Round and Round, or is it Oval and Oval? (concluded)

          The obituary last summer of Jerry Seltzer who popularized roller derby made me recall the days I watched roller derby and the time in winter of 1968 I went to a match. I was in law school in Chicago, and a friend and I decided to go to the roller derby at the Chicago Coliseum. This was fitting since it was at the Coliseum where roller derby began in 1935 (the year Joan Weston was born). Roller derby always had a derelict air to me, and it was fitting that we took a bus on a dreary, cold night through almost barren streets. I spied a pawnshop or payday lender. Foot high, golden letters on its front window proclaimed, “WE TRUST YOU!” The words were mostly obscured by a rusting, pulldown gate. Things had apparently changed since the sign had been painted.

          I only learned later about the Coliseum’s distinguished history. It had hosted five Republican National Conventions in the first part of the twentieth century. Six months after my roller derby attendance it also hosted a different kind of political gathering–an anti-Vietnam War rally in the days shortly before the 1968 Democratic National Convention. That memorable gathering was held at a different Chicago venue, the International Amphitheatre located, not unfittingly, adjacent to the Union Stock Yards.

I attended that 1968 anti-Vietnam War Coliseum rally. In those counterculture days, nothing seemed to have been planned for the event—anarchic might best describe it. I remember little of what occurred except that Allen Ginsberg sat cross-legged on the stage endlessly intoning “OM.” I quickly got bored and left. I went to the car I had purchased since my previous Coliseum visit and started to drive to my apartment. A police car followed me, and I was pulled over after a few blocks. Two smirking cops came over, and I rolled down a window. I had been driving carefully, and I knew that this was not a traffic stop. In this land of liberty, they had been staking out the gathering exercising free speech and assembly and started asking me about what was occurring at the rally. I gave some monosyllabic replies. As I wondered where this was heading, they asked what I did, and I answered that I was a law student. They shot nervous glances at each other and soon departed. I was as happy as I ever was for being in law school.

But my first visit, in 1968, to the Chicago Coliseum was not about war and peace, the future of the country, divisions in the land, or police spying on citizens; it was only about the battle that was roller derby. My friend and I had seats in the first row of the balcony. We could see all of the track and the spectators on the far side but not those directly underneath us. The crowd nearly filled the seats, folding chairs on the track level. Many in attendance knew all the names of the skaters and jeered many of them, forcefully shouting out shortcomings about their skills, courage, and looks. This was a different Chicago from my rather circumspect law school neighborhood. It was fun.

I cannot tell you the names of the teams or the skaters, but it was exciting watching them zoom around the oval with bodies and taunts flying. Fights broke out time and again, and the crowd was into it even though to this skeptical eye the fisticuffs looked staged. Late into the match a “bad guy” was on top of a “good guy” flailing away right underneath us. And then something unexpected happened. The skaters who were all over the track started rapidly converging towards the fight, but they were not looking at the combatants. They were fixed on the audience where a man came into our sight holding a folding chair with two hands above his head. He started to bring it down on the back of the villain, but, as I had seen many times on TV, the hero threw his opponent off him to reverse the fight. In that split second, the chair came down on the face and chest of the unprotected good guy with blood gushing from his nose and mouth. This no longer looked fake; the blood was real. The skaters, enemies a moment earlier, circled together like a wagon train shooting nervous glances into the audience to see if they needed protection from any other crazies. None appeared, and the chair swinger was manhandled off by security.

The action was delayed for only a few minutes as the injured skater with what appeared to be a broken nose was helped to the locker room and the blood was cleaned up. I don’t know who won, but I do remember that it was on the final jam.

A few years later, the Coliseum closed, and a few years after that, the sport, or whatever it was, died. However, shortly after this century began, roller derby was again revived. I have read that there are hundreds of leagues throughout the world. I have seen the present version advertised and have seen it on some obscure TV channel once or twice. It now seems to be solely a woman’s sport with the hint of pro wrestling and camp still remaining, most obviously in the colorful, pun-filled names of the athletes, but perhaps it is truly a legitimate sport now. There is no reason why it couldn’t be. It has athleticism and strategy. But I have not gone to a match. Perhaps, I thought, it is time for another visit to roller derby. I investigated and found that there is a league in New York City, the Gotham Girls, with teams representing the various boroughs. The league, which was on a winter hiatus, was scheduled to begin again in April. I made plans to go to the opening event, and then the pandemic hit. The new season’s opening day was cancelled, but I hope that roller derby has another resurrection. I would like to see the updated version.


