Nothing is simple for the men and women in Donald Antrim's stories. As they do the things we all do―bum a cigarette at a party, stroll with a girlfriend down Madison Avenue, take a kid to the zoo―they're confronted with their own uncooperative selves. These artists, writers, lawyers, teachers, and actors make fools of themselves, spiral out of control, have delusions of grandeur, despair, and find it hard to imagine a future. They talk, they listen, they hope, they dream. They look for communion in a city, both beautiful and menacing, which can promise so much and yield so little. But they are hungry for life. They want to love and be loved.
These stories, all published in The New Yorker over the last fifteen years, make it clear that Antrim is one of America's most important writers. His work has been praised by his significant contemporaries, including Jonathan Franzen, Thomas Pynchon, Jeffrey Eugenides, and George Saunders, who described The Verificationist as "one of the most pleasure-giving, funny, perverse, complicated, addictive novels of the last twenty years." And here is Antrim's best book yet: the story collection that reveals him as a master of the form.
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Donald Antrim is the author of the novels Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers, and The Verificationist, as well as a memoir, The Afterlife. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and an associate professor in the writing program at Columbia University. He is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
AN ACTOR PREPARES
Lee Strasberg, a founder of the Group Theatre and the great teacher of the American Method, famously advised his students never to “use”—for generating tears, etc., in a dramatic scene—personal/historical material less than seven years in the personal/historical past; otherwise, the Emotion Memory (the death of a loved one or some like event in the actor’s life that can, when evoked through recall and substitution, hurl open the floodgates, as they say, right on cue, night after night, even during a long run)—this material, being too close, as it were, might overwhelm the artist and compromise the total control required to act the part or, more to the point, act it well; might, in fact, destabilize the play; if, for instance, at the moment in a scene when it becomes necessary for Nina or Gertrude or Macduff to wipe away tears and get on with life; if, at that moment, it becomes impossible for a wailing performer to pull it together; if, in other words, the performer remains trapped in affect long after the character has moved on to dinner or the battlefield—when this happens, then you can be sure that delirious theatrical mayhem will follow.
What is the point in all this? Strasberg was wrong. Seven years are not enough, a fact I discovered recently during a twilight performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, presented on the college green to commemorate the founding, a hundred and fifty years ago, by the Reverend William Trevor Barry—my great-great-grandfather on my father’s side—of the small liberal-arts institution that bears our family’s name and our seal. I am Reginald Barry, Dean of Student Life and Wm. T. Barry Professor of Speech and Drama at Barry College, so naturally it fell to me to direct our commemorative, barefoot production of Shakespeare’s great festive comedy. While I was at it, I decided to serve up some ham myself, as Lysander. What would a skinny, balding, unmarried, childless forty-six-year-old Lysander—a PhD with hair on his back—mean within the context of an otherwise college-age show? I’m not sure I can answer that question. Normally, Lysander would be essayed by some good-looking lacrosse goalie waiting his turn to date-rape the beautiful, waifish Mary Victoria Frost, our Hermia, only a sophomore herself and already the finest actress we’ve had in my time at Barry, a sure candidate for Yale, or Juilliard if she can ease off the drugs. I might stand in as Egeus or Theseus, or maybe Oberon, King of the Faeries, if I felt up to it. But high-concept casting is a director’s prerogative. Two seasons ago, we mounted an all-male, all-nude Taming of the Shrew. People said it increased their appreciation for the radical potentials in Elizabethan drama.
And so, the play. Four adolescents turned out by law and their parents into a green world governed by spooks, all playing—children and their phantoms—at love and nighttime evil.
The adolescents were me, Mary Victoria Frost, Sheila Tannenbaum, as Helena, and Billy Valentine, as Demetrius. Sheila, a junior, plays character parts when she’s not playing basketball for the Lady Bears, and I knew she’d make an acceptable if not entirely agreeable Helena, with her big hands and lurching walk and brown eyes too far apart on an otherwise bent-looking, asymmetrical face; but Valentine represented a casting risk. Valentine is a certain kind of blond-haired, upper-middle-class boy—the type is familiar at any private school in the land, I would imagine—a sarcastic, wiry little underachiever who, on the basis of no evidence, is rumored among his peers to be a genius.
“Don’t come to rehearsals stoned, Billy,” I warned this kid before first read-through.
“Stoned, Mr. Barry?” He laughed. The previous Friday, a bunch of us had found ourselves lying around on sofas in my office in Lower Hancock, getting wasted on some of Billy’s very strong homegrown.
“We’re here to work,” I told him now, and he said, “Don’t you think I should be playing Puck?”
“You want to direct this show, Valentine?” I asked him. “No? Then let me worry about casting.”
“Hey, Mr. Barry. Everything’s cool. It’s just that Martin can’t read his script. I mean, he can’t see.”
