Category: Play

What Can We Steal From Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s Reefer Madness?

Title of Work and its Form: Reefer Madness, the movie based upon the musical based upon the propaganda film.
Author: Lyrics written by Kevin Murphy.  Music composed by Dan Studney (on Twitter: @danstudney).  Both wrote the book.  The equally talented Andy Fickman (on Twitter: @andyfickman) directed the first productions of the show and the movie musical.
Date of Work: The world premiere was in 1998.  The New York premiere was in 2001.  Showtime made the stage musical into a movie musical in 2005.
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The musical is staged all over the world.  The movie is available on DVD.  You really should buy it.

Bonuses:  Here is the musical’s official site.  This is where you go if you would like to buy the right to stage the musical.  Guess what?  The world-class cast of the film (aside from Kristen Bell) did a live event at Joe’s Pub.  I wasn’t there, but some folks who had cameras were there.  Look how much fun it was when the whole cast sang “Mary Jane/Mary Lane.”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Meaningful Wordplay

Discussion:
Jimmy Harper is a kind young man with a bright future.  He likes a girl—Mary Lane—and she likes him, too!  What could go wrong?  I’ll tell you: reefer.  The Lecturer (a mid-century snake oil salesman type) shares the truth with all of the concerned parents in town.  There’s a terrible threat out there just waiting to destroy your children and turn them into jazz musicians and trick them into dating outside of their race.  This deadly assassin captures Jimmy, who spends all of his time with his dealer.  He even begins to ignore Mary Lane, who heads to the drug den to save him…she is soon captured, too.  (The role of Ralph, sadly, is the only one I would be able to knock out of the park onstage.)   Mary Lane gets shot and Jimmy is framed for the murder and is sentenced to death.  President Roosevelt shows up to offer a pardon and a reminder: the government always tells us the truth and always acts in the best interest of its citizens, right?  Right?

The show is a lot more complicated than that, but it’s also simpler somehow.  I came to love the musical almost by accident.  I’m not usually a big fan of drug humor, but something possessed me to look at the reverse of the DVD.  I saw Kristen Bell (an actress I admired from Veronica Mars) was in the film, so I gave it a chance.  When I popped the DVD into my player, I was immediately hooked.  (Kinda like Jimmy!)  The musical is not about DRUGS.  It’s about important social issues and how the government and other agencies attempt to regulate behavior.  It’s also hilarious and a ton of fun.  Mr. Murphy, Mr. Studney, Mr. Fickman and the cast all do their jobs at a high level and there really is no more enjoyable way to pass a couple hours.  (Mr. Fickman’s direction should not go overlooked; he somehow brings even more joy and laughter out of a script that is already bursting with it.  The film looks as though it cost twice as much as it did to make.)

Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney stole a LOT in the creation of the musical.  (The good kind of stealing, of course.)  First of all, they stole the plot and title of the original Reefer Madness film.  The movie was intended to prevent young people from using marijuana, but was so melodramatic and poorly made and unrealistic that young people started watching it WHILE USING marijuana.  Further, all of the statistics that the Lecturer spouts were actual quotes from long-ago anti-drug people.  Not only did Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney get shock value by having The Lecturer repeat some of the horrible things that were said about drug use (lots of sexism and racism and the like), but they also reinforced the film’s message.  Several phrases from the song “Romeo and Juliet” are lovingly borrowed from the Bard himself…which is also the point of the song.  The public domain and other public-type resources are ripe for literary theft.  Further, you have the Fair Use Doctrine on your side.  You can steal all you like within the limits of the Doctrine.  Reefer Madness is definitely a parody of Tell Your Children and similar anti-drug efforts.  Tina Fey got a ton of laughs (and influenced the 2010 election in some way) by stealing and repeating Sarah Palin’s comments verbatim.

I’ve probably confessed to one of my earliest desires: to become a Tin Pan Alley lyricist.  (I set myself up for disappointment from the start, as Tin Pan Alley went away decades before I was born.)  The rhymes in a Gershwin song or a Rodgers and Hart song or a song from Reefer Madness are awesome for many reasons, not just because they are funny.  A rhyme in a musical theater song is a promise.  When Reefer Madness’s Jesus sings, “Just say no to marijuana,” he’s promising that he’s going to complete the lyric with a rhyme.  What will it be?  By the time you figure out your own, Jesus has already told you.  (“This comes straight from the Madonna.”)  A musical theater rhyme also attracts and retains the audience because they are a playful surprise.  We can’t help but be attracted by fun wordplay, even from childhood.  Here are some particularly enjoyable rhymes:

The wafers now don’t taste so great

They won’t transubstantiate

 

Without you near, the gospel choir sounds askew

Jimmy, come back and fill my lonely pew.

 

A gloomy church that you’re not in

Could lead a girl to mortal sin

 

Mary Jane, oh, Mary Jane

You’ve conquered me like Charlemagne

 

Jimmy’s a rube, provincial and dull

Don’t be tricked; he’s strictly quadrilateral.

