Books Received

I always liked the “Books Received” columns in old literary journals. It was just a list of books which had been sent to the publication, which it was felt should be acknowledged. Not “Books We’ve Actually Read” or “Books Our Friends Wrote” or “Books That Make Us Look Cool If We Leave Them Stacked in the Corner Over There.” Just “Books Received.”

These here are Books Received after a visit to Never Ending Books (a cultural drop-off point on State Street in New Haven) on Feb. 22.

The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert Parker (paperback). I’m much more interested in the Spenser mysteries since Robert Parker died. They’re so matter-of-fact, so wispy, no blithely conversational that you feel something’s missing from the room when you read them. Turns out it’s Parker, who fades into the background with a humility rare in the hard-boiled racket, not offering any details or opinions he can’t put directly in the mouths or minds of his characters.

Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O’Neill (paperback). This is the movie tie-in edition. I’ve reused “Desire Under the Elms” a few times as titles for New Haven Advocate essays, but when Kathleen saw this on the shelf and asked if it was in fact set in New Haven (“the Elm City”), I didn’t know. The setting is New England farmland in the mid-19th century, which is consistent with the bucolic, dyspeptic of O’Neill plays set in the New London, Connecticut area where his family famously had a summer house. The famed elms of New Haven were killed off by Dutch Elm Disease, but not until a few years after this play was written. Adds a nice subtext now. This edition has a slew of handwritten notes on the inside front cover, starting with: “exaggeratedly raw themes/play about common man.”

Three Plays of A.V. Lunacharski, translated by L.A. Magnus and K. Walter, “with an Introduction and an Author’s Preface.” A sturdy if nondescript Routledge “Broadway Translations” edition from the mid-1920s. The thrill here for me is the first script in the book, Faust and the City. Though this one’s based on my least favorite Faust (Goethe’s), I’m a total sucker for modernized updates of the Doctor Faustus legend. Basing itself on the “Free City” episode in Goethe’s Faust Part Two, Lunacharski jumops right in without incantations or back-story. The play opens with a three-page monologue by the demon Mephistopheles, who says of himself:
Mephistopheles is an idealist. He is an idealist, do you hear, you stupid stars? Destroying, he creates. For the purpose of his creative destruction, he has borrowed from men their tricks and masquerades, their body, dress, logic—nay, in season, too, it seems Mephistopheles has borrowed their suffering, and has started life on a loan of light and heat, wherewith to plenish his mighty shadow and to become the weapon of destruction for those who are to be destroyed in the name of the restoration of the One.

Plot Outlines of 100 Famous Plays edited by Van H. Cartmell. From the Barnes & Noble Everyday Handbook series, published in 1957 after being originally published in 1945 by Doubleday & Co. (From its star in 1873, Barnes & Noble was in the printing and republishing business, opening its first full bookstore in 1917). Kathleen found this for me just as I was finishing up a “Play in a Day” exercise at Never Ending Books, for which I’d knocked The Cherry Orchard down to a one-page outline and had seven children (aged 6-11) embody its main characters. Though I scorn their use as cheat-sheets for those who don’t do their theater-class homework, I’ve always dug books like this (or their modern relations—the synopsis sections on Wikipedia) because it’s amusing to see how different people figure out what the “essential” plot and character points of a dramatic work might be. This book takes an approach similar to Burns Mantles’ Best Plays series: a leisurely multi-page synopsis that’s highly descriptive and not at all analytical. Interestingly, the 100 plays are arranged not by genre, or alphabetically, or by when they were written or who wrote them; they’re arranged by the country of origin of the authors. The opening “American Plays” section has nineteen items (including such faded glories as Eugene Walter’s The Easiest Way, Denman Thompson’s The Old Homestead and Augustus Thomas’ The Witching Hour—not much call for synopses of those anymore), then “British Plays” more than doubles that tally with 39, randomly followed by “French Plays” (8, two of them Moliere’s), “Russian Plays” (6), German/Austrian Plays”(6), “Greek Plays” (5), “Irish Plays” (4), “ three “Norwegian Plays” (all Ibsen), two each for “Spanish,” “Italian” and “Hungarian” (both Molnar), with lone entries for “Swedish” (Strindberg’s The Father), “Czechoslovakian” (Capek’s R.U.R.), “Latin” (Plautus’ Menaechmi) and “Belgian” (Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande).

Restoration Plays, with an introduction by Brice Harris. One of the better Modern Library drama anthologies—solid intro that lays out definitions without being overbearing, a couple of quirky choices amid the obvious. I grabbed this so I could reread George Villiers’ The Rehearsal, which skewered the then-dominant form of Dryden-esque “heroic drama” in the 1670s the way indie film skewers Hollywood blockbusters now—by showing how much artifice and insincere attitude is involved.

