BILL C. davis
Bill C. Davis is the author of Mass Appeal, which premiered at The Manhattan Theatre Club, produced by Lynne Meadow, directed by Geraldine Fitzgerald, and starred Milo O'Shea. The play moved to Broadway where it received the Outer Critic's Circle Award. Bill C. adapted the play as a screenplay and it was made into a movie starring Jack Lemmon and Charles Durning and was chosen one of the ten best films for that year by The National Board of Review. He also performed the role of Mark Dolson with Milo O'Shea, Charles Durning and Brian Keith. Mass Appeal is currently playing in Paris, (L’Affrrontement) where it received a Moliere Award. It has also played recently in Italy (Ultimo Appello), Poland, Brazil, Argentina, Sweden, South Africa and Australia and Munich, Germany, (Der Priestermacher) and in Mexico (Alerta en Misa) Peru and Argentina – (Duelo de Ángeles).
Another play by Bill C. Davis, Dancing in the End-Zone, premiered at the State Theatre in Miami, directed by Jose Ferrer and starred Elaine Stritch. The play moved to Broadway under Melvin Bernhardt's direction, with Pat Carroll. Dancing in the End-Zone was also performed in Los Angeles starring Lois Nettleton, where the play received a Dramalogue award.
His play, Wrestlers, had its premiere in Los Angeles, with Bill C. acting in it opposite Mark Harmon. The play was Critic's Choice for the LA Times. The play was also staged at the Hudson Guild with the author, Dan Butler and Elizabeth Berridge in the cast and directed by Geraldine Fitzgerald. It has been translated to French and recently premiered in Belgium under the title Les Lutteurs.
Bill C. Davis directed his play Spine in Los Angeles with Meredith Baxter and Mackenzie Astin. Spine was also directed by the author at The George Street Playhouse in New Jersey with Justin Kirk. Spine recently received a workshop production at the Barrow Group in New York City.
Bill C.'s play, Avow, premiered Off-Broadway at the Century Center for the Performing Arts under the direction of Jack Hofsiss after being presented in workshop at George Street Playhouse and the Director's Company. Avow was revived in New York City in 2009. It will premiere in Paris next year at Theatre La Bruyere with the title Parcours, translated by Dominique Piat.
Bill C. Davis has completed with composer Brett Boles an original musical, Village Rites – which received a workshop production at the Firehouse Theatre in Richmond VA in summer 2007 with Jeremy Jordan in the lead role and the author directing. The musical was recently (2012) workshopped at Brooklyn College.
He has completed another new musical - Open For Me with composer Scott Perkins. In both musicals Bill C. has written book and lyrics.
Bill C. Davis' Expatriate received a workshop production spring 2009 – with Tandy Cronyn at Manhattan Theatre Source with Bill C. directing. The play has been translated into French by Alain Malraux, Expatrie.
All Hallowed was given a staged reading at the Writer's Institute in Albany, N.Y.,William Kennedy executive director, and at Tri-Arts theatre in Sharon Ct. and at The ArcLight Theatre. It receieved a pre-premiere in Texas, fall 2012.
His play, The Sex King, received a workshop production at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh and at the Berkshire Playwrights Lab in Great Barrington, Ma. in summer 2009.
His new play – Coming2Terms was produced in summer of 2011 at Vineyard Playhouse in Martha's Vineyard under Mr. Davis' direction. The play has been translated into German by Felix Everding.
Another recent play - Household Accounts – was given a workshop reading at Brooklyn College, May 12, 2012 and ArcLight Theatre in NYC in March 2013.
Bill C. Davis has just completed his most recent play, Father-Land. He performed a reading of the play at The ArcLight Theatre in NYC with his German translator, Felix Everding.
For Robert Greenwald Productions he adapted a novel for CBS television The Secret Path - which starred Ossie Davis and Della Reese.
Bill C. is a lifetime member of The Writers Guild of America East and he is a member of The Players and The Dramatist Guild. He was playwright mentor at Carnegie Mellon University 2008-2009 and playwright-in-residence at Brooklyn College 2011-2012.
He has completed a novel – Connecticut Wildlife. Bill C. has also written political essays.
My paternal grandfather, unable to get a job in 1920's Boston because he was Jewish, changed his name from Gliserman to Davis. All things being equal, my name should be Bill C. Gliserman.