Billy Valentine had a point. Putting Martin Epps in as Puck was like putting, well, I don’t know what into what. How can you defend a totally blind Robin Goodfellow tapping his way around the stage with a telescoping cane, except in theory?
Dramaturgically speaking, the theory was sound enough, I thought; and so I opened up rehearsals by reciting it—in somewhat oblique form—to my cast. There they were, the “drama mafia,” down in the windowless Hancock Hall basement, twenty-five or thirty hungover Lovers, Royals, Spirit Wraiths, Merry Men, stagehands, set techies, and walk-ons, all dressed in late-spring cutoffs and oxford-cloth shirts and sheer halter tops, almost every one of this lot—except Martin Epps, the blind boy—inhaling drags off cigarettes; it was a bored, blasé-looking crowd. “Genuine vision, expressed artistically by Shakespeare in the character Puck, is more than the ability to open your eyes, take a look around, and see what’s wrong with your life,” I announced to these oversexed dope addicts.
No one spoke or even looked up, and I had that terrible feeling I get at the kickoff to any rehearsal period, when I realize how much disappointment lies ahead. I said, “Well, anyway, Theseus, it’s your line to start the play.”
Still no one spoke. “Danielle, do you have the cast list?” I asked my sophomore stage manager.
“Hang on, Mr. Barry, it’s here somewhere.”
“Call me Reg,” I told her. “During the play, we’re all equals.”
She stared at me like she wasn’t quite sure. Unorthodox etiquette is often perplexing for the young. She held up the cast list and waved it—apparently some kind of “theatrical” gesture—in the air over her head. “Greg Lippincott, you’re Theseus.”
“Oh, is that how ‘Theseus’ is pronounced?” Greg asked. It was hard to believe he was one of the Philadelphia Lippincotts. He took a puff from his cigarette. Snickering could be heard. It took four hours to complete the read-through. Danielle delivered Martin Epps’s lines to him, and Martin repeated each back, painstakingly, one word then the next, like a spy being briefed on a plan.
“I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes,” recited Danielle.
“I’ll. Put. A girdle. Round about the earth. In forty minutes,” said Martin.
I made a note to ask him to pick up the pace and not tap cadences on the floor with his cane. I made another note, to Jim Ferguson, warning him to avoid inserting “like” into Oberon’s speeches to Titania. I worried about telling the faeries and goblins that their costumes would consist of G-strings and pasties.
I can always give thanks, in these delicate situations, for our costumer, my girlfriend, Carol.
Carol came in later in the week, during our first walk-through rehearsal, and made the case for her skimpy outfits.
“I think we will be able to see from their attire that these faeries are playful and very dangerous, earthy yet devilish, with a heightened insistence on gender that not only subverts our own male-dominated culture but underscores the young lovers’ cruelty toward one another in the Athenian grove,” she announced while staring straight at me. Was it necessary for Carol to see everything as a reflection of the sexual antagonisms in our on-again, off-again relationship?
She held the faerie sketches—Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Moth, and Mustardseed—up in glaring overhead light. A girl wearing shorts and a T-shirt objected: “No way. I’m not going out there naked.”
“This is the theater, honey. The character is naked, not you.”
“Good point, Carol,” I interjected, unwisely. Carol gave me one of her furious looks, reminding me that she was approaching a breaking point in our love affair. What can be said about this? After five years, it’s a regular enough occurrence. The truth is that we’ve never been very happy together. We pick at each other and have squalid fights. I’ll spare the details, except to say that whenever I think about our fighting, or about Carol’s drinking, I feel sad for us both; and this makes me want to phone her up and find out if she’s doing all right; and this behavior, as will easily be understood by anyone who has lasted even a short while in a hostile erotic relationship, is almost invariably a prelude to knockout sex.
“What will I be wearing” called a boy from the back of the basement. The boy was Sam English, a theater regular, bearded and deep-voiced; he was my Bottom. Carol said to him and to the entire cast, “Costumes are designed to suggest historical period and class, while also referring to modern dress. Bottom and his fellow Mechanicals will wear weight-lifting belts over wool tunics with the characters’ names ironed on.”
It had been my idea to depict Shakespeare’s vulgar tradesmen as a team of Elizabethan power lifters. I imagined them carrying six-packs of beer hanging from clear plastic rings. “Let me see Bottom and his men at the front of the room, pronto,” I called out, to begin that day’s walk-through of the play within the play, act five’s irresistible “tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe.”
Here came Quince, the carpenter; Bottom, the weaver; Flute, the bellows-mender; Snout, the tinker; Snug, the joiner; and Starveling, the tailor—in reality a cluster of political-science and religious-studies majors. These six huddled around me, and I said, “You guys are fuckups and you’re ugly. You’re a bunch of functionally illiterate dipsomaniacs, and I’d be amazed if any of you has ever been laid. Your own mothers ought to be ashamed of you.”
