The most important strategy in keeping readers engaged is not complicated. Put simply, a writer is advised to keep it fresh and keep it coming. The last piece I published, a description of holiday cruises taken by folks who play Santa Claus for a living, appeared a month ago. An important story for our time, to be sure, but the extended silence that followed suggested that author himself had set out on an extended cruise, a band of disgruntled Santas had hired a hit elf, or prolonged exposure to reality television had finally brought cortical meltdown.
What happened, however is this: I’m revising a play I wrote a year ago, a revision made the more daunting by my inclusion in a group reading plays that might appear in the 2021 season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I read two or three plays a week, the majority of which are edgy, innovative, disturbing new plays written by Macarthur geniuses in full expressive frenzy.
Consider Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, for example. Mac starts where Shakespeare left off, imagining the work to be done by the schlimazel stuck with the job of cleaning up the organs and appendages heaped on the stage following an interminable series of bloody battles. Not for the squeamish but powerful, and challenging in suggesting that those who clean up unthinkable carnage are complicit in supporting a system that allows unthinkable carnage.
OK, devastating, and then let’s return to my play, Reunion, a not-entirely-lighthearted-romp presenting four classmates of my generation coming to grips with the course of their lives. No appendages are piled on stage, not much in the way of social commentary, and much of the “action” simply involves people speaking to one another. It’s not without conflict, and the characters have some energy, but as I revise I am reminded of the “stagey” conventions of plays that end up in sad production by community theaters desperate for material available at a discount.
(Lord Fortesque enters the drawing room carrying a riding crop. The phone rings as he seats himself in an overstuffed chair)
I say, Chives, get that would you.
(Chives enters stage right.)
Very good, M’Lord.
(PIcks up the phone)
Harrowood Hall, who may I say is calling?
(Listens without speaking for several moments)
Who is it, Chives?
Inspector McCloud, M’Lord. They’ve found a body in Lady Fortesque’s sedan and wish to speak with you in connection with the mishap.
Good God, Chives! Have they forgotten that I am only recently returned from Borneo where I contracted a nasty case of dysentery, a trip occasioned by Lady Fortesque’s infidelity and the subsequent shock of learning that my oldest friend, Sir Reginald Flangebucket, is not only the father of seven of our children, but the much admired Masked Comedian appearing nightly at that dreadful bistro just off Tottenham Court Road? What’s the name of that place, Chives?
The Rancid Rabbit, M’Lord.
Ah, yes, The Rancid Rabbit. Dreadful. Simply dreadful.
Shall I tell the Inspector you are indisposed, M’Lord?
Indisposed? I’m bloody ravaged. How eagerly would the Inspector gad about were he in my present condition, do you suppose?
To be sure, M’Lord. He appears, however, to be determined to question you, M’Lord as it seems Lady Fortesque is presently dead, M’Lord.
What? Dead, you say?
So it appears, M’Lord
Lady Fortesque you say? Are they certain? She does have an identical twin sister as you will recall, a dissolute, licentious …. what’s the word I’m searching for, Chives?
That’s quite enough, I am sure. You see what I mean. I’ve got six decades of entirely predictable playwriting to contend with as I try to bring a slight story to the stage. I’m a prisoner of my own fondness for the theater. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Four people sit on couches in an academic’s living room. Our Town? Two young people fall in love at the imagined soda fountain.
My play begins with each of the four protagonists delivering a short reflection as they prepare to return to their college for a fiftieth reunion
“50 years, that’s a good chunk of time, a half-century, and about as much of life’s bumps, bruises, pleasures, and pain as a human can absorb. Say the half-century begins at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two. That’s almost a quarter of a century already packed away, most of which was, to be honest, hardly consciously considered as it happened at all. Of the twenty-two years, how many can be considered self-reflective or purposed? For you high achievers out there, the total has to be something more than ten. For me, maybe six or seven months, from graduation from high school to Winter Break in my first year of college.
But over the course of the subsequent half-century even the most feckless self-deluded slob has to consider aspiration, consequence and shortcomings. Have dreams been trampled? Have dreams come true? Still in love? Ever in love? Career, marriage, children, or not. World in flux.
Then, as it must, the present arrives with cold certainty, a present that looks nothing like the present I had been living with these fifty years. This isn’t my present; it belongs to someone graduating from high school or college this year. All of it – music, humor, relationships, language, sensibility, context, all not mine.Then, as it must, the present arrives with cold certainty, a present that looks nothing like the present I had been living with these fifty years. This isn’t my present; it belongs to someone graduating from high school or college this year. All of it – music, humor, relationships, language, sensibility, context, all not mine.”
And so on.
In any case, work to be done, but in the meantime, I can certainly find time to keep cogitating.