December 21, 2011

Merry Aphra, Happy Odyssey, and an Oxford New Year

It’s been a busy December for Caffeine Theatre. On Sunday, December 4 we closed our well-received production of Liz Duffy Adams’ play Or, directed by Catherine Weidner and featuring three virtuosic performances by Megan Kohl, Kay Kron, and Eddy Karch. Or, has been named one of Kerry Reid’s picks for the top shows of 2011 in the Chicago Tribune’s “Best of the Fringe” Column. Congratulations to everyone involved in the production, and thanks to all those who worked hard to make it happen.

We also curated an “Explore the World of Penelope” event in collaboration with Steppenwolf. The Penelope Coffeehouse Cabaret, as we called it, took place on December 15 and included feminist performance art, a clown piece, an opera excerpt, poetry by Artistic Associates Don Gecewicz and Ian Randall, and three short plays. Caffeine Theatre Associate Artistic Director Kristin Idaszak did most of the heavy lifting in terms of producing this event, which was a fun way to riff on themes of Enda Walsh’s play Penelope through multidisciplinary performing arts.

Preparations are under way for our spring production of Stephen Massicotte’s play The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion, which focuses on the relationship between Robert Graves and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in Oxford after World War I. Graves was a prolific poet, and his poem “Ulysses” includes Penelope as a character:

Robert Graves, “Ulysses”

To the much-tossed Ulysses, never done
With women whether gowned as wife or whore,
Penelope and Circe seemed as one:
She like a whore made his lewd fancies run,
And wifely she a hero to him bore.

Their counter-changings terrified his way:
They were the clashing rocks, Symplegades,
Scylla and Charybdis too were they;
Now they were storms frosting the sea with spray
And now the lotus island’s drunken ease.

They multiplied into the Siren’s throng,
Forewarned by fear of whom he stood bound fast
Hand and foot helpless to the vessel’s mast,
Yet would not stop his ears: daring their song
He groaned and sweated till that shore was past.

One, two and many: flesh had made him blind,
Flesh had one pleasure only in the act,
Flesh set one purpose only in the mind---
Triumph of flesh and afterwards to find
Still those same terrors wherewith flesh was racked.

His wiles were witty and his fame far known,
Every king’s daughter sought him for her own,
Yet he was nothing to be won or lost.
All hands to him with Ithaca: love-tossed
He loathed the fraud, yet would not bed alone.

As in Walsh’s play, the theme of competition is apparent here. Unlike Penelope, however, Ulysses “was nothing to be lost or won.” Graves depicts Ulysses as torn between Penelope and Circe (leaving out Calypso and Nausicaa, though he would later write a novel called Homer’s Daughter with a title character named Nausicaa). Much of the conflict in Massicotte’s play comes from a similar bifurcation of affection: Graves is torn between his wife Nancy Nicholson and his friend Ned Lawrence.

The world of Oxford is very different from the freewheeling, sexually emancipated English Restoration presented in Or, and Robert Graves’s bisexuality is far more problematic than Aphra Behn’s. While at boarding school, Graves developed a romantic attachment to a younger boy named Peter Johnstone. Though Graves continued to write amorous letters to Johnstone, he would represent the relationship as having no sexual component and was horrified by Johnstone’s eventual arrest for soliciting. Graves was also part of a circle of homosexual aesthetes, including poetic patron Edward Marsh and fellow war-poet Siegfried Sassoon. Indeed, when Graves became engaged to Nancy Nicholson, he wrote a letter apologizing to Sassoon. It is tempting to view Graves’s marriage as a kind of “ex-gay therapy,” and several biographers have suggested as much.

Nancy Nicholson, a socialist, feminist painter, apparently was not thrilled with the idea of getting married and spent much of the wedding night alone with a bottle of champagne. Nancy and Robert opened a shop together in Oxfordshire, on a hill five miles outside of Oxford proper. The shop, which is the setting for several scenes in Massicotte’s play, never prospered and eventually failed. The Graves-Nicholsons always had trouble with money, and T.E. Lawrence was one of many friends who gave Robert items to sell when he was in need.

The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion takes place in 1920, before the Graves-Nicholsons brought American poet Laura Riding with them to Cairo, where Nancy was to be recovering from illness. They lived together in a ménage à trois until 1929, at which point the addition of Irish poet Geoffrey Taylor exacerbated the problems in the group. Laura Riding attempted to commit suicide by jumping out a fourth-story window. (Robert apparently jumped after her from the third-story window.) The foursome split up into two couples: Robert Graves and Laura Riding moved to Mallorca together; Nancy Nicholson and Geoffrey Taylor were together in England. Nicholson and Graves would not divorce until 1949, ten years after Graves and Riding had split. Graves later described his love life as a quest for the White Goddess of poetic inspiration in the persona of young, nubile Muses.

All this to say that we are about to embark on a journey into the lives of several fascinating people with lots of baggage. We hope you’ll join us in March and April at Lincoln Square Theatre for The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion.

December 8, 2011

Explore the World of Penelope with Caffeine Theatre

Caffeine Theatre is getting ready to mix it up with Steppenwolf and the Q-Brothers next Thursday, December 15 in the Steppenwolf Garage. Join us from 5-7pm for a cabaret of poetry, drama, puppets and opera in response to The Odyssey and Penelope.

More information can be found at the Steppenwolf website, on Facebook, or you can call Steppenwolf's Audience Services at 312-335-1650 to reserve your spot today. Also, Use code 9429 for 2-for-1 tickets to that evening’s 7:30 performance of Penelope.

So slip into your speedo and EXPLORE the World of Penelope with:

Performance poetry by Milta Ortiz

"Air Piracy" by Martin Kettling, performed by Martin Kettling and Travis Boswell in conjunction with The Ruckus Theater

"Epigraphs for Penelope" a poetry cycle by Don Gecewicz, performed by Meghan Beals McCarthy, Ruth Anne Swanson, and Dana Black

"Bluebark" written and performed by Ian Randall

"Ok Eros? Ok Thanatos" by the Harlotry & Necromancy Appreciation Society

"Balcony of Two" by Ruth Margraff, directed by Christopher Marino

"Zombie Heart Salad Sandwich" by Greg Romero, directed by Jenn BeVard and featuring Olivia Dustman and Nat Swift

"Teenage Odysseus Sings to His Siren" written and performed by Annie Calhoun

"The Dubious Arts of Knitting and Self-Pleasure" by Kristin Idaszak, directed by Meghan Beals McCarthy and featuring Randy Steinmeyer and Michelle Courvais

November 17, 2011

Penelope & The Odyssey Coffeehouse Call For Submissions

Caffeine Theatre seeks short original performance pieces of all disciplines--music, dance, theatre, spoken word, poetry, etc.--for its Penelope Coffeehouse Cabaret, produced in collaboration with Steppenwolf Theatre company in support of Steppenwolf’s production of Enda Walsh’s play Penelope. The Penelope Coffeehouse Cabaret will take place at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre on December 15 from 5:00 PM-7:00 PM. The event celebrates Enda Walsh’s play, a contemporary adaptation of The Odyssey set in a swimming pool.

