Sometimes these connections are not so obvious but lie within the stories, forming a part of the greater whole. For instance, last season, our dramaturg Kyle Bass pointed out that the play Up and The Dairy of Anne Frank each contained touching, albeit very different, portraits of young love in the relationships between Maria and Mikey and Anne Frank and Peter Van Daan. To view these relationships as depicted in the plays was to get different views of the often conflicting components of the first pangs of love: innocence, desire, daring, fear, longing, insecurity, confusion, disappointment, joy—an array of emotions commingled in the young hearts of the teen-aged characters and manifested in the performances of the young casts.
Some connections are not initially apparent, but as we research and work on the plays they emerge through biography or other writings. Steve Martin’s comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Lookingglass Alice provide a case in point. Martin is also the author of a memoir, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. At one point in this memoir, Martin reveals that early in his career, while still an undergraduate at Long Beach State College, he happened upon Lewis Carroll’s syllogisms in a logic course, an example of which he provides:
1) Babies are illogical.
2) Nobody is despised who can manage crocodiles.
3) Illogical persons are despised.
Therefore, babies cannot manage crocodiles.
Martin says Carroll’s syllogisms greatly influenced his sense of comedy. He writes: “These word games bothered and intrigued me. Appearing to be silly nonsense, on examination they were—absolutely logical—yet they were still funny. The comedy doors opened wide, and Lewis Carroll’s clever fancies from the nineteenth century expanded my notion of what comedy could be.”
Martin clearly employs Carrollian logic in Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Note the “reasoning” used by one character to decide what color to paint his shutters or try to decipher Einstein’s explanation of a joke about a man who wants to mail a pie. These mental acrobatics certainly pay homage to the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, works that serve as the direct inspiration for Lookingglass Alice. Lookingglass Alice ups the sheer sense of excitement by matching Carroll’s flights of fancy with literal flights of acrobatics that find the performers soaring above the stage on high wires and trapeze. This cirque-type show is unlike anything ever presented at Stage, as magical and fantastic as Lewis Carroll and as “wild and crazy” as Steve Martin.
Martin has an indirect connection, in a more personal way, to two shows in the season. Arthur Miller’s The Price and August Wilson’s Fences are very much concerned with father/son relationships. Broadly speaking, the former is concerned with the past’s impact on the present while the latter addresses the present’s impact on the future as explored through inter-generational conflict. In Miller’s play, two brothers whose own relationship has broken down meet in the musty attic apartment once occupied by their now deceased father and for a time by the younger brother as well. The purpose of the meeting is to sell off what remains of the father’s furniture. Once the father was a wealthy man, but he lost almost everything in the 1929 stock market crash. In order to help support the old man, the younger brother skipped college and joined the New York City police force. The older brother became a doctor. The successes and failures each perceives in his life are inextricably bound to the perceptions they have about the father and their relationships with him. Among the many reckonings visited in the course of the play is how, in late middle age, the brothers come to realize the extent to which their father shaped their lives.
August Wilson explores a similar family dynamic but from the opposing point of view. In Fences, he presents Troy Maxson, a man embittered by the lifetime of racially motivated injustice he has endured. The year is 1957 and Troy works as a garbage collector in Pittsburgh. Earlier in his life, he had an outstanding career in the Negro Leagues. By the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, though, Troy was in forties. Denied opportunity for so long, he never got his chance. Now, with his seventeen-year-old son Cory sought after by college football recruiters, Troy is determined to spare Cory similar disappointment. His solution is to forbid Cory from playing football. Even the attempts by Troy’s wife Rose cannot change his mind. She tells Troy times have changed since he was young; Cory’s desire to be an athlete comes from a desire to emulate his father. “Everything that boy do . . . he do for you. He wants you to say, ‘Good job, son.’ That’s all,” she tells him. Troy is unmoved and the escalating conflict between him and Cory forms one of the central arcs of Wilson’s drama.