          After I came out of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest movie, Pain and Glory, I thought about the term “adult film.” It is used for movies with graphic depictions of sex even though teens and pre-teens and not particularly mature adults are interested in the subject matter. On the other hand, there are many films where the young and immature do not have the experience, knowledge, or empathy to be drawn into the movie. They are just bored if they go. These are films for adults, which, of course, is quite different from adult films.

          I wonder how many adults knew who Stormy Daniels was before her connection with Donald Trump hit the news. Yet she was identified frequently as an “adult movie star.”

          The first Almodóvar film I saw was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. How many of you thought that the title was redundant? Hold up your hand if you think that question is offensive? How many of you have nail polish on that hand?

Overheard at a Feminist Conference

Sisters, this may sound ominous,

But we all have a touch of the mom in us.

                   Richard Moore

          As I passed two young men on the sidewalk, I heard one demand, “Well, who then brought the urine?” If there was a reply, I was out of earshot.

       I ran into the postal carrier in front of my house. I said that I would take the mail up the stoop and save her some steps. She thanked me, and I asked her how many steps she did during her work. She tapped her watch and said, “According to this, about 16,000.” (Just in case you ever wondered.) I asked her how many flights of steps.  (It is twelve steps up from the sidewalk to my mail slot. Sometimes my Fitbit registers this as a flight of stairs but sometimes, aggravatingly, not.) She said her device did not have flights of stairs.

          I read the handout that I was handed, and parts of it gave me concern about the performance I was about to see. The bio of the playwright said, “He’s been honored to receive commissions and developmental support from institutions like [emphasis added] The Kennedy Center/New Voices New Visions, The Eugene O’Neill Conference, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, and Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor Residency.” I assumed that the playwright had written this. He probably meant that he got support from the listed institutions, but he wrote that he got aid from institutions that were akin to the ones mentioned. My concerns about the production further increased because the artistic director for the theater company wrote, “It is a pleasure to produce a playwright who creates well-defined and complexed [emphasis added] characters.” Is there such a word as “complexed”? Does it mean something different from “complex”? These are people whose careers involve good writing. But in spite of my concerns, the play was quite good.


The spouse asked me what time I wanted to leave to be on time for our restaurant reservation. I answered. She immediately said she wanted to go five minutes earlier, and it was clear that we were going at her preferred time. As I started to ask why she asked me what time I wanted to go, I, of course, knew the answer. If by happenstance I had stated the time when she wanted to go—the time when we would go–she could look like she was merely acquiescing to my wishes.


If a mirror flips your image so your left side appears to be your right side, why doesn’t it also flip top and bottom? Why don’t you look as if you are standing on your head when you look in a mirror?


The two had co-authored the book of a play I attended. The credit for Leo Schwartz in the Playbill said, “His musical, Till, about Emmett and Mamie Till, won the Mainstreet Musical Theatre Festival in 2016.” The credit for DC Cathro said, “His musical Till, written with award-winning composer Leo Schwartz, was one of three winners in the 2016 Mainstreet Musical Festival.”


The Christian radio station gave a few brief Bible readings, although where the sacred words left off and commentary began was not always clear. It also presented short inspirational stories and exhortations. Mostly, however, it played music, and mostly that music fell into the rock category. I remembered back to when rock started. (Alas, I am old enough to remember when “Rocket 88,” Bill Haley, and Elvis Aron were all new.) I recalled how ministers smashed 45s saying that rock was music of the devil. This made me think about how powerful He is. In only the short span ofmy lifetime, He had transformed a genre that would send me into eternal damnation into music that was now for the devout. Hallelujah!


“There is no such thing as hell, of course, but if there was, then the sound track to the screaming, the pitchfork action and the infernal wailing of damned souls would be a looped medley of ‘show tunes’ drawn from the annals of musical theater.” Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.


I was driving midweek in central Pennsylvania. Signs seemed to be everywhere for a weekend church festival. I was sorry that I was not going to be there then because the festival offered not just the usual entertainment and food, but something that I have never experienced and could not entirely imagine: A Polka Mass!


“But, despite the convictions of many of the faithful in any tradition, who are convinced that religion never changes and that their beliefs and practices are identical with those of the founders of their faith, religion must change in order to survive.” Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History.

The Play’s the (Limited) Thing (concluded)

The dramatist Elmer Rice thought that plays don’t have lasting power because they have to be produced, but he also thought they did not last because plays are written for a group audience, and this limits their quality. The author of a book seeks wide readership, but in an important sense that writer really composes for an audience of one, the solitary reader who can choose where and when to read.  That author has a freedom in determining at what level to pitch his writing. He can seek an audience of an academic, a trained professional, a serious reader, or pitch to a mass market. He can aim for literary or intellectual merit and have a chance of finding the right readership.

