Later (and much longer!) Sartre plays

Sartre’s plays of the 1950s were appreciably longer than those of the 1940s. Indeed, all four of the later ones are 1.5 times as long as the longest of the earlier one (The Flies).


“Le diable et le bon dieu” (The Devil and the Good Lord, 1951) recalls for me Brecht’s play about the 30 Year Ward, “Mother Courage,” though its title character (singular) is male. The warlord Goetz, who has betrayed his brother and is prepared to raze Worms, is persuaded to spare it and seeks to build a utopian community instead of wage war heavy on rape and pillage.

Edmund White has claimed that this was Sartre’s favorite of his plays. I have (albeit long ago) read Sartre’s Saint Genet (1952) and don’t really see Goetz being based on the petty thief Jean Genet, even as exalted (canonize) by Sartre. For me, Goetz is not an especially interesting character, although I can sympathize with his frustratios at not being able to “go straight” (that is build a community of peace rather than lead troops into battle). His antagonists (the would-be people’s priest Heinrich and the proto-communist Nasti) are even more types, not characters, as are the woman devoted to him after he raped her (Catherine) and a would-be Mother Teresa (more Mother Bountiful), Hilda.

At the end, Goetz is resigned to doing what he must: “I have no other way of being among men. There is a war to fight, and I will fight it.” (The conclusion is the same of Arjuna in the Bahagavad Gita, but Arjuna’s duty to fight was explained to him by the god Krishna).


Kean” (1953) is like nothing in Sartre’s extensive oeuvre—a romantic comedy with a Wildean (Ideal Husband) feel. An adaptation of a play by Alexandre Dumas père about the love life of the fabled English actor Edmund Kean’s amours, notably one with Elena, Countess de Koefeld, the wife of the Danish ambassador. Kean is something of the tastemaker (at least for female flesh) of the dissolute Prince of Wales (modeled on the future Edward VII, who was 60 when he took the throne; the real prince/king was born after Kean’s death). If there is any philosophical subtext of this heavy-footed comedy, I missed it. (Goetz definitely had existential crises!)


Nekrassov” (1955) is a more original comedy that also runs on too long. Its concern with role-playing and role-engulfment brings to mind the plays of Luigi Pirandello. The play has a Cold War setting. Nekrassov is a high Soviet official who has disappeared. In the West, it is widely supposed that he has defected, though the official line from Moscow is that he is resting in the Crimea.

A swindler named Georges claims to be Nekrassov, and a government-supported paper is only too glad to publish his criticisms of the Soviet system. I like the first scene in which Georges is fished out of the Seine by a pair of beggars, before he hits upon the scheme to be a defector guest of the state. He co-opts the one person who actually knows what Nekrassov looks like and evades the regular police who were hot on his tail when he plunged into the Seine.

I don’t think that it is a great play, but, pruned, it could be an entertaining one.


After two comedies, Sartre returned to High Moral Seriousness with “Les séquestrés d’Altona” (The Condemned of Altona, also know as “Loser Wins,” 1959). It is set in a mansion owned by an industrialist (modeled on the Krupp munitions millionaires, though this one made boats for the Nazis) who is dying of cancer. Gerlach wants to see his elder son, who has been self-exiled in the attic for 13 years, having committed war crimes as a Wermacht officier in the Ukraine during WWII. (He had the chance to emigrate to Argentina with so many other Nazis, but instead chose to hide and be declared dead.)

IMHO the second act, set in Franz’s room with Leni, the sister who has been taking him food, and his sister-in-law Johanna drags on way too long. Franz believes that (West) Germany is still in ruins, rather than having rebuilt and being prosperous.

Finally, in Act 5, Franz and his father meet. Franz has already indicated that he knows Germany has rebuilt, but explains “I pretended that I was locking myself up so that I shouldn’t witness Germany’s agony. It’s a lie. I wanted my country to die, and I shut myself up so that I shouldn’t be a witness to its resurrection.” His father tells Franz he is not contemptuous of his son for his war crimes or even for hiding out. Instead the guilt is his (the father’s).

At the end, they go off together to take the crimes of the century (WWII) on themselves and expiate it by death (how German is it!), aware of how many others (e.g., Lt. Klages did nothing to oppose what they knew was wrong).

Any resonances with French war crimes in the struggle against Algerian independence were intentional, though the play is very much about “the question of German guilt,” specifically the guilt of those who went along more than the True Believers in Hitler).

