We are part of a small writers’ circle that meets twice a month to read portions of our current work to each other. Our styles are different, but in general the feedback is dependably close, precise, and supportive. As we’ve grown to know and trust each other our responses have become broader and zestier, and this most recent meeting sounded remarkably like a party.
There are three novels in process, and each has a uniquely non-literal metaphor working in the plot. Another writer works frequently in very short-form fiction, closely-observed and realistic. Tonight was different: longer, and with a very startling metaphor providing the spine. Such a good one, in fact, that there was much encouragement to give it more space, make it longer.
Then we started riffing about bold metaphor. When is enough too much? What makes a wild premise deeply satisfying, rather than off-putting? And when does it cross the line that elicits groans?
I started to laugh. Real life can come up with things that are truly in the “Oh, puh-leeze” category. I have one of those, and it’s only now hit me as broad enough to be funny.
I had a really difficult time being the kid of an adoptive mom who was nearly fifty when she faced the reality of an imported newborn. She’d had absolutely no prior experience of kids. This did not work out well, and I am still trying to dig out the effects of her mistreatment. The lady did the best she could, and she’s been gone for thirty years, but I still find myself mistreating myself in the old familiar ways. Enough, already, but it’s hard to exorcize.
A couple of months ago I took a trip to the little town in southeastern Illinois where the family cemetery is located. I’d never seen it before. When my dad died I was quite pregnant and heavily involved in rehearsals of an upcoming play; I went to the funeral in Michigan, but not to the burial in Illinois. Later, when my mom died, same thing—after the funeral in Michigan my younger brother’s family took her ashes to Illinois.
I found the right plot in the cemetery, but couldn’t find her headstone. There was my dad, his brother and sister-in-law, both of his parents, and nothing for my mom. Just a blank grassy space. I was so astonished that after I got back home I contacted the folks who handle the cemetery records. No problem, her ashes were buried next to my dad, but she was in an unmarked grave.
No. Not right, not right at all. I found the man who carved the headstones, ordered a matching one, and gave him the name and dates. It should be there by Memorial Day.
So there’s my big honking metaphor. It’s not just that it’s the right thing to do. It might get her out of my psyche and into a resting place next to her beloved. And though it sounds crude to say it, maybe it will hold her down.
—From the Fool—
There’s a lot of prejudice about Fools. But in fact we go back a long ways. Some of the real big shots of history were part of our tradition, even if they wouldn’t admit it.
My great-great-grandpa—with about another dozen “greats” tossed in there, even though he wasn’t all that great—was the official court Fool to the famous King Lear. The nutty old king never laughed at his jokes because he told them all in Shakespearean, so who could understand him? He was an Insult Comic before they started booking those guys in Las Vegas. Way back then, they hanged insult comics, which wasn’t a bad idea.
But I had other famous Fools dog-paddling in my gene pool. Pierre Fool was a great French chef till he tried serving truffled pheasant with a Robitussin sauce. After that he joined the circus and got slapped nightly with a halibut. Vladimir Fool was head of Soviet Termite Controls under Joe Stalin till it all came crashing down and he was hired by the termites to represent their interests. Margie Fool was a big celebrity renowned for doing nothing but sitting there and getting introduced as a big celebrity. She got tired of that after a while and ran a car wash.
So in my darker moments I console myself: I carry on a tradition.
We just got back from a long weekend of LEAR performances. Two at the Dell’Arte theatre in the tiny town of Blue Lake, CA, and then one in the tinier coastal town of Caspar. We’d lost the address of the community center where we were to perform, but no problem: there were only about four buildings in the town. All three shows had fulsome response.
As life goes on, running its sand through the hour-glass, I become more and more aware of the true value of theatre. Playing to these intense audiences brought it home more strongly. Yes, certainly we want to plumb the layers and depths of a masterpiece; we want to energize thought about the abuses of power, the commodification of love, the grief attending on mortality, the genius of the human soul struggling with these issues. And certainly we want to contribute to the ongoing evolution of the art of theatre, that chronic invalid who somehow manages to hang on. But more and more I feel that the true value of what we do is this—
It’s harmless. The simple fact of having collected 75-80 people for a couple of hours on a Sunday night means that for that span of time none of them are shooting people, beating up a spouse, screaming at their kids, laundering meth money, littering the beach—none of that. Not that I’d suspect any of our audience of doing any such thing, but at least, from 7 pm to 8:40, we’re absolutely sure of it.
Of course we have to admit that it’s all relative. It takes us gas to get to the gig, and for everyone else as well. It takes 15 amps of electricity to run the lights & sound. We suck resources out of Planet Earth to feed us and to supply the coffee filters and wheat paste and white glue for our puppets’ papier-mache. But relatively speaking, our miniature tragedy puts much less stress on the world than a single B-52. And it opens a portal of possibility that human beings are not fated inevitably to be the archfiends of the universe.
That may be a good part of the reason that—at the end of the most depressing play in all literature—people are standing and applauding with faces of joy.
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© Bishop & Fuller 2016