 

Satan went and conned ya’

Musn’t touch his evil ganja

Rhymes (and other consequences of structure) also involve other parts of your brain.  While you’re enjoying the simple fun of hearing an actor sing “conquered me like Charlemagne,” you’re dipping into another section of your mind to put everything together.  It’s a beautiful feeling to empathize with a character while you’re wondering how the heck they found such a great phrase to rhyme with “transubstantiate.”  It is easy to tell you to create powerful rhymes.  It takes a lot of brainstorming, a vast amount of knowledge already in your brain and, perhaps, a rhyming dictionary.

A smaller observation: I LOVE the structure of the song, “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy.”  The song is constructed in such a way that Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney can simply toss in entertaining couplets that allow Jesus to have a lot of fun and get a lot of laughs.  The character of Jesus may not be as strong as the others, but there are also two thousand years of people  in Western culture telling us about the guy.  (“Don’t let reefer kick your kiester/ I’m the poster boy for Easter.”  “I floated down from Heaven when I heard a lamb had strayed./  Look at you here, your brain has turned to marmalade.”)

Fun songs?  Check.  Lotsa jokes?  Check.  Subject matter that appeals to young people?  Check.  Reefer Madness goes the extra step by actually being solid dramatically.  (Especially in its own universe.)  I love this example from the song, “Lonely Pew.”  First of all, I am thinking that Mary Lane is not JUST singing about the empty seating place beside her.  At the point in the show when she sings the song, she’s quite repressed and scared and afraid that Jimmy no longer loves her.  If this were just a silly drug humor play, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney would not have taken the time or effort to make the characters well-rounded.  I love the moment in “Lonely Pew” when Mary Lane sings the following:

In a fog or lost at sea,

Or could it be you’re tired of me?

It’s a line of thought I’d rather not pursue

Jimmy, come back and fill my lonely pew.

A simple character that could end up a caricature is given a moment of great depth that is certainly paid off during “Little Mary Sunshine.”  (And I LOVE the internal rhyme of “not” and thought.”)  Think about Mae, the woman who runs the drug den of sin.  She is given a meaningful backstory!  (She was a good student until The Stuff.)  There is real pathos to the character, particularly when she sings about the way Jack mistreats her.  I think the broader point is that Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney give each and every character a lot of laughs and a few meaningful moments.  (The actors in the movie version certainly take advantage of the opportunity.)

A great deal of drama and comedy are derived from shifts in power; a very clear transfer of power occurs during the song, “Little Mary Sunshine.”   Reefer fiend Ralph (played to perfection by John Kassir) intends to turn Mary Lane into a Sally-like drug addict and to take advantage of her.  He tricks her into trying the reefer and believes that he will soon have her in a compliant state.  What’s the allocation of power?  Ralph 100%, Mary 0%.  The tables are turned on Ralph.  The marijuana turns Mary Lane into a nymphomaniac and she begins to force Ralph into bondage games that he didn’t quite want to play.  Check out what is one of the most enjoyable scenes in the history of film:

(Weren’t the actors great?  I love the versatility that Mr. Kassir and Ms. Bell possess.)  This effective technique does a number of things.  Mary Lane acquires agency; gaining some control over her life.  The audience laughs because the hunter has become the hunted.  We also feel a kind of vindication because we likely disapproved of Ralph’s intentions…his own medicine is fed to him and he doesn’t like the taste.

What Should We Steal?

  • Pluck what you need from the public domain and government resources.  Guess what: you own a lot of space-type pictures.  Use them in your play.  You paid for the research that went into the drug war in the twentieth century; feel free to steal the conclusions those folks made. (Consult an attorney before you do anything crazy, of course.)
  • Craft powerful rhymes in your work.  Is it easy to come up with unanticipated rhymes?  No.  It’s worth the effort; a great lyric can accomplish a great deal more than simply getting the writer a laugh.
  • Offer all of your characters a moment in the sun and a real personality.  Perhaps this is a good way to think of the principle, particularly when writing fiction and poetry: would an actor be able to use your piece as a kind of script?  He or she wouldn’t need to know EVERYTHING about their character, but they would need to know enough to construct enough of a backstory to allow them to give a great performance.
  • Emphasize changes in the power relationship between characters to increase drama and earn laughs (if you want them).  It’s really the oldest trick in the book.  We laugh at a politician who gets a pie in the face because the person loses his or her status in that moment.

What Can We Steal From Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: a play about a handkerchief?

Title of Work and its Form: Desdemona: a play about a handkerchief, play
Author: Paula Vogel (on Twitter: @VogelPaula)
Date of Work: 1993
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The play was first produced in by Circle Repertory Company and featured the amazing Cherry Jones in the role of Bianca.  The play has been published by Dramatists Play Service and is a fascinating read.