(I saw the not-very-good 1961 movie directed by Vittorio De Sica, with a family including Maximillian Schell, Robert Wagner, and Sophia Loren headed by Frederic March, long long ago. It does not seem available on DVD, though the oddness of the cast should be reason enough to make it available.)


Though he was tending to lggorrhea (already in Saint Genet, but completely over the hill in The Family Idiot), I think that Sartre was a very good playwright and regret that he abandoned it, beyond an adaptation of “The Trojan Women” (1965) and an (uncredited) screenplay for John Huston’s awful Freud biopic with Montgomery Clift (1962), which was published in 1984 after Sartre’s death in 1980.

Early Sartre plays (in reverse chronological order)

I don’t know why I wanted to reread Sartre’s long 1948 play “Dirty Hands.” It’s a lot better than Malaparte’s Kaputt, but that is very faint praise. Though ancient Ilyria was in Yugoslavia at the time, the inspiration of the maneuvering between Nazis and Soviets is more wartime Hungary (with a Regent, Adm. Horthy). The uncompromising though compromised anti-hero, Hugo, holds on to purity again, ready to die, having slain the prematurely pragmatic Hoederer two years earlier. Adapt? Not Hugo. Olga regrets she cannot again harness his idealism for what The Party’s current line (accommodation) is. Some comic relief is provided by the bodyguards, Slick and George, who would not be terribly out of place in a Beckett play.

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(Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Beijing in 1955)

I’m not sure whether I’d read Sartre’s “The Respectable Prostitute” (La putain respectueuse, 1946) before, though I think so. It is set deep in Faulkner country, where I don’t think Sartre ever visited, and certainly had not before writing the play, an existentialist melodrama in which the title character (Lizzie) tries to do the right thing, but is swayed by a honey-tongued senator before returning to defending a Negro who did not rape or otherwise attack her. (Another one who had not even been on the scene is lynched offstage: “They caught a nigger. It wasn’t the right one.  But they lynched him just the same”).


I also reread “No Exit” (Huis clois, 1944), which I found less interesting. The summation – “Hell is other people” — comes late. I’m not sure that has been shown before Joseph Garcin tells the women with who he is locked up for eternity. The lesbian Inès has been the only forthright one, though maddened that Estelle wants the only available man rather than her. (He wants to have nothing to do with either and early on asks that they all remain silent.) Estelle seems to me to see to be objectified. Does she ever see herself as the other two see her? I don’t think so. Garcin is keenly aware that Inès sees him as a coward, and Estelle as the only being around with a penis.


I was not planning on rereading Sartre’s “The Flies” (Les Mouches, 1943) but was drawn in by the first scene and stayed through the long speeches by Orestes, Electra, and Zeus. Clymenestra barely registers (Orestes does not remember her, having been expelled at a youg age), but Aegisthius is a surprisingly complex character. Not really a Nazi, though depressing everyone with his guilt. And the enemy of the freedom that Orestes (and Electra) seize in murdering their father’s murderers (and/or the soul-murderers of the Argos populace). Now I want to read or reread Sartre’s later plays. I like his essays and plays more than his novels—or politics, though he did denounce Castro for persecuting Cuban writers.


The four plays are published in English in No Exit and Other Plays. I think that Sartre’s plays are more interesting than his novels, though his later ones are so long as to be unplayable (bt not unreadable).


©2018, Stephen O. Murray



The musical adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country

Especially in 1949, Alan Paton’s international best-selling novel Cry, the Beloved Country must have seemed a very unusual choice to adapt into a Broadway musical (decades before “Sweeny Todd” or “Nixon in China,” years before even transforming “Liliom” into “Carousel”). Material more astringent than the typical Broadway froth was not alien to composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950), who was and remains most famous for his collaboration with Bertholt Brecht in turning “The Beggar’s Opera” into “Threepenny Opera” (with the less than frothy hit songs “Mack, the Knife” and “The Pirate Jenny”). The librettist, Maxwell Anderson, was famous for some high-falutin’ plays (Elizabeth the Queen, Anne of the Thousand Days, Joan of Lorraine) and some earnest “problem” plays (Winterset, The Bad Seed, Key Largo).

Contrary to the expectations of many (I’m sure), their play about apartheid, interracial murder, and a preacher losing his faith, “Lost in the Stars” was a critical and popular success on Broadway.


The 1974 movie of the musical (between two non-musical adaptations of Cry, the Beloved Country does not strike me as stage-bound. People burst into song (which is never naturalistic except in movies about staging musicals), but a lot of the musical takes place out of doors. The print of Robert B. Hauser’s cinematography transferred to DVD is not the best, but it is clear that it had bright colors to go with a sad story.