I prefer the name Gliserman because it has legacy and fiber. I see the name Davis as a sign of my grandfather’s capitulation to something I, perhaps unreasonably, would have preferred he fought.
My father was a prisoner of war in a German prison camp during WWII. So I wonder if the name Davis saved his life. My father’s mother was Irish – (she and Mr. Gliserman/Davis did not stay married past my father’s second birthday.) My mother’s parents were Italian. My genetic heritage in brief - Irish, Italian and Russian-Jewish. The part of my family that I was most exposed to growing up was the Irish side. A great-grandmother, a grandmother, three grand uncles, and a grand aunt – fierce, poetic, politically conservative, proud, emotional, and all heavy drinkers.
I was the third of four children - born in Ulster County New York (Ellenville) where many people now go to hang glide, (which is how I describe the first performance of a new play.) I was raised in Dutchess County (Poughkeepsie) where IBM ruled for many years – the two counties, Dutchess and Ulster, divided not only by huge cultural differences, but also by the Hudson River, a tidal river that flows both ways.
I had twelve years of Catholic education. Holy Trinity – then Lourdes High School.
At thirteen I was excluded from the May procession because I laughed in church. I don’t recall what struck me funny but the fear of laughing made me laugh uncontrollably, which disturbed an already disturbed priest. I was then manhandled by an extreme, commando nun and as punishment I was publicly shunned from devotion to the Blessed Mother. As I watched, from a distance, a crown of flowers being placed on the head of the statue of the Blessed Mother in a stone grotto by the holiest girl in our class, I was able to tell my thirteen-year-old self that Jesus, as I understood Him, would not be upset by my laughing. Rather than feeling ashamed I felt defiant. Everyone else in uniform might be distressed by my laughing but He would not be. So although they tried, I was not deprived of a religious experience.
I had some good nuns and some sadly neurotic ones – not their fault – they tried their best with their training, their doctrine and indoctrination and with what I’m sure was a searing sense of alienation in a world that was exploding with sexual and political revolution.
There was however a practice that the nuns encouraged which makes great human sense even now. No matter what we were doing, if we heard a siren - fire, ambulance, or police - we stopped – closed all books and prayed for whomever the siren was on its way to. It’s a gesture that highlights the real morality of Catholic tradition. If it’s happening to someone else, it's happening to me. I think this also is the mark of a true theatre experience. (At intermission of my play All Hallowed in Texas in 2012, an audience member came over to me and said, “I was going say I know these people, but I am these people.”)
I then had brothers and priests in high school. Again, there were some saintly brothers and a few sadistic ones. They were allowed to hit students in Catholic schools. Some did – with relish. Fear was the holy water for those teachers. Others would not think of it.
In that Catholic high school I met my mentor – a brilliant teacher who taught us Religion by teaching philosophy, film, art, music, drama – he made the experience of religion present and cultural without ever trivializing it. He never raised his voice or hit anyone yet he commanded more respect and attention than any other teacher in the school. Except for my mentor, and a few friends with whom I'm in touch to this day, high school could have been skipped. And in some respects I did skip it.
Although I did win a county award for acting – Peter in The Diary of Anne Frank – the director, a patient brother, was frustrated with me because I kept re-writing my lines – expanding them – re-phrasing them. Maybe I thought he wouldn’t notice. He appreciated my creative initiative, but urged me to honor the text. God bless him.
First year of college at Emerson in Boston was culture shock. I was in a city and a secular school. At the same time the city of Boston was ripe with protests – 100,000 people in the Boston Commons at one protest – all universities and colleges, including Emerson, shut down early that year – my father pulled me out and I reluctantly went to Marist College back in my hometown. Marist was officially a secular school but with a definite Catholic legacy.
My resistance to Marist evaporated quickly. I wrote plays – acted in them - and every semester I would get credit by putting on a play that I had written. Marist had no theatre department but everyone from the dean to the head of the drama club was thrilled to have a student write plays. I took philosophy, psychology, European drama, physics, French literature, creative writing – and of course I received the unofficial education a person gets from friendships, lovers and mentors during those feverish years that get played out on the microcosm of a campus.
Immediately after college I worked at Rhinebeck Country Village, a residential community for developmentally disabled and emotionally disturbed adults where the truths about human beings were revealed brutally and poignantly every minute of every day.