The dramatist’s audience, in contrast, requires a group of individuals assembled together at a particular time and place to experience the work together.  The socially indelicate or controversial book can be read in private, but a dramatic performance is public, which makes it subject to many forms of public scrutiny and influence that have little or nothing to do with drama as art. Furthermore, theater-going is generally not inexpensive and the audience is largely limited to the upper economic class. Rice thought that such audiences generally sought mere entertainment and were not particularly sophisticated, having on average, less understanding of the art they are perceiving than concert-goers, visitors to art exhibitions, or readers of serious books. “Rocketing costs have increased the professional theater’s dependence upon an audience that is likely to be better equipped with money than with taste.”

Furthermore, a play’s audience does not have an advantage of the book audience.  The reader can always thumb back if something has been missed, but the playgoer cannot requiring the playwright to repeat important information sometimes undercutting the artistic integrity of the work. “The audience must move forward with the performers, and what is not instantly grasped is forever lost.”

Equally important, Rice felt that the collective behavior of any group, including an audience, was different from the private reactions of individuals.  Writing in mid-career in an introduction to a British collection of his plays, Rice concluded that for whatever reason, those in a group “assume a uniformity of conduct, a sort of common denominator, . .  . which is far below the habitual level of the more intelligent . . . members of the group. . . . [The dramatist] is handicapped by the low level of his audience, which imposes upon him the necessity of over-simplifying and over-emphasizing his points in order to make them at all.” Even so, Rice pronounced “that almost any play is considerably above the level of the audience which it attracts. Anyone who has listened to the comments of an audience, during or after the performance, can say without hesitation that at least one-half of those present have no definite notion of what the author has been driving at, or even what the play is about.”  Rice concluded, “Why, then, is the lot of the dramatist more unhappy than that of his fellow-artists?  For the simple reason that he cannot address himself to the individual judgments of the scattered few to whom he may have something to say. The very nature of his art demands an organisation of his audience, in space and in time. If he writes plays for the theatre, he cannot fail to take the theatre heavily into account; if he writes plays for the library, he is no longer wholly a dramatist.”

Rice was not alone in seeing the limitations brought by a group audience. Maugham wrote that when assembled as a group, its members only want limited ideas. An audience “likes novelty, but a novelty that will fit in with old notions, so that it excites but does not alarm. It likes ideas, so long as they are put in dramatic form, only they must be ideas that it has itself had, but for want of courage has never expressed.” Arthur Miller agreed after seeing a Greek theater in Sicily that could hold 14,000 that it is “hard to grasp how the tragedies could have been written for such massive crowds when in our time the mass audience all but demanded vulgarization.”

Even with these pessimistic thoughts about the limitations of plays, however, Rice did not abandon the theater. He continued to write play after play, sometimes merely to entertain, sometimes to experiment with form, and sometimes to present ideas. He apparently saw drama’s inherent limitations as a challenge to surmount, and at least some of the time, he succeeded well enough to produce worthy plays.

And even though I appreciate the limited reach of plays, I continue to go because some of the time a production succeeds in producing a memorable event.

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The Play’s the (Limited) Thing

I go to plays even though I am convinced, largely from the writings of Elmer Rice, that plays are a limited art form. Rice, who lived from 1892 to 1967, did many things. He wrote several novels and many short stories, essays, book reviews, and movie, television, and radio scripts. He directed and produced stage performances, helped run theater organizations, and was a noted civil libertarian. But first and foremost, Rice was a prolific and successful playwright. About thirty of his plays were produced on Broadway, and some of his two dozen unproduced plays were published. In 1914, when he was only twenty-one, his1914 On Trial stormed Broadway with its new technique of flashbacks. His expressionist The Adding Machine in 1923 helped usher in a new dramatic era. His 1929 naturalistic Street Scene ran for 601 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize. Dream Girl, a delightful comedy, was a hit in 1945. He wrote plays of political comment, including We the People (1933), Judgment Day (1934) and Flight to the West (1940), which provoked controversies. More than four decades after his debut, Cue for Passion (1958) opened on Broadway.  As a result of this career, in 1958 a writer in the New York Times labeled him, not extravagantly, “Dean of Playwrights.” A student of the theater, Robert Allan Davison later said, “Throughout a fifty-three-year career, Rice showed genius, talent, and wisdom in his exploration of universal and timeless issues through the finely wrought specifics of his drama. Among the forty of his plays produced or published during his lifetime are some of the finest and most innovative plays in the history of the American Theatre.”

