by Mary Azrael
“Angels, we hear, sometimes don’t know the living from the dead.”
— from Rilke’s first Duino Elegy
This time, in a country far from ours
I see my father on a bicycle, casually
pedaling across a flat bridge, wearing a common cap
and rough jacket – not remarkable, except that
these are the clothes of a living man
and he must be dead, having gone down years ago
into the redbrown cut in a hillside,
dressed in his best suit and tie and good socks
and no shoes. This can’t be, it mustn’t be
the same man – the father of all my ages, even these
he’s missing – there on the bridge over
a broad canal near one of the Dutch towns
in a landscape of wild skies that change with every breath;
a landscape of pastures built up by the stolid citizens
to outlast the floods, perhaps; where sailboats ride
stately or playful, white flashes of freedom, of joy,
beside the heavy-hearted cows grazing their lowlands
like geese who can’t fly.
He belongs to them, this man, now finished
crossing the bridge, now pedaling away, never having seen me,
carrying a loaf of bread home to dinner where his wife
and two children have laid out the plates and napkins
and forks and knives and spoons, assuming
he will be there with them any minute.
Copyright © 2012, Mary Azrael.
Mary Azrael has led poetry writing workshops in schools and colleges from the Eastern Shore to western Maryland, and now teaches in the Odyssey program at Johns Hopkins University. She’s the author of three books of poems and an opera libretto, Lost Childhood, based on the life of a Jewish boy who survived the Holocaust. She co-edits Passager journal, now in its 22nd year, and Passager Books, a press dedicated to older writers.
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Adapted from Paris Review: The Art of Theater No. 2
Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron
The first play I wrote was in Michigan in 1935. It was written on a spring vacation in six days. I was so young that I dared do such things, begin it and finish it in a week. I’d seen about two plays in my life, so I didn’t know how long an act was supposed to be, but across the hall there was a fellow who did the costumes for the University theater and he said, “Well, it’s roughly forty minutes.” . . . . As it turned out, the acts were longer than that, but the sense of the timing was in me even from the beginning, and the play had a form right from the start.
Being a playwright was always the maximum idea. I’d always felt that the theater was the most exciting and the most demanding form one could try to master. When I began to write, one assumed inevitably that one was in the mainstream that began with Aeschylus and went through about twenty-five hundred years of playwriting.
I think the young playwrights I’ve had any chance to talk to are either ignorant of the past or they feel the old forms are too square, or too cohesive. I may be wrong, but I don’t see that the whole tragic arc of the drama has had any effect on them.
I think that to make a direct or arithmetical comparison between any contemporary work and the classic tragedies is impossible because of the question of religion and power, which was taken for granted and is an a priori consideration in any classic tragedy. Like a religious ceremony, where they finally reached the objective by the sacrifice.
There’s no substitute for the impact on the mind of the spectacle of death. And there is no possibility, it seems to me, of speaking of tragedy without it.
When I was about twelve, I think it was, my mother took me to a theater one afternoon. We lived in Harlem and in Harlem there were two or three theaters that ran all the time, and many women would drop in for all or part of the afternoon performances. All I remember was that there were people in the hold of a ship, the stage was rocking—they actually rocked the stage—and some cannibal on the ship had a time bomb. And they were all looking for the cannibal: It was thrilling.
If I had ever thought that I was writing (Death of a Salesman) about my father, I suppose I never could have done it . . . . Willy is based on an individual whom I knew very little, who was a salesman; it was years later that I realized I had only seen that man about a total of four hours in twenty years. He gave one of those impressions that is basic, evidently. When I thought of him, he would simply be a mute man: he said no more than two hundred words to me . . . . I’ve always been aware of that kind of an agony, of someone who has some driving, implacable wish in him which never goes away, which he can never block out. And it broods over him, it makes him happy sometimes or it makes him suicidal, but it never leaves him. Any hero whom we even begin to think of as tragic is obsessed, whether it’s Lear or Hamlet or the women in the Greek plays.
This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more of what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (Arthur Miller On Playwriting part II will post next Wednesday.)
