Monday, March 15, 2021

The Dysfunctional Family Reading List

You think your family is maddening?  Just wait...
The Books With Laurie
Pandemic Lockdown Fatigue 
Dysfunctional Family Reading List
(Modern Drama Edition)
By Laurie Allee
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It could be so much worse

Like many others, my little family has been self-isolating for exactly one year to ride out Covid-19.  Yes, with the exception of dog walks, car drives and a few trips to the drive-through pharmacy, my husband, teenage daughter and I have hunkered down at home for 12 months. (So far.) 

Birthday cakes in several locations
We've had all of our supplies and groceries delivered.  I've gotten so good at ordering things I could now run a bed and breakfast.  (My husband refers to me as "The Victualler.") 

As we've remained at home, we've celebrated Zoom birthdays, Zoom holidays, Zoom school conferences, Zoom work meetings, Zoom seminars, Zoom meetups, Zoom movie nights, Zoom coffee breaks and a few Zoom meetings to tell us how to make the most of Zoom meetings.  In what has to be our most surreal and heartbreaking moment of the pandemic, we attended a Zoom funeral.  

Living in Los Angeles has been a kind of Covid-19 Groundhog Day: surge after surge after awful, deadly surge. With health risks, we're fortunate we can hide out this way.  A year seems like an impossible amount of time -- and it's not over yet -- but we're lucky.  We've known people who didn't make it through to see this odd anniversary.  I'm profoundly grateful for the ability to hide out in a house that I love with the people that I love the most. 

And yet...

Williams spilling family secrets, no doubt 

Sharing the same confined space with anyone for long periods without seeing other people or spending time apart is...challenging.  Journalists have written at length about the impact of coronavirus on families.  We've all felt the pressure of this extended house arrest. We've lived, worked and schooled together, waited for good news together and weathered bad news together, shown our best and absolute worst selves together...and it is has taken a toll.  

Last month I made a joke that things were starting to feel a little Tennessee Williams around the house, and it prompted me to go back and reread the plays of Tennessee Williams.  Williams reminded me of all the other great playwrights of the mid 20th century.  They were all writing about family dynamics ranging from stressed-out to downright horrific.

One of my favorite classes in college was called Psychological Aspects of Modern American Drama.  A bunch of English Lit nerds drinking tons of coffee, reading and watching the plays of Williams, Albee, O'Neill and Miller, then analyzing through the lenses of Freud, Jung and Horney was just about as close to heaven as this bookworm/drama kid could possibly get! 

So, last month I used those same playwrights of Modern American Drama as a kind of self-help psychology.  I reread the plays I hadn't read in decades, along with a couple I'd never read.  I watched film adaptations and YouTube recordings of stage productions. I  listened to radio performances and even a full cast audiobook.  And you know what?

It was the best therapy!  There is nothing like brilliantly written vignettes of abysmal family dysfunction to make you appreciate your own screwed-up clan.  

Here are the best of the best:

Everyone remembers this one, and once you've seen the 1958 film adaptation you will forever see the almost impossibly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat and dreamy Paul Newman as the tortured, ever-withholding Brick.  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is set in the sweltering Mississippi Delta at the uncomfortable 65th birthday party of Big Daddy Pollitt -- a crotchety Southern magnate recently hospitalized, possibly sicker than he thinks, and surrounded by a family he barely tolerates.  This isn't so much a play as a storm on stage -- with torrents of delusion, lust, repression, homophobia, rage, deceit and alcoholic frenzy sloshing all over the antebellum fixtures and overpriced European bric-a-brac.  It's histrionic, and outrageous but it also contains a gentle, heartbreaking message about family love and what really makes a good father, or son or spouse. (Hint: it's not money or notoriety.)       
I highly suggest watching the film if you haven't seen it, but not before you've actually read the play.  I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the movie's severe Hays Code edits leave out a lot of the juiciest parts.  (Just FYI:  Paul Newman played Brick as if all the cut material was still there.  Knowing it makes his performance even better.) Also, there has never been another Big Daddy as perfect as Burl Ives, and you should see him.  He played the part in the original Broadway production, too.  

Read a sample of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here.  