Bonuses: Here’s the New York Times review of the original production.  (I respectfully disagree with some of Mr. Klein’s points.)  Here’s the program for the excellent production I saw at Oswego State; the director’s note offers an interesting perspective.  Ooh, and here’s an interview with Ms. Vogel!  And here’s a podcast appearance from the dramatist.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Summary:
Desdemona: a play about a handkerchief takes a look at Othello from the perspective of the women in that classic play.  What if Desdemona weren’t a virtuous woman?  Why did Emilia betray Desdemona?  The central machinations of Othello have grave repercussions for Cassio and Iago and the Moor, but Ms. Vogel contemplates the effect of these events on the women in the play.  Set in the “back room of the palace on Cyprus,” Desdemona and her servant, Emilia, talk about life and love and their place in the world.  Desdemona is infatuated with becoming a “free woman” like Bianca, a prostitute who comes and goes as she pleases.  Emilia, a Catholic—an oh noes! when Shakespeare was writing—also yearns for a life of her own, away from her husband, Iago.  A plan is hatched because things are getting too hairy.  Desdemona will run away with Emilia’s help.  Self-centered Desdemona will eventually call for Emilia and pay her well…at some point.  Right?  Much to Emilia’s dismay, Bianca arrives to give Desdemona money she is owed.  Bianca is the live wire in the play; she is brash and unpretentious and speaks in a “stage cockney” accent to contrast with those of the other characters.  Desdemona and Bianca share several drinks and have a great time until Bianca shows off THE HANDKERCHIEF.  The one that Emilia stole at the beginning of the play and becomes a primary motivation for Othello squeezing the life out of his wife.  Bianca’s fantasy of running off with Cassio is destroyed.  The comic character is given a beautiful moment of pathos before the two women fight over the man.  Bianca doesn’t exit before she fires a shot across Emilia’s bow; she’s serviced Iago, too.  The plan to escape is accelerated; that handkerchief means that Othello is going to be very angry.  The play ends slightly before the last scene of Othello.  The audience knows that Desdemona is walking off into her doom, and maybe she knows it, too.

Shakespeare, as theorized by some, stole Othello from the 1001 Nights.  It’s perfectly fitting that Ms. Vogel looked back 400 years and stole Othello from The Bard.  Othello is certainly in the public domain, so Ms. Vogel was well within her rights to steal whatever she liked.  The playwright, however, stole with a purpose.  It’s certainly safe to call Renaissance England a pre-feminist society.  Now that women have been granted full citizenship (at least in America), it’s great to see Othello through the eyes of women.  Emilia seems to have largely accepted the restrictions upon her, Bianca tries to use the patriarchal thinking to her advantage and Desdemona both enjoys her traditional role while chafing against it.  The play is not simply a piece of drama, it’s an eighty-minute debate as to what roles are most satisfying for women and what happens when dreams are deferred.  Ms. Vogel accesses this important debate by stealing a familiar backdrop.  (Shakespeare’s play.)

One element of the play challenged me a great deal.  When I saw the excellent production, I found myself confused that the play seemed to be split into many scenes.  Two characters would be in the middle of a discussion and boom—lights out.  I couldn’t help but wonder why Ms. Vogel would break up the drama in this way.  So I went home and opened up my copy of the script to see how Ms. Vogel intended to craft her play.  Here is her note to the director:

Desdemona was written in thirty cinematic “takes”; the director is encouraged to create different pictures to simulate the process of filming: change invisible camera angles, do jump cuts and repetitions, etc.  There should be no black-outs between scenes.

I’ve thought about the structure a great deal and I think I know what to make of it.  Desdemona certainly works on its own as a piece of drama, but Ms. Vogel’s structure acknowledges that it’s the other half of a story.  I’m betting Ms. Vogel took out her well-thumbed copy of Othello and decided where she wanted to put a scene of her own.  The slightly disjointed feel that the structure lends the work is appropriate because she’s essentially filling in the gaps of Othello.  Think of it this way.  Remember the Game Genie?  You would plug your NES games into the Game Genie in order to access cheats and tricks and tell the story of the video game in the way that best suits you.

Behold, the Game Genie.

As I said, Bianca is the live wire in Desdemona.  The performer side of me loves parts like this: the other characters talk about Bianca for a long time, then Bianca comes onstage for a short period, gets the biggest laughs, gets in a fight, jerks a few tears and leaves the play in a completely different state than it was when she found it.  The role in the production that I saw was played by a fantastic young actress named Clare Bawarski who understood the character perfectly.  Ms. Bawarski, equally able in dramatic and comedic scenes, used the brevity of the role to her advantage.  She imbued the production with the energy and pathos it needed in her all-too-short time on the boards.

I think of these as “shooting star” roles.  Adriane Lenox played Mrs. Muller in Doubt.  She’s only in one scene, but it’s a helluva scene.  The part was so well-written and Ms. Lenox was so good that she won the Tony for Best Supporting Actress in 2005.  It’s not the amount of stage time that matters; it’s how much of an impact your character has on the world in which you’ve set your story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Pinch whole-cloth from public domain.  The Wizard of Oz is public domain.  What do you think was the relationship between the Good Witch and the Bad Witch?  Oh…someone already wrote that one.  Steal any of the characters you like.  What were the Thenardiers like when they were young?  Go ahead; write that novel.
  • Bend your structure to the needs of your conceit.  Ms. Vogel was “filling in the blanks” of Othello, so her play is a series of short scenes that could be plugged into the original play.  (Wouldn’t it be interesting to see both staged together?)  Your cool idea likely requires you to depart from the “norm” in some ways, and that’s okay.
  • Employ “shooting star” characters.  If your character can make a big-time impression in no time, that’s fine.

What Can We Steal From Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things?

