Dec. 26, 2013

A Downward Look

by James Merrill

Seen from above, the sky
Is deep. Clouds float down there,

Foam on a long luxurious bath.
Their shadows over limbs submerged in "air",

Over protuberances, faults,
A delta thicket, glide. On high, the love

That drew the bath and scattered it with salts

Still radiates new projects old as day,
And hardly registers the tug

When, far beneath, a wrinkled, baby hand
Happens upon the plug.

"A Downward Look" by James Merrill, from Collected Poems. © Knopf, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The 26th of December is known as St. Stephen's Day, in honor of the first Christian martyr (killed in 34 A.D.).

Today is also the first day of Kwanzaa (Swahili for "first fruits"), a seven-day African-American holiday created in the 1960s as a harvest festival — a time to re-establish links to the community and to an African past.

In England this date is called Boxing Day, with offerings for the poor collected in church boxes. Gratuities are given to the postman or gardener or cleaning lady for services rendered the previous year, and children go begging from door to door, as on Halloween in America.

In Ireland it's Wren Day: "wren-boys" go from house to house, carrying a holly bush adorned with ribbons and figures of birds, and singing:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family's great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.

It is the anniversary of the first recorded production of Shakespeare's King Lear (1606) (books by this author). The play was put on at the Palace of Whitehall, and England's King James I attended the production. It's the story of a senile and capricious king who decides he will divide his kingdom among his daughters based on their professions of love. The scheming sisters Goneril and Regan are silver-tongued flatterers; Cordelia, the only daughter who really loves him, is less effusive but sincere, and she is disinherited and banished for her trouble.

Shakespeare took the story from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) and also from The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Daughters (1594). Other versions of the Lear story had been produced — some of them possibly even by the Bard himself — but in all these versions, Lear and Cordelia triumph in the end. Shakespeare was dissatisfied with the happy ending; in his version, the entire family dies. The tragedy was popular with audiences, and it was printed without the playwright's consent two years later.

After the bloody English Civil War in the mid-17th century, audiences found the play too depressing and grim, and it flopped whenever it was produced. Finally, in 1681, playwright Nahum Tate rewrote the ending. Lear and Cordelia survive, and Cordelia falls in love with Edgar, the loyal son of the Earl of Gloucester. Audiences loved it, and Tate's Lear was the preferred version well into the 18th century.

The Tennessee Williams play The Glass Menagerie (books by this author) premiered at the Civic Theatre in Chicago on this date in 1944. It's a "memory play," set just before World War II, and Williams openly drew from his own life for the main characters: aspiring poet Tom; his overbearing and hysterical mother Amanda; and his physically and mentally fragile sister Laura. Tom opens the play by letting the audience in on a little secret: "Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." Edwina Williams, the playwright's mother and the model for Amanda, was in the audience for its premiere performance.

The Glass Menagerie was based on Williams' short story "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," which he wrote in 1943. Many of Tom's soliloquies in the play came straight from the story. The play's initial run got off to a slow start, and nearly closed after only a week due to poor turnout. Then Chicago theater critics Ashton Stevens and Claudia Cassidy took up its cause, writing enthusiastic reviews. Word of mouth spread, and it eventually became a legitimate hit — the first big hit for the 33-year-old Williams, who had been struggling up to this point. The play debuted on Broadway three months later, and Williams rocketed into the theater stratosphere. The Glass Menagerie won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Arthur Miller said that Williams' writing planted "the flag of beauty on the shores of commercial theater."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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