Sorry, Wrong Number – 4/5
A short thriller written by Lucille Fletcher, and one that uses the recent technology (so to speak) to sell the suspense. A disabled woman waits at home for her husband to return from work. Becoming anxious, she calls his office and the lines get crossed and she hears a cryptic, but malicious conversation about a murder plot. The conspirators discuss some of the details of the plot which includes going to the apartment by the bridge. When the call reconnects, she isn’t able to reach her husband, but she immediately calls the operator to tell them about the call she heard. They don’t understand and don’t fully believe her, and her call doesn’t fully make sense really. They try to trace the call to no avail. When she hangs up, she begins to suspect that she might be in danger because too many of the details meet her own situation. She call the police and receives the same kind of skepticism. She panics and tries her husband’s office again. Etc etc. Again, because this is a thriller, and better, very short, I won’t reveal what happens.
The story is so effective because it’s basically a monologue with a few other voices. It’s also tied wonderfully to the wired-in telephone, which stabilizes the action in such a way that it’s tense. She’s stuck both by the telephone and her disability and this creates further tension, and of course, this is a trope that gets used a lot. It was probably old by the time this story came about.
Cyrano – 4/5
Cyrano – You can say almost anything you want to Cyrano, but obviously don’t make fun of his nose. But if you’re going to, do it well, because he’s heard it all before. One of the more surprising things about this play, and this happens a lot with old works, especially in translation, is that it’s a historical drama. It was written in the 1890s, but the action takes place in the 1600s. We’re looking at courtly love, but through the lens of late 19th century Paris. This shifts things in some interesting ways, and I wish I knew
more about France in the 1890s (I think I could maybe give an ok version of the Suez Affair or the Dreyfuss Scandal but otherwise nothing) because I bet there’s layers here that are easy to miss.
Our story is very familiar. Christian first hears about and then meets Cyrano, the renowned soldier, poet, and duelist. Christian learns of a plot against Cyrano, warns him, and they become friends. As time passes, Christians learns more about Cyrano and respects him even further. We also know, because it comes up all the time, that Cyrano has a large, bulbous nose. Christian falls in love with Roxanne, a cousin of Cyrano, who we also learn loves her as well. As Christian begins to court Roxanne, it becomes clear he is hopeless and he turns to Cyranos for help. It begins with Cyrano writing lines for Christian to read her, but even this proves useless as Christian cannot be convincing. Cyrano takes over in that famous scene and reads the lines himself. Later, both men go to war, and Christian dies in battle. Roxanne, having fallen in love, joins a convent, where she is visited by Cyrano over the course of many years, only at the end realizing that he was the one who loved her all along, made especially poignant because he penned the letters from war that Roxanne cherished, and they were his tears that stained the pages.
It’s hard to place this play because of when it was written, but its influence is undeniable. For me, it’s the Steve Martin version I think of most.
The Fever – Wallace Shawn 4/5
More a one-actor monologue than a full play, this version from Audible stars Lily Taylor. We begin with our protagonist sitting in a nice hotel in faraway country. The locus in mind as I say “faraway” is very clearly the US, as the play indicates. She is awoken in the middle of the night thinking about an execution scheduled to take place at that hour. When this happens, I begin to wonder what this execution might signify, and whether I come up with this on my own or the play implies as such, I am thinking it must be some kind of political execution. And in a way it is, as all executions are political. But this is not the first seeds of a dystopian story, again so much as any story set within the trappings of modern capitalism isn’t already dystopian, but a reflective piece about the nature of how life is lived, and what life is allowed for some and not for others.
This is a woman of some means, but we shouldn’t ever really think that this implies too much means. There’s an aggressively-defensive testimony that the means by which this woman lives is simply the exact amount she needs for what life costs. As we hear her out more, we begin to realize she’s become troubled by her position in society, and that she is speaking for a wider set of people here. Hers is a life of comfort and for whatever reason, in this exact moment, she can’t place aside the fact that her life is built upon the lack that others experience. She’s not awakening to this fact. She’s recently reread some Marx, but the emphasis is very much on the rereading part. She knows all this. Instead, a recent set of occurrences and thoughts have reignited the feeling of despair, and worse, defensiveness about her position. So the execution in the beginning is clearly some kind of news event, but not an otherwise distinctive or important event. It’s a reminder. It’s a reminder of what her life costs, and that those costs include human costs. But also, this is a play and things aren’t going to change a whole in her life and in her world.
