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.