I wrote Mass Appeal while working and living there. That play went to Manhattan Theatre Club where Lynne Meadow produced it. After it opened in New York many new and extraordinary things began to happen.
Life was exciting and beautiful until several years later which is now several years ago, my sister died – she was thirty-two. The course of her illness and our attempts to save her life changed the world for me.
I work daily. I write what I’m moved to write and re-write – both plays and screenplays. My plays are read, workshopped, produced, published and some I have adapted for the screen. I look forward to my screenplays being filmed and I also embrace the idea of many and varied interpretations and translations of my plays by directors and actors in the Americas, and in Europe and other countries around the world.
© Copyright 2006 by Bill C. Davis.
Actors Who Have Performed in Works by Bill C. Davis:
SARA JESSICA PARKER
French translator of EXPATRIATE - EXPATRIE
French translator of MASS APPEAL
Czech translator - http://www.dilia.cz/index.php/granty/item/2404-jerie-alexander
Coming2Terms at The Vineyard Playhouse
Check out this link for a Martha's Vineyard Times review of Coming2Terms
2011 Coming2Terms Set
Check out the following link for a review of All Hallowed by WacoTrib.com:
2010 Wrestlers Reading
1987 Wrestlers Performance
2009 Expatriate set
Mass Appeal French review
Cast and Director of L'Affrontement (Mass Appeal)
Belgian Theatre show info:
More pictures of rehearsal from Red Raven Theatre company:
Review from the Waterford Today:
Mass Appeal in Mexico
Dancing in the End-Zone
Avow - being performed in America and around the world.
Avow - Off Broadway
High Beam article
4th Wall Theatre
Open For Me
how bill c.'s it
Open Letter to Pope Francis - 2015
To: Pope Francis
From: Bill C. Davis
Dear Pope Francis-
I was amazed no one elected to the throne of Peter before you had thought to take the name of the most beloved saint in the church. And he's been beloved for centuries. There has been ample opportunity. Perhaps what St. Francis embodied was irreconcilable with what the Vatican had become over the years. Your choice of that name was the initial salve you brought to the gilded reality of your seat.
We've all been inspired and roused by some of your observations and spontaneous comments. Bringing the church back to the root of Christ is not an easy course. But you're doing....all right. A few suggestions though.
The spanking comment. No. You can't spank a child and be concerned with their dignity at the same time. You reduce the child to a creature – a house pet. So, a bit disconcerted and saddened by that comment. But what you said about breast feeding – great. A beautiful thing for you to comment on. To allow and embrace – and to breast feed in public – is wonderful. Good of you to make a point of it.
Now – although you said, who am I to judge in relationship to homosexual persons, I want you to go in a slightly different direction. I believe you said that on an airplane in response to a question. I also think you were implying that this struggle, which is how I think you perceive this condition, is something to be honored. You feel the struggle is to be honored – not the reality or practice, which, perhaps by virtue of your position, you do judge. For some reason expanding the erotic experience to people of the same sex has a sting of immorality. But I think – and I'm not judging you for not talking about this, that on the other end of the spectrum, boxing, MMA, American football present a stronger moral problem than erotic expressions do.
Look closely – two men entering a cage and pounding each other into bloody submission or unconsciousness is accepted – legal – profitable – watched by millions. Boxing – the same – but in a ring, and the objective: knock the other guy out – scramble his brains – and give the viewing audience a good show that gets their hearts pumping and satisfies their romance with violence. Perhaps on a lesser level American football does the same – not as horrific to be sure, but ritualized and padded with echoes of military all around the pumped up spectacle.
Now – really – my dear Francis - you have to say something about this. You really have to. On a scale of Christ-like humanity, two men kissing, making each other feel good as opposed to two men inflicting pain, injury, humiliation on each other, for money and recruiting those dark impulses in all those who watch, which would you say is immoral? I know what St. Francis would say.
I also would like you to think about taking the Vatican airplane to hotspots in the world. Ghandi would go on hunger strikes. You could bring the power and glory of the Vatican to Ukraine, Mosul, Kabul, Syria – you can choose. Land the plane – set up camp and proclaim you are not leaving until there is the beginning of a resolution or treaty. Insist. Bring the eyes of the world to that spot where your airplane will stay until you are satisfied there is a path of peace restored. Don't fly to parades and soccer fields or baseball stadiums where people buy tickets to see you as if you're a sculpture. Be the radical messenger of the prince of peace. You've got the wheels and the wings to do it.
