Writers by Barry Gifford

Barry Gifford’s brief fictional scenes of celebrated authors are funny, tragic and insightful.

writers

The prolific and versatile Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart; The Lost Highway) has a little fun with a range of literary figures in Writers, a collection of dramatic scenes “intended to be read as stories as well as performed as plays.” Gifford begins with “Spring Training at the Finca Vigía,” in which Hemingway showcases his famous bluster and paranoia while hosting two Brooklyn Dodgers at his Cuban home; Martha Gellhorn also makes an appearance in this longest of Gifford’s imaginings. Most run around 10 pages in length, and are short and pithy.

The settings range from “relatively realistic” to “wholly imaginary,” Gifford warns, and include a conversation between the living Roberto Bolaño and the ghost of Jorge Luis Borges. Arthur Rimbaud tells his sister on his deathbed, “I have been bitten by life before and survived.” Marcel Proust’s final words are likewise recorded. Herman Melville laments the public’s reaction to Moby-Dick to a passing policeman, who worries that he is suicidal. Emily Dickinson questions her sister: “Why? I’m nobody. Who are you? Aren’t you nobody, too?”; James Joyce and Samuel Beckett exchange silences. Joining these cameos are Kerouac (with characteristic openness and affinity for drink), Albert Camus, Nelson Algren, Jane Bowles, Baudelaire and others.

Gifford’s imagined anecdotes occasionally reference the absurd, but overall tend to confirm readers’ impressions of large and troubled personalities. These famous artists appear surreal and often ugly, but by caricaturing them he also reasserts their humanity. The result is both entertaining and thought provoking.


This review originally ran in the November 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 sets based on my personal affinity.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

I am working on a Maximum Shelf for the first book of Hogarth Shakespeare: The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson. In preparation, naturally, I got myself a copy of The Winter’s Tale, which Winterson retells, so that I could see the connections clearly.

This is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, variously described as a romance, a comedy, or (as Winterson tells it) a play about forgiveness. It is indeed funny at times, although also tragic and pathos-ridden: in an echo of Othello, a jealous royal husband accuses his wife and best friend of being unfaithful together, resulting in deaths and betrayals he will deeply regret. The Winter’s Tale is indeed a more forgiving version, however, as the next generation gets a chance to correct these wrongs and start fresh; in fact, depending on your interpretation, even the jealous king himself gets a second chance.

There is the requisite Shakespearean clown, a lovable character known only as Clown; there is the requisite Shakespearean rogue, who successfully appears to the same people over and over in a variety of disguises. Which leads me to another Shakespearean requisite, the suspension of disbelief, as a father disguises himself successfully from his own son who knows him well, and a lost identity is easily provable after a lapse of 16 years. It’s all in good fun, though: these are accepted devices of the stage.

And fun it is, despite the unhappy scenes along the way. I also enjoyed a strong female character who stands up to the king and does not get damned for it: another shrew, if you will, but less ambiguously represented; this one is clearly a hero. The Winter’s Tale is a pleasing blend of humor and romance in the end, and I am excited to explore Winterson’s take on it. I only wish I could see it performed now that I’ve enjoyed Shakespeare’s telling. He remains a master.


Rating: 7 bears.

A View From the Bridge by Arthur Miller

view-bridgeAnother tragic dramatic masterpiece from Arthur Miller. I read Death of a Salesman and The Crucible in school; I am hoping to see this one produced onstage soon, so I picked up A View From the Bridge, and it was as great as the others.

Eddie lives in an Italian neighborhood of New York City with his wife Beatrice and Beatrice’s orphaned niece Catherine (Katie). Beatrice’s cousins are coming over illegally from an impoverished town in Italy, to work on the docks and raise money to send back home. The elder, Marco, has a wife and three children to support. The younger, Rodolpho, catches the eye of the teenaged Catherine, who Eddie loves perhaps more than is appropriate. There are oblique references to Eddie and Beatrice’s sex life having suffered lately, and also to Rodolpho being a bit effeminate for Eddie’s tastes. Financial and sexual tensions arise and the ending is not happy.