Pieces should explore the themes of the play (including competition, fighting for love, and intergenerational conflict) and/or should relate in some way to The Odyssey. Please email a script, poem, and/or a 1 page proposal to Associate Artistic Directors Dan Smith ( and Kristin Idaszak ( including a description of your proposed piece, how many people you expect to be involved, estimated length, and any required resources. (We will accept proposals for scripts that do not yet exist or pieces that do not have a traditional script, but please include that information in your proposal.) Pieces should run less than 15 minutes, and preference will be given to pieces with minimal setup and technical requirements. Please use “Penelope Coffeehouse submission” in the subject heading.

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: November 28, 2011.

Accepted pieces will be notified by December 1, 2011

November 4, 2011

Compose Yourselves For Pleasure: The Aphra Behn Coffeehouse

Thanks to everyone who made opening night of OR, so titillating! Johnny Downes, our script prompter, forgot his camera for the opening night reception but we assure you it was a scintillating evening. Week two is looking to be just as thrilling, with not only another weekend of performances but the Aphra Behn Coffeehouse both Saturday and Sunday! Curated and hosted by Caffeine's Associate Artistic Director and Resident Dramaturg Dan Smith, the Coffeehouse will feature some of Aphra's own provocative poetry, the winning poem from "Golden-Pointed Darts, Or, A Contest in Poesy to Honour the Incomparable Astraea and other Adventuresses, Spies, Poets, and Thespians" (previously published on this blog) and the following pieces:

Excerpt from Aphra Where Have You Behn? 
      by Heather Jeanne Violanti

Savage Umbrella Theatre presents “Failing”
      by Laura Leffler-McCabe and Blake Bolan, directed by Gina Di Salvo

"Code Name: Astrea" 
      by Jacob Juntunen

"The Nun and Lila" 
      by Priscilla Page

Clown Piece Conceived and Performed 
      by Deanna Myers and Lea Pascal

As Liz Duffy Adams writes in the prologue of OR: "We hope [Aphra] would forgive our trespasses./While you we hope to solace and seduce/With our most alluring strategems./Compose yourselves for pleasure, if you will./Cue the lights, let never time stand still."

The Coffeehouses will be performed at the Newberry Library at 1pm on Saturday and at Collaboraction immediately following the performance of OR on Sunday (curtain is at 3pm and the Coffeehouse will begin at approximately 4:30pm). Our Coffeehouse events are always free, and we can't wait to see you there, dear readers! 

November 2, 2011

Interview with Coffeehouse Playwrights Jacob Juntunen and Heather Jeanne Violanti

On Tuesday evening, we rehearsed short pieces by Jacob Juntunen (Code Name--Astrea) and Heather Jeanne Violanti (Aphra, Where Have You Behn?) for this weekend’s Aphra Behn Coffeehouse, and we found some intriguing connections among their work. Dan Smith caught up with these two playwrights via email to ask them a few questions. Both will be in attendance on Saturday at 1:00 at the Newberry Library.

Q: Both of you chose to write about Aphra Behn's life (and/or afterlife). Heather's play suggests a possible love connection between Aphra Behn and John Dryden, while Jacob's includes an affair with an unnamed young woman. "Or," is also invested in Aphra's romantic affiliations. Why is Behn's biography, in particular her love life, so interesting?

Heather Jeanne Violanti: I'm fascinated by Behn's biography because so much of it remains conjecture--some facts are known, but a lot of the time, the best we can do is guess. There's a strong erotic element to her writing--both passionate and playful, expressing love for both men and women--and I think this naturally leads to speculation that she had a passionate and playful "love life."

I honestly don't think the real Aphra was in love with John Dryden, but this relationship just emerged one day in writing the play. I began work on this play while in college--it was my first full-length play--and I was struggling with John's character. By coincidence, he was onstage with Aphra a lot. I remember sitting in the Gibbons Hall basement lounge discussing this with my friend Stephanie, an actor, and she made the suggestion "What if Aphra is in love with John?" And I tried that out--and it added a new dimension to the play

Jacob Juntunen: When making drama about artists, I think including their personal lives helps humanize them. I think of Shakespeare in Love, Sunday in the Park with George, or Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, and how the personal details in each help audiences relate to the artists involved. Spectators may not have completed a great work of art, but most of us have been in love. As far as Behn, specifically, though, Restoration drama is so full of sexual intrigue that it's almost impossible not to include it in a play about her. Her biography, to me, also suggested a James Bond-type spy thriller which, of course, has to include sex for information and double-crossing lovers.

Q: Both of your plays, like "Or," include rather farcical portrayals of Charles II. Jacob's play presents him as a kind of espionage pimp, and Heather focuses on his attachment to dogs, implying that he treated his mistress Nell Gwynn as a puppy. What made you choose to exploit Charles II for comic effect?

JJ: Another aspect of Behn's biography that's so appealing, at least to me, is that she's often referred to as the first professional writer who was a woman. Given that women playwrights are still at such a disadvantage--and even women protagonists--I was interested in casting at least one character of male power who clearly did not deserve the honors offered him. Since no one outranks a king, Charles II seemed like the obvious choice to set against an intelligent, powerful, Aphra Behn. So I suppose for me the farcical portrayal of Charles II is to contrast Behn's strengths.

HV: For me, Charles II just looks so silly in his Coronation portrait--that big curly wig, all those red robes--he looks like a regal Captain Hook. He did suffer from bouts of depression throughout his life--having endured the execution of his father and many years of exile--and I do try to address this later in the play--but for the most part, he come across as a clown. That's how I always thought of him--until I saw a production of Howard Barker's VICTORY recently--the King Charles in that is not only clownish, he's also terrifying--a Shakespearean villain obsessed with holding on to his tenuous power.

As for the obsession with dogs, Charles really loved spaniels--there's a breed of mini-spaniels named after him, the Cavalier King Charles. He's even holding a little spaniel in his lap in his baby portrait in London's National Gallery. And I love dogs, too--so I thought--what a fun idea to put some invisible dogs in the play! (Charles is always fussing over the dogs, but we never see them).

Q: Why is critical reception of Aphra Behn intriguing for both of you? One character in Heather's play is Virginia Woolf, perhaps Aphra's greatest champion. Jacob, on the other hand, depicts Harold Bloom, one of Aphra's greatest detractors.

HV: Throughout history, Aphra seems to have divided the critics--they either love her or hate her. And until recently, so many of them dismissed her simply because she was a woman, or she was a woman writing about things that weren't considered "proper" for a woman to write about (like sex and politics). On the other hand, her supporters deified her, like Virginia Woolf, perhaps glossing over how at times, Aphra bowed to the convention of her time (the "happy" marriages tacked on to the comedies, for instance, though of course, this is what comedic structure demands).

