The Children's Hour, a play by Lillian Hellman

As a student in a performing arts magnet program in high school, my education was better than most people from Florida can claim for themselves. It wasn't perfect, but the structure of the academic program for the magnet was pretty excellent.

As juniors, our blocked-together Acting and English classes gave us the ability to start focusing on larger projects (which, I thought, was excellent preparation for college). The junior-year project was playwright-based. Everyone in our class either picked or was assigned (I think assigned, but I can't remember for sure) a playwright and then we had a multi-phase project involving a written paper (draft, then final paper), a presentation (I think? I could be mixing up some of this with the senior project which was the same concept, but revolved around other theatrical professions), and scenes that we each had to direct from plays by our playwright. The details are all a bit hazy, all except those I committed to memory - the details of playwright Lillian Hellman's life and works.

At that tender age of 16 I was an excellent reader, an excellent student and prided myself on this, but my understanding of Hellman and of her characters has grown over the years as my understanding of other literature and of psychology has grown. At 16 I was inspired by Hellman, but there were simple things that kept me from really appreciating her. I believe that's all gone, now, and her work continues to inspire and impress me with a sense of urgency that I think is more relevant today even than it has ever been.

At 26, Hellman's play The Children's Hour (maybe you've seen the 1961 film?) was produced for the first time. She was afraid that audiences might riot, or that the police might shut the show down. This was almost 30 years after New York police had interrupted a performance of Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession and arrested the cast and crew. That was merely for the frank discussion of prostitution. Hellman's fare on display was, at the time, considered much worse.

The innocent-sounding title (which comes from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -- I've included the poem at the bottom of this post) belies the content: a problematic child takes out her anger on those who seek to help her - she tells a lie...a very big lie... and manages to convince a town that the two teachers who run her boarding school (who have been the best of friends for about 10 years) have in fact been living a lie, have been hiding their true sensibilities from the world, have been engaged in sapphic relations as the children slept down the hall.

Today, the concept is not so shocking, but the taboo placed on lesbianism, and homophobia remain. Conservative (and not just ultra-conservative) parents are still frightened of gay men and women influencing their children in schools, on television, and in books. The fairly recent spotlight on bullying is especially relevant considering the way the play progresses, and the righteous hatred that it portrays. Not only that, but in interviews Hellman made a point of saying that she didn't see characters as evil, but simply as their character...Mary Tilford (the fibbing child in question) may not have been evil in Hellman's eyes, but today we would consider her on route to being a sociopath.

And this is also very relevant--the way we treat children and their personalities is all different -- much different -- than it was in 1934. With the revolutionary diagnoses of attention deficit disorder and autism and asperger syndrome and early diagnoses of depression and manic depression and dyslexia and other learning disabilities...the world is so different now that Mary Tilford and the character of her grandmother are suddenly seen in an altogether different light. And in that change, society's own fears, biases, prejudices and hatreds are reflected. This play holds a mirror to today's society in a way that Hellman may have hoped for, but could not have possibly forseen.

Back at the end of September, I began to think of this play again - I hadn't read it probably in 8 years, but its relevance to the times struck me and I began to wonder why people were reviving Hellman's The Little Foxes when this play is not only more relevant but, I happen to think, a better play. A few weeks later, the announcement came that Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Moss would be dusting off its pages in 2011 in the West End. It was a moment of palpable lucidity. I could almost feel Lillian, that old grump, smirking a smile and raising a glass.

"The Children's Hour" a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as the Children's Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
O'er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, o blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!


Review: Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Like many people, I knew nothing about painter Johannes Vermeer until I saw the film Girl with a Pearl Earring in 2004. I saw it for Colin Firth, not for the painter. It's a stunningly beautiful film (even if Scarlett Johansson is boring) and, while the plot is mostly conjecture, the story is not improbable.

I've been meaning to read the book on which it was based since I saw the film. Six years later, I've finally had the chance to do so. And it doesn't disappoint. As with almost anything you could name, the book is better than the film. There's more emotion and subtlety than even the most magnificent and learned artistic directors can provide for a film. And it's beautiful. The text is rich without being overbearing - Ms. Chevalier has a real gift for metaphor, which is proved from the very first page. And it is those first metaphors that really call to the reader and beckon them onto the path of the novel.

this, however? delicious.
On top of this, Chevalier colors her story with a modern and realistic sense of honesty. This is not a story where everyone lives happily ever after, nor is it a story where the destitute rise up, put on a good show, and then crumble at the feet of the rich. The author has no time for such generalizations - she is so focused on the confirmation of each character's dues. It may be a novel she's written here, but it's also a history and therefore must be more realistic and end with more than a simple deserved comeuppance.

There's a lot of talent in this novel, and only some of it belongs to Johannes Vermeer. I definitely look forward to seeing what else Tracy Chevalier can do.

Review: The Lost Princess of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

I picked this book up on a whim - actually, the copy I got from the library has more of a green cover than the blue pictured here, and the green caught my eye on the shelf as I was walking towards the check-out. I saw the giant frog and knew I just had to see what it was. I've never read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or any of L. Frank Baum's works...and he was extremely prolific both in the land of Oz and outside of it.

The Lost Princess of Oz is the 11th of 14 books he wrote about the land of Oz, the penultimate Oz publication prior to his death in 1919. The plot revolves around the disappearance of Ozma, the fairy princess ruler of Oz (introduced several books earlier, it seems that when the Wizard came to Oz the first time, he had hidden Ozma, making himself the ruler of Oz). Also missing is Glinda's great book of records (like a ticker, has up to the minute updates on everything that happens in the land of Oz), the wizard's bag of tricks (the real source of his "powers", Ozma's magic picture (which acts much like the mirror in Disney's Beauty and the Beast) and, missing from another part of Oz altogether, a baking pan made of gold and decorated with diamonds (which not only is the only pan the owner seems to be able to use to make unburnt cookies, but is also magical in its abilities to transport someone, much like the use of a port key in Harry Potter.