Title of Work and its Form: The Shape of Things, play
Author: Neil LaBute (Cool!  Here’s a list of Mr. LaBute’s favorite ten films from the Criterion Collection.)
Date of Work: 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The play is performed across the world and was published by Faber and Faber.  In 2003, Mr. LaBute released a film version of the play that starred the excellent original cast.  Here is the trailer:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Punctuation

Discussion:
Evelyn is a beautiful artist.  Adam is a somewhat plain schlub who works as a security guard in a museum.  The couple meets as Evelyn is about to…customize some art that Adam is supposed to protect.  Why in the world would a hottie like Evelyn want to go out with Adam?  (The audience discovers the truth at the end of the film.)  Through the course of the play, Evelyn convinces Adam to improve himself: to get a haircut, to lose weight, to dress in stylish clothing.  Adam’s friends notice a change in him and wonder about Evelyn’s true motivations, which she reveals in the climax of the play.  (I don’t want to ruin it if you haven’t seen it.)

Mr. LaBute’s script is surprisingly sparse.  Mr. LaBute tells you enough about the stage for you to understand what is going on, but the script is really a series of conversations.  It’s clear that the flow of the dialogue and the naturalness of the characters was of primary importance to the playwright.  In real life, people talk over each other and misunderstand each other and interrupt each other all the time.  Mr. LaBute wanted that tone to come through in the dialogue he wrote and, eventually, in the performance of his actors.  What did he do in the script to accomplish this goal?  Let’s take a look at the very first five lines of the play as written by Mr. LaBute:

 ADAM

…you stepped over the line.  miss? / umm, you stepped over…

EVELYN

i know. / it’s ‘ms.’

ADAM

okay, sorry, ms., but, ahh…

EVELYN

i meant to. / step over…

ADAM

what? / yeah, i figured you did.  i mean, the way you did it and all, kinda deliberate like. / you’re not supposed to do that.

I must confess immediately that I usually don’t like it when writers omit quotation marks or refuse to follow capitalization rules.  (After all, those conventions become conventions for a reason!  They make prose easier to read!)  In this instance, I can certainly respect what Mr. LaBute has done by eschewing capitalization.  Doesn’t it make the lines seem like snippets of conversation instead of big pronouncements?  I can imagine that actors at a table read would automatically imbue their performance with an interesting flow, which certainly seems like the playwright’s goal.  I love his other “trick” without hesitation.  What do those slashes mean?  Mr. LaBute tells his reader in an introductory note:

the / in certain lines denotes an attempt at interruption or overlap by a given character

Those forward slashes serve as a green light to the actors to play around with the delivery of the lines a little.  Adam and Evelyn are about to become lovers; shouldn’t there be some kind of awkwardness as they feel each other out?  The forward slashes are also an unobtrusive way to get this point across.

Even better, look at all Mr. LaBute did with just those five first lines.

  1. Evelyn transgresses against societal convention by getting too close to the artwork.  What does this tell us about her?  Adam is wishy-washy in doing his job and asking her not to deface the art.  What does this say about him?
  2. Evelyn knows she’s breaking the rules.  She corrects his pronoun usage.
  3. Adam isn’t really forming a sentence in that third line.
  4. Evelyn states very plainly that she is the kind of person who will ignore societal convention if she feels like it.
  5. Adam is still wishy-washy.  He won’t stand up to her, even when she’s about to break the law.

This brief exchange sums up the play as a whole.  Even though some “crazy” things happen during the narrative, Mr. LaBute has prepared us for all of them by hitting us with the truth in the first twenty seconds of the play.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ alternate punctuation and ignore the rules of writing if it will serve your work.  Reading is a crazy process that goes on between your eyes and your brain (and then between different parts of your brain).  Decide if and when you need to manipulate the reader’s understanding of the words, down to the way they appear on the page.
  • Allow your characters to announce themselves immediately.  First impressions are important, right?  Examine the first things your characters say and do to make sure they arrive with a bang.

What Can We Steal From Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out?

Title of Work and its Form: Take Me Out, play
Author: Richard Greenberg
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The play is performed across the world and the script is available from Dramatists Play Service and in trade paperback.  The prestigious Public Theater shepherded the play through its American debut, first Off-Broadway and then On.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Scope

Discussion:
Mr. Greenberg’s Tony-winning play is based upon a fascinating hypothetical: “What would happen if the best-loved player and the captain of the most popular baseball team came out of the closet?”  Well, some of Darren Lemming’s teammates are not too pleased to be so close to a homosexual.  (Now that they know he is one, that is.)  Shane Mungitt, an outspoken closer, ends act one with some statements that are politically incorrect.  So the Empires are not having a good season.  Not only must the team do their best to win games, they must contend with being at the center of a huge news story and the new pitcher from Japan accidentally kills Darren’s close ballplayer friend with a pitch.  As the play concludes, Darren and his teammates have learned about themselves and about life.

Isn’t it fun to get a rise out of people by telling them shocking news?  Think of the joy a hippie would have felt upon telling his stodgy, square uncle about Watergate.  It’s titillating to consider the “gay angle” of the play on its own, but Mr. Greenberg has put far more drama into his play.  The shock value of a coming out is powerful, but fleeting.  Instead, it’s clear that Mr. Greenberg has much bigger ambitions for the play.  Darren is not a “stereotypical” homosexual (not that there really is one).  He’s a human being.  He loves being a ballplayer, but there’s much more to the character; just as there is more to a person than just being gay or straight.  Mr. Greenberg treats the complicated issues in a complicated manner.  This is a variation on the sage writing advice: show, don’t tell.  Instead of TELLING you that Darren is a complete human being and TELLING you that the Empires’ season was complicated, he SHOWS you these things by trying to capture life in all of its messy glory.