JJ: I've been teaching theatre history for colleges in one form or another since 2001, and in one of my earliest syllabi I hit upon the notion of teaching the idea of the canon alongside theatre history. Instead of simply presenting plays chronologically, I reasoned, I would assign readings from a "classic canon"--which, unsurprisingly was mainly white men--and then go back and present a more "modern canon" post-1990s that includes more women and minorities. So for at least ten years I've been interested in what we read in school and why; I've wondered, how are canons of literature formed, maintained, and changed? Aphra Behn falls into the latter category, a playwright who proably wouldn't be in anthologies from the 1950s, and I wanted to present the power of the critic and professor alongside the power of the writer in my play. In fact, I would say in the end who we read, who we remember, and how writers' stories are told is more in the hands of scholars than writers. So, while Behn succeeded in her time as a professional writer, I wanted to explore whether that success translates into the modern era. Dealing with Bloom's take on her seemed like the most natural way to do so.

Q: Your plays similarly employ direct address to the audience. What made you choose this device? Is this related to the convention of asides in Restoration comedy? Or did you just want Aphra to speak directly to us?

HV: I love the theatricality of the Restoration plays--particularly the direct address as used in asides,the Prologue, and Epilogue. I knew when I began writing my play that to stay true to this form, Aphra had to address the audience. And there would be a Prologue and Epilogue.

JJ: I wish I'd been clever enough to use direct address to make a sly formal comment on Restoration comedy, and if you want to give me credit for that, I'll happily take it. But the real reason I used direct address is that, as I mentioned, Behn's biography struck me as James Bond-like. This led me to the idea of a summer blockbuster film about her--which, in all honesty, I'd love to see and write if there are any film producers out there. From there, it was a simple step to a trailer about this movie, and that evolved into a review of the movie. But I like the idea that it's related to Restoration comedy's asides, so let's say it was about that instead.

Q: Any current projects you want to share?

HV: I'm working on expanding a one act play, AN APPLE A DAY, into a full-length. I wrote it for the Women's Work Lab at New Perspectives here in NYC. It juxtaposes the experiences of a modern day schizophrenic woman with a woman diagnosed with hysteria in the 1890s. I have a one-night only performance of another play, LANDSCAPE WITH HOUSE AND DOG, coming up at Coffee Black Productions, also in NYC, in March, and I'm working on revising that too. I'd like to revisit APHRA WHERE HAVE YOU BEHN?, though since I began it 10 years ago, I worry that, as a whole piece, it might be out of date, or past its viable moment. I am so happy and grateful, though, to see it onstage at the Aphra Behn Coffeehouse!

JJ: My next full length play, Joan's Laughter, will be produced by Chicago's side project theatre in May and June. It's the untold story of Joan of Arc's last minutes of life, based on a newfound 1431 document claiming at the last Joan recanted. In my play, she must decide whether to listen to a priest who says she can save her soul by repudiating her Voices, or to continue asserting her Voices were from God despite their silence. From its historical inspiration, Joan’s Laughter explores the abandonment we all feel in our darkest moments. More about it and my other plays can be found at, and once a week I post a new short play at

October 29, 2011

"Golden-Pointed Darts" Contest Winner

Caffeine Theatre is pleased to announce the winner of “Golden-Pointed Darts, Or, a Contest in Poesy to Honour the Incomparable Astraea and other Adventuresses, Spies, Writers, and Thespians.” Congratulations to Amanda Williams, who submitted the following three poems exemplifying the themes of theatricality, adventure, and eroticism which are hallmarks of Aphra Behn’s work.

Sometimes I Acted Backstage Too
In that cramped store room
amid a circus of props and costumes,
in the weak glow that creeps from the low-watt bulb
that we leave on during performances
you press me hard against a teetering shelf
and kiss whatever skin my glittering costume does not cover
(the tips of my fingers, my heaving breasts and neck)
between scene 3 and 4 of the first act.

I hear my cue approaching
and pry Nathan’s hands from Adelaide’s waist;
I brush off the stray blonde fibers
from my platinum wig
that cling to the lapel of your suit jacket,
and staunchly pull my garters back up
for the top of the next scene.

I reapply my lipstick, smooth my rumpled crinoline
as I wind my way through the darkness;
this is the third night you’ve almost made me late.
My heart thuds along with the snickering audience.

Beside the stage left curtain,
I catch a glimpse of your silhouette
in the prop room’s doorframe,
dust floating around you in the dim light
of that bulb, flickering.

Bavaria boasts miles of unspoilt natural countryside and picturesque landscapes ideal for walking, relaxing, and enjoying the the proverbially laid-back Bavarian attitude to life...

The smells of pig farm and wood smoke leak through the crack in my visor
and root me to a spot on a map of Southern Germany; we race
along a spiraling road between fields and petite villages, the leather of his jacket
sticky against my bare arms wrapped around his waist. Its 7pm, the heat from midday
is settling down into a summer evening. A low sun spills through the cracks
in the clouds. Another smell - the syrupy aroma rising
from the leafy, tangled strawberry fields. I am Marilyn Monroe
as my white cotton skirt billows up around my waist, pink lacy underwear
on the leather seat as we take the corners a little too sharp. When we pass through a village,
the old women shake crooked fingers at us, clearly mortified. I fog my visor
with exhilarated breaths, and set my fingers in the spaces between his ribs
for balance; when he leans into a turn, I lean, our bodies revving
and synching together. I feel the immense weight of the wind pressing on my head
as I turn to look out; the horizon is dotted with delicate church spires,
one distinct point or cross high above the tiles of terracotta – two white onion domes, Haindling.
Feeling less that pious, I grip him even tighter as I feel him shift his weight
backward, into me, and the adrenaline makes my thighs contract, my stomach
twist like a pretzel. As we near home, the setting sun is now the deep gold color
of Erl-Brau beer; I stare into it, feeling half drunk already. I’m sure when I take off
this heavy helmet, my hair will be a disheveled mess, like I just made love to Bavaria.


I have the urge to fawr-ni-cate. I want
to run to the barn, rich humidity
of August filling my skin so I swell
like a creek in Spring, the hot flush of desire
melting all my Christian values into oily streams
of sweat running down between my breasts.
I want the hay to stick to our naked bodies, pricking
just enough to confuse pleasure and pain. Lord,
lead us not into temptation, but deliver
us from evil – I am thrown over these bales,
this altar of love, where you worship me
like a passionate heathen, with ragged exultations
and groaning praises. I want an unholy storm
to kick up, to pound the tin roof with hammering drops,
to drown the sounds we make. Oh, pray for us sinners!
After that clap of perfect thunder, when the tongues of flame
have burst from our sweaty heads we’ll run bare-assed
to the creek to bathe in the dark water, but not to wash
the sin away; no backwoods baptism can cleanse us but,


as we look into each other’s sweaty, dirt-streaked faces,
we are born again.