Ozma's friends (among whom Dorothy (now a princess of Oz), the Wizard and the Cowardly Lion are counted) trek across the unknown wilds to find their fairy princess while, from the opposite direction, the owner of the cookie pan and her friend (a man-sized sentient frog) set off in search of the stolen item. The story is therefore told from two directions for the first 80% of it or so, until the two parties meet, finding that all that they are missing seems to be in the same place.

The story is told well. Baum was an excellent writer. But not having the previous 10 books in my mental archive worked against me a little bit. This is where Wikipedia came in. So I cheated a little. Don't care. It helped. Otherwise, I would have spent the entire read going "wait...why is Dorothy in Oz? And....who are all these people??" But doing so created one issue, and that was the actions of the Wizard. Without spoiling too much, in The Lost Princess of Oz the culprit is a magical being (they would have to be to steal Ozma and all of those things all in one night!) who acts out of greed.

As I mentioned before, Ozma has a history of going missing - the Wizard had hidden her as a baby when he came to Oz, removing her from the throne and essentially placing himself there. I knew this before I dug into the book. But when we get to the meat of it - when we discover who took her and how, etc. there is no sign of past remorse or any emotion really on the part of the Wizard who, now in the good graces of her majesty, should be reminded of his actions. According to wikipedia (and I read this part only after I'd finished the book) when the Wizard comes back to Oz in the fourth Oz book, he has no idea who Ozma is, and there is no mention of his actions even though, just two books beforehand, Baum explained it all. It's an issue of continuity and maybe an issue of literary license. Perhaps Baum just figured it would be easier to say that all was forgiven, etc.

But, as a reader, knowing what he had done, and then encountering the business of this book, it takes away any serious weight the book might have...it is simply cheery and good-natured, as if nothing bad could ever really happen in the land of Oz, which is a lie.


Happy Birthday Jane Austen!

Today, among other things (like the fact that it's PAYDAY!) we celebrate Jane Austen's 235th Anniversary! In celebration, Sourcebooks is offering 10 of its most popular Jane Austen-related titles as FREE e-book downloads AND you can also get all 6 Austen novels (the full, unabridged, illustrated ones!) also for free, care of sourcebooks. Check out Austenprose's blog for details.


Reveiw: Jaws, by Peter Benchley

In his 2005 introduction to Jaws (1974), author Peter Benchley makes a very valid point in saying that he could not possibly write Jaws today. His reasoning has much to do with the current global standpoint on conservation and appreciation. It's true - the world has a very different perspective on Sharks than it did in the early 70s. But Benchley and his novel had had a lot to do with that shift and, if he hadn't written it, someone else would have.

Perhaps that's why it doesn't seem as scary to me as it should. There are too many movies, documentaries, etc. on great whites and other sharks to make this novel very frightening. I've seen all four Jaws films...I own all four films in the franchise. I'm also a proud owner of the Italian rip-off of the original film (The Last Shark, aka L'ultimo Squalo). I've seen Shark Attack and its two sequels. I've even seen Debbie Gibson in the never should have been made Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. But what am I afraid of in the ocean? Not the big sharks, no. I never go out far enough to be scared by the big sharks. I'm afraid of stepping on jelly fish and anenomes, urchins and horseshoe crabs. I'm more afraid of having to have someone pee on my leg than I am of actually losing that leg. Although that's not wholly true -- I do find myself quite fearful of bull sharks and other sharks that, through the education of Discovery Channel's Shark Week, I know like shallow water, which is where I hang out.  

Jaws, as Benchley wrote it, just isn't quite so relevant anymore. Sure, big sharks are scary, but I'm much less afraid of sharks who, according to Ellen Brody in the final chapter, Jaws the Revenge, are...well...out for revenge, than I am of the people who go and hunt these beautiful creatures and cut off their fins for soup. Okay enough grandstanding, back to the book...

Benchley also goes on to say that of course the novel is not the film - the book he wrote was well-rounded, with a quiet understanding of the socio-economic undercurrents as well as a relatively solid grasp on female emotion, while the film (albeit BRILLIANT) was about a big shark. And while I already knew most of the changes made for the film, it was a treat to go back and see what the story was before it was the first summer blockbuster, and how those exclusions contributed to making it such a hit.


Reveiw: Stardust, by Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon's Stardust is a delicious crime drama wrapped in the pure American mink coat of late 1940s Hollywood. While both the film and period terminology are excessively specific, making it a slightly difficult read for anyone unfamiliar with the backlots (or anyone trying to keep track of the real, historical figures and those of Kanon's imagining), the structure is a classic with a twist.

Our protagonist Ben Collier doesn't have too many layers and his drives seem pretty basic, but he's a cool head in a very hot place and time. Ironically, his army composure and quickness of mind keep him above many of the Hollywood snares, keeping (as it were) stardust from getting into his eyes. While investigating his estranged brother's death, Collier enlists the help of everyone from the head of the studio he's working for, to the local German community (rife with Communists and ex-Communists), to a sneaky columnist, to the FBI.

But some of Collier's best help comes in the form of the most developed of Kanon's characters, Bunny Jenkins - gay former-child-star, now assistant to studio head Sol Lasner. For Bunny, the industry and the studio are everything, and wherever a problem may arise to obstruct that beautiful truth--be it an ugly dress or Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunting predecessor--Bunny has a fix for it. Fortunately for Collier, Bunny ends up on his side.

Though it took me a while to get through, I did like this book. I only wish that I might have been more versed in the time period before I took it up.