Long Day's Journey Into Night might be the most difficult play I've ever read.  It has morphine addiction, alcoholism, consumption ... and all introduced before the characters even have lunch.  The play takes place over the course of a single day within the suffocating confines of the Tyrone family living room.  We bristle remembering the dramas that have taken place in our own living rooms.  Knowing that this play is largely based on O'Neill's own family makes it a devastating piece of reality theatre.  The play (and resulting Pulitzer) were presented posthumously, and it feels like a deathbed confession.
Seeing a bad production of this would be torturous.  Even a good one is difficult, withholding the things we (and the characters) yearn for: transcendence and grace. 

I've included the complete film starring Katharine Hepburn as Mary Tyrone.  It's an astonishing performance, with a screenplay that is an exact word-for-word version of the play.  Watch it free here.  Then, go do something life affirming like petting your dog or making an ice cream sundae.         

You rarely hear Lorraine Hansberry's name mentioned with Williams and O'Neill, but she easily belongs in their club.  A Raisin in the Sun was the first play on Broadway written by a black woman.   Considering the fact that it debuted in 1959 -- the same year Arkansas designated "white's only" seating areas -- makes it an even more monumental achievement.  The title is taken from a Langston Hughes poem "Harlem" which is known as "A Dream Deferred."  The play is all about deferred dreams.  We follow the Youngers, an African American family desperately trying to stay afloat and stay together.  When a moderate inheritance offers a way out of their south Chicago tenement, they are met with racist gatekeeping, betrayal and a difficult, possibly dangerous choice.  
The original 1961 film is wonderful (Ruby Dee!  Sidney Poitier! Louis Gossett Jr. in his film debut!) and there is an American Playhouse production  from 1989 with Danny Glover,  but I highly recommend listening to this BBC Radio production from 2016.  Closing your eyes and letting Hansberry's dialogue wash over you is almost like being in the Younger family living room.  It's a wonderful audio production, with no edits or omissions.

Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance feels a like a kind of mismatched bookend to Long Day's Journey Into Night.  Albee's odd, slightly surreal, psychologically complex play about rich suburbanites descending into existential angst, paranoia and possible dementia is not gut-wrenching as much as deeply, deeply unsettling.  Let me put it this way: the audience is bracing for a sucker punch from the opening lines of the play.

A lot has been written about this piece, with all the usual intellectual arguing about what exactly it means.  It seems like Albee delighted in the confusion, never really offering definitive explanation of the work, and defying all need for categorization. 

I think the play has aged really well.  In our era of echo chambers, isolation, and the hollowness of social media, Albee's tale of disconnected, empty people numbing themselves with martini after martini, calmly maintaining the facades of accomplishment, cloaking passive aggressiveness in the cashmere of well-bred, Connecticut etiquette ... well, let's just say it feels contemporary and oddly familiar.  This is a family fastened together out of habit and shared history, with rattling skeletons about to burst out of any closet.

Reading Albee can be challenging, so don't feel bad if you want to cheat and just watch an adaptation.  In the 1973 film, Katharine Hepburn gives yet another fantastic performance.  She embodies Agnes: smiling on the outside, inwardly burning, who may or may not be going insane.  You can watch the movie free here

I am almost ashamed to admit that although I was a member of drama clubs throughout junior high and high school, although I got a small scholarship from my university drama department, although I actually performed a scene from this play for a student film in college, I had never actually read The Glass Menagerie in its entirety until last month.  

Now it's my favorite play by Tennessee Williams.

There is so much to love about it.  While so many stories by Tennessee Williams are so emotionally over-the-top they are almost psychedelic in their hysteria (ladies and gentlemen, I present Boom,) The Glass Menagerie is oddly subdued.  Tom Wingfield, a wannabe writer and tortured working class warehouse employee, alternately narrates and participates in a story that seems to be emanating from the deepest part of his regret.   We can never be sure if what we see is real, or figments of his imagination.  It's almost a ghost play. 

His aging southern belle  mother is alternately withering and exhibitionist.  She has the sole purpose of arranging a suitable marriage for Tom's "odd" sister Laura, and until that happens Tom is on the hook to support the family.  

