Apr. 16, 2010

Life is too short to sleep through.
Stay up late, wait until the sea of traffic ebbs,
until noise has drained from the world
like blood from the cheeks of the full moon.
Everyone else around you has succumbed:
they lie like tranquillised pets on a vet's table;
they languish on hospital trolleys and friends' couches,
on iron beds in hostels for the homeless,
under feather duvets at tourist B&Bs.
The radio, devoid of listeners to confide in,
turns repetitious. You are your own voice-over.
You are alone in the bone-weary tower
of your bleary-eyed, blinking lighthouse,
watching the spillage of tide on the shingle inlet.
You are the single-minded one who hears
time shaking from the clock's fingertips
like drops, who watches its hands
chop years into diced seconds,
who knows that when the church bell
tolls at 2 or 3 it tolls unmistakably for you.
You are the sole hand on deck when
temperatures plummet and the hull
of an iceberg is jostling for prominence.
Your confidential number is the life-line
where the sedated long-distance voices
of despair hold out muzzily for an answer.
You are the emergency services' driver
ready to dive into action at the first
warning signs of birth or death.
You spot the crack in night's façade
even before the red-eyed businessman
on look-out from his transatlantic seat.
You are the only reliable witness to when
the light is separated from the darkness,
who has learned to see the dark in its true
colours, who has not squandered your life.

"Vigil" by Dennis O'Driscoll, from "New and Selected Poems, 2004". © Anvil Press Poetry. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the comic novelist Kingsley Amis, (books by this author) born in London (1922). He was a student at Oxford when he met Philip Larkin who would become his closest friend for the rest of his life. At first, it was Philip Larkin who wanted to be a novelist and Amis wanted to be a poet. But after Amis moved to Wales and got a job as a professor, he began sending comic descriptions of his campus life to Larkin, and Larkin helped him turn those sketches his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954). It was one of the first modern "campus novels" and is generally considered one of the funniest novels in British literature.

It's the birthday of the filmmaker and actor Charlie Chaplin, born in London (1889). He started out as a vaudeville actor in a comedy troupe. When Chaplin arrived in Hollywood, he was shocked to see how little rehearsal went into each movie. Hollywood directors at the time filmed each scene in a single take, refusing to waste money on extra film. Chaplin tried to get used to the Hollywood style, and he took all the jobs he could get, saving almost all the money he made. But he was disgusted at the quality of the movies. The camera often wasn't pointed in the right direction to capture his movements, and many of his favorite moments ended up on the cutting room floor. At the end of five months, he asked the producer if he could direct his own movie, and he put up $1,500 of his own savings as a guarantee against losses.

That year, 1914, Chaplin directed, wrote, and starred in 16 films in six months. It was that year that he debuted his most famous character: the "little tramp," who's always beaten down by life, always the butt of the jokes, but who never gives up his optimism. The character made Chaplin a star, recognized around the world.

It was on this day in 1787 that "the first American play" opened, at the John Street Theater in New York City. It was written by 29-year-old Royall Tyler. Tyler went to Harvard, studied law, and joined the Continental Army. He was appointed the aide to General Benjamin Lincoln to help suppress Shay's Rebellion. After Shay left Massachusetts for New York, Tyler was sent to New York City to negotiate for Shay's capture. And there Tyler did something that he had never done: went to see a play.

Theater was slow to take off in America. There are known performances of Shakespeare in Williamsburg in the early 1700s, and in general the Southern colonies — more open to all British customs — were happier to embrace the theater. In the North, it was looked on as a sinful form of entertainment. Massachusetts passed a law in 1750 that outlawed theater performances, and by 1760 there were similar laws in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, although performances occasionally snuck through the laws with the special permission of authorities.

In any case, Royall Tyler from Massachusetts had never been to the theater before. So on March 12, 1787, he saw a production of Richard Sheridan's School for Scandal (1777),and he was so inspired that in just three weeks he wrote his own play, The Contrast. On this day in 1787, just barely a month later, The Contrast became the first play by an American writer to be professionally produced.

The Contrast was a success. It was performed four times that month in New York, which was very unusual. Then it moved on to Baltimore and Philadelphia, where George Washington went to see it. The Contrast was a comedy of manners, poking fun at Americans with European pretensions, and the main character, Jonathan, was the first "Yankee" stock character, a backwoods man who spoke in a distinctive American voice and mannerisms.

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