The building tension in this unassuming domestic setting reminds me of Tennessee Williams and The Glass Menagerie, a play I should read again someday. The working-class frustrations of Eddie, a longshoreman, feel familiar to me from other Miller plays. Themes include the concept of “rats”, or those who tell tales; loyalty and secret-keeping; and the machismo of the docks, not to mention obsessive love. The View From the Bridge is a powerful, emotionally moving classic tragedy, and I can’t wait to see it on the stage.


Rating: 8 coffees.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

veronaI had a pleasant reread of this early Shakespeare comedy in preparation for the Houston Shakespeare Festival this summer. Of course you saw my post the other day about what a special copy of the book this is…

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is an earlier and a lesser-known Shakespeare play, but I think it’s still excellent in all the usual ways: clever wordplay, mild bawdiness, romantic wafflings or confusions that may threaten our modern sensibilities just a touch, but overall, with the potential to be wildly entertaining in the right hands. I remember the performance I saw as a youngster being accessible (having read the play beforehand helps, of course).

The two gentlemen are Valentine and Proteus, and they are best friends. Valentine is prepared to leave Verona to seek his fortune in Milan; Proteus stays behind because he is in love with Julia, and determined to win her. Valentine finds his love in Sylvia, daughter to the Duke of Milan; and Proteus’s father is convinced to send his son away, separating him from Julia just as they declare their love for each other. Proteus is sent to join his friend Valentine, which should be a happy reunion; but fickle Proteus falls for his friend’s betrothed, betraying both his friend Valentine and his own love, Julia. Determined to win Sylvia away, Proteus reveals Valentine and Sylvia’s elopement plan. The Duke has Valentine banished; and the action of the play moves to the woods.

In what might be seen as a vague early shadow of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the woods are host to a banished Valentine and his servant Speed – who are taken in by a host of bandits – and who are pursued by a grieving Sylvia and her faithful servant – who are pursued by a love-stricken Proteus, her father the Duke, and the Duke’s intended son-in-law Thurio – who are accompanied by Julia, serving as a page (in male drag of course) to Proteus, thereby in pursuit of her love. If you had trouble following that, all is as it should be.

You might recognize a few lines:

What light is light, if Sylvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Sylvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by,
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.

Or:

It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.

Speed, servant to Valentine, and Launce, servant to Proteus, have their share of buffoonery, great scenes with wordplay and witticisms that are typical of Shakespearean comedy. All ends well (although we sniff at the treatment of certain female characters, and the slurs upon Jews. Time-typical Shakespeare, again); and the play is, indeed, funny.

I look forward to seeing this summer’s live performance.


Rating: 7 gift-dogs.

Antigone by Sophocles, trans. by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald

oedipusThis is the third play in a trilogy. Please see my write-ups of the first two: Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus.

I have studied Antigone in some depth before, also in Fitzgerald’s translation, and I enjoyed it immensely again. The action is this: brothers Eteocles and Polyneices have done battle for the kingship of Thebes, and both have been killed, Eteocles within the city walls and Polyneices, attacking from without. Now king again, Creon – uncle to Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles, and Polyneices – decrees that Eteocles will be buried with full honors but Polyneices will not, because he was a traitor who attacked his own city. You have no doubt noticed the great significance of the oracles I’ve named so far in these plays: the gods were a very real, very important part of life in the ancient Greece represented in these works. One of the deeply serious principles at play in their culture would have been honoring one’s family, and respectfully burying one’s dead. Therefore, Antigone doesn’t hesitate to defy Creon’s royal decree – on pain of death – and bury her brother. She is caught, captured, makes no denial, and is sentenced. Creon is too cowardly to order her death, so he orders her locked in an underground cell and fed; whether she lives or dies, he says, is no fault of his.

