Oct. 16, 2006

Before I Was Born

by Linda S. Buckmaster

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Poem: "Before I Was Born" by Linda S. Buckmaster, from Heart Song & Other Legacies. © The Illuminated Sea Press. Reprinted with permission.

Before I Was Born

She waits
on the corner of Broad Street and
Oregon Ave., Benny Goodman's clarinet
slipping out of the radio at Tony's
each time a customer opens
the door. They go in
and out again, and still
he hasn't come. Twenty past
seven and now they'll never
make the show.
Streetlights blink on.
She bends to straighten
the seam of her stocking.
She doesn't know that this
will be her life.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American playwright Eugene O'Neill, (books by this author) born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City (1888). His father was a famous actor, and O'Neill spent much of his childhood in hotels and on trains, following his father on tours. He went to Princeton, but he was expelled after a year. He got a series of odd jobs, then went off on a gold prospecting expedition in Honduras, where he contracted malaria. After he recovered, he tried out sailing, vaudeville acting, and writing for a small-town newspaper. In 1912, he fell sick again with tuberculosis and spent six months in a sanatorium. While he was there, he began to read classic playwrights and modern innovators like Ibsen and Strindberg.

When he was released, he began writing furiously, coming out with 11 one-act plays in just a few years. In 1916, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he fell in with a group that would become known as the Provincetown Players, which included writers like Susan Glaspell and Robert Edmond Jones. The group began producing O'Neill's plays on a regular basis, and they helped to revolutionize American theater.

In 1920, his play Beyond the Horizon became a popular and critical success on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. He would go on to win two more Pulitzers in the next eight years, for Anna Christie (1922) and Strange Interlude (1928). He won the Nobel Prize in 1936. After Shakespeare and Shaw, O'Neill is the most widely presented and translated dramatist in the English-speaking world.

It's the birthday of German novelist Günter Grass, (books by this author) born in Danzig (now Gdansk), Poland (1927). When Grass was born, Danzig was a free city, occupied by German speakers and Polish speakers, but it eventually became the first battleground of World War II. Hitler wanted to claim it for Germany, and he encouraged citizens of Danzig to take up the Nazi cause. Günter Grass got swept up in the movement. He became a Nazi cub when he was 10, and joined the Hitler Youth when he was 14.

He created a great deal of controversy recently when he admitted for the first time that he was drafted into the Waffen-SS, the military division of Hitler's elite guard, when he was 17. He's been called a hypocrite for having hidden his own past for so long, he's written about it in a new memoir, Peeling the Onion, which comes out this year.

His whole childhood, he had completely believed the Nazi propaganda. He fully expected and that the Führer would triumph in the war. But after being captured by American soldiers, he was placed in a reeducation program designed to persuade former Nazis that the Nazi program was evil. As part of the reeducation program, Grass was taken to visit the concentration camp at Dachau, and he was horrified to realize what he'd been a part of. When he was finally released and got back to Danzig, he found that his hometown had been completely destroyed in the war.

He spent the next several years traveling around Europe, working as a miner, a stonemason and a tombstone engraver. Then one night, Grass was at a party when he noticed that one of the children of the house was hiding under a table, totally oblivious to the adults in the room, living in his own fantasy world. And suddenly, Grass got an idea for a novel about a boy living in the Nazi era who refuses to grow up. A few years later, he came out with the novel that made him famous: The Tin Drum (1959).

Grass said, "Whenever there has been talk of exterminating rats, others, who were not rats, have been exterminated."

It's the birthday of Irish writer Oscar Wilde, (books by this author) born in Dublin (1854). Wilde was an unpromising student until he discovered ancient Greek literature, and fell completely in love with it. He won a scholarship to Oxford University and would have gone on to an academic career in classical literature if there had been any fellowships available. Instead, he moved to an apartment in London, and he became the leader of the aesthetic movement, which held the philosophy that that secret of life is art. Wilde said, "Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong."

He was struggling to break into the drama scene when a friend suggested that he go on a lecture tour in the United States to spread his ideas. Wilde sailed to New York City on Christmas Eve 1881. When he arrived, a customs official asked him if he had anything to declare, and Wilde reportedly said, "I have nothing to declare but my genius." He went on a sweeping lecture tour in the United States, stopping everywhere from Des Moines to Denver, from St. Paul to Houston.

When he got back from the United States, Wilde fell into a love affair with the young aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas. It was during that affair that Wilde wrote his most successful plays, including his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

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