Playwright David Ives is Gertrude Stein’s kind of writer. Language is his playground. Take The Metromaniacs, which he adapted from Alexis Piron’s La MÃ©tromanie, a 1738 play considered his masterpiece. In the program notes from the world premier production commissioned by Michael Kahn at Washington, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre, Ives confesses, “I’ve fiddled a good deal with Piron’s masterpiece in bringing it into English.”
GOSSAMER AND GORGEOUS
Like Stein’s work, Piron’s play with its complicated set of characters and their elusive identities is remarkable for how things are said, not what the characters do. Ives said in his notes that Piron’s play is “a comedy with five plots, none of them important, [but] that’s the beauty of the play.” Ives said Piron wanted “gossamer and gorgeousness…rarified air and helpless high-comic passion.” On February 8, 2015, the Steiny Road Poet, who was invited by the Shakespeare Company to participate in their accompanying Poets Are Present program, laughed her head off.
Who knew that a contemporary playwright could command such agility in writing entertaining rhyming couplets that acknowledge the past (details from Piron’s era and before) and at the same time pinpoint our contemporary icons without making the audience groan. If there was any groaning, it could only have been from laughing too hard.
POINTING AT BRITNEY SPEARS AND VOLTAIRE
For example, Steiny chooses two passages that show how clever Ives is with blending past and contemporary icons. The first text is from the protagonist of the play who is a poet not only obsessed with writing verse, but in love with an unknown female poet from the cultural region of Brittany (as mentioned in the second text spoken by Damis’ valet Mondor). A further aside is that Ives has renamed this unknown poet, MÃ©riadec de Peauduncqville. (Her name in French, which carried the burden of harsh sounds—Meriadec de Kersic de Quimper, didn’t translate well.) Peauduncqville plays off the American English word podunk, which indicates a place of insignificance, out-of-the-way, or fictitious. In fact Meriadec and “her” poetry is the creation of Monsieur Francalou. (More on this shortly.)
For what great poets have always won:
Glory. You think war’s harder, swords more real?
To wield a pen each day takes arms of steel!
For poets take the field against the best –
Sophocles, Shakespeare, Plautus, all the rest
Who quoted by us now make us seem sages!
I want to write the thoughts of future ages.
So yes, I’ll study law. The laws of art! And pass the hardest Bar: the human heart!
Brittany? That’s nowheresville, it’s outer sticks!
The chicks there carry Brittany spears! They’re hicks!
What Steiny particularly likes about these passages is how Ives points to Shakespeare who was known for his contemporary jokes as well as his word agility. So just to state the obvious. Meriadec is from nowheresville (as her name Peauduncqville suggests) and she is like our pop singer Britney Spears who hails from Mississippi and became a teenage singing sensation. It’s particularly comic that the poet’s servant is acting more sophisticated than his educated master. Mondor (Michael Goldstrom) knows going to Brittany is not a desirable destination. One other juicy historic detail to know is that Piron based this aspect of his play on how Voltaire (author of Candide) fell head over heals for the poetry of Antoinette Malcrais de La Vigne, known as the Breton Muse, but she was just an invention of Paul Desforges-Maillard. So Piron’s play which might be translated as the poetry craze was making fun of the much more accomplished Voltaire.
LEANING ON SHAKESPEARE
On a Steinian level, glory (or gloire as Gertrude Stein referred to it) was indeed something that the great Modernist pursued with vigor. To get that glory, Stein surreptitiously leaned on Shakespeare and the Greek philosophers like Sophocles (but this is a matter, you, Dear Reader, must pursue by reading the Steiny Road Poet’s deep analysis of Stein’s love poem Tender Buttons). One additional point before Steiny leaves this passage—take a look at To wield a pen each day takes arms of steel. Here Ives puns in the environs of war. The poet bodily needs very strong arms to write or the poet needs weapons like guns to write. Punning was a technique popular with Shakespeare and with Stein.
Due respect must be shown to the actors who delivered these lines. Most of them are experienced Shakespearian thesbians. Therefore, their line delivery, coupled with fascinating body emphasis, was spot on for timing. This pairing of the vocal and body movement allowed for shortening the syncopation gap, that phenomenon named by Gertrude Stein—the time when a line is delivered and the listener understands the thrust of that line. And behind these good players are the accomplished director Michael Kahn, the period movement consultant Frank Ventura, and the voice & text coach Ellen O’Brien.
PLAYS WITHIN PLAYS
Steiny was particularly taken with the performance of Dina Thomas who plays Lisette, the take-charge maid to Francalou’s daughter Lucille (Amelia Pedlow). Steiny loved the way she moved, especially in an early encounter with Mondor, who was trying to put his hands on her in an amorous way. She speaks and moves with authority but also with grace, a fascinating pleasure to watch. As the play begins Lisette and Francalou (Adam LeFevre) are standing with the colorful set (a forest of Eden) built in the ballroom for Francalou’s play, which he hopes will bring Lucille out of her literary ennui—she says whatever to everything and locks herself in her room reading poetry. Lisette will play Lucy (Lucille) in Francalou’s play and has a costume that duplicates Lucy’s favorite dress. The period costumes by Murell Horton are eye-catching, especially Lucy’s favorite dress which has the front section of the bouffant skirt pulled up above her knees almost like a window shade.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company upped the ante on poetry by inviting poets from the greater DC area to sit in their lobby and interact with the audience.
What the poets did in the lobby—answer questions, talk about poetry, sell their own books, recite their poetry—was up to them but by 9:30 the next morning, the poet was obligated to send in a poem which would be distributed to that particular poet’s audience. Here is one of the two poems, Steiny sent as a follow up to her residency:
HERD SPEAK: A REFLECTION
Poets love love. We’re sated by what seems.
Then unlike chatterers who speak in herds,
We seek the best of all possible…words.
Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas spoke in code.
What is a tender button but a nipple a calf
knows well on his mother’s udder. Who speaks
cow in Voltaire’s best of all possible…
Was it Candide? Indeed, Alice Babette Toklas
served the best Sunday roast beef she
eschewed British mutton in favor of Monday’s
Boeuf Bourguignon cubes of boneless
meat browned in three tablespoons of lard
several ounces of salt pork a dozen
tiny onions a dollop of flour two
cups of very old dry Burgundy redder
than blood garlic then a bouquet
of orange peel bay leaf sprig of thyme
sliver of nutmeg salt but never never
pepper. How poets pine among
pines. How they play at plays.
Photos by Scott Suchman