The boys looked confused, and I knew I had them where I wanted them. It is useful, when directing, to blur the boundaries between actor and role, to inaugurate, with a few stringent words, if necessary, a certain emotional instability; in this instance I was exploiting my students’ routine insecurities in order to lead them to identify with Shakespeare’s motley artisans.
I then gave these Merry Men my cautionary talk about the hardships of a life in the theater. At some point, I became aware of Danielle—I could see her over Sam English’s big head; she was waving and pointing at her watch, making those gestures and absurd faces people make when they need your attention, yet are afraid of you—so I concluded, “Boys, the point is this. People think the theater is romantic and magical. And sometimes it is. But most of the time it’s just a pile of crap that nobody cares about.”
“Time for animal improvisations!” Danielle shouted.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, historians tell us, was probably first presented at a royal wedding held in the summer at a house outside London. Presumably, the guests, like wedding guests throughout history, became intoxicated with alcohol and the aphrodisiacal spirit of the occasion. Young couples, wandering in and out of doors, slipping away to flirt or break up or make love, had dramatic counterparts in the unhappy children lost in love in Shakespeare’s imaginary grove. How many real lovers woke after the ceremony, hungover and sick, to discover themselves entwined on the lawn with mates met only during the festivities the night before? I wanted to create a world where love is mercurial, unbridled, bestial. In our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the unmarried lovers would fall asleep after chasing one another through the forest; then, doused with nectar from Puck’s flower, they would roll over, rub their eyes, and fuck the wrong person.
“Let’s all get down on our hands and knees,” I told the cast.
Down we went. Right away I noticed that Mary Victoria Frost and several faeries appeared to be acting like house cats; these girls arched their backs, projected feline butts into the air, and hissed. Sheila Tannenbaum—who, in act two, scene one, repeats the famous line “Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me”—was doing a nice job as a submissive pup, rolling over and sticking out her tongue to lick Billy Valentine, slithering past on his belly. Lion roared and Bottom brayed like an ass, and Sarah Goldwasser, our Titania, responded by rubbing herself against Sam; it was clear that these two had a flirtation in the works. That’s something I like to see. Sex makes any show better. “Oink, oink,” I said to Mary Victoria Frost.
I love the theater. I really do. And I adored my cast. They adored one another, too; these boys and girls were becoming—as the days became weeks and the play took its shape—uninhibitedly smitten with one another. It was mid-May, and summer’s first warmth was in the air. The basement felt stuffy and hot, thanks to the overheating furnace in the corner.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” I announced at the beginning of our third week. “Those of you who haven’t got off book, you’re holding the rest of us up. Demetrius, time your entrances so you don’t keep Helena waiting downstage. Titania, less kissing and more teasing when you’re giving it up to Bottom in act four. Make him work for it.”
“Reg?” peeped a voice from the crowd. It was Sarah Goldwasser, the prima donna.
“When will we get out of this gross basement and start rehearsing on the green?”
“Any day now. Roger and Emil are building the platforms in the trees, and they have to dig the hole for Puck. Once Puck’s crater is finished, we’ll move the show outdoors.”
“Crater?” This from Martin Epps.
“That’s right. In our Midsummer Night’s Dream, the demons won’t merely buzz around like woodland pixies; they’ll come right up from the earth to grab us and pull us down to Hell. At any rate, Martin, I don’t think your hole will be much of a problem after one or two on-site rehearsals. You’ll see,” I assured the blind boy.
It was one of those moments when a person (myself, in this instance) says something wholly untoward, and then, becoming aware of the faux pas and its implications, rushes blindly forward—there is no other way to describe this adequately, except as a king of verbal blindness—exclaiming additional horrors. “What I meant is … the rest of us will … watch you crawling … covered with dirt and sticks … You can picture it … I don’t mean literally…”
“That’s okay, Mr. Barry,” said Martin Epps.
“Call me Reg,” I reminded him, by way of apology. Then, addressing the room at large, attempting to regain authority: “All right. Let me have all the young lovers over in the corner. Lovers, don’t touch the boiler.”
Possibly—I should say probably—it was risky of me to attempt simulated sex with undergraduates.
“What do you think, gang? Is this something you feel you can comfortably do in front of an audience?”
Together we sat—Mary Victoria Frost, Sheila Tannenbaum, Billy Valentine, and I—in a cozy circle on the floor. Billy, I noticed, had his eye on Mary; he leaned back beside her, and you could tell he was angling to spy an opening in her blouse and glimpse a breast. Mary spoke: “How dark will it be?”
“Fairly. By act three, the sun will be setting. With any luck, it’ll be a humid night and the fireflies will be out.”
“It’s going to be beautiful!” exclaimed Sheila.
I concurred, “That’s right, Sheila. When you make love, you’re doing God’s work on Earth.”
After that, we sat for a time. The atmosphere became pleasantly uncomfortable. This sensation of a pervasive, shared emotional discomfort may have been helped along by the presence nearby of the foul-smelling oil furnace, hissing and burning, ...
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