Monday, June 30, 2008

To Read or Not To Read

Harper Collins sent me a galley of this book months ago. I started it, got distracted, put it down, and never returned. Until yesterday. Suddenly, The Story of Edgar Sawtell is turning up journals, The New York Times, websites, and today, it was reviewed on GMA as a wonderful, literary summer read. I dug into it again over the weekend, and this time I think I will conquer the 500+ pages although, I will say that the first 78 of those have been profoundly sad. The book is consistently compared to Hamlet, which falls near the top of my "Shakespeare Plays to Read Again" list.
Of course, that got me thinking about how many other novels and plays have been influenced by the Bard - some in big ways, other, with a simple, but provocative title or line allusion. "The Mousetrap," a play based on an Agatha Christie novel, comes directly from Hamlet, "The Mousetrap", being the title of the play Hamlet enlists a troupe of itinerant players to perform to make his uncle Claudius squirm, and perhaps even confess to murdering Hamlet's father. The play, by the way, is the longest running production in London's East End theatre district.

Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres draws upon King Lear, and Faye Kellermann borrowed her title, The Quality of Mercy, from The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare has even worked his way into some unlikely, contemporary movies. Remember Big Business, starring Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler? Each actor played her own twin, leading to all sorts of mistaken identity complications. That's A Comedy of Errors. 10 Things I Hate About You, a teen angst flick borrows so heavily from The Taming of the Shrew that many character's names have gone unchanged. There's Bianca, Kat, and the suitor, aptly named Patrick Verona, after the city where "Shrew" is set. A few years ago, I saw a crazy little movie called Scotland, PA, starring Christopher Walken. It is a totally bizarre interpretation of Macbeth, but it works on a few levels.

When I was till teaching high school, Oedipus (Rex, The King...depends on which translation you read) was one play that always got the kids' attention. It was the first meaty piece we tackled after all the basic theatre components had been conquered. Oedipus raised the bar for them, and it was satisfying to watch them dig around, speculate, make discoveries, and then put it all together. As odd as the story seems on the surface...son unknowingly kills his father, unknowingly marries his mother and has four children by her, but manages to save the city of Thebes in the generally stuck with my class long after we had moved on to jollier plots.

Quite spontaneously, the kids began playing a connection game similar to "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." They could relate anything we read back to Oedipus. I'd hear comments like, "Oh, oh, that guy's a little too close to his mom," or "Looks like we have another case of someone who's too stubborn to budge." By the end of the semester, they had me quite convinced that there was only one universal plot in all of dramatic literature, and that, you guessed, was became too tedious for them to spit out to entire title, so they condensed! They began bringing in outside references including a mini- musical they found on-line, and a cheeky little song recorded by a singing satirist.
One year, we put Oed on trial for murder. An attorney came in and went through basic courtroom procedure with my classes. He covered strategy, making motions, opening and closing statements. He discussed jury psychology. Oed was cleared of all charges in the end. The jury leaned heavily on the defense's arguement that Oed was controlled by fate. The prosecution made a stong case based on hubris and emotional blindness. To this day, the student who acted as the lead prosecutor remains bitter. Although he is now an adult, he never passes up an opportunity to scream at me between cars in parking lots, over the shelves in a crowded store, through the stacks at the library, and even at fancy-pants social gathering... "Oedipus was guilty."
There was always one linear student in each class who could not work past the fact that Oed had children with his mother. Despite my valiant, aggressive, and continued efforts to instill the value of suspending disbelief when reading drama, the inevitable query concerning the children arose. The question was always the same...

"Hey, Ms. D., weren't his kids goofy? I mean, didn't Antigone end up with three eyes, or something?"
My reply, too, was always the same. "No, Antigone only has one eye." Once, a student actually chuckled at that! Just once, though.
A few minutes ago, I received a call from, Mary, a former co-worker, and cherished friend. She has long been a Tasha Tudor fan, and wanted to tell me that Tasha had died on June, 18, at age 92. Tasha Tudor is best known for her delicate artwork gracing many children's books, and her old-world lifestyle surrounded by little goats, and huge flowers in New England. I wish I had a little picture of Mary to share with you. If you could see her gentle smile and dancing eyes, you would know why she was drawn to Tudor's work .

I'm thinking about reading this when I finish the Story of Edgar Sawtell. Obviously, the title is intriguing and pulls no punches. What is even more intriguing, is that the national TV news/chat shows that are generally the first to dig into any type of asserted controversy, have (so far) elected to distance themselves from this book.
Vincent Bugliosi is the author of Helter Skelter, the copiously researched account of the Manson murders. He is the top homicide prosecutor in Manhattan's D.A.'s office. The inside flap states "...presents a tight, meticulously researched legal case puts George W. Bush on trial in an American courtroom for the murder of nearly 4,000 American soldiers fighting in Iraq." I am curious to see how he balances courtroom theatrics, emotion, and logic to support his thesis.