The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour M. Hersh. I saw Hersh speak at an alternative-journalism convention when this book was published in 1997. He got lambasted by a few Baby Boomers in the crowd who’d clearly gotten into the journalism game due to the Kennedy idealism of the ‘60s, before the snide investigative Nixon-era downturn of the ‘70s. These few loud guys in the crowd (publishers, I imagine) didn’t want to hear ill spoken of their sainted president. Hersh seemed genuinely taken aback, noting that he’d titled the book clearly so that readers uninterested in the topic could avoid it if they wished. In fact, the book is a lot less scandalous than many popular Kennedy or Onassis biographies. It simply tries to put a lionized, mythologized era into realistic context. Hersh is a defiantly non-sensationalistic reporter, even when (as when he broke the Abu Ghraib story) others are eager to immediately sensationalize his stories for him.

My Fair Lady, “a musical play by Alan Jay Lerner adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.” [In tiny letters underneath: Music by Frederick Loewe.] Fireside Theater Book Club Edition from 1956. Since the script for the musical is extremely (atypically, Broadway-wise) faithful to its source material, and they lyrics easily discernible from any cast album, you might wonder why anyone but a diehard dramaturg would need to have a copy about. Lerner’s charming introductory note is why:
For the published version of Pygmalion, Shaw wrote a preface and an epilogue which he called a sequel. I have omitted the preface because the information contained therein is less pertinent to My Fair Lady than it is to Pygmalion.
I have omitted the sequel because in it Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and—Shaw and Heaven forgive me!—I am not certain he is right.

Drama Survey Volume 2 Number 1: Spring 1962 issue. Some drama journals are out-of-touch before they’re even released, and some—like this smorgasbord of on-the-cusp essays trying to come to terms with new forms—are priceless time capsules of flux. In this one issue, there’s: a prescient “New Dramatist” profile—“Still in his early 30s, Edward Albee has to his credit four short plays of an impressive literary quality and lively theatrical style”; Roderick Robertson on “A Theater for the Absurd”; separate essays rethinking how Lear, Henry II and Hamlet strike modern audiences; and a Robert Downing’s rather straightforward essay on what it means to be a stage manager. There are also two instances of novelist/theater historian Gerald Weales: a review of his book Religion in Modern English Drama and a preview chapter from this then-forthcoming American Drama Since World War II. The chapter is “Off –Broadway: Its Contribution to American Drama,” and it references a range of seminal works in that realm that wouldn’t make later histories.

Modern Drama Volume 5 Number 2: Fall 1962 issue. While essay titles such as “Poetry and Politics: The Verse Drama of Auden and Isherwood” and “Existentialism in T.S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion” leave me cold, I can’t resist something called “James M. Barrie’s Concept of Dramatic Action” (as expounded by William R. McGraw) or “The Influence of Melodrama on the Early Plays of Sean O’Casey” (by Harry Ritchie, who a few years after this would be a colleague of my father’s in the Tufts University Drama department). I guess I just prefer earthy to lofty, even in my academic criticism.

No Safe Place by Richard North Patterson. Not to be confused with that other bestselling thriller novelist Patterson, RNP writes polarizing political fantasies in which extreme events—a depressed divorcee using a legal firearm to kill his ex-wife (who happens to be related to the wife of the President of the United States) in a crowed airport lobby, for instance—to force fictional national debates on highly sensitive issues (like gun control). This one, which I read most of from the library once, involves a Presidential primary, a crazed anti-abortionist, adultery, power-family values… it’s Harold Robbins for C-Span junkies.

George S. Kaufman—An Intimate Portrait by Howard Teichman. Crazy-readable, anecdote-packed bio of the prolific Broadway hitmaker who had a hand in the success of everything from (as co-author) You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner and several Marx Brothers classics to (as director) The Front Page and Guys and Dolls. Teichman was Kaufman’s collaborator on the late-career hit The Solid Gold Cadillac. I’ve been a Kaufman fan virtually all my life, and didn’t need this book to turn me into one, but it’s bound to do the trick for anyone else who’s curious about the guy.

Blue Heaven, a novel by Joe Keenan. I first discovered this book, in its spiffy Penguin trade paperback edition, while briefly working at the old Yale Co-op in the late 1980s. I later met and interviewed Keenan when a musical he wrote got workshopped at the Long Wharf Theater. Ran into him on the street one day and chatted about John Lahr’s book on Dame Edna, I recall. I wrote something for the New Haven Advocate which infuriated him, so I never spoke to Keenan again. The musical fizzled and Keenan went into television, where he became a key writer-producer on Frasier. Blue Heaven is the kind of book for which the word “insouciant” must be carved into the spine. It’s set in the ‘80s New York gay culture, but resembles the sort of Wodehousean novel from back when “gay” was used to mean “frolicsome.”