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From B to W

Filichia comments on some of the more interesting entries in The Oxford Dictionary of Plays.

Well, I did it! It took me 11 months, but I've now read each and every word of the first 461 pages of the The Oxford Dictionary of Plays. Why not all 523? Because the last 62 are simply an alphabetical list of characters and an index. But I did read every page on which Michael Patterson wrote about the 1,000 plays he selected. Here's what he, and I, have to say about some of them:


The Balcony: "[Playwright Jean] Genet pulled a gun on director Peter Zadek when he disapproved of his direction." Talk about trouble during rehearsals!

Equus "is a profoundly immoral play, far more worthy of censorship than sexual display... Shaffer's play implies that being mentally imbalanced is somehow a special state, more noble and insightful than that enjoyed by rational individuals... To exalt the unhinged behavior of Alan Strang is an insult to those suffering the torments of mental illness." Wow, Michael! Them's fightin' words!

Frogs "was so successful that it's the only ancient Greek play known to have been granted a repeat performance by public acclaim." You mean all Greek productions played one performance? Is that why Home, Sweet Homer, a musical version of a Greek classic, only played one performance, too? (Somehow I suspect there was another reason.)

Glengarry Glen Ross: "Arguably Mamet's most powerful, although now overshadowed by the film version." I agree. The new address to the troops that Mamet wrote for Alec Baldwin ("Third place, you're fired"), and Juan Anchia's cinematography (which challenge our eyes to keep up with the quick, face-to-face cuts) make a profound difference.

The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? - "Albee pushed the Broadway audience to the limits of its tolerance by offering a positive depiction of bestiality," Patterson writes, before adding "although one assumes that they take Titania's affair with a donkey in their stride." Well, these situations are not quite the same, are they?

The Great Divide "was thought by many (in 1906) to be the greatest American play ever written." The plot? "With her brother Philip and his wife Polly, 19-year-old Ruth Jordan has left New England to live simply in the Arizona desert in order to establish a cactus-fibre industry." How great does that sound to you?

He Who Gets Slapped: "The best-known and most intriguing of Leonid Andreev's 28 plays," writes Patterson, before adding, "composed between 1905 and 1916." 28 plays in 11 years?! Wow! And Lord knows Leonid wasn't using a computer.

An Italian Straw Hat: "One of the best known of the 174 plays by Eugene Labiche." 174!?! Gee, that puts Leonid Andreev to shame.

Ivanov: "Chekhov's first performed full-length play, which he revised seven times." And before you think, "Practice makes perfect," Patterson writes, "Ivanov abounds in stock characters and melodramatic incidents ... the protagonist's many monologues, which increased with each rewriting, slow the action. Nevertheless, Ivanov foreshadows his four major plays." Yes, but if Chekhov had abadoned Ivanov and started something new, maybe today we'd have five major Chekhov plays. Or six. Just another reminder to you writers: When something isn't working, consider moving on.

Krapp's Last Tape: "Beckett brilliantly uses a tape recorder -- still a novelty in the 1950's -- to allow a character to confront his former self." Considering that Beckett didn't write the play until 1958, do you think he got the idea after seeing John Raitt sing "Hey, There" to a dictaphone in The Pajama Game in 1954?

Metamora: John Augustus Stone's 1829 play happened because "in 1828, the great tragedian Edwin Forrest offered a $500 prize for a play whose hero was a Native American." Isn't that the type of playwriting grant you'd have expected to show up only many decades later? What's more, imagine what $500 was in 1828 dollars. Good for you, Mr. Forrest! Glad they named a Philadelphia theater for you!

Pericles: "The actual title of Shakespeare's play was The Late, and Much Admired Play Called Pericles, Prince of Tyre." Mr. Shakespeare, we'll be the judge of that.

Promenade: Of Maria Irene Fornes, Patterson writes, "Her surreal poetic style is reminiscent of Wilder (but is not as innovative), of Gerturde Stein (but her lanuage is not as haunting), and of Albee (but her social comment is not as acute)." Not a big Fornes fan, are you, Michael?

Salome: "Although based on Matthew 14 and Mark 6, some elements of Wilde's plot were so imaginatively introduced that they now form the accepted version of the Salome story. Neither Salome's love for John the Baptist nor the seven veils, nor Saome's death are recorded in the Bible." Who knew?

Shopping for an Umbrella: "A Japanese 'kyogen' play (farcical incidents, witty dialogue, stock characters and slapstick). Only after many years of being performed were the first kyogen plays published; an anthology of 203 plays appeared in 1638." Good Lord, that must have been one heavy book.

The Skin of Our Teeth: Want to know the cast breakdown that Patterson gives for this one? And I quote: "23m, 11f, 1 dinosaur, 1 mammoth." Good luck on finding the last two during your next, uh, cattle call.

Twelfth Night: "Twelfth Night was also traditionally the day of topsy-turveydom, when servants were waited on by their masters." Okay, with The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, director George Abbott could have been said to have been the master over songsmith Richard Adler. But 21 years later, Adler was master (i.e., producer) and Abbott was his hired hand (i.e., director) on Music Is, a musical version of -- guess what? -- Twelfth Night.

Uncle Vanya "was based on Chekhov's earlier failed play The Wood Demon, in which Astrov was then called Khrushchev." That name strikes an ironic note for any of us who lived through the Cold War years.

The Way of the World: "Although now one of the most popular Restoration comedies, was unsuccessful at the time (1700), and William Congreve, having been attacked throughout his brief career, wrote little more for the stage." That's why everyone who's failed must say, "What do critics know?" and keep going. Even Joe Brooks.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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