Did you know?

  • A few former Major League Baseball players have publicly disclosed their homosexuality, but Glenn Burke was the only one whose sexuality was known to his teammates.  (This lifelong Tiger fan can’t help but send a shoutout to Billy Bean, former Tiger outfielder and current businessman/motivational speaker.  Bean came out in 1999, serving as a role model to other gay individuals.  This act also helped some straight sports fans understand that it’s not a big deal to have a gay player on the team you love.)
  • John Rocker, Atlanta Braves relief pitcher, made some offensive comments to Sports Illustrated in 1999.  Rocker apologized (many times), but the ensuing public backlash derailed Rocker’s career.
  • Carl Mays, then a star pitcher for the Yankees, was an aggressive hurler with a deceptive submarine movement.  During a 1920 game against the Cleveland Indians, Mays hit Chapman in the head with a pitch, fracturing his skull.  Chapman died in a few hours.

Guess what?  Mr. Greenberg stole all of these ideas and put them into his play.  Each of these real-life cases generated a lot of public controversy; by fictionalizing them, Mr. Greenberg is attracting attention for his play while empowering himself to make his own comments.  Take Me Out is very much Mr. Greenberg’s own composition, but he picked and chose real-life events to use in his play, just as a shopper selects produce in a market.

What Should We Steal?

  • Avoid dealing with big issues in an exaggerated, maudlin fashion.  Is it interesting to consider what the reaction would be if a big-time current ballplayer came out of the closet?  Sure.  Mr. Greenberg has bigger ideas.  Instead of focusing on one part of Darren’s life, he deals with a number of big issues.  Racism, the guilt we can feel after accidents, the pain of unrequited feelings, the strength of friendship…they’re all in the play. A person may buy a ticket because of an intriguing premise, but you’ll earn an audience if you care more about the aftermath of the premise.
  • Appropriate and fictionalize real events.  Think of the last time that your jaw dropped at a news story.  You obviously cared about what happened; why not work the story into your fiction.  Best of all, you can take the elements of the story that you like best and smooth out whatever parts you like least.

What Can We Steal From John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt?

Title of Work and its Form: Doubt: A Parable, play
Author: John Patrick Shanley
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The script is available in a trade paperback edition as well as an acting edition from Dramatists Play Service.  (They’re a great organization, by the way.  You can buy acting editions of all kinds of plays at very low cost!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Discussion:
Doubt, in my opinion, is one of the best plays ever.  Sure, I’m a little biased; I had the honor of working at the Manhattan Theatre Club during the play’s Off-Broadway and Broadway runs.  After I walked out of the third Off-Broadway preview, I knew that I had just experienced a magical evening of theater.  (And world-class performances from Cherry Jones, Heather Goldenhersh, Brian F. O’Byrne and Adriane Lenox.)  The play won a zillion Tonys and a Pulitzer and everything.  The film, directed by Shanley, is very good, but I am somewhat sad that the original actors couldn’t have their performances immortalized on film.

Mr. Shanley drew on his childhood, setting his play in a Catholic school in the Bronx.  It’s 1964 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy is still fresh in everyone’s minds.  Sister Aloysius is the principal of the school, overseeing many teachers, including young Sister James.  Sister Aloysius has…well…doubts about Father Flynn, a priest who coaches basketball and tends to the spiritual needs of the children and their families.  Father Flynn, she believes, is a little too friendly with Donald Muller, the school’s first black student.  The religious hierarchy restrains Sister Aloysius from confronting Father Flynn directly, so she deals with the situation in the only ways she can.

One of the reasons I admire the play so much is that Mr. Shanley deals with an awful lot of complicated issues.

  • Feminism – Sister Aloysius, as a woman, does not have authority over men.
  • Race – Donald Muller is the only black student in a sea of Italian and Irish kids.
  • Pedagogical Theory – Should a teacher be feared or loved?
  • Child Molestation – They’re out there…how do we find them and what should we do with them?
  • Parenting – Mrs. Muller wants the best for her child, even if it means being “interfered with” until graduation.
  • Attitudes Toward Homosexuality – Is Donald Muller a homosexual?  Does that change anything?
  • Our Moral Obligations – When we believe someone is doing something really, really wrong, what are we obligated to do about it?

Does he hit you over the head with them by releasing them all at once?  No.  They come out in a natural, organic manner.  Here’s how the audience learns that Donald Muller is an African-American child.  Five scenes into the play, Sister Aloysius finally confesses her real suspicion: that Father Flynn has been molesting the boy.

Sister Aloysius: Of all the children.  Donald Muller.  I suppose it makes sense.

Sister James: How does it make sense?

Sister Aloysius: He’s isolated.  The little sheep lagging behind is the one the wolf goes for.

Sister James.  I don’t know that anything’s wrong!

Sister Aloysius: Our first Negro student.  I thought there’d be fighting, a parent or two to deal with…I should have foreseen this possibility.