Adapted from: Sam Shepard’s Mythic Vision of the Family
By Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times, December 1, 1985
I don’t think it’s worth doing anything unless it’s personal. You’re not dealing with anything unless you’re dealing with the most deeply personal experiences. It’s empty otherwise. It doesn’t mean anything.
I thought for years it was boring, uninteresting to write about the family . . . But the interesting thing about taking real blood-relationships is that the more you start to investigate those things as external characters, the more you see they’re also internal characters. The mythology has to come out of real life, not the other way around. Mythology wasn’t some trick someone invented to move us. It came out of the guts of man. And myths are related on an emotional level. They’re not strictly intellectual programs.
There was this big fight I had with my old man, and at that point I fled. And I thought, well, I’m just going to have to start over . . . Once there was a production of “Buried Child” in Santa Fe, and my Dad took it upon himself to go, and he was rolling drunk and started talking to the characters and stood up and made all this noise. He definitely struck up a relationship with the production.
Yeah, we had bouts of drinking. Strange . . . It (the fight) would always turn, inevitably, on this accusation that there was something wrong and it had to do with me . . . It hasn’t really clarified anything. You spend a lot of time trying to piece these things together and it still doesn’t make any sense. His death brought this whole thing to a head, this yearning for some kind of a resolution which could never be.
When you’re younger, that rage is completely misunderstood. It seems personal when you’re a kid . . . Then as you get older you see that it had nothing whatsoever to do with you. It had to do with a condition this man had to carry because of the circumstances of his life, those being World War II, the Depression, the poverty of the Midwest farm family. And all these things contributed to this kind of malaise. Then it becomes much more interesting, when you have some distance on it. Because then you can see here was a man who happened to be my father and yet he was more than just that.
My work has always come out almost like a miracle, some kind of strange accident. You stumble into a certain territory that starts to excite you in a way that’s got to be manifested. It comes out as a play or a character. But that kind of work cannot be formulated . . . Then it gets shot to hell. Because then it becomes a career. I’m not interested in a career . . . I want to do the work that fascinates me.
This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.
When my oldest son was five or six (he turned 49 on August 13), we left the women—his mother and grandmother—in the cave and went to forage for lunch meat and hard rolls at Muller’s delicatessen on Harford Road, in Northeast Baltimore. (Muller’s still has the best German cold cuts and sandwich breads in the city.) Next door to Muller’s is a bar called “Dead Freddie’s.” It’s been there for as long as Muller’s has, but the name has long intrigued me for several reasons. For one thing, I can’t remember if “Dead” was part of its name back in the day. Was it just “Freddie’s” then and, when Freddie (the owner?) died, rather than get rid of what is a fine example of a classic neon, the word “Dead” was added as a dark joke? Or was the word always part of the sign and I just didn’t notice? (If anyone out there knows the history of the bar and/or the sign, please set me straight in the comment section below.)
Anyway, to get to the point of my little story about that day of male bonding, either my son asked to go into the bar or I volunteered to take him. Either way, I thought it was a good idea, so in we went. Once inside I think I bought Shawn an orange soda, in much the same spirit my father used to buy them for me when he took me to bars to keep him company while he drank a few of his “Arrow” brand beers. (The sins of the father really are passed down.) And I clearly remember that I took the opportunity that day to demonstrate to Shawn how the pinball machine worked. In fact, I’m pretty sure he got to shoot a few balls himself. As you and I know, most boys love bright lights, fast-moving objects and noise, so of course he was delighted. And so was I, still being a kid at heart myself. That was it. We two happy guys finished our pinball game and headed back to the home cave with provisions for lunch.
But now comes the sad ending to my little narrative. (Here I feel it’s fair to speak for Shawn, too, because I remember how boys think and feel when it comes to neon and pinball machines.) When we got home, still very excited about our wee adventure, we couldn’t wait to share our delight and high spirits with my wife and her mother. Their reaction was not what we expected. Well, you know what comes next. My wife and her mother were shocked, shocked, that I had exposed the child to the dark and sordid interior of that bar. Their disapproval was clear in their words and the expressions on their faces. And here I won’t speak for Shawn, but personally I felt the morning’s fun feeling exit my soul in much the same way air instantly leaves a pricked balloon.