Book/Literature Rec (March 9th, 2016)
(Where I write non-professionally and non-systematically about books or literary texts I enjoyed. Not so much of a review or a serious recommendation as much as it is me just putting a bunch of personal thoughts down and keeping a record of things I loved reading.)
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A book club book in school, All The Light We Cannot See is a brilliant novel that threads its way through World War II through the experiences of a young soldier and a young blind girl, both caught in their own ways in the conflict and turmoil of the war. Reading this book feels a lot like re-raveling an unraveled spool of yarn, or several of them, following one train of inevitable events alongside another strand of inevitable circumstances until finally having them all tangle back together in a very neat and quite powerful story. We start with the ending, and then jump backwards and forwards through time, each jump leaping a shorter time in months and years, and eventually connect all the dots and see the bigger picture for what it is, and it’s a somber and quite emotionally resonating bigger picture. It’s packed rich with information and of time, history, connection and communication, and humanity.
The chapters are short, short but powerful, and the emotion – Werner’s increasing sense of guilt and regret, Maurie-Laude’s fear but also endurance, and wonder – resonates through every word and sentence, and the other characters, from Etienne to Marie-Laude’s father to Frederick and Volkheimer, are quite unforgettable as well, each and every one of them a reflection of a slightly different experience and perspective of the war.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Being a play I studied in class, regardless it is still one of the best literary texts I’ve ever had the opportunity to read. It is helped, probably, by the fact that I also had the joy (honor) of watching it on screen (NT Live, directed by Benedict Andrews, starring Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, Corey Johnson, and Vanessa Kirby) and the incredible and moving performance by the entire cast, plus just everything in the entire production, that brought it completely to life in my mind. Watching Streetcar was also one of the absolute favorite memories and experiences I’ve had.
For me, this play, both on paper and on stage, is a true work of art that is both incredibly beautiful but also simultaneously devastatingly violent and tragic; a play that complements light, sound, color, setting, human complexity and fragility, dialogue, and symbolism – an expressionist piece of theatre that details the psychological downfall of Blanche DuBois but also in its midst explores so many other themes around human conflict, delusion, violence… It is a play that I think will have a slightly different impact on everyone, and everyone will probably have something different to take from it. It was not a lighthearted happy ending fun kind of play, but really an emotionally devastating one that was so brilliantly written.
I don’t really know what else to say, as this play has been so critically acclaimed all over and analyzed countless times already. I suppose I’ll just say that, to me, it was so resounding and powerful that I ended up buying several more of Williams’ plays not long after studying Streetcar (one of them is The Glass Menagerie which I practically wrote an essay about below).
Anyways, Tennessee Williams truly is a phenomenal playwright. And his essays (a few of which I read as they are included in the physical copies of the plays I bought), are very well written as well.
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Much like Streetcar, The Glass Menagerie is a tragic play – executed in a synchronized complement of music, light, color, and dialogue – a play that doesn’t hold back with its painful hopelessness, in more ways than one. This is a play that almost flawlessly captures the sense of a fantasy and a delusion’s inability to withstand reality, and the struggle with responsibility and reality itself. It is a depiction of a family lost in a whole myriad of other similar families at the time; there is a desperation for a better life and better times that results only in conflict and deception, and finally shattering disappointment in the end, in a slightly different way for everyone in the family. It is both slightly surreal to see how it unfolds but also painfully realistic (and still relevant in today’s society in a way, where there is still that same struggle amongst many working people for a fantasy and for something better than the staunch responsibility of reality – though it might just be more prevalent with certain social classes – middle? – than others.)
There is a sense that every character wants a certain freedom – by going away, by losing themselves in fantasy and in the past – but also a deep sense that they are all hopelessly trapped. It is a memory play, and in the way that we are looking back into the past at an inevitable tragedy that has already occurred, there is an even deeper sense of devastation towards it. And as it is a depiction of the past from a human mind, its exaggeration and unreality at times to me only serve to make the play more dramatically impactful.
What I personally enjoyed most about reading this play is how its beautifully expressionistic style is used to accentuate the characters and the family’s internal troubles and disenchantment. There are similarities with Streetcar I see too – the ‘lurid reflections’ in certain scenes and the Varsouviana can parallel with some of the images and music used in The Glass Menagerie. The stage directions throughout The Glass Menagerie not only indicate what the characters/actors should be doing, but also instructions for images and text played out that foreshadow dialogue, reflect a character’s internal world, add imagery and symbolism that deepen the audience’s captivation with what is on stage or on screen. The directions for music that are also found throughout are also incredibly symbolic and emotionally devastating, and to me Williams here on paper and black and white ink is painting out a masterpiece of a small family, frozen in its own time, which springs immediately to life in sound and action and emotion.
This play is an old play (though evidently compared to plays like Hamlet and Macbeth, not old in the slightest), and we can see clear depictions of traditional gender-based expectations, and the suffocating enforced gender roles on people through Amanda’s stark expectations for her daughter, but also of Tom. These depictions and expectations are possibly realistic for their time, but arguably much of the outdated expectations and societal norms of the past should remain in the past.
I myself probably cannot adequately speak for Laura and the depiction of her disability; it is not entirely in my place to do so. But I think I would’ve appreciated a slightly greater exploration of her character. In much of the play what we see is what her mother vocally defines of her and expects her to be, often to her face (and her mother’s view of her disability at times is troubling and insensitive, and arguably ableist). However on the other hand I do appreciate that at the end of the day Laura is really not an easy-to-define character, (definitely more than what her mother makes of her) and not simply a two dimensional fusion of stereotypes. There is a complexity to her and how she holds herself, and the play’s portrayal of her in the limited space and time, that I think is written well. I’d like to hear more about this aspect though, because I’ve read a few different perspectives on it and it’d be good to hear more.
In the end though, I personally found this play, once again, an artistic masterpiece like Streetcar, and certain themes and techniques run common threads between the two. Tennessee Williams continues to be a playwright I admire a great deal. The Glass Menagerie was not easy to read at times (and I’d imagine even more difficult to watch) – it is definitely incredibly sad and painful. As Williams even vocalized, The Glass Menagerie is “the saddest play I have ever written. It is full of pain. It is painful for me to see it.” But to me there is a reason that this play has survived and flourished despite of or possibly because of the ‘pain’ that is portrayed in it, a reason that it has been studied and acted and re-acted countless times since its first premier in 1944 – because its issues and portrayal of so much of the essence and flaws of human nature are still very relevant to today. If I would ever be able to see it performed on stage, I’d definitely go see it.