Onstage, the Pen Is Usually Duller Than the Sword
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. – Writing is boring. I should know that. I just spent half an hour revising that first sentence.
Playwrights like to write about writers nonetheless, perhaps because of their common tolerance for boredom. But beyond that, what is there really to say? Anything that fills the person up under words tends to diminish art; anything that sticks to unfiltered words is dull.
Or that’s what it seems to me from the shows made about the writers I love. Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, EM Forster, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison have all been put to the test recently, with many posing as wet rags.
The latest to become kind of a drip in the process is Edith Wharton. To be fair, it is clear that in writing “Mr. Fullerton” – a play about Wharton, Henry James and their mutual inamorato, Morton Fullerton – Anne Undeland was as passionate as I was about the author of classic novels including “The Age of Innocence “,” Ethan Frome “and” The House of Gaieté. “
It’s also true that Wharton has had a hectic existence away from her pens and notebooks, including the extramarital affair with Undeland’s main character and the near-pornography she secretly wrote later. But from the room – and I could argue from any room – you could never guess that a brilliant person was living Wharton’s brilliant life.
“Mr. Fullerton,” which premiered last week at the Great Barrington Public Theater, presents the novelist, in her forties, as a button-down old maid; although she has been married for two decades, her marriage is genderless, childless and almost loveless.After being seduced in 1907 by Fullerton, a somewhat younger and more rhythmic journalist, she opens up to passion while, the play implies, closes to art. first thing we see in the Great Barrington production, which runs through Sunday, is the Paris apartment Wharton (Dana M. Harrison) rented to the Vanderbilts; the desk is under a protective cover but the large brass bed shines with promise.
I will not attempt to pursue a play deliberately written as a fantasy for its factual improbabilities. (That said: I can’t really see Wharton flipping pages of fresh prose all over the room for his maid, Posy, to pick them up and paginate.) My problem with “Mr. Fullerton ”has to do with his fictitious improbabilities. Fullerton, in real life, a seemingly even magnetic Lothario – James called him “magically tactile” – is written here (and played by Marcus Kearns as a result) as more of a puppy than a dog, doing campy references to Wharton by her childhood name, Pussy Jones, and proleptically citing Mae West. When he ghosts you are relieved.
Well, no one cares about Fullerton anyway, but the portrayals of Wharton and James (Glenn Barrett) as giggling, sarcastic, and bewildered teenagers undermine their enormous stature as writers, which the play nonetheless relies on as a foundation of. his interest. I wouldn’t have bothered with James, whose budget exuberance is always worth deflation.
But keep your satirical hands away from my Edith! Her achievement is in many ways superior to that of James, given the hostility towards the female writers of her day; certainly, she sold him more than he did. More than that, his real feelings about the Fullerton affair speak with a seriousness and acuteness far greater than the play can dramatize. Although she was hesitant whether her brief experience of physical passion had helped her as a human – she wrote that Fullerton had woken her “from a long lethargy” in which “a whole side of me. was asleep “but also that his life was” better before “she knew him – there is no literary confusion. Upon exiting the case, she produced” Ethan Frome “.
This superlatively dark novel provides “Mr. Fullerton ”with one of his best moments, which the playwright puts together perfectly. When a newspaper reports that a high school girl at home was killed in a sleigh accident, Posy (Myka Plunkett) immediately bursts into tears and explains that the girl is the girl who “could have been” hers. Instead, she was the child of a man Posy once loved but rejected because serving Wharton offered a better life.
Although Posy is an invention, readers of “Ethan Frome” will immediately recognize the story of the sleigh accident from the climax of the novel. In this, Undeland and “Mr. Fullerton” have something very right about writing: the cruelty of stealing a writer, who steals reality (even someone else’s) for material. .
It is this cruelty that is lacking elsewhere here, and also in other fundamentally sympathetic portraits of literary artists. In Sarah Ruhl’s play “Dear Elizabeth,” based on Bishop’s correspondence with Lowell, the poets simply read each other, which is sometimes charming but almost never dramatic. In Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance” EM Forster is reduced to a kind grandfather to new generations of homosexuals. The reverse problem defeats Poe in several pieces about him, including one titled “Red Eyes in Havre de Grâce”: he’s so mad you can’t imagine he has the energy available to even find a way to find it. ‘a single rhyme for “never again”, let alone. 18.
In all of these works, actors, designers, and directors conspired to support the portrayal with roughly exact accents, diction, costumes, and hairstyles. “Mister. Fullerton” also has the amusing likelihood of being produced, on the campus of Bard College at Simon’s Rock here, just 13 miles south of Wharton’s big house, the Mount, in Lenox. (A line on the l ‘late arrival of spring in the Berkshires elicited a chuckle heard the night I attended.) But in the end, all of those details are irrelevant, and maybe even distracting – or at least Mr. Fullerton was.
I’m saying that to think that the best portrayal of writers I’ve seen in a theatrical production recently didn’t involve such imitation. The opposite, really. In “Lessons in Survival,” a series of historical reenactments designed and performed by the multigenerational members of the Commissary collective and produced by the Vineyard Theater last year, there was no attempt to match the physical characteristics of the actors, nor even their gender, with those of the writers they played: Baldwin, Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou and others. Sound plausibility has not been attempted either; it was not necessary because the actors synchronized their lips with the words recorded by the writers while embodying them in their expressions and postures.
It is this disjunction, this refusal to situate genius within the limits of the body, which made the episodes so effective and convincing. Leaving aside business and alcohol problems, they honored what makes writers truly dramatic: their muscular ideas, evoking them in words.
Until Sunday at the Daniel Arts Center, Great Barrington, Mass. greatbarringtonpublictheater.org. Duration: 2 hours.
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