Instead of launching into a big, melodramatic monologue about the equality of people of all races and yada yada yada, Sister Aloysius simply gives us the exposition.  Mr. Shanley respects the audience enough to know they’ll understand what he’s doing.  In lesser works, such a realization would be dealt with in a maudlin way such as this:

Can you believe it?  Father Flynn is molesting our first proud African-American student.  A young man who, in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, simply wants to gain knowledge about himself and his life!  Haven’t African-Americans been through enough?  Hundreds of years of slavery, another hundred years of institutionalized racism.  When, oh when, will our proud African-American brothers and sisters be allowed to be free!?!?!1?!?! (Sister Aloysius begins wiping away dozens of tears.)

Nope.  Mr. Shanley gives his audience realistic scenes and graceful exposition.  In Mr. Shanley’s scorching Scene Eight, Sister Aloysius has a talk with Mrs. Muller.  Could some of the lines be shouted?  Sure.  These extremes are earned.  Does Mrs. Muller offer an unexpected analysis of the situation?  Um…yes!  The extreme is in the situation, not in the tone of Sister Aloysius’s response.

The ambiguous ending of Doubt receives a lot of attention because the audience receives no cut-and-dried answer with regard to Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence.  That’s okay!  First of all, the play is titled Doubt.  What do you expect?  I wrote about this issue in my essay about the Law & Order: SVU episode with the same title.  The play puts the audience in the same position as Sister Aloysius (or anyone who read about the whole Jerry Sandusky scandal).  We’re probably not around when these terrible things happen…how do we know what really occurred?  At what point do we believe a person is guilty of a heinous crime?

What Should We Steal?

  • Confront a great deal of vital issues.  Isn’t why this a lot of writers get into the game in the first place?  Society has a lot of problems—and always will—and a lot of these problems are interrelated.  Don’t be afraid to dive into the deep end of the emotional pool.
  • Avoid melodrama by treating the extremes in your work as though they are not.  Have you ever been to a wedding where someone had a little bit too much to drink and they spend the entire reception crying in a corner and then crying in the parking lot and then crying in the bathroom because their boyfriend or girlfriend didn’t like the Nicki Minaj song the DJ played?  While I can’t blame this hypothetical person for having such a negative reaction to Nicki Minaj, there’s just too much melodrama going on.  It’s not realistic and it’s generally not as compelling as works with more verisimilitude.
  • Leave your audience guessing.  Yes, yes.  It’s the writer’s job to do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun.  There’s nothing wrong, however, with inviting your reader to interact with the ideas in your stuff.  The dilemma of Doubt is played out in countless places in the country every day.  Isn’t it valuable to confront these questions in fiction before they face us in fact?  

What Can We Steal From Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest?

Title of Work and its Form: The Importance of Being Earnest, play
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Date of Work: 1895
Where the Work Can Be Found: The play appears in all kinds of anthologies.  Thanks to the wonders of public domain, the play can be found on the Internet.  (In your face, Sonny Bono and Mickey Mouse!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
The Importance of Being Earnest is, quite simply, one of the best comedies around.  Not only is there a laugh every fifteen seconds, but the characters are compelling and charming.  Best of all, it’s a love story!  Don’t we all enjoy a good love story?  John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff are…committed bachelors…wink wink…right?  Get it?  All they want is to find women with whom they can settle down.  The course of their true love doesn’t run smoothly at all.  Each of them assume the name Ernest as a way to remain anonymous while having fun.  Algernon also pretends to have a friend named Bunbury who serves as a convenient excuse when he wants to take off.  Enter Gwendolyn and Lady Bracknell.  Gwendolyn is a sweet and beautiful young woman; John/Earnest proposes marriage.  (She loves guys named Ernest.)  Unfortunately, John is not satisfactory marriage material; his mother stuffed him in a handbag as a baby and left him in a train station.  Long story short: a ton of coincidences are discovered and everyone ends up happy and married at the end.

Lady Bracknell is my favorite character from the play.  She’s an older woman who epitomizes the Victorian ideals of propriety.  The most important thing, of course, is not actual propriety, but the appearance of propriety.  (Do we have anyone like that?)  Lady Bracknell doesn’t worry too much about money, which gives her the luxury of living life “properly.”  Her clothing is always perfect and a judgmental quip is always on her tongue.  Freed from the struggles of “normal” life, she is free to tell others what to do.  And the dialogue Wilde gives to her couldn’t sparkle any more brightly.

Let’s look at Lady Bracknell’s entrance and first lines.  (Always a good idea.)

[Algernon goes forward to meet them.  Enter Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen.]

Lady Bracknell.  Good afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well.

Algernon.  I’m feeling very well, Aunt Augusta.

Lady Bracknell.  That’s not quite the same thing.  In fact the two things rarely go together.  [Sees Jack and bows to him with icy coldness.]

Wilde wastes no time!  Lady Bracknell follows the social script by asking how-do-you-do and then reprimands Algernon, doling out one of her legendary pronouncements.  We don’t often think deeply about these kinds of perfunctory situations, but Lady Bracknell is right; behaving well and feeling well are two very different things.