Today, however, even though a play of his is occasionally revived, Elmer Rice is largely forgotten even by the play-going public. He would probably not be surprised by his present obscurity because he maintained that although dramatic masterpieces may always endure, the work of a first-rate playwright was less likely to last than the work of other good writers. Rice thought that plays have a limited lasting potential because they are written to be performed, not merely published and read. He noted that “a play that is unperformed quickly falls into oblivion from which it is seldom rescued,” but a play’s production is an expensive, complicated affair. Large amounts of money and the assembled talents of many are required in addition to an author’s words, and each day a play runs continues to bring significant expenses. A new play almost always has to be instantly successful to last more than a brief time, and if its initial production does not succeed, it is unlikely ever to be produced again.  For a play to generate that audience, it must almost always get favorable comments from the handful of critics attending opening night. A result is that few plays are initially produced, few will continue in production or be re-produced, and consequently few will have the chance to endure. Since the producer knows he needs an immediate, sizeable audience to recoup his investment, Rice wrote, “His choice of plays to be produced is determined by his judgment of their potential popularity. This state of things does not make for the choice of plays of great depth or literary value.”

Books are different. Many more books are printed each year than plays are produced. Less money is required to publish a book than to mount a play. Novels, unlike plays, often survive when not immediately successful and even without favorable reviews. While some book reviewers are more influential than others, a book may receive many reviews around the country with none being decisive. And since a distribution system is in place when a book is published, it continues to remain available after its publication date.  Rice noted in his 1959 book about the social structure of the theater, The Living Theatre, “Even if time is required to overcome adverse reviews, it costs nothing to keep the books on the shelves while the public demand develops.”  Consequently, for books, unlike plays, positive word-of-mouth can build over months and years, bringing new audiences to a book long after it is published.

W. Somerset Maugham is a case in point. He may not be considered a major writer today, but you can still find books containing his stories and novels. As long as you can, Maugham’s works still live as does the work of any novelist or short story writer if there is someone somewhere still reading it. Maugham, however, was also a successful playwright–he had ten plays produced in seven years with several of them running simultaneously in London. Few now have the opportunity to see those stage pieces. Without productions, those works, even if first-rate, cannot live. If he only wrote plays, Maugham’s name would be recognized by almost no one today. Even though successful, Maugham stopped writing plays. He concluded in The Summing Up, a book of reflections, “that a prose play was scarcely less ephemeral than a news sheet” and abandoned the theater.

(concluded on October 26)

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I Save Playbills–Again

Perhaps if I looked at my saved Playbills regularly, I might make more discoveries like I did recently on one of those few occasions when I pulled one out at random. I have little to no recollection of many of the plays I have seen, especially when they are from decades ago, but neither do I recall most of the books I have read a year or two ago, much less those from a generation back. This was an exception. Although the Playbill indicated attendance at a play in 1981, I did remember going to it. Who can forget seeing James Earl Jones as Othello? And then there was Christopher Plummer as Iago. I skimmed the cast, and to my surprise I had seen Kelsey Grammer as Casio. I had no idea who Grammer was in 1981, and his performance in Othello did not stay with me. But the Playbill indicated that I had indeed seen him, and, of course, since then I have tried to work into conversations that I saw “Frazier” in a Shakesperean play even before I had seen him in Cheers.

I look over a season’s Playbills before I move them to the top shelf of a bookcase. Looking over this year’s batch, I am struck by the diversity of what is offered in New York. I saw The Play That Goes Wrong, which came from London and has run on Broadway for a while. It was silly—no message—but it was laugh-out-loud funny. I saw a number of plays at the Roundabout Theatre Company, a preeminent theatrical institution, that ranged from dreadful to good to the quite interesting The Last Match, about fading and rising tennis stars.

I saw a couple plays at the Manhattan Theatre Club, another preeminent theatrical institution, including the provocative The Children, written by Lucy Kirkwood. An older woman shows up at a lonely British seaside cottage. She is not there as we might first think to renew an old love affair but because a nearby nuclear powerplant has had a disastrous meltdown. The three who meet there are physicists who generations ago helped build the plant. This is a play about righting mistakes, duty, and sacrifice. What is our obligation to fix our failures? What is our duty to future generations to leave a cleaner world?

I saw a couple plays at the The Public Theater—yes, in keeping with its populist roots, this preeminent theatrical institution spells it “theater” not the more pretentious “theatre.”  The plays I saw there rated B+s.

I had looked forward to seeing Junk because I had admired Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which won the Pulitzer a few years back. This play about the junk bond crisis was good, but I felt somehow that it did not rise to a higher level. I so admire good reviewers who can articulate what sometimes I only feel. They can explain why a play is excellent or thrilling or not so good.