The Importance of Being Earnest 5/5 – Obviously a classic and one of the greatest and funniest plays you can read/watch/hear. The situation is a farce and because it’s a farce Wilde is able to both implant truth within the farcical moments as well as some rich irony. The plot of the play is that two friends would both like to marry. Algernon Moncrief is a rich cad who is the nephew of Lady Bracknell. One of his many occupations includes having a “friend” in the country named Bunbury, a made person who serves as an excuse to leave town whenever he likes. His friend Jack Worthing is a well-off man of mysterious origins. It’s not that he’s mysterious, but he was a foundling who otherwise has come into his own. He also has an occupation where he pretends to be a fictional brother named Earnest when he visits the country to see upon a “niece”, a real person but not real niece who is his ward, a recently turned 18 girl. Anyway, Algernon takes a liking for Cecily, the ward, while Jack/Earnest takes a liking for Algernon’s cousin, the daughter of lord and lady Bracknell, and well you can see where this is going. It’s comedy by structure, but also in it’s playful use of language–puns, double entendre, and bon mots, and the playful fun, however serious the stakes seem. The star of course is Lady Bracknell, who is usually played by a lady of substance (Judi Dench, Stephen Fry), who is devilishly clever or not? Anyway, she’s one of the greatest characters in British drama.
The Emperor Jones – 3/5
A one-act play by Eugene O’Neill that requires some historical contextualization to really make it through. The story takes places on a Caribbean island in which Jones, an Black American pullman, has inadvertently become a kind of emperor of the island when he survived a misfiring of a gun which led to rumors of immortality. Since this happened, he has done what many dictators did before him, he used his power and influence to enrich himself. We are now a few years on, and we begin with a conversation between him and white ship operator who, through skepticism, helps to sort of fact from myth. What comes out of this initial conversation is the clear fear that Jones must live with every minute of each day, as his very tenuous hold over his reign is based entirely on the most essential fact of humanity, that he can die. He carries a loaded revolver with him at all times, with five lead shots and one silver one, to help keep the myth alive that he is immortal, and that only a silver bullet can kill him. The play relies on the truism that all autocracies are laid on a foundation of their own destruction. The uncomfortableness of the play comes from the pretty outdated language, racial politics, and general squirminess.
Master Harold and the Boys – 3/5
A one-act play by the white South African writer Athol Fugard written and first performed in 1982. The story entirely takes place in the dining room of a cafe. Harold is the son of the white owner, a woman who has raised Harold mostly alone, after his father, a violent drunk, has been stowed away in a kind of sanitarium. Today Harold has learned that his father seems likely to return in the near future. The play itself is through a series of conversations with Harold and two older Black men who work in the cafe and have worked there for a long time. Both men have known Harold since he was very young. Willie acts in a much more formal way with Harold, calling him “Master Harold” instead of the nickname, Hally. Sam on the other hand is close with Harold and in many ways is the only real father figure that Harold has ever known. Through the play, we find that while Sam and Harold are deeply aware of the racial politics at play, and especially the power dynamics, Harold almost never thinks about it, however drenched in it he is, which is very drenched in it. This comes to a head when Harold perceives that Sam crosses a line with him, and he demands that from now on Sam call him “Master Harold”. Sam accuses Harold of lashing out at him because he can’t lash out as his dad, and the play goes from there.
No Exit – 4/5
Famous for the takeaway, Hell is other people, which the play does land on, what’s interesting about this play, rereading it now for the first time since high school, is the reminder that “Hell is Other People” is a loaded phrase which avers from the obvious sentiment. Especially given the very small likelihood that Sartre believed in hell as an actual place, we take the idea of hell as a metaphor for life itself, and other people as a metaphor for other people, and we learn that “The hell of life, is other people” But the obvious reading of this, that being around other people is hellish is only one part of it. The other part is that the eyes of other people, watching you, judging you, and witnessing you creates a set of expectations that interfere with your ability to live an authentic life. It also creates an obligation to and between those other people as well. And while you might not immediately agree that’s hellish, it’s certainly something.