The story is that of a Zulu minister, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo (the anguished and formidable Brock Peters), who travels to Johannesburg, looking for his son Absalom (a very handsome musical theater performer Clifton Davis). I’m not very interested in providing plot summaries, especially of very well-known works such as Cry, the Beloved Country so let me interrupt myself by noting that anyone familiar with the Bible and naming a son Absalom is inviting grief.

Absalom left the rural Zulu area to find work in the diamond mines, notorious as places in which parental/traditional supervision was missing. Absalom got in more than the usual drinking and fornicating kind and, his father learns in Johannesburg, was in prison. Absalom is out on parole, shacked up with looking for his son Absalom (Clifton Davis). Like many of his people, his son has gone to seek work in the mining town, but when Stephen arrives in the city he finds out from his brother that Absalom has been in trouble, has just been released from prison and is shacked up (literally in a shack) with Irina (Melba Moore) whom he has impregnated. She has an unimaginatively staged (medium shot) but fervently performed rendition of the play’s main hit song, “Trouble Man.” The acting is ludicrous, but the song manages to survive.

With a cousin and another thug, Absalom takes part in a robbery—of the liberal son of a hard-bitten white farmer back home. The man is supposed to be out, but is not and is shot pretty much on reflex by Absalom. Absalom’s father catches up with him in prison, certain that no son of his could have killed a white man. Absalom tells his father that he had not meant to, but did in fact pull the trigger. Absalom is determined to tell the truth, while his accomplices plead “not guilty.” Stephen Kumalo’s brother John (a glowering but underused Raymond St. Jacques) tells Stephen that admitting guilt is a guarantee of the gallows, but Stephen is not prepared to urge his son to lie. (And Absalom is determined to lie no more.)

Stephen goes into a church and with great anguish delivers the other most memorable song from the play (“Lost in the Stars”). In the trial, dishonesty is rewarded and honesty leads to the death penalty (as everyone knew it would). The Rev. Kumalo performs a prison-cell wedding and takes Irina and her young son home, after a dramatic but underplayed scene with the dead man’s father and dominating force in the homeland, James Jarvis (Paul Rogers). There are a number of choral commentaries, but the major dialogue is spoken rather than sung. There are also some unimaginatively filmed dance numbers. Neither the music nor the dance bears much relation to South African music or dance. Despite being an independent production, the music and dance are very Broadway (the production numbers in the MGM musicals of the late-1940s and early-1950s were not so staticly filmed).

There is more drama involving the Rev. Kumalo’s crisis of faith and no happy ending (“Victorious messengers do not come riding often,” Brecht warned after the reprieve in “Threepenny Opera” (in Marc Blitzstein’s translation).)


(Lotte Lenya with Kurt Weill, ca. 1942)

Other than hearing Weill’s music in its original dramatic setting (the Brechtian choruses as well as the two enduring songs already mentioned) (or to fantasize about Clifton Davis), the major reason to view this DVD is the powerhouse performance of Brock Peters—he was the defendant memorably and unsuccessfully defended by Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and extraordinary as the neighbor of Leslie Caron in “The L-shaped Room,” Rodriguez in “The Pawnbroker,” the detective in “Soylent Green” and who has had few good roles since “Lost in the Stars,” which he had played in the Broadway revival the year before the movie was made. (Trekkies may fire at will.) Like Lou Gossett, Jr., Brock kept busy, but rarely was given the chance to show what he could do.

I wish that Melba Moore had brought more fire to the role—or, perhaps that the role of Irina had some of the fury of the Pirate Jenny and less of making calf eyes. (Moore and Davis apparently had a 1972 tv series).


The DVD mostly advertises other American Film Theater productions (e.e., Brecht’s “Galileo“. I saw it in a theater, so did not have access to the essay that is in the DVD package.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Film of Brecht’s “Galileo”

The adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo” directed by Joseph Losey is one of the more cinematic of the series of major 20th-century plays filmed in the mid 1970s as the American Film Theater. In that Losey directed a staging of the play in 1944 while Brecht was in exile in Los Angeles (translated by and starring Charles Laughton), it has a special importance as a Brecht document. As a recurrent alienation device it has an annoyingly off-key and poorly articulating trio of boy sopranos introducing most scenes. Sometimes there scene setting is supplemented by showing the text on top of the picture.