October 22, 2011

Dramaturgical Reflections: Images from the English Restoration

Portraiture from the late seventeenth century makes an important contribution to the historical record of the period. At first glance, these images seem to give us a sense of how people looked and dressed. But they also reveal how painters and sitters used visual symbols in their construction of an individual self, an image that could be circulated far beyond the walls of the room where the portrait was hanging. Engravings after portraits appeared as part of the growing print industry in the late seventeenth century. According to Professor Joseph Roach, the "public intimacy" created in part through visual circulation signals the emergence of the modern concept of celebrity during this period.

These portraits, however, also reveal how we think of these individuals today. When and how we choose to display these images reflects our changing understanding of their historical importance and their relationship to our own lives. Roach analyzed the 2001 exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, "Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II." That exhibit, he argued, "restaged the impious relationship of public intimacy and mimetic desire in room after room, paramour after paramour" as it juxtaposed the idea of the Merry Monarch with images of his well-known mistresses ("Celebrity Erotics" 216). Yesterday, a new exhibit opened at the National Portrait Gallery in London: "The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons." Instead of displaying images of the first actresses alongside their known lovers or romantic rivals, this exhibit positions them alongside each other, drawing a professional timeline from Nell Gwyn in the seventeenth century to Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter today. Neither of the historical narratives presented by these exhibits is more or less "true" ... but we might consider why we tell the stories we do at certain points in history.

I invite you to explore some of these images, those currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and those appearing on stage in Chicago next weekend.

October 20, 2011

The Actors Escape from the Theatre (From the Rehearsal Notebooks of Johnny Downes)

Hello! Johnny here again. Sorry it's been a few days but I've had my hands full wrangling the actors (there's only three of them, but I swear it feels like there are at least twice that many...) and the time does fly when you're in rehearsal. We have been busy running the play and fine tuning it for tech, which starts in a dizzingly short four days.

My boss, the lovely Lady Davenant, who runs the Duke's Company, always says:

"You mustn't keep actors waiting around without the play they'll start to drink then it's quarrels and misbehaving behind the scenery and asking to go home early - utter utter chaos darling, never leave actors with nothing to do, remember that..."

But we gave the whole company Monday night off and invited all our friends to the bar to make all sorts of mischief before we had to buckle down for the last week leading up to tech, and the result was not quite utter chaos, but it was rather poetic and at moments racuous. Our gracious trustee Meghan Beals McCarthy serenaded us with a dramatic interpretation of the bedtime story "Go the *&#% to Sleep," and Caffeine Theatre's esteemed associate artistic director Dan Smith performed a rousing prose poem about the history of dramatic literature, and from there things really took off. Words don't do it justice, but I have a few etchings from the evening that show a bit of its flavor:

October 14, 2011

Dramaturgical Reflections: The English Restoration

What was the English Restoration?

The year 1660 marked the end of the English Commonwealth and the restoration of the English monarchy. Following the close of the English Civil War (1642-1648), Parliament tried and executed Charles I for treason (1649). His son and heir to the English throne, the eighteen-year-old Charles Stuart, was forced to flee England and spent more than a decade wandering among the courts of Europe. His attempts to reclaim the English throne were unsuccessful until the death of Oliver Cromwell (1658), then Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England. Disillusioned by the failed democratic experiment and desirous of greater social and political stability, royalist supporters of Charles II maneuvered his return to England in 1660 and his coronation in 1661. The Restoration was viewed by many as a time of hope, renewal, and reconciliation. It remained as yet unknown whether or not it would live up to its expectations.

Why is the Restoration an important point in English theatre history?

The English theatres had been closed in 1642 due to the turbulence of the burgeoning civil war. The performance of plays was banned during the Interregnum (the time between the execution of Charles I and the ascension of Charles II): a stark contrast to the active theatrical scene of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with their thriving public theatres and elaborate court masques. When Charles II returned to England in 1660, he issued theatrical patents to two men, Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant, who founded the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company (respectively). The existing corpus of plays was divided between them, and so began a theatrical patent system that would shape English theatre for more than a century.

The Restoration also marked several important changes to English theatrical practice, many of which continue to attract the research of historians and the creative imaginings of playwrights. The introduction of the professional English actress to the London stage occurred in the early years of the Restoration, followed shortly by the emergence of the first professional female playwright. Aphra Behn, though not the first woman to have a play published or produced in England, was the first woman to earn her living as a writer of plays, poems, and other prose.

October 11, 2011

Behn. Aphra Behn.

Who is Aphra Behn?

Variously she was known known as a libertine, a wit, and a female playwright, poet and novelist shocking and delighting audiences of Restoration England.

Once she might have been known as Aphra Johnson, or Amis, or Cooper. Little is known for certain about her life before she started publishing as a writer, and after that, she is largely remembered for titillating and scandalizing her peers with her frank treatments of sexuality and gender.

In between those times, she was also known as Astrea or Agent 160 in Surinam--the New World--and subsequently in Antwerp, Belgium where she was working as a spy for Charles II. In Antwerp she ran out of funds (as she possibly had in Surinam, prompting the theory that she married a Dutch merchant named Behn to bring her back to Europe), and she had a brief stint in debtors prison upon her return to England. She might have been known as Aphra Ben or Beane, but her widowed name and nom de plume was Mrs. Behn.

Although her espionage skills are suspect, her verbal acuity catapulted her to literary success, despite the reservations of those who didn't believe that a woman possessed the reason and rationality to write verse or write for the stage. She became apostrophized as "The Incomparable Astrea" and indeed she was: Virginia Woolf recognized her as the first middle class woman writer, who succeeded solely by her wit without the comfort of a country estate to retreat to in case her literary endeavors landed her in hot water--and Behn courted controversial topics like political events and homosexual love between women. Not for naught then was she known as Sappho.

Behn's distinctive poetic voice is characterized by her audacity in writing about contemporary events, frequently with topical references that, despite their allegorical maskings, were immediately recognizable to her sophisticated audience...Behn's poetry, therefore, was less public than her plays or her prose fiction, as it depended, in some cases, on the enlightened audience's recognition of her topics for full comprehension of both the expression and implications of her verse. Such poetic technique involved a skill and craft that earned her the compliments of her cohorts as one who, despite her female form, had a male intelligence and masculine powers of reason.
Behn, Aphra Behn: poetess, spy, lover, possible homosexual (or bisexual), and maker of martyrs:

A thousand martyrs I have made,

All sacrificed to my desire;

A thousand beauties have betrayed,

That languish in resistless fire.

The untamed heart to hand I brought,

And fixed the wild and wandering thought.

I never vowed nor sighed in vain

But both, though false, were well received.

The fair are pleased to give us pain,

And what they wish is soon believed.

And though I talked of wounds and smart,

Love’s pleasures only touched my heart.

Alone the glory and the spoil

I always laughing bore away;

The triumphs, without pain or toil,

Without the hell, the heav’n of joy.

And while I thus at random rove

Despise the fools that whine for love.