We love Lady Bracknell because she is relentless and devoutly committed to her beliefs.  Unlike wishy-washy people, she creates drama by being inflexible and unforgiving.  Here are some more of her lines:

I’m sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury.  I hadn’t been there since her poor husband’s death.  I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger.

Well, I must say, Algernon, that I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die.  This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd.  Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids.  I consider it morbid.  Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others.  Health is the primary duty of life.

An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.  It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .

I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing.  Which do you know?

It’s true that Oscar Wilde stole a little bit of Lady Bracknell’s character from similar characters in farces that preceded Earnest.  In the years since I read the play, I have noticed some examples of television writers doing what Wilde did: taking a character “type” and putting a unique spin on it.

Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) is a wealthy woman who cares only about appearances.  She’s forever telling her children and her husband and her adopted child Annyong and her grandchildren and the painters and the household help how they should live their lives and what is “right” and “proper.”  Fun example: Lucille constantly criticizes her daughter Lindsay’s weight.  They share this exchange in a restaurant:

Lindsay: Did you enjoy your meal, Mom? You drank it fast enough.

Lucille: Not as much as you enjoyed yours. You want your belt to buckle, not your chair.

Two and a Half Men’s Evelyn Harper (Holland Taylor) is a wealthy woman who cares only about appearances.  She’s forever telling her children and grandchildren how they should live their lives and what is “right” and “proper.”  Fun example: in one episode, Evelyn is excited to attend a party in her honor and to soak up attention.  Unfortunately, she is upstaged by the singing of the housekeeper’s sister.  In a moment of reflection, she lets loose this very Bracknell line:

Evelyn Harper: Why does anyone want a party? To feel superior while feigning humility!

What Should We Steal?

  • Take a stock character and make him or her your own.  These words can be very confusing.  They can also characterize the attitude of a character or narrator.
  • Make the most of the entrances your characters make.  Your audience or reader should understand your characters within seconds of meeting them.  Sure, you may change the perception you create later in the piece, but your characters are actors at heart.  They want to make big waves and burn themselves into the audience’s memory instantly.

What Can We Steal From William Shakespeare’s “To Be, Or Not To Be” soliloquy from Hamlet?

Title of Work and its Form:  The “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, poem
Author: William Shakespeare
Date of Work: 1600-ish
Where the Work Can Be Found: Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet.  Remember, kids: we love public domain.  You can find a full text of one of the versions of the play at Project Gutenberg.  http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1524/pg1524.html  You may find the soliloquy itself and some variations between quarto and folio versions at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_be,_or_not_to_be.  Go ahead, watch Kenneth Branagh deliver the soliloquy in his excellent film version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JD6gOrARk4

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone

Discussion:
At this point in the play, Hamlet is not doing very well.  He knows that his father was killed by his uncle, the same man who married his mom.  He’s having problems with his girlfriend (granted, he’s the cause of a lot of the problems).  That darn Fortinbras is always out there, ready to attack at any time.  But Hamlet has a plan.  An acting company is coming to give a performance at court and Hamlet decides that the play is the thing wherein he’ll catch the conscience of the king.  And once Claudius feels guilty…he’ll apologize?  I don’t know.  I don’t think Hamlet knew, either.

During this soliloquy, Hamlet is indeed weighing the value of his life and whether or not his struggles are worthwhile.  One of the eight zillion things we can steal from the Bard is the way he really uses the iambic pentameter.  In a lot of poetry (especially mine), the meter can be an obstacle.  The effort to maintain meter and rhyme can lead a writer to make choices that are not motivated by artistic intention.  Instead, we’re trying to figure out how to find a rhyme for “equanimity.”  Adhering to meter often leads poets like me to rearrange lines to get a word into the line that is otherwise unnecessary. 

Shakespeare, of course, wields the iambic pentameter with more skill than Laertes handles his sword.  One way that you can tell is the length of his sentences.  While there’s lots of great blank verse that consists of one-sentence lines, it can be difficult to express complicated thoughts in abbreviated sentences.  I suppose you could argue with the punctuation chosen by Shakespeare and his numerous editors (such mechanics are far different now than they were then), but the longer sentences lend themselves well to an instance in which a complicated character is having complicated thoughts. 

When we talk about Shakespeare, we can’t escape the awesome phrases he comes up with.  We can literally steal these for use as titles.  Look at just a few of the works that have gotten their titles just from this soliloquy:

  • To Be or Not To Be – lots of movies, including the Mel Brooks film
  • Slings and Arrows – A British sitcom about a theater company
  • Outrageous Fortune – The Bette Midler movie from the 1980s
  • Perchance to Dream – A Twilight Zone episode
  • There’s the Rub – A Gilmore Girls episode
  • What Dreams May Come – The Robin Williams movie
  • The Insolence of Office – A Star Trek novel (actually, lots of Star Trek novels are named for Hamlet)
  • Quietus – The name for the suicide drug in the film Children of Men (it’s not the title of the film, but I think it still counts)
  • The Undiscovered Country – The subtitle of the sixth Star Trek film
  • All My Sins Remembered – An episode of Andromeda

You get the idea.  There are advantages when we steal a title from a great work.  People who recognize the reference will take some of their understanding of the original work and apply it to yours.  Unfortunately, this can also work against you.  What would have happened if Tom Wolfe had written The Right Stuff in 1989?  Thousands of teenage girls would have bought it and been disappointed because the book has nothing to do with New Kids on the Block or their hit song “(You Got It) The Right Stuff.”

