Monday, March 16, 2009

Influential Writers Annotated, The Undergrad Years

The books and authors come more fast and furious here, and so the annotations must get shorter, in part because they individually seem to take up less space because as a literature major, the books themselves were coming fast and furious. But here they are, roughly chronologically

Caryl Churchill: I arrived at college and immediately joined College Republicans and the campus right-to-life group. But by November, I cast my first presidential vote for Clinton, and a week or two later, I read Cloud 9, a play that critic David Savran has called "the locus classicus of genderfuck." The professor for the theatre class was quite smart, very queer, and an amazing teacher, and I had met my first openly gay friends that semester, and developed what was probably my first acknowledged crush on a man (boy? It's so hard to tell at 18).

Anyway, I read the play in gulps; I can imagine myself not even blinking through it. I sat the play down, and before I went down the hall to hang with another friend in who was also in that class, I very clearly recall having and making a choice. I thought, "I can either reject this thing out of hand as tabboo, or I can take it at face value, try to see what it's point is, and go from there."

I still teach Cloud 9 whenever I can, and I always tell that story before we begin any discussion of the play. That text, while certainly formative to both my political and scholarly sensibilities as a feminist theatre and drama critic, was more revolutionary than that. It taught me how to keep an open mind by testing how far I could open my mind.

Truman Capote: I'd never seen Breakfast at Tiffany's when I read it one summer. I was staying in my first apartment, a one-bedroom shared with a guy from my dorm, and a woman I'd known from years before and who was doing an internship at the Library of Congress in town. We'd slept together two summers earlier, and we slept together again for a time that summer. I was sleeping with a lot of people that summer, in fact.

But reading Holly Golightly alongside the narrator (with whom I identified quite intensely, before I realized that Capote had been modeled on Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird, with whom I also identified quite intensely) left me with a strange but potent model for friendship--one intense, melancholy, and sadly transient. I didn't realize it at the time, because I had not been in college long enough to understand how fleeting those amazing years would be, and I hadn't gotten to grad school to realize how much harder making and also keeping friends over the years would get. I imagine that if I were to return to the book today, I'd both recognize certain ways I approach friendships as often already transient even as they begin, and at the same time, cringe at some of the ethical implications that this model leaves me with.

John Keats: I'm not entirely sure why I put Keats on the list, except that I, for a time, imagined that I might be a romanticist. I will note that the famous urn poem was the first place I was taught, and understood, a really sophisticated deconstructive technique turned on a poem.

William Shakespeare (again): I read a lot of Shakespeare as an undergrad, and saw a lot of it, too: Tom Hulce as Hamlet and Richard Thomas as Richard II both stand out. I took a course on acting Shakespeare, and performed in a fair number of short excerpts from the plays, including Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, and Much Ado. What Shakespeare taught me here was how to understand the relationship of text to performance, and of performance to text. That's a relationship that I'm still trying to tease out, but never did I get a fuller sense of the interplay between them and the interpretive possibilities of both, than in these three years.

Samuel Beckett: Meanwhile. While I'm getting the richness of Shakespeare, I'm also beginning to understand other ways that performance works, that language works, and that silence and stillness can be potent languages in and of themselves. Beckett is not an influence on the way I live my life, certainly, for anyone who knows me will likely list silence and stillness at the very bottom of any list of applicable traits. But my mind always feels like it's expanding when I engage a Beckett play, if only to make room for the things he chooses not to write and stage.

Erica Jong: Not Fear of Flying, but its sequel, How to Save Your Own Life, was given to me in the context of the most serious relationship prior to Willow. Venus (she looked to my smitten eyes uncannily like Botticelli's) was the only child of a hippie mother. She grew up with a lot more sexual knowledge and openness than I certainly had, and since she was also 3 years older than me, I had a lot to learn from her. She was enamoured with my naivete, my "emotional honesty" as she liked to put it, and probably the fact that I had worshipped her from various points near and far since I first saw her my first week on campus. She and I first got together during the summer of Holly Golightly under circumstances that really quite exceed the bounds of conversation for pleasant company, and we fell quite quickly into bed together on a regular basis. We got engaged a year later, but she left me quite abruptly after we both graduated (on my 21st birthday, for the bed of the friend who was to be my best man). I didn't have much of a spine while with Venus.