October 3, 2011

From the Rehearsal Notebooks of Johnny Downes, Script Prompter, 10/1/11

John Downes was the script prompter for the Duke's Company, where Aphra Behn's plays were originally produced. In addition to cueing the actors when they forgot their lines, his "historical review of the stage", Roscius Anglicanus is a seminal firsthand account of Restoration theatre. These are his recently discovered ruminations from a slightly later production of a pretty, witty play called OR, penned by the poetess Liz Duffy Adams in homage to the incomparable Astrea, as channelled and interpreted by Louise Edwards (dramaturg) and Kristin Idaszak (assistant director).

First Rehearsal Liz Duffy Adams's OR, directed by Catherine Weidner

In the first scene of OR, a disguised Charles II visits the former spy and aspiring playwright Aphra Behn (Agent Code Name Astrea) in debtors prison. Once his identity is revealed the two realize they have a lot in common, namely their exiles from London. And yet, Charles says, "I hardly knew how to be glad once I was here, longing itself became such a habit of mind."

That's how I feel about first rehearsals--each play is a very foreign country that I am privileged to enter into for a few weeks or months, to explore its shores and cities. But that exploration of this new world begins weeks before rehearsals themselves start, with design and production meetings, dramaturgical research and script meetings, so that by the time first rehearsal arrives, the longing itself has become such a habit of mind, indeed.

This rehearsal brimmed with excitement. OR, is a three-hander sex farce featuring Aphra Behn, Nell Gwyn, Charles II and a few inopportune visitors, and the script evokes the 1660s, the 1960s and today: "this our time of mingled hope and fear." Our scenic designer Stephen Carmody is manifesting that concept by creating a theatre within a theatre--the world of the play takes place in 1660, the actors are in the 1960s, rocking out to records of Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Kinks in their "backstage", and the audience traverses all three time periods.

The play is all about the "seeming opposites" we all embody, and how we variously mask and reveal our multifarious identities. Aphra observes that "it's a nasty little world of lies, subterfuge, backstabbing and betrayal," to which Nell replies, "Are you talking about spying or the theatre?"

We have just begun to ricochet between the many ors our playwright and her characters have set before us. Expect many more updates from the rehearsal room, dramaturgical teasers, and inside looks at the incomparable Astrea--or should we say Aphra--and her friends.

Johnny Downes, October 1, 2011

September 6, 2011

Aphra Behn Coffeehouse Call for Proposals and Poems

Caffeine Theatre seeks short original performance pieces of all disciplines--music, dance, theatre, spoken word, poetry, etc.--for its Aphra Behn Coffeehouse, which will take place at the Newberry Library on Saturday, November 5, 2011 and at Collaboraction on Sunday, November 6. The Coffeehouse celebrates the work of British poet, playwright, and adventuress Aphra Behn. Any and all pieces inspired by Behn’s life, work, or themes are welcome. Please email a script and/or a 1 page proposal to Associate Artistic Director Dan Smith at including a description of your proposed piece, how many people you expect to be involved, estimated length, and any required resources. (We will accept proposals for scripts that do not yet exist or pieces that do not have a traditional script, but please include that information in your proposal.) Pieces should run less than 15 minutes, and preference will be given to pieces with minimal setup and technical requirements. Please use “Aphra Behn Coffeehouse submission” in the subject heading.

Casting assistance is available as required and appropriate. Artists outside of Chicago are encouraged to send a script or music or poem to be performed by in-town artists.The Aphra Behn Coffeehouse is produced in conjunction with Caffeine’s production of Liz Duffy Adams' “Or,” a sexy farce about the intertwining lives of Aphra Behn, Nell Gwynne and Charles II. "Or," will be running at the Flatiron Arts Building Suite 336 October 30-December 4.


Accepted pieces will be notified by October 10, 2011.

Caffeine Theatre also seeks original poetry for our fourth poetry contest: “Golden-Pointed Darts, Or, a Contest in Poesy to Honour the Incomparable Astraea and other Adventuresses, Spies, Writers, and Thespians.” Submissions may include any size or style of poem, as long as it is inspired in some way by the life or work of Aphra Behn, or in some way speaks in conversation with that life or work. Poems exploring sexuality, first-person speakers, spying, and the English Restoration are particularly welcome. Winners will be posted on Caffeine’s website (, and performed at the Aphra Behn Coffeehouse in November. Any new or previously written poem may be submitted (provided it can be republished and performed).

TO SUBMIT: Email poem(s) and a brief description of relation to Aphra Behn to Caffeine Theatre Associate Artistic Director Daniel Smith at with “Incomparable Astraea” in the subject heading. DEADLINE: October 10, 2011.

August 5, 2011

Summer Reading

As the summer winds down, I wanted to recommend two books I’ve read this year that should be of interest to poetry enthusiasts. First, Blueprints: Bringing Poetry Into Communities (ed. Katharine Coles), which offers great suggestions for poetry outreach by spotlighting twelve successful programs. The second book is a murder mystery by Matthew Pearl called The Dante Club.

In June, the Poetry Foundation held an open house at their beautiful new building. Jen Shook and I attended. The event featured readings, book-signings, and books for sale. One great thing about the building was that the sound from the microphones in the Reading Room was projected into the courtyard, so anyone walking by could hear poetry being read. We each went home with a lovely Poetry Foundation tote bag emblazoned with a quote from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and a copy of Blueprints: Bringing Poetry into Communities, a new book edited by Katharine Coles. I particularly enjoyed Patricia Smith’s piece on Poetry Slam, Elizabeth Alexander’s meditations on Cave Canem, Luis Rodriguez’s powerful description of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore, and Dana Gioia’s discussion of Poetry Out Loud. (I judged the Regional Finals for the Chicago Suburbs and the City of Chicago in February, and was very impressed by the students’ passion for poetry and excellent recitations.) Blueprints is published by the University of Utah Press and is quite inexpensive (list price: $8.95). There’s also a great “Toolkit for Poetry Programmers” that includes many ideas that are relevant to arts programming in other disciplines (i.e., theatre).

If you like gruesome murder mysteries infused with poetry, history, and translation (who doesn’t?), you’ll love The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. Published in 2003, The Dante Club finds Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell on the trail of a diabolical murderer who is staging crime scenes that mimic the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno. Longfellow and friends are working on the first American translation of Dante, and the pattern of murders uncannily follows the Cantos they are revising each week. The murders are really grisly, especially the first one. There’s also a healthy dose of Harvard politics and post-Civil War anxiety. Great travel reading! I mostly read it on the CTA. Come to think of it, I mostly read Blueprints on the CTA, too.

What are you reading this summer?

April 11, 2011

Postmodern Minstrelsy: Confronting Race Onstage

The first truly American theatrical form was the minstrel show. In 1828, Thomas "Daddy" Rice, performed "Jump Jim Crow" in blackface Louisville, Kentucky to great acclaim, and from there the minstrel show evolved into an intricately structured three-act variety show replete with stock characters and jokes, as well as singing, dancing and skits. Minstrel shows were performed exclusively by white men originally, and drew from stereotypes of lazy slaves, sly tricksters and docile, infantilized men. These caricatures were popular both throughout the north and the south, and black minstrel troupes started to tour after the Civil War, taking up the stereotypes created and perpetrated by white performers.