I offer these observations most humbly and well aware that you have done okay so far. Ironically, that puts you in a tougher position, because I know you know better. You are not clueless as to the stunning nature of morality if you look at the heart of human behavior and not the trappings of politics, prejudice and repression. Violence is the problem – not human sexuality. I will take it further – denial, repression and shame are the fertilizers of violence. Hostility toward the human body, one's own to start with, makes it easier to bring blade, bullet or bombs to other bodies.
Hope to see you in Rome – and if I'm here in NYC in the fall when you're here, maybe we'll run into each other and we can talk about this in more depth. I just wanted to begin the discussion.
Break You in Half. Like a Boy.
“Break you in half. Like a boy.”
Bill C. Davis
It's interesting what leaps out when someone like Rep. Grimm gets excited. “I'll Break you in half. Like a boy.” were his parting words to a round-faced reporter who asked a good and pertinent question. Those packed words followed a more concrete physical threat from the Congressman.
“Break you in half.” Okay – you mean like a baseball bat – or a stick? But “Like a boy?” Premise being? “I am a man – a tough angry man – and my area of brutal domination includes boys.” Is that what he was going for? Terms like “bitch slap” are not far behind or in front of “Break you in half. Like a boy.” It's border-line Jerry Sandusky but without the avuncular overlay. It might have come from Grimm's time in the Marines – a few good men know what to do with boys who disrespect them and don't know their place.
The boy reporter, by Grimm's implication, does not have balls – or pubic hair – or a five o'clock shadow. This pre-pubescent punk would be easily silenced – one punch maybe, or a quick toss over the rail. There was a certain relish in casting the reporter as plucked and emasculated. The nature of the inquiry – the answer that might have been forthcoming – none of it mattered. The eruption had to do with - “How dare you – boy – do that to ME?”
Grimm must see boys as dispensible. Weak. Useless. Not entitled. That is the base line logic of this and many men like Grimm. It's usually hid well so we ought to be grateful to Grimm for coming clean with the subtext of his psychological type. We should appreciate Grimm for puncturing the fairy tale that they respect every stage of human life. Not boyhood, that's for sure.
Boys are cannon fodder. Boys get fed to a machine and they should just shut up about it.
The dominant males with full lion manes hate that stage of life – the weak, awkward, annoying, useless stage they themselves have survived. Looking back and down on those who are there now – well, they need to do as many push ups, and laps, sit-ups, chin ups, and swallow whatever bitter or prescription pills they're told to.
It was an obscene use of what should be a beautiful word. It's been used with dripping contempt for black men – it's used for young army recruits, that's if they're not called “Ladies.”
Boy. We hear other members of congress use the word about soldiers –“Our boys...” but then correct themselves. But in essence, they have it right – boys are cannon fodder - on football fields where they're often brain damaged or crippled for life – or on battlefields where they are shattered – broken not only in half but in pieces.
Grimm used the word “boy” as if he were saying trash. Then one need not wonder why some – many boys have a fascination with weaponry. Most school and mall shooters could have been an easy target for a man like Grimm – most of them easily could have been broken in half – and who knows if they weren't before their D-day of score settling.
As a writer one couldn't ask for a better name for the man who has delivered the truth about how a power obssessed society looks at boys. Again, we thank Rep. Grimm for a stunning moment of revelation. His words need to be reckoned with – not just as something actionable against him, which is advisable, but as a loaded gun. It's fairly certain that Grimm and his ilk became cocked and loaded as boys. And it's now their right and their turn to plant more seeds in the psyches of boys. The harvest will be a new crop of breakable and destructive men.
Christie Eleison -
BILL C. DAVIS
I used to hate riding the subways in New York. If we paused between stops my palms would sweat. If we slowed down I anticipated trouble ahead and my heart would race. The random humanity I shared a subway car with were always interesting. I would use the time together to imagine their lives, wonder about a certain tattoo or haircut. But I'd mostly watch if anyone became agitated as we sometimes stalled between stops. Were other palms sweating?