Ah right, Erica Jong. How to Save Your Own Life was, as I recall, a novel about making choices that are in your own interest, an important thing for many women to hear in the early 70s, but also something important for me to hear not long afterwards. At the time, venus saw her self in the main character, while I reminded her of the new lover...three years and two break-ups later, I recalled this book one night when Venus showed up on my doorstep to rekindle our relationship. Willow and I had just started dating, and it was a bit rocky there, too, but auspicious. In fact, Willow was at my aparatment when Venus arrived, and she graciously excused herself so I could handle that drama. You know how the rest turned out. That evening where I had to say no to someone whom I had loved (and who I still loved, to be honest) turned out to be one of the best choices I've ever made.

Italo Calvino: Like Beckett, always reminds me of the payoff of the experiment.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: reminds me that sometimes an expiement is all well and good, but sometimes lush, gorgeous prose is just as good.

Tom Stoppard: The first Stoppard I saw was not R&G, but The Real Inspector Hound, a play where two theatre critics are implicated as murderers in the murder mystery play thay have come to see and review. I loved it, im part because I have always loved metatheatricality, and metafiction. When I read and saw R&G a couple of years later, I was blown away, not by the humor that dominates the play, but by the implication that acting and life are not really all that different. This is an ongoing trend in these entries, the dissolve between the real and the act, and much of my work lurks around precisely in that dissolve. Stoppard's work treads it as deftly and lightly and playfully as I can imagine, and that's exactly how I'd like to be able to navigate it myself.

Michel Foucault: My last year, I took a theory course as the first in a two-part honors capstone sequence, and I read "What is an Author?" alongside Barthes's "Death of the Author." Thus began my second major intellectual preoccupation. While metatheatricality and the divide between life and performance have frequently been undercurrents to my work, these two essays set me off on my first two major projects in the form of my honors capstone and my master's thesis, each attempting in variously naive ways to articulate the relationship of theatrical performance to authorship. It took me years to really articulate the role of the body in this relationship, and I still am poking around the interplay of body, identity, and narrative. My book takes up that project directly, as does the talk I'm giving in 2 weeks (!!). While History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish and other texts still pop up in my work more often that this essay, Foucault set in motion a good 15 years of concerted intellectual work.

Richard Schechner: If Foucault set the wheels spinning, Schechner gave them a path. I disagreed so vehemently with certain statements in his late 60s Performance Theory that I devoted a good 20 pages of my undergrad capstone to refuting them. Of course, I find much to admire in how work now, and can see both why his words made me so upset at the time, and why I was (mostly) wrong about them while still being (mostly) right in my instincts. So that's the direct influence. Indirectly, though, Schechner is responsible for the very existence of performance studies as a field, and so I'm still laboring in his shadow.


Dr. Crazy said...

1. You put Keats on the list because Keats is gorgeous. Period. Another who could go on your list for this reason would be Gerard Manley Hopkins. Seriously.

2. I love Erica Jong. Seriously. I even published something related to her, although she is so not my continent, although she is my century. How to Save Your Own Life RULES.

3. "What is an Author?" - "The Death of the Author" - Gaaahhh! Love! Death! Love! Awesome! Wicked!

I assure you that I have more articulate things to say, but seriously, I believe that the above articulate my basic positions :)

Congrats on the house by the by - I feel like I might not have mentioned that :)


undine said...

Keats, poetry and letters both. Gorgeous, as Dr. Crazy says.

Of Erica Jong, I have read only Fear of Flying and can remember only the part where she watches TV in Lebanon and sees all the subtitles. Why that should stick when everything else about the book has vanished from memory is a mystery.

I really like what you're doing with these book lists, which are much more and much better than just lists.