"The minstrel show’s message was that black people belonged only on Southern plantations and had no place at all in the North. “Dis being free,” complained one minstrel character who had run away from the plantation, “is worser dem being a slave.” Songs like Dan Emmett’s “Dixie,” a Northern minstrel song which was introduced in New York City in 1859 by Bryant’s Minstrels, underscored these messages by having Northern blacks wish they were in the land of cotton" ("Minstrel Men and Minstrel Myths, Robert C. Toll).

By the turn of the century, minstrel shows had lost much of their traction as vaudeville and musical theatre gained popularity. But Al Jolson can still be seen in blackface in the first talky, The Jazz Singer, and minstrel and blackface performances continued to be seen on television as part of variety acts through the 1950s.

It is easy to say that minstrel shows are an ignominious but closed chapter of American entertainment, but Cornelius Eady's poetry confronts the contemporary ramifications of this form in Brutal Imagination. By dramatizing all the composite caricatures that Susan--and the American people, as the nine-day manhunt intensified--impose on this cipher of a black man, he makes it impossible to ignore continued presence of racial profiling and stereotyping in America in the present day. Dramaturgically, Eady pauses Susan's narrative as Mr. Zero forces her to confront her own sublimated prejudices. She doesn't believe her lie is racially motivated (her statement "I knew I'd get further with it if I said a black man did it" is merely factual, not racist in her mind) until she is compelled to watch these stereotypes deployed.

As we got deeper into the rehearsal process it became clear that the only way to approach the presence of these stereotypes in the script was to tackle them head on. Watching youtube videos of blackface performers and minstrel skits in rehearsal was itself a profoundly uncomfortable experience. We looked particularly at the physical attributes of Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, Buckwheat, Steppinfetchit and Stagolee. Minstrelsy manifests itself in our production in the dehumanized dance each caricature performs for Susan.

In these performances it becomes impossible to ignore or neatly dismiss not only her complicity but her active contribution to perpetrating these stereotypes by falsely accusing a black man of committing her crime. Hopefully this postmodern minstrel narrative allows the audience to call into question its own assumptions about race and representation as Susan's story continues to unfold.

April 9, 2011

Coffeehouse Event April 16

Caffeine Theatre announces “Murder, Medea, and the Media,” its spring Coffeehouse event, to be held April 16, 2011 at Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont). The Coffeehouse will begin after the 4:00 performance of Brutal Imagination (approximately 5:15 PM). Featuring poetry readings, performance, and discussion, the Coffeehouse engages with the questions of murder, media narrative, poetic adaptation, and connections to Medea raised by our current rotating repertory productions of Brutal Imagination and Wreckage. Participants include playwrights Keith Byron Kirk (Northwestern University) and Kristin Idaszak (Caffeine Theatre; Collaboraction), poet Joanne Diaz (Illinois Wesleyan University), and theatre scholar Stefka Mihaylova (University of Illinois at Chicago). The event will be moderated by Caffeine Theatre's Associate Artistic Director Daniel Smith. Our Coffeehouse programming is always offered free of charge; reservations encouraged at

If you want to make it a full day of poetry, theatre, and conversation, come for Brutal Imagination at 4:00 and stay for Wreckage at 7:30! Ticket information available at

March 30, 2011

Staging Poetry: Adaptation, Persona, Innocence, Experience

Caffeine Theatre's mission is "to mine the poetic tradition to explore social questions." Our current rotating repertory consists of two plays that approach contemporary poetry in different ways. Caridad Svich has written a poetic play that draws on a long history of poetry, using Euripides and William Blake as source material. Cornelius Eady's play began as a book of poetry; he adapted his own poems for the stage in collaboration with director Diane Paulus.

D'wayne Taylor (Mr. Zero) and Samantha Gleisten (Susan Smith); Photo by Jason Beck

Brutal Imagination is a script adapted from Cornelius Eady's poem cycle of the same title. In the published volume, the speaker of the poems is Mr. Zero, the imaginary black man blamed by Susan Smith for the disappearance of her children. In the play, Mr. Zero recites several of the poems as monologues ("How I Got Born"; "The Unsigned Confession of Mr. Zero"), and takes on the personae of several stereotypical black caricatures ("Uncle Tom in Heaven"; "Aunt Jemima's Do-Rag"; "Buckwheat's Lament"). The book of poems includes some contextual information: a brief note about the 1989 case of Charles Stuart, who also blamed a black man for his own crime, prefaces the poem "Charles Stuart in the Hospital." This kind of context is expanded in the play, as news reports come through on the radio or are recited by Susan; Susan and Mr. Zero recount witness testimony; and Mr. Zero confronts Susan with documentary evidence that suggests the motive for her crime.

Susan's voice also joins Mr. Zero's in several of the poems as they dance a dangerous tango together (figuratively and literally, at one point in our production). Perhaps the most interesting mingling of these two voices is the juxtaposition of the poems "What Is Known About the Abductor" and "What Isn't Known About the Abductor." Susan recites lines from "What Is Known," addressing them directly to Mr. Zero. Mr. Zero counters with shorter lines from "What Isn't Known." The combination of these two poems underscores that most of "What Is Known About the Abductor" is negative information, a list of things "the Abductor" has NOT done. "What Is Known" and "What Is Not Known" are, in effect, the same category. Though their physical tango ends, Susan and Mr. Zero remain linked together as they undergo a polygraph test, until finally Susan confesses and Mr. Zero is pried away from her.

Sean Thomas (Nurse) and Ian Daniel McLaren (Second Son) in rehearsal; photo by Dan Smith

In addition to its fascinating relationship to Euripides' Medea, Wreckage incorporates two poems by William Blake. Nurse quotes Blake's poetry when he meets each of the two sons in the play. The poem "Infant Joy" gives a name to Second Son:

"I have no name;

I am but two days old."

What shall I call thee?

"I happy am,

Joy is my name."

Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!

Sweet joy, but two days old.

Sweet joy I call thee...

"Infant Joy" is from Songs of Innocence. It has a corresponding poem in Songs of Experience: "Infant Sorrow." In some ways, "Infant Sorrow" is quite relevant to First Son's journey of striving and struggling with a Mother figure and a Father figure. "Bound and weary I thought best/ To sulk upon my mother's breast." Woman accuses First Son of "sulking" and "brooding," much like "Infant Sorrow" in Blake's poem.

When Nurse encounters First Son near the end of the play, he begins to recite "Little Boy Found," another poem from Songs of Innocence:

The little boy lost in the lonely fen,

Led by the wandering light,

Began to cry,

but God, ever nigh,

Appeared like his father, in white.

He kissed the child,

and by the hand led,

And to his mother brought,

Who in sorrow pale,

through the lonely dale,

Her little boy weeping sought.