There is also a lengthy sung burlesque of the story with an effigy of Topol (I mean of Galileo). Although these two devices break up the biographical story, it is shown in chronological order (i.e., without flashbacks) and mostly looks like a conventional low-budget biopic, albeit about a selfish, cowardly “great man.” When Andrea, a disillusioned former assistant played by Tom Conti, tells the scientist who recanted what he knew to be true at the prospect of torture by the Office of the “Holy” Inquisition that his followers hoped he would be a hero, and sighs, “”Unhappy the land that has no heroes,” Galileo responds: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.”

(Brecht himself was unheroic, slithered through one inquisition (HUAC) after writing the play, and failed to side with the workers in a 1953 revolt that was crushed in East Germany, where he was a major cultural personage supported by the Stalinist regime. He could have pointed back at this play as fair warning of what he would do, even recognizing, as his Galileo does in retrospect, that he was too prominent to be tortured and caved in not under torture but at the mere thought of physical pain after being showed the machines of torture.)

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Brecht’s Galileo as played by Topol (with all his “Fiddler on the Roof” baggage) is a sly opportunist eager to sell out, unconcerned about ruining the life (specifically marriage prospects) of his daughter, but with a curiosity that he indulges as he indulges in good food and fine wine (but not lechery, one of the forms of bribery the Holy Mother Church offers him in exchange for not pushing the Copernican doctrine that became a heresy that the earth revolved around the run, augmented by his own discovery through the new-fangled technology of a telescope of “the Medici stars” that are moons revolving around the planet Jupiter).

Topol is good at cunning and handles the aging thirty-plus years convincingly with a minimum of special make-up (he discusses this in a 2003 interview included on the DVD). He is a Brechtian scoundrel who is far from lovable (and, fortunately, is not one of those who sing in the movie!). He is a secular monster too greedy to stay out of the reach of Rome (orthodoxy was less easily enforced in the Republic of Venice, but early on, he moves from the University of Padua to Medici sponsorship in the University of Florence, and does not flee when help is offered by the rising merchant class).

For drama (epic or realistic), there needs to be a worthy opponent. Brecht and/or history supplied none. John Gielgud’s aged cardinal splutters through one scene (he was on hand for one day of shooting). Patrick Magee’s Cardinal Bellarmin is chilling enough, but there is no development of his character in general or in relationship to suppressing Copernican heresy in particular. Edward Fox’s Grand Inquisitor also is a shadow who has no confrontation onscreen with Galileo (though he intimidates Michael Lonsdale, as Cardinal Barberini, later elevated to the Throne of St. Peter as Pope Urban VIII, is not a villain at all. He knows that Galileo is right and limits what the Office of the Holy Inquisition can do in breaking him. Galileo’s wife, daughter, and rich student (also prospective son-in-law, ably played by Tim Woodward) want him to go along to get along.

The horrors of the Inquisition methods was not necessary in the case of Galileo Galilei. Years later, he recognized he had a unique opportunity: “In my days astronomy reached the marketplaces. In these quite exceptional circumstances, the steadfastness of one man could have shaken the world. . . . I am not convinced that I was never in real danger. For a few years I was as strong as the authorities, And I surrendered my knowledge to those in power, to use, or not to use, or to misuse, just as suited their purposes. I have betrayed my profession. A man who does what I have done cannot be tolerated in the ranks of science.” Andrea is not convinced by this self-flagellation as he carries off the manuscript Galileo has hidden (the Discorsi that was then published in the Netherlands). Losey dropped Brecht’s sardonic final scene of Andrea crossing the border, though generally adhering to the text.

There are multiple sets (unlike most of the other AFT productions). There’s some but not much camera fluidity, but there are not static proscenium-like scenes. Galileo’s asides are in close-up.


The DVD has a 20-minute interview with Topol, a faded theatrical trailer, and four essays that may be scrolled through. The image transfer is excellent. The sound transfer is not, though perhaps the problems are the original filmings (particularly the choirboys’ articulation) rather than audio transfer ones. The lack of development of other characters derives from Brecht, the unwillingness to excise more Losey’s.