I made it a point to sit (or stand) in either the rear or front car in case I had to escape. I had it planned if the worst happened – I would slide open the front car door – climb down or jump to the center of the tracks and I would run avoiding large rats and the third electrified rail. I would look for a shaft of light and a ladder. It was a conjured nightmare in concrete and steel – this subway system - the city's subconscious.
If the stall lasted more than 30 seconds there would be the inevitable recorded announcement. It never consoled. The recording artist who made the announcement was not on scene so however well modulated the assurance, it did not stick.
Since it was and is the smartest and best way to navigate Gotham I was determined to understand why something so ostensibly sane made me so nuts. What I arrived at – like walking on to a subway platform of understanding – was DISTRUST. I did not trust unseen man or woman in charge.
There was, and is, a huge network of decisions, green lights, red lights, switches – all run by a head – and a head none of us on the train knows. Did he care? Did he look at all of us as dispensable losers? In a cab or a limo we might have more leverage – but down here? “So what if they're stuck for 90 minutes underground,” I imagined the master subway king might say.
The sweaty palms were connected not to the closed space but to the belief that I should not – could not - believe in whoever has his hand on the infrastructure switch. He did not care. How could he? Why would he?
Whenever this amorphous “He” or “She” gets a face, it becomes more chrystalized, as it has in the most recent example of the personification of the creature at the switch. Indifferent and untrustworthy – petulant and willing to let the citizenry be collateral damage in the pursuit of a venal goal.
The people sitting in traffic for hours and hours and hours on George Washington Bridge I'm sure had sweat and moisture in places beyond the palms of their hands. But the overriding feeling must have been – no one cares. No one knows what they are doing – and they must not know on purpose. This can't be indifference. Can there be hostile indifference? Or is it like decamation? Every tenth person will be killed until I get my way.
This is the Christie syndrome. Whether he knew or didn't know – the fish rots from the head. And he – double-dubbed Chris Christie - is simply a prototype which takes form slimmer and bigger, in the past, present and future – and these people must never be allowed in power.
The promoted perception that the governor is a tough, no nonsense tell-it-like-it-is-one-of-us guy is not what we the people need. The rude put-downs and in your face confrontation is supposedly about some kind of “refreshing” style. But it's persnickety and disrespectful – as if he is in charge of who should be respected and who should be smacked down. He and those to whom he delegates are in charge not only of what lanes are shut down – but who gets the money – who gets a visit – who gets to wait – who gets screwed.
He is not only a prototype, he is a variation of a prototype. The patriotic, vigilant citizen must make sure these types – predictable and venal that they are – never, ever endear themselves to any of us. We can't be duped into thinking he's smacking down people who deserve to be smacked down. They must never be given power as they do everything they can to get it with a smile, a well placed rant, and a selfie of family love.
Glaring at someone is not vision. Shouting down is not declaring. Shutting down is a study only in unscrupulous application of power to get what the man at the controls wants. And the riders on the subways – in the bridge and tunnel – the citizenry are left with their palms sweating. We all could be, with this kind of energy in charge, stuck – stuck in between stops – on a bridge – in a recession – in a war.
And these types will do it. The last thing these single-minded engines can afford to experience is empathy. Until they get their way someone will have to suffer – and who suffer are the ones who can either let them continue to have the power to do that – or we can and are obligated to - take it away.
Appetite for Humiliation
2007 – updated 2014
by Bill C. Davis
What seems to be part of the digestive process of the popular American psyche is both the witnessing of and participation in the spectacle of humiliation. The programming of networks, certain marching orders in foreign engagements and the current New Jersey brand of governorship have in common the verb - humiliate.
Trump telling an eager aspirant, "You're fired" collapses the face and hopes of the applicant and it sells. The Jerry Springer show has marketed joyful humiliation - audiences delight as the face of another human being is pushed into the nearest pool of metaphorical mud. Judge Judy snaps like a petulant and indignant terrier at the unfortunates in the dock looking for justice. And an audience giddy with delight watches as the "wise and sassy" arbiter of justice puts them “in their place.”
The crude insult has an iconic place in the American contest. It has become epidemic, and organized as the need to have no sympathy for losers becomes both convenient and hip. Howard Stern and Don Imus tapped into the sophomoric glee at hearing another person being slapped down. The befuddlement and hurt on the face and in the voice of the victim is gold to the programmers.
Feeding the appetite makes the appetite for humiliation grow. More and better variations at the practice of humiliating are in development.