Echoes of Troy and Cory’s falling out resound in Steve Martin’s memoir. Much of Born Standing Up concerns Martin’s relationship with his father, a man who moved his young family from Waco, Texas to California in order to pursue an acting career. It never materialized and Glenn Vernon Martin spent his life selling real estate. Whether it was frustration from not fulfilling his dream or the financial pressures of supporting a family, Glenn Martin became increasingly estranged from his young son and his family. Martin writes: “. . .my father seemed to have a mysterious and growing anger toward me. He was increasingly volatile, and eventually, in my teen years, he fell into enraged silences. I knew that money issues plagued him and that we were always dependent on the next hypothetical real estate sale, and perhaps this was the source of his anger. But I suspect that as his show business dream slipped further into the sunset, he chose to blame his family who needed food, shelter and attention.” After one unfortunate incident—a solitary and unusually violent beating when Martin was nine—the future comedian resolved: “. . .with icy determination, that only the most formal relationship would exist between my father and me, and for thirty years, neither he nor I did anything to repair the rift. The rest of my childhood, we hardly spoke; there was little he said to me that was not critical and little I said back that was not terse or mumbled.” Then years later, “When I moved out of the house at eighteen, I rarely called home to check up on my parents or tell them how I was doing. Why? The answer shocks me as I write it: I didn’t know I was supposed to.”
Martin reports that even as he enjoyed success, his father remained critical, even writing a bad review of a Saturday Night Live appearance for a local real estate newsletter and dismissing his son’s performance in The Jerk with a terse, “Well, he’s no Charlie Chaplin.” Then, at the urging of a friend who had lost his parents to an accident and suicide, Martin determined to close the gap. He reconnected with his parents, a process that required taking them separately to regular lunches. In a 2002 New Yorker article, Martin described the arc of his relationship with his father: “I sometimes think of our relationship graphically, as a bell curve. In my infancy we were perfectly close. Then the gap widened to accommodate our differences and indifferences. In the final days of his life, we again became perfectly close.”
In Born Standing Up, Martin recalls a conversation that took place just days before his father died. “You did everything I wanted to do,” his father told him. “I did it for you,” Martin replied, avoiding, he explained, “the more complicated truth: ‘I did it because of you.’”
Complicated truth is a fact of family relationships and the core of engaging drama. Simplicity is suspect, suitable for melodrama and sit-coms. Playwrights the caliber of August Wilson and Arthur Miller embrace, explore and even explode the complexity of relationships by placing deeply layered and textured characters in situations where a great deal is at stake. Fences and The Price ring true because the characters emerge in a kind of relief, visible not only in themselves but in the forces that shaped them. This allows us to understand them and to recognize their motives and to comprehend their actions, right or wrong, good or bad, selfish or selfless. We connect. If we are so fortunate that the connection strikes deeply enough, we might feel as if we have been gifted, touched by a human spirit at once insightful and generous. This spirit informs the completion of Martin’s account.
“I sat on the edge of the bed,” Steve Martin writes in The New Yorker. “Another silence fell over us. Then he said, ‘I wish I could cry, I wish I could cry.’
“At first, I took this as comment on his plight but am forever thankful that I pushed on. ‘What do you want to cry about?’ I finally said.
“‘For all the love I received and couldn’t return.’
“He had kept this secret desire to love his family, from me and from my mother his whole life. It was as though an early misstep had kept us forever out of stride. Now, two days from his death our pace was aligning, and we were able to speak.”
The son and the father, long estranged, connected.
Sometime after the publication of The New Yorker article and Born Standing Up, Martin was interviewed by Charlie Rose at the 92nd Street Y before a live audience. When the subject turned to his father, Martin choked back tears and told a story about a letter he had received from a woman concerning The New Yorker article. She explained that she was so moved by it that she gave it to her husband and asked him to read it, too. When he finished, the man asked his wife if she knew their son’s phone number.
It’s probably beyond the expectation of most writers that their work so connects with a reader (or audience member) that the individual is moved to such action. Circumstances must be so that the individual is for some reason receptive. In Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Einstein is handed a drawing in which he perceives the unfolding of 20th century. About this observation he remarks, “I’m lucky tonight; I was open to receive it.” So, too, in the theatre, as audience members we might be lucky enough to experience an unexpected connection to a look, a pause, a line, a scene, a character, or an entire play that in turn connects us to another play, another book, another life.
-Joseph Whelan, Publications Director, Syracuse Stage
Photo: Steve Martin