The real conflict here is between god’s man and man’s law. Antigone asked Ismene to assist her in burying their brother but Ismene refused, citing man’s law as dominant; Antigone takes it as a given that god’s law, regarding the burial of one’s dead relatives, is superior. When Antigone is caught, Ismene changes her opinion, begging to be put to death with her sister, but Antigone refuses her this honor: she didn’t earn it. Creon, for his own reasons, refuses to punish her: he has begun to dread the consequences of his stiff policy, in light of public sentiment sympathizing with Antigone’s cause. From being steadfast and confident in his decree in the beginning, Creon is increasingly worried that he may be wrong; but – in another theme of the play – he is too proud (or has too much hubris) to back down. His son Haimon is engaged to marry Antigone, and comes to Creon to ask for her pardon – not because he is “girlstruck,” but because he cares for his father’s fate. This is the first of several warnings that Creon should heed; the next comes in the form of the respected seer Teiresias. Ironically, Oedipus had failed to listen to Teiresias in Oedipus Rex, and Creon will make the same mistake here. The Chorus eventually convinces Creon to pardon Antigone and bury Polyneices, but this decision comes too late. When the party arrives at Antigone’s cell, she has killed herself; Creon is there just in time to see his son Haimon do the same. This is a classic tragedy, in terms of its fatal flaw – Creon’s hubris in thinking to rule against god’s law, and then in his reluctance to admit he was wrong and change his policy – resulting in the death of his family. Because, oh yes, his queen wife (Haimon’s mother) also kills herself when she hears the news. Whew.

To me this is by far the strongest of the three plays. I noted a number of iconic lines that I felt the need to share with you. In fact, these lines taken together serve somewhat to give a feel for the action of this play, which is most importantly internal action: Creon is stiff and unbending; Creon doubts himself; Creon reverses. It is a conflict between moral stances. Also, as you can see, there is a feminist undertone here as well – represented not least by Creon’s idiocy.

Ismene to Antigone when Antigone asks her to disobey Creon’s rule:

We are only women,
We cannot fight with men, Antigone!

Same scene, Ismene to Antigone again:

Impossible things should not be tried at all.

Creon, arrogantly scolding Antigone for what he ironically sees as her pride in disobeying him:

She has much to learn.
The inflexible heart breaks first, the toughest iron
Cracks first, and the wildest horses bend their necks
At the pull of the smallest curb.

Creon again, betraying the real reasons for his reluctance to reconsider his stance:

Who is the man here,
She or I, if this crime goes unpunished?

And even worse – still Creon:

Whoever is chosen to govern should be obeyed –
Must be obeyed, in all thing, great and small,
Just and unjust!

(Just and unjust? Did you really mean to say that, Creon?)

If we must lose,
Let’s lose to a man, at least! Is a woman stronger than we?

Haimon, giving his father good advice:

It is not reason never to yield to reason!

Just a few of my favorite lines. I hope they communicate the power and drama in this short but very moving play.


Rating: 8 birds of augury.

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles, trans. by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald

oedipusThis is the second play in a trilogy; see the first, Oedipus Rex, here.

At the opening of Oedipus at Colonus, 20 years have passed, during which Oedipus has wandered in exile with his daughter Antigone as faithful companion and caregiver. He initially hoped for a sentence of death from Creon, but was given banishment instead. He arrives near Athens hoping for asylum, as his second daughter Ismene appears with news. Thebes is experiencing conflict: the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, are fighting for the kingship. An oracle has instructed that Oedipus can help; but he refuses, even when Polyneices shows up to ask for his father’s blessing. Oedipus resents that his sons heartlessly allowed him to be turned out of the city. Although he wanted death in the beginning, he has since decided that his crimes were unknowing – he killed his father in a fair fight, not knowing who the man was, and defending his life; and he married his mother not knowing his relationship to her, only knowing that she was a queen whose favor he had won. And he resents the life he’s earned by his innocent crimes. At Colonus, he meets Theseus, king of Athens, who defends Oedipus and his daughters against the treachery of Creon. Following another oracle that says Oedipus will bring peace and glory to the city that offers him refuge, Theseus welcomes Oedipus to die there at Colonus.