As evidenced in Columbine to Virginia Tech. to Newtown to suicide bombers - humiliation runs the risk of eventually being answered. None of it is right, justified or pretty but humiliation is itself born out of primitive savagery. Murder is in its nucleus.
The song "Pirate Jenny" from Three Penny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill tells the tale of a woman humiliated by the people she waits on - "You gentleman can smile while I'm scrubbing the floors - and I'm scrubbing the floors while you're gawking - maybe you can tip me and it makes you feel swell." They shout at her - "what's wrong with you? Earn your keep here." And all the while she fantasizes about a swarm of pirates from a black freighter coming to shore to murder all the men who have slowly murdered her with words and looks.
Her rescuers round up the offenders and she smiles as they ask her, "Kill them now or later? Asking ME - kill them now or later?" She responds with deep relish - "Right now. Right now." She completes her fantasy - "And they'll pile up the bodies...and I'll say - That'll learn ya."
"That'll learn ya" is the moment of satisfaction the humiliated hunger for. Some will do whatever is necessary to have that moment - even if it's their last.
Humiliation is a natural risk for any life gamble - from getting married to creating a work of art to running for office. But the culture of hyper acquisition and mammoth footprints necessitates humiliation becoming a weapon. It keeps competitors and aspirants in their place. It discourages interference from anyone wanting the same things the dominant forces have. The purpose of humiliation is to destroy the inner libido of the other. It's meant to stop the desire to try or to claim.
The collective appetite to watch the moment of humiliation is a dangerous sign for civilization.
The impulses that were evident at Abu Ghraib have a reality here at home. The smiles on the faces of the guards were as grotesque as the offenses. They are the smiles of an audience feeling safe and delighted at the miserable plight of another.
But it would be unwise not to realize as the appetite for humiliation is being fed that there will always be a percentage of the humiliated, like Pirate Jenny, who will want to wipe that smile off the collective face - even if it's - and it often is - the last thing they do.
Theater is the antidote. Empathy is the salve. Feel - daily - what another human being is feeling. Will that make us socialists? If you're going to be a good predatory capitalist is empathy a fatal flaw? Is that why ridicule and contempt shape the popular aesthetic? Victims must be neutered and laughed at. As the Christie aide Bridget Kelly – a well raised Catholic – asked as thousands of citizens sat trapped in a vehicular vendetta - “Is it wrong that I'm smiling?”
The humiliating truth is as wide swaths of the population presume they're in on the joke, they become the sad and vicious joke itself.
Julie Harris – Elaine Stritch – 2013
Julie Harris died on my birthday this year. She was a brilliant, decent, kind and dynamic person. I visited her several times and stayed in her guest house on the Cape. She cooked dinner for me – we went to a local parade. We corresponded – by mail – I have and cherish her beautifully hand written and thoughtful letters. She rehearsed a new play of mine – EXPATRIATE - for ten days and we did a reading of the play at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. She illuminated everything. She bathed every word and moment in truth.
I first met her when I was invited by the director to be the only other audience besides himself to watch her and Leonard Frey do a run through in a rehearsal room in New Haven of a play called UNDER THE ILEX – a play about Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey. Again – honest – real – unadorned – not tricky – just true. Afterwards at the house the theatre provided she cooked dinner for us – the director, her co-star and me. Thoughtful – easy - well-paced. She was sent, by someone in the local area, a glossy picture of James Dean. The diehard fan wanted her to sign it. She did after all kiss James Dean on a ferris wheel. In between boiling water for potatoes and shredding a salad, she put her hand on the picture and said matter-of-factly - “He was so beautiful.”
As loving and empathic as she was she was not a pushover. I rememer her telling me her impulse while in the audience of 'NIGHT MOTHER – a brilliant play, but Miss Harris (as Charles Nelson Reilly would refer to her) was not buying it. She said - “Twenty minutes into the play I wanted to stand up and say – 'Knock her out! Grab something and knock her out!'”
Elaine Stritch was in my play DANCING IN THE END-ZONE in Miami Florida. I had dinner with her just about every night for five weeks. We laughed a lot. I liked her – and she liked me. She was drinking at the time – she was nervous – struggling with the role for which she was perfectly cast. At the first rehearsal she tried to get a line from the younger female character shifted to her - “Fuck the ingenue.” she said, “she's late.” I laughed – she did too. She knew how funny she was and my getting her hysterical wit made her go further. At an outdoor cafe I admitted to her that I never heard the song Ladies Who Lunch - “What?!” She sang it there – on the spot – at lunch in fact.