What Should We Steal?:

  • Ensure that the restrictions of a genre don’t force us into too many bad choices.  Just because you’re writing in iambic pentameter doesn’t mean that you should be restricted to short sentences that happen to fit the formula.
  • Titles are fair game and can lend additional weight to whatever you’re writing.  Titles are often hard to come up with and pinching one from writing you admire can be a good solution, even if it’s a temporary one. 

What Can We Steal From Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”?

Title of Work and its Form: A Streetcar Named Desire, play
Author: Tennessee Williams
Date of Work: 1947
Where the Work Can Be Found: Streetcar is revived a great deal.  The last Broadway production was in 2012 and featured a multiracial cast.  You can also find the play in nearly any bookstore.  Here’s an idea: why not go to a local college bookstore and look for a used copy?  You may even buy a bunch of other great books you weren’t expecting to find.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Thomas Lanier (Tennessee) Williams was one of the most important American playwrights of the twentieth century.  He was even a celebrity.  Can you believe it?  In the not-too-distant past, playwrights received Kardashian levels of attention!  (Well, maybe not that much attention, but you get the idea.)  In A Streetcar Named Desire, a destitute Blanche DuBois shows up at the Elysian Fields to stay with her sister Stella.  Blanche and Stella are Southern belles whose family was a part of the aristocracy.  (Note that I used the past tense.)  Stella loves her “low-class” life and her “low-class” husband, Stanley Kowalski.  Stanley is not happy that Blanche has decided to stay with them and feels that Blanche is undermining his authority.  He also thinks that Blanche owes him money by way of her sister.  (The Napoleonic Code, don’t you know.)  Please don’t just read a full summary of the play; allow the magic of the play to draw you in as Williams creates three of the strongest characters in American theater.

How in the world did Tenn create such complicated characters?  First of all, he gave them time to develop.  (That’s part of why I urge you to simply read the play or to see it in the theater.)  You can’t simply tweet a real character into being…unless you use an awful lot of tweets.  Which would defeat the purpose in the first place.  Think of a mother who loves her child, regardless of the trouble he or she causes.  You need to be that kind of parent to your characters.  Would you visit a random prison inmate?  Probably not; you don’t know him!  And he’s an evil criminal!  No, you wouldn’t spend much time thinking about the guy.   If it’s your child, however, you are much more likely to see the inmate’s humanity, to understand that he has hopes and dreams and fears just like everyone else.

Think of the famous “Stella!” scene.  (That would be Scene Three.) Yes, Stanley just threw a radio out the window.  And he put his friends in the middle of an uncomfortable situation.  And he beat his pregnant wife.  It would be very easy to make Stanley a moustache-twirling villain.  Instead, Tenn gives Stanley a softer, more vulnerable side.  After his friends rush Stanley outside, he is standing on the street, feeling as though he’s lost the world.  With the anger- and alcohol-induced rage receding, he realized that he’s hurt his “baby.”  (Not to mention the literal baby in Stella’s tummy.)  Against Blanche’s wishes, Stella rises as if pulled by a supernatural force and descends the stairs.  Why does she go back to such an unpleasant man?  There are a million reasons!  Stella doesn’t like being beaten, but…she kinda likes it.  And Stanley is weeping because of what he has done.  He “falls to his knees on the steps and presses his face to her belly.”  Mr. Kowalski subjugates himself to his wife and acts like a child.  Isn’t it more satisfying that Williams makes his characters messy and complicated?  (Real people are messy and complicated.)

Williams was also very good at communicated character detail very efficiently.  Only a few seconds into the play, Stanley Kowalski makes his entrance.  Look at what Williams writes:

Stanley (Bellowing): Hey, there!  Stella, Baby!

(Stella comes out on the first floor landing, a gentle young woman, about twenty-five, and of a background obviously quite different from her husband’s.)

Stella (mildly): Don’t holler at me like that.  Hi, Mitch.

Stanley: Catch!

Stella: What?

Stanley: Meat!

(He heaves the package at her.  She cries out in protest but manages to catch it: then she laughs breathlessly.  Her husband and his companion have already started back around the corner.)

Stanley’s first action is a big one.  He throws his wife the meat.  Yes, there are a couple ways of interpreting the action.  Stella tells her husband not to shout at her; he ignores her reprimand.  Like a caveman, Stanley has brought home a big hunk of cow and has given it to his woman to cook.  Stella is amused and titillated by the brutality of what Stanley has done.  And does Stanley care at all about her reaction?  Nope?  And we learn all of this from some rump roast flying through the air.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make your characters messy and complicated.  Admit it: you sometimes don’t understand your own thoughts and actions.  Why should your characters be any different?  Stanley doesn’t understand how much of what he does is motivated by his insecurity and Stella understands that she needs to be saved…but knows she doesn’t want to be.
  • Give your characters meaningful actions.  Stanley tosses dinner to his wife.  Mitch rips the paper lantern from the lamp.  Blanche sneaks a shot of Stella’s booze about twelve seconds before telling her sister she hasn’t had a drop to drink.  These actions pack a lot of characterization into a very short period of time.