I felt a similar a similar disappointment in the play In Love with the Arrow Collar Man, which was at an Off-Off Broadway theater. (This is neither a pejorative nor a geographical term. An Off-Broadway house has from 100 to 499 seats, while an Off-Off-Broadway theater has fewer than 100.) The play was about Joe Leyendecker, the country’s foremost illustrator until Norman Rockwell, part of Leyendecker’s circle, nudged him from that pedestal; Frank Leyendecker, a gay artist like his brother; and Charles Beach, Joe’s model for the Arrow collar ads and his lover. The play portrayed interesting lives in complicated times, and it kept my attention, but there was something missing. I could say that the play lacked a necessary depth or did not have sufficient polish, but I don’t have the ability to articulate exactly what I mean by those clichés.

Some of the plays were plotless, or at least I can’t describe the plot. Ballyturk, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, (a preeminent institution that does not grapple with “theater” versus “theatre”) falls into that category. Two brothers seem locked in a hermetically sealed world, but there is much movement, fast speech, and what seems to be a periodic radio soap opera. I am not sure what it was about—perhaps the meaning or the meaninglessness of life. But I laughed and was amazed at many of the word images that kept flying by as well as the physical abilities of the two as well as the sultriness and voice of the third character when she appeared. I found it hard to describe, but it was assuredly out of the ordinary.

(Concluded on June 15)

I Save Playbills

I save Playbills, those little magazines you get when attending the theater.  At the performance’s conclusion, if I can’t find mine, I feel a bit unsettled and try to find a discarded one. When I get home, I stack the Playbills on a shelf of the table next to my morning reading chair. They amass there for what I consider a season—from September until the following summer. Then I move them to a bookcase in my office where I place them on top of last season’s accumulation. Why I do this I do not know. I certainly don’t catalog them. When I move them, I may glance at them, but I seldom look at them after that. I just have them.

I get the Playbills, obviously, because I go to plays, and part of the reason I go to plays is because of Professor Alan Downer. I took his course in modern drama in college. We saw a few classic movies—I seem to remember M and Treasure of the Sierra Madre–but mostly we read plays. I found almost every one of them interesting, and I still remember many of them. On the other hand, I don’t remember any specific lecture by Downer. They must have been informative, however, for I feel as though I have a solid grasp of the development of modern drama, and that had to come from the Professor.

While I enjoyed reading dozens of plays in college, I had seen very few–a couple of high school and college productions and only one or two professional companies. I had not yet learned the real power of the stage.

Soon after I came to New York that changed. I was lucky enough to attend Peter Brook’s now legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I learned that night that a script can be read, but that a play must be seen. This was not Shakespeare of the printed word, but the creation of a magical world on the stage. It drew me into that world. It was more immediate than any movie could ever be. It required live actors, a stage, and an audience. I learned that evening that the theater could present an experience that could not be had elsewhere.

When I now experience the powerful moment that only the theater can give, I think of Brook’s Dream, but I also I often think of Elmer Rice, little known today but a prolific playwright from the last century. I was introduced to Rice in Downer’s course where I read The Adding Machine. I have never seen it, even though it is occasionally still mounted, but the play stuck with me. Decades after college, I learned that Rice was a graduate of the law school that employed me, and I then read some of Rice’s writings on the theater. I was gratified to find that he stressed what Brook’s Dream had revealed to me–a play is meant to be seen, not just read. He said, “To read in a stage direction such indications of mood as ‘savagely’ or ‘tearfully’ is surely not the same as to sit tensely in one’s seat while a player strides the boards in simulated rage, or to be moved to tears oneself by the apparent distress of a beautiful actress.” And he gave some examples.

Elmer Rice explained the effect watching Act II, Scene II from Macbeth had on him.  The title character has killed Duncan, but he has not implicated the grooms as planned. Lady Macbeth scornfully leaves to do the unfinished deed. The stage directions say, “Knocking within.” That direction is repeated over the next few lines. Lady Macbeth returns, and she, too, is now covered in blood. Rice continues: “It is dramatic enough in the reading, but the full effect can be understood only when one sits in the theatre watching those two desperate figures in the cold predawn light, he already overcome with guilt and remorse, she hysterically intent upon the consummation of the crime. Then comes the knocking upon the locked gate of the castle; the inchoate fears of Macbeth and the cold disdain of his wife are punctuated by the repeated pounding. Who is there? Will the guilt be discovered? The words convey all that, of course, but they are immeasurably enhanced by the visible and audible situation. No one who has merely read the play can be aware of the intensity of this celebrated scene when it is enacted.”

(Concluded on May 11.)