Jose Ferrer, who was the artistic director of the theatre, had taken over the director's duties after the initial director was asked to leave. The first week was encouraging – but after that – he and she bristled – with every word. All any of us needed to know was that she had a long-haired dachsund who snapped often. On stage – in performance, she was riveting and compelling of course. The character, like Elaine herself, believed she was the smartest mammal in the room.
After a tough rehearsal week I remember Stritch doing a great impersonation of Lionel Barrymore in Grand Hotel I think it was – with that voice like a cement mixer and with each word she would scrunch her face until she looked like Mr. Magoo when she completed the sentence - “I love the theatre and all the charming people IN IT.”
Several years ago, before her stroke, I saw Julie Harris at a function of some kind and she told me of her first and I imagine only meeting with Elaine Stritch – both of whom were from Detroit. For some reason they had not actually met. They both acknowledged how odd that after all these years and coming from the same city they had not met. Elaine said to Julie that her mother, Elaine's mother, at some point in Julie's and Elaine's careers, said to Elaine - “I just can't like Julie Harris.” Julie even did the drawing out of the sentence that one can hear Elaine would do to imply a befuddled regret at having to report this necessary news. Julie said to Elaine - “Tell her not to worry about it.” “Can you imagine?” Julie said to me questioning how really necessary this news was.
I think of these two major theatre artists in contrast to each other. Both could hold the stage like nobody else – and they did it in two different ways. Julie Harris was all about “listen to this” – and Elaine Stritch was all about “listen to me.” Although I give credit to and cannot deny the power of “Listen to ME” the interpretive artists I stay with and want to listen to again and again are the ones who work under the banner of “Listen to this.”
The irony of that approach is that all one wants to do is listen to the actor or singer who is inspired and driven by, “Listen to THIS.”
Memories of a Catholic Education
Catholicism is sensual.
Incense – music – sins whispered in a booth - Body of Christ as you present your tongue to a man in robes. With your Amen, you receive and swallow the mystery of transubstantiation.
You take in your body the body of your savior. When confirmed, a bishop will give a symbolic slap to your face and apply oil to your forehead.
In the trenches of Catholic rearing, slaps were more traumatic than symbolic. There was a theology of the body that was both punitve and exalted. At one moment your body was a temple of the Holy Spirit, and at another it was the drum skin of discipline. The body of nuns , brothers and priests – cloaked in black – and they had both license and mission to visit meaning in any way they could to the ripe nerve endings of their uniformed, pre-pubscent students.
Post Vatican II and the revolutuionary tumult of the 60's and early 70's created a fertile frequency for ways to approach a human body. Some Church rituals seemed to see the body as a pathway to spiritual awakening. Certain angry personalities who found their way into vestments had another view of the body. Present your palms to a wooden ruler and be smacked hard – a brutal slap to the face – public humiliation – a girl made to kneel on rice after being disccovered huddling with a boy in a stairway alcove. The rice, her wedding day confetti, was used to make an impression on her soft skin stretched over her kneeling knees. The entire class watched.
A boy in the first pew during an afternoon mass, laughed at something. It was one of those laughs that take over – innocent and silly. The monsignor who was giving out communion at the time, froze – stared as if in a wicked trance. In retrospect I believe this monsignor was on the verge of dementia. He must have had a flashback of something – but he literally became a statue and stared at this boy who could not stop laughing. Nuns in a panic ran up to him – what? What is it? He pointed – that boy is disturbing me. His disturbance might very well have had a longer and deeper history, but the laughing boy got the finger.
Later that day, in front of a class of other boys and girls the boy was manhandled by a red-faced nun who grabbed his tie at the throat and violently pushed him back and forth while delivering an aria about how she consecrated her life to the bleesed sacrament and how dare he laugh in the presence of that. Real dramatic and unhinged.. I suppose, had the boy pushed back or ran away there would have been hell to pay on all fronts.