Laura, is described as a "cripple" from a childhood bout with polio, but as we watch we see that the disease has only left her with a slight limp.  No wheelchair.  No crutches.  She walks and even dances.  She is awkward and shy (possibly from constantly being called a cripple) but she's also warm and empathetic and funny.  Her shyness, however, is treated as abject tragedy. Her fixation on old records and a beloved collection of glass animals is seen as proof positive she's a failure and will never, ever have what her mother considers the ultimate prize for a young lady: a gentleman caller.  When a gentleman caller finally does arrive in the final act, it's both heartbreaking and oddly uplifting.

Today, Laura would have a popular social anxiety YouTube channel and a great Instagram account with artful photos of her menagerie.  What made Laura a tragic character when Williams wrote his play now makes her feel relatable.  Laura is not damaged, she's just an introvert, possibly on the spectrum, and in desperate need of a decent counselor to help liberate her from her mother's control.  Her limp is not a serious handicap, and even if it were it wouldn't exclude her from finding a partner.  

After I read the play I watched three adaptations of it (1950, 1973, 1987)  I didn't really like any of them.  None of them touched the complexity of the characters I read on the page, especially the character of Laura..  

And that's why it's so great to actually read plays, not just watch them.  (John Malkovich as Tom might have been peak young John Malkovich in the 1987 version directed by Paul Newman, but he was not how I envisioned Tom.  Your mileage may vary.) 

When I first read Death of a Salesman, I was 19.  I was old enough to recognize Arthur Miller had written an incredible play, but I didn't have the life experience to fully understand the tragedy that is Willy Loman.  When I reread the play last month, I was devastated by it.  Approaching this piece in mid life gives it a gravity I didn't fully sense when I was just starting out in the world.  (Miller based the play off of a short story he wrote at seventeen.  This is almost impossible for me to comprehend.) Willy's desperate descent into senility is heartbreaking, real, gut-wrenching. 

That he never really got the life he'd hoped for feels like every nightmare you wake up from in a cold sweat.  His grandiosity, failed dreams and vast hopelessness are wrapped up in the tarnished veneer of a once-shiny salesman.  He's an incredibly recognizable tragic hero.  (We hope we don't recognize a part of ourselves in him.  We hope we don't watch a loved one slipping away like him.)  Like so many real life tragedies, this play is an epic one that takes place within the modest walls of a family living room.  
It's is so good I just want you to read it.  Don't watch it yet, just read it.  I've made it easy for you!  You can read the entire script right here.  

After that, take your pick among several incredible stage and film adaptations online. 

Drama as Therapy

I've always found reading to be the best kind of therapy, and my little experiment using plays as a way to cope with pandemic fatigue proved no different.  It's hard not to feel extremely fortunate after spending time with the families in these plays.  I am not downplaying the very real tragedy and grief we have all experienced to one degree or another in the last year, but immersing myself into other tragedies and other reasons for grief made me all-too-happy to return home.  Seeing so many completely unhinged and awful relationships makes my own (wonderful, sane, beloved) family squabbles during lockdown seem kind of charming by comparison. 

Humans experience suffering and loss.  Humans struggle.  Humans lose out and get left behind.  Humans are stricken with almost unimaginable troubles, and those troubles stir up a mess of more trouble inside families.  There are harsh words and hurt feelings.  But there are other things... 

There is love and forgiveness, healing and absolution.  There is epiphany and redemption.  If nothing else, there is a really dry martini and the sparkle of a pretty glass unicorn in the light.

Managing a pandemic with health risks has meant a hard quarantine for many of us.  A year without friends, without gatherings, without connection outside Zoom and FaceTime has been difficult.  Saying goodbye to the ones we've lost has been devastating.  We're not at the end, yet.  If this is a kind of cosmic play, we are hopefully entering the third act.  I pray we aren't simply at intermission. 

It's tempting when our relationships get strained to descend into the lowest part of ourselves.  We lash out.  We point fingers.  We engage in scenery-chewing melodrama, punctuated by slammed doors.  But when we see these same behaviors in a book or play -- ramped up to an often absurd degree -- we can make the decision to play our own lives a different way.  

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Next up?  Something light and frothy.  I promise.   

Stay tuned.

Be sure to watch the video summary at the top of this post!  

Every month I embed a bookish film (or play!) to watch for free.  Click here to see this month's pick.  You're welcome, bookworms!

Drop me a line if you want to be included in my Book Club.