This middle play (the only one that I had not read before) was in some ways the quietest of the three, and apparently the least known. It was followed, in my edition, by a commentary that Oedipus Rex lacked. This commentary described the principles of translation ascribed to by Fitzgerald, and gave some background information on Greek theatre and tips for presenting this in the modern era. I found it useful. I was probably least moved by Oedipus Colonus; but it did portray the loving relationship between Antigone and her father (brother) that helps establish her love of family, which we will see so strongly in Antigone. She is growing as a character; she did not speak in Oedipus Rex, and in this play she is a speaking character but still subordinate to her father’s needs. She is kidnapped, apparently helpless to defend herself, but her strength is increasing as her father’s life ends.


Rating: 5 holy places.

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, trans. by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald

oedipus“The Oedipus Cycle” is made up of three plays by Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. I cannot remember at this moment what motivated me to read or reread these plays; something else I read, no doubt. I remember Greek tragic drama very fondly from high school, where Mrs. Smith inspired me in many of my present-day literary loves (hello, Hemingway and Homer).

This triptych concerns the mythic curse on the House of Thebes, which I will retell quickly in my own words. Ahead: spoilers. Oedipus was both to the Theban King Laius and Queen Jocasta, but upon his birth, an oracle prophesied that this baby boy would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. Wishing to avoid this fate, Laius took the boy out in the woods, pierced his heels and pinned them together, and left him to die. Now, this is no way to avoid the fates. Oedipus was raised by a foster father and mother who claimed him as their own, until as a young man he heard this prophecy given, and not wishing to fulfill it against the parents he knew and claimed, he fled them. Along the road on his travels, he came across an older man who wouldn’t yield the road as Oedipus thought proper. They quarreled, and fought, and Oedipus killed the older man (guess who this will turn out to be). He continues on the road to Thebes, a city-state that has just lost its king to a mysterious murder; he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, marries their queen, and happily begets four children.

When Oedipus Rex (or “Oedipus the King”) opens, King Oedipus is struggling to relieve his city of a plague. He must appease the gods, and the oracle tells him the way to do this is to finally avenge the former king’s murder. He agrees that Laius deserves justice – ironically volunteering to serve as his child should: “I say I take the son’s part, just as though / I were his son…” (as translated in my edition by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald). And Oedipus curses the murderer, or anyone who would hide his identity, with death or banishment. This will have consequences. The action of the play, the tension and emotion, resides in Oedipus’s earnest cursing of the murderer who turns out to be himself; adding incest to his unknown crimes is too much for him, as his queen (wife, mother) kills herself and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and puts himself at the mercy of his brother-in-law, Creon. Here the play ends.

There is some ambivalence, at least for me, in identifying the fatal flaw or crime of the tragic hero in this play. (It will be much clearer in Antigone.) Oedipus is indeed guilty of murdering his father and marrying his mother – terrible crimes, to be sure – but he did both unknowingly, and to his knowledge had every right to kill (in self defense) and marry. I think his fatal flaw is at least shared by his parents: the crime was in trying to avoid the predestined fate assigned them all by the gods. This you can’t do! One wonders, if Oedipus had been raised at home, how these things would have come to pass; clearly differently, as he would have known his parents. Presumably he would have been more at fault. But at any rate, the point is made that it is futile to avoid the fate assigned you by the gods. Perhaps his limited responsibility here is what earns Oedipus a somewhat reduced sentence – of which, more in the next installment.

I enjoyed this play for its feeling. The characters are passionate, emotional, and all of this is well evoked by the somewhat dramatic (but this is drama, after all!) but very understandable language. I think Fitzgerald’s translation is excellent; I find it moving, and the atmosphere of building doom and foreboding is exquisite.

Coming up: the next two plays.


Rating: 7 places where 3 roads meet.
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