of Spain’s Daughter were more memorable than Strange Birth and the remaining one-act play, In the Cellar of My Friend. But the Mint troupe managed to spin multiple subtle variations on the theme of marriage, and the distinctive voice of Deevy was heard once again—and now, one hopes, it will continue to reverberate in rediscovery mode.

The Suitcase Under the Bed closed at the end of September. But I couldn’t let the opportunity go to review it before The Mint Theater starts another season.

Quote of the Day (Thomas Mann, on Why Speech is ‘Civilization Itself’)

“Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact — it is silence which isolates.”— German novelist and Nobel Literature laureate Thomas Mann (1875-1955), The Magic Mountain (1924)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Quote of the Day (John Steinbeck, on Loneliness and Storytelling)

“We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say and to feel—‘Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’” —American novelist John Steinbeck (1902-1968), “In Awe of Words,” The Exonian, 75th anniversary edition, Exeter University (1930)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Quote of the Day (Mary McCarthy, on a Man With a ‘Gift for Being His Own Sympathizer’)

“Hen has a remarkable gift, a gift for being his own sympathizer. It’s a rare asset; it could be useful to him in politics or religion….He's capable of commanding great loyalty, because he's unswervingly loyal to himself. I'm not being sarcastic. Very few of us have that. It’s a species of self-alienation. He’s loyal to himself, objectively, as if he were another person, with that feeling of sacrifice and blind obedience that we give to a leader or a cause.” —American novelist, critic, and political activist Mary McCarthy (1912-1989), The Groves of Academe (1952)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Video of the Day: George Harrison, ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie,’ From the ‘Bobfest’

At Madison Square Garden 25 years ago today, a galaxy of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, country, and folk music stars gathered for what one of them, Neil Young, termed “The Bobfest”—a tribute to Bob Dylan on the 30th anniversary of his recording career.

While the most unusual performers might have been The Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, and Robbie O'Connell on  "When the Ship Comes In" (“Hello, you never thought you'd hear Dylan with an Irish accent, did you?” they joked) and the most ferocious one Neil Young on "All Along the Watchtower," my favorite was George Harrison, on “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” 

Sadly, this YouTube clip does not feature Chrissie Hynde’s ecstatic introduction of the “guitar hero” (“Let me give you a little clue: hallelujah, hare Krishna, yeah yeah yeah!”), because that was on his prior song at the show, “If Not for You.”

The ex-Beatle’s aversion to live performing had kept him off the stage for most of the last 18 years, and he had given what turned out to be his last full-length concert in the U.K. the prior spring, so it was natural that, even for a song he had recorded successfully yours ago like “If Not for You,” he might have played a big tentatively.

But “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” one of Dylan’s most humorous songs (“Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously/But then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately”), loosened Harrison up considerably, and I can swear he’s having fun with Dylan’s—how shall I say it?—distinctive emphases of words (“all these promises you left for me”). (Harrison, reputedly “the quiet Beatle,” may also have been the one with the slyest sense of humor.)

It’s easy to overlook “Absolutely Sweet Marie” on the teeming double-album Dylan masterpiece Blonde on Blonde, which made all the more welcome Harrison’s spotlight on the tune. It’s impossible not to get caught up in Harrison’s infectious appreciation of the tune. Certainly G.E. Smith, the musical director of the show, did, as he unleashed a fun guitar solo, trading licks with one of the rock ‘n’ roll masters of the instrument.

I’m not sure why Harrison wore this violet jacket during his appearance. If it was meant to attract attention, it was unnecessary. His terrific performance took care of that, with no other visual aids needed.