Nurse's recitation is interrupted by First Son after the second line of this poem. Perhaps this interruption precludes a happy reunion with the mother; or perhaps the mother figure seeking her boy with tears in her eyes is a more threatening presence. Songs of Innocence also includes "The Little Boy Lost," a poem about a boy seeking his father. But there is another poem, "A Little Boy Lost" from Songs of Experience that seems more germane to Second Son's situation. "A Little Boy Lost" begins: "'Nought loves another as itself, / Nor venerates another so.." This opening mirrors Second Son's reflections on love when he first meets Nurse. ("I know true love doesn't exist.") As the poem continues, the boy is handled roughly by a priest for daring to question authority. This "little boy lost" is ultimately bound in chains and burned on an altar as his parents look on, powerless. Second Son's final monologue, in which he claims an identity as a sacrificial body, links him to Blake's "Little Boy Lost" from Songs of Experience. Indeed, the journey from Innocence to Experience is addressed in the closing scene of the play. First Son says to Second Son, "You're older," but Second Son insists that they are the same. Nonetheless, Second Son goes on to speak a poetic parable about murderous animals that might serve as a rewriting of scripture.

These are only some of the poetic engagements of Brutal Imagination and Wreckage, two rich texts that offer fascinating interplay with questions of adaptation and appropriation.

March 17, 2011

Design for a Rotating Repertory: Creating Aesthetic Connections

Wreckage: Photo by Joanie Schultz

Brutal Imagination: Photo by Jason Beck

There are several thematic connections between the two plays in our rotating repertory; the design team has also developed a number of aesthetic connections. Subtly leading these aesthetic connections are the projection design and the sound design. Projection and video designer Rasean Davonte Johnson ties the plays together by having each begin with a title and author slide. While Wreckage includes live-feed video and Brutal Imagination contains more pre-recorded video, Johnson uses projections of images throughout both plays to create textures on the set. Images of waves and sunsets evoke the darkly beautiful world of Wreckage. Brutal Imagination includes projections of a police composite sketch to illustrate Mr. Zero’s birth and of gauzy red fabric for the tango danced by Susan and Mr. Zero. Sound designer Thomas Dixon employs sounds of waves, radio static and voice-over in both plays. Much of Brutal Imagination takes place in a remembered Union, South Carolina, whereas Wreckage is geographically indeterminate. But the otherworldly quality of both plays is augmented by the sound design: these two dream worlds share a radio station.

One major challenge of doing two productions in rotating repertory is creating a scenic design that is flexible enough to accommodate both shows while allowing each show to have some specificity. Ideally this would avoid an onerous changeover for our stage management team. (This is a lesson we learned during The Changeling and Tallgrass Gothic; getting rid of all the hay in Tallgrass to have a hay-free set for Changeling proved a Sisyphean task. So when sand entered the discussion for these current scenic designs, we knew it needed to be in both shows or neither.) Stephen Carmody’s set design includes a guardrail, a sandpile, a wooden fence, a curved wooden structure reminiscent of a broken-down rollercoaster, and the corrugated metal reverse side of a billboard (which serves as the main surface for projections). The set dressing for Brutal Imagination turns the guardrail area into a roadside shrine for Susan Smith’s children and uses strategically placed blocks and seating to suggest a car and a police interrogation room. Wreckage adds a claw-foot bathtub, an ornate door frame, and a chandelier to suggest the elegant lifestyle of the destructive central couple. A video camera and a movable window enhance the theme of voyeurism.

Casey Diers’s lighting design primarily evokes mood and locations. A harsh, sharply focused light snaps on to create an interrogation room for Susan Smith and the Sheriff; Woman opens a door, casting warm light onto First Son’s sleeping body. Alarie Hammock’s costumes make intricate use of accessories, from Aunt Jemima’s ‘Do-Rag to First Son’s fur stole, underscoring the questions about race and gender raised by these playwrights. The use of eyeglasses leads to an intriguing connection between the female characters in both plays. When Samantha Gleisten is speaking as Susan Smith, she wears a pair of glasses evocative of those worn by Smith at her trial and in other news photos. As Woman, Dana Black wears dark glasses at the beginning and end of Wreckage. Susan’s and Woman’s glasses present two very different versions of femininity, separated by a wide gulf of social class.

Through many hours of thoughtful discussion (and even more hours of technical rehearsals), our design team explored each of these plays individually and considered the resonances of the two pieces together. As you observe the visual and aural cues they have created, we hope you will think about how design enhances the theatrical experience of storytelling.

March 8, 2011

Wreckage and Medea, or Caridad Svich and Euripides

In a recent article for Theatre Journal, Caridad Svich explains that she was in graduate school before she came across the work of experimental women playwrights such as Adrienne Kennedy, Maria Irene Fornes, Adele Edling Schank, and Gertrude Stein. She writes, “In these dramatists’ works, there was theatrical ‘misbehavior’ of all kinds, including an unusual attention to poetic language, the examination of women’s roles in the public and domestic sphere, and a formal fearlessness I had not quite encountered before, except perhaps in the radical plays of Euripides!” Svich has referred to Wreckage as her “distaff Medea.” Her admiration for Euripides is evident in some of her other works, notably Iphigenia crash lands falls on the neon shell that was once her heart (a rave fable), currently running at the Greenhouse in a Halcyon Theatre production. Svich’s admiration for Euripides also provides a useful frame for understanding Wreckage as an adaptation of Medea. In Wreckage, we can hear Euripides as a distant, haunting memory.

The characters in Wreckage are marked by Medea. In some ways, Wreckage is a play about adolescent boys discovering their sexuality: two boys wake up after they have been killed and take different paths. One pursues an older woman and becomes a pawn in her sexual gamesmanship with her husband. The other meets an older queer character and embarks on a career as a sex worker. But these boys have memories of Euripides’ text, and so we can also read them as Medea’s children. The children in Euripides’ Medea are hapless victims who do everything their mother tells them to do. They do not speak until the very end of the play, when they are inside the house and Medea is preparing to kill them. There is no evidence that they attempt to escape. In Wreckage, Svich gives First Son and Second Son some opportunities to make choices, but their deaths remain seemingly inevitable. And yet, as the cycle begins again at the end of the play, Second Son makes a new effort to control the boys’ destiny, informed by what he has learned from Nurse and figured out on his own. His refusal to “swim in the dark ocean full of tears” represents a break with the past, a denial of history’s dominion over the future.

Svich employs specific lines from Euripides, but changes the context. For her characters, it seems as though Medea is a distant memory, an ancient source text that has palpable, yet inexplicable effects on their lives (or afterlives). In the opening scene, First Son notes that Second Son is “beauteous,” which leads him to recall a line from one of Medea’s final speeches before killing her children: “Beauteous babe, you have a city where far from me and my sad lot you will live.” In the context of Euripides, this line is ironic. On the one hand the city could mean Corinth, where Medea’s children are welcome to live, though she herself has been ordered to go into exile. On the other hand, Medea knows that she is about to kill her children, and the city may refer to the underworld, where they will live without her because she will still be in the world of the living.