A brother stood a boy up in front of the entire student body during lunch – all eyes trained to the front – the brother said – here is a wise guy. Don't know what the boy did, but whatever he did, it was enough to have the brother put him forward as an example. This is what happens to wise guys here – and the brother slapped, with an open hand, the boy's face. The sound cracked through the open space of the cafeteria – gasps – the brother did it again – harder – and louder. The boy's face was instantly red – not only from embarrassment but from the actual intensity and force of the man's hand.
There may be those who would wonder – did that nun and that brother get off on that kind of physical imposition and violation of a young body. Mortify the physical and the spiritual will emerge? Was that the holy mission – the blessed plan? Or was it something else – something more repressed and satisfying? Who knows? They certainly didn't. Vows of chastity were taken for reasons that may have had nothing to do with spiritual discipline. Their bodies will rebel and other trusting, unsuspecting younger bodies become collateral damage.
The most wonderful nun – who I will name because she was so good – Sister St. Patrick understood humanity. She defended the boy who laughed to the principal, saying, when he gets nervous, he laughs – there is no disrepect in the laugh.
She also gave one of the most moral and stirring speeches to a class of seventh grade boys. After an episode of a boy being bullied – the poor kid struck back in the middle of class – in tears of incomprehension. I remember bubbles coming out of his mouth as he cried and hit back at his stronger tormentor. He just didn't understand. Sister St. Patrick gently asked him to bring something to the principal's office – he wasn't in trouble. She was kind to him – just wanted him out of the room for a bit so she could tell us all exactly what she thought of us.
Close your books. She was mad – and she didn't get mad, so we all knew this was real. I'll say the boy's name because I wish I knew where he was now – Gerald Butland – not a mean bone in his body – a bit stiff and awkward – spoke in a kind of courtly and tight tone of voice – but really sweet as could be – and therefore a target. So Sister St. Patrick met all of our eyes and said – “when we read the passion of Christ and we read how the Roman soldiers spit at and hit and whipped Jesus – and you all say how you hate those Roman soldiers. Well – the way you treat Gerald Butland – you are those Roman soldiers.” If she weren't so angry, she might have cried – but she had this beautiful anger, which I think released most of the boys from their apathy about how poor Gerald was being treated by the meaner boys.
She didn't need to lay a hand on any of us – but she laid us out. She took the mythology of the crucifixion, which by that time was in every cell in our body, and she knocked us all on our butts – without raising a hand. I loved her.
Sister. St Patrick was a true Catholic educator – a real sister. The others used the Chruch as a beard for their hostility and confusion about the physicality of human beings. For whatever reason – family, the 50's, American capitalism, Puritanism – a portion of the clergy sought haven in the choice of no sex, and were oblivious to the fermenting ravages that would plague them – and us.
A priest I know – a very good priest – had a wet dream. He got on a bus at 7:00 in the morning and traveled 2 hours to his confessor. What he was confessing to the other priest, I don't know. What he told me was a different kind of confession. Look what I did – look what I let the Church do to me.
The same priest and I were walking down a busy city street and it dawned on him that – look at all these people – all the result of a successful orgasm. Well – I countered, we have no idea if any of those orgasms were successful – or if two orgasms happened – or if the man's orgasm was the least pleasurable of his life. Life can happen no matter the quality or pleasure of the act.
The Church does seem fixated on that substance. As a teen-ager I hitch-hiked. A kind of rough- around-the-edges guy picked me up in a funky Cadillac and said he would drive me right to my parents' house – and he wanted to blow me. I said keep driving and let me tell you a thing or two. So I told him – I was seventeen at the time and a full product of Catholic eduacation, and I told him how unwise this was. How he should have more respect for himself – he presisted – Come on – it's fine, he said. When we reached my driveway, with the car door open I said, what you want to do will bring about a life-producing substance and you should have more respect for that if not for yourself. He looked so befuddled. I was in jeans and a v-neck sweater and on a highway hitch-hiking. My final riff was not he was expecting.
I would exhort the Church – and it matters little to me that these exhortations will matter little to them – to minister to the principle of love and affection in the act of sex. I think that could certainly be their domain. The spirit rather than the biology of it should be their mission. Put body and soul together when you kiss or bring another person to climax. I could see that as a Church doctrine and as a beginning of a remedy to the legacy of abuse.
Love sex – and infuse sex with love. Love the body – cherish it as the path to – no - more than that – cherish it as the soul itself.