First Son goes on to misquote a line from the same speech: “Behold my lover’s laughing eyes.” In Euripides, Medea says “Behold my children’s laughing eyes.” This conflation of child and lover is crucial to the sexual ambiguities of Wreckage. It is not completely possible to know all the filial relationships between the characters. They are named Woman, Husband, First Son, and Second Son. Woman brings First Son into her household, but it is not clear whether First and Second Son are her biological children or whether she constructs a sexualized Mother-Son relationship with First Son. She may murder Second Son because he has taken on the role of Husband’s mistress. The challenging nature of intersubjectivity in this play is reflected in Svich’s appropriation of Euripides’ text.

Woman’s appearance in the play introduces a different connection to Medea. Reading this character as Medea lends a sense of irony to several of her lines. She tells First Son, “You’re nothing without me.” If she is Medea and he is her child, this is true because he would exist only to help tell her story. She also says “I might do something awful,” which is humorous in a way that is reminiscent of Jocasta in Cocteau’s Infernal Machine saying “This scarf will be the death of me.” Woman speaks two additional lines from Medea in her first scene with First Son. When he says “You’re wrong about me,” she replies, “I wish I were. Damned child, son of a doomed mother.” The second sentence of her reply quotes lines 113-114 of Medea (line references are to the Loeb Classical Library edition, edited and translated by David Kovacs). Medea’s speech continues: “may you perish with your father and the whole house collapse in ruin.” The second specific line Woman cites is from near the end of Euripides’ play: “These brief days we forget, and only after do we lament” (l. 1248), a line spoken by Medea.

The character of Nurse takes on aspects of Nurse, Tutor, and Chorus from Euripides’ play. “I’m no one in this world. I keep low, safe,” he says. This speech echoes the philosophy of humility espoused by Medea’s Nurse in Euripides. In his opening and closing monologues, Nurse functions as a Greek Chorus, commenting on what he has witnessed and drawing conclusions about the significance of these events.

While the conflict between Jason and Medea undergirds the action in Euripides’ play, the conflict between Woman and Husband in Wreckage is quite different. What they have in common is a focus on words and games. “Woo him with my words,” says Husband, as he observes Woman’s interaction with First Son. Later, Husband asks, “What game is this?” Euripides’ Jason accuses Medea of starting a “contest of words” (l. 546).

In Euripides (ll. 1025ff), Medea laments the fact that she will not be able to see her sons grow up to get married, and specifically mentions the ritual bath that would take place before the wedding. Later in the same speech, Medea addresses her children as follows: “Truly, many were the hopes that I, poor fool, once had in you, that you would tend me in my old age, and when I died, dress me for burial with your own hands.” The ritual bath haunts Wreckage, as Woman bathes First Son after he comes home with her. First Son later appropriates Medea’s words in his anger at Woman: “Idle hope you should have that I will ever nurse / you in your old age and deck your corpse with loving hands.”

After she kills First Son and Second Son, Woman quotes snippets of speeches by the Chorus in Medea:

“Of one alone, one woman alone
Sent mad by heaven.
O women’s love,
So full of trouble,”
They will say.

As intriguing and complex as Svich’s textual borrowings are, her truly original engagement with Euripides comes through her characters’ riffs on aspects of Medea. Medea’s last tender act before sending the children into the house to await their death is to kiss their hands. As she kisses the boys’ hands, she speaks of their tender skin, their sweet touch, their fragrant breath. While the words “tender,” “sweet,” and “fragrant” recur throughout Wreckage, the image of a woman kissing the boys’ hands has the most power for First Son and Second Son. Second Son’s memory of a woman kissing his hands and the boys’ discussion of the merits of this kind of kiss in the opening scene give way to fear and distrust on First Son’s part when Woman kisses his hands.

Wreckage is emphatically not Medea, but this play does have strong connections to Euripides’ tragedy. To borrow an image from the play, Svich’s process of adaptation is akin to the way a conch shell distills the sound of the ocean. Listening to a conch shell—saved as a souvenir of a trip to the beach—evokes the sound of wind and waves, and memories of time spent in sand and sun. Euripides’ words and ideas resound through Wreckage, but distantly, allowing us to remember a Medea of long ago and far away while we live resolutely in the present.

February 28, 2011

Designer Run

Wreckage: Ian McLaren and Tim Martin (foreground),

Dana Black and Jeremy van Meter (background)

Last week we had a designer run of Wreckage and Brutal Imagination. The two plays have a number of thematic connections, beyond their shared focus on questions of women who kill their children. Both plays develop ideas about how media narratives shape the way we understand events. Characters in Wreckage and Brutal Imagination attempt to control both theatrical narratives and media narratives.

Samantha Gleisten and D'wayne Taylor (Brutal Imagination)

In Brutal Imagination, Susan Smith and Mr. Zero struggle for control of the story of the deaths of Susan's two children. As a character conjured into existence by Susan's need for a scapegoat, Mr. Zero draws on a long history of racist stereotypes in American culture to inform Susan about her.

Wreckage includes characters who are marked by the story of Medea, and who attempt to break out of cycles of abuse. News reports about the deaths of two boys and about the trial of a teen princess who killed her child punctuate the action.

Load-in began today, and we head into tech tomorrow. Watch this space for more reports on our progress!

February 24, 2011

The Medea Question: Why Do Women Kill Their Children

Yesterday in the New York Times there was an article with the headline "Suburb's Veneer Cracks: Mother is Held in Deaths." The story is about Julie Schenecker, who murdered her two teenage children on January 28, but it could just as easily been about Susan Smith, the woman who drove her children into a lake in Union, SC sixteen years prior.

Smith's case serves as the inspiration for Cornelius Eady's play Brutal Imagination (and National Book Award Finalist book of poetry by the same title). We went into rehearsal the week before Schenecker killed her children, and were already wrestling with the same seemingly unanswerable question the citizens of Tampa Palm would face: how does a mother kill her own children? Trying to get inside the inherently incomprehensible act of filicide has been one of the primary tasks over the past several weeks of rehearsal.

This is an ancient question, the Medea question, and in fact neonaticide (the killing of one's infant child) is believed to have been used as a form of population control in ancient societies including ancient Greece, and therefore socially acceptable in certain circumstances. In modern day, as the New York Times reported in an op-ed about the Schenecker case earlier this month, some 200 mothers in America commit filicide every year. Clearly only a fraction of these cases ever make the news--this is because the vast majority of these crimes are committed by among low-income, often abused women, and the causes of death are mostly ignored pregnancies, neglect, abuse, and assisted/coerced filicide (Mothers Who Kill Their Children, Meyer and Oberman 2001).

However, women like Susan Smith and Julie Schenecker are very different cases--loving mothers from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds (Smith came from a more modest economic demographic, but her stepfather was affluent and a prominent figure in Union). These are the stories we struggle to understand, we write news articles and plays about, that have troubled our mythology for two and a half millennia, that both Brutal Imagination and Wreckage attempt to make sense of in fractured, heartbreakingly poetic ways.