Both Brecht and Losey believed that undercutting the belief in the stability of the universe revolving around the earth led directly to destabilizing belief in the “natural” order of social inequality, a correlation the accuracy of which I am less convinced than were they. Brecht’s view (expressed in notes on the play) is that “by discrediting the Bible and the Church, these sciences stood for a while at the barricades on behalf of all progress” and that “the new astronomy gave impetus to the revolutionary social current of the time.” Given the situation of Galileo, Brecht concluded that “one can scarcely wish only to praise or only to condemn Galileo” and contended that his play was neither tragic nor optimistic. This ambivalence seems to me preserved in Losey’s filming. And Topol’s characterization seems to fulfill Brecht’s aim “not at establishing the sympathetic identificaiton and participation of the audience with him [Galileo]; rather, the audience should be helped to achieve a more considering, critical and apraising attitude. He should be presented as a phenomenon, rather like Richard III, whereby the audience’s emotional acceptance is gained through the viatlity of this alien maniefestation,” giving free rein to humor.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray


Bloomdsday III: video tour of Joyce’s Dublin

Although I have read James Joyce’s Ulysses and recognize it as a canonical modernist work, I have no great affection for its very domesticated Dublin reflex of Homer’s Odyssey. This year’s celebration of Bloomsday, the June 16th of 1904 on which Joyce met his future wife, Nora, and the day on which he set the peregrinations of Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom, the obvious and not as immediately obvious autobiographical characters in Ulysses, prompted me to get the DVD “James Joyce’s Dublin: The Ulysses Tour.”


In it the charmingly enthusiastic and a bit gawky curator of the James Joyce Museum, Robert Nicholson begins the day at the round tower of Sandycove, a dozen miles south of the center of Dublin, which is also where the novel begins with Stephen Daedalus fleeing, as Joyce had. Nicholson introduces the novel and his project of showing the places where events in the novel occurred (though the novel is more known for its attempts to capture interior consciousness than for its plots and succession of events).

For each chapter, following a very difficult to understand reading from the book by Terence Kileen (subtitles are not, alas, available, and Joyce can be difficult to understand even without trying to decode a strong Irish accent in low audio fidelity), Nicholson stands at a spot where Daedalus or Bloom was in that chapter. He tells about the location (many of the buildings are long gone, though the houses on the other side of the street from 7 Eccles Street, where the Blooms were placed and where Joyce had been are reasonable substitutes), the chapter’s style and happenings, and its inspiration in Homer.


(National Library of Ireland)

The DVD provides a good refresher on the book. I don’t think anyone who has not read the book would understand the greatness of the experiment that is the novel and might well wonder why anyone would make a Ulysses pilgrimage across Dublin.

The sites mostly have plaques so that visitors to Dublin can visit the sites Nicholson did in the imagined footsteps (and tram rides) of Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom. Glasnevin Cemetery is definitely still there, with the boulder inscribed “Parnell.” (Brendan Behan is also buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, btw.)

The documentary does not make me want to rush to Dublin, though if I were there, I would visit Nicholson’s museum and the National Gallery at the very least. The documentary may have stimulated me to reread the “Night town” chapter, but the Joyce that I’m rereading is not Ulysses but the far shorter and easier-to-read Exiles, which came between Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses — both chronologically in order of publication and in portraits of Joyce’s obsessions, notably being cuckolded by Nora figures.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray


James Joyce’s play “Exiles”

I am far from being the first reader to notice that there is a great deal that is autobiographical in the fiction of James Joyce. Stephen Daedalus in both Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses has many obvious similarities in temperament and experience with his creator. In the play that Joyce wrote between those two novels, Exiles (1915), the would-be writer who rejects Irish Catholic conventionalities is named Richard Rowhan.


Unlike Joyce, Richard has returned to Ireland with his (common-law?) wife Bertha, who like Nora Barnacle, a Galway girl, who had been a chambermaid in Finn’s Hotel in Dublin, is from a Protestant background and an unsuitable match in class to boot.

Like Joyce and, later, Leopold Bloom, Richard is inordinately fascinated with being cuckolded. In both cases, the writer wanted to know what it felt like (an emotionally dangerous form of research), intellectually rejected possessiveness and felt jealous while reiterating the freedom of his partner.

Beyond those two motives for exploring sexual freedom/jealousy, as I reread Exiles, I had intimations of a suppressed homoerotic bond between Richard and his friend and champion, Robert Hand (based on Joyce’s pre-exile drinking cronies, Oliver St John Gogarty and Vincent Cosgrave, who are redeployed in Ulysses). These intimations are not entirely creatures of my imagination, because in notes on the play Joyce himself wrote that “the bodily possession of Bertha by Robert, repeated often, would certainly bring into almost carnal contact the two men.” Moreover, a sense of bonding of semen mixing in the same receptacle (or at least of having “carnal knowledge” of the same orifice) is not unprecedented.

And in addition to his pride being damaged by Bertha choosing Richard when she met both Richard and Robert, Robert seems to have some jealousy — or at least resentment — of Richard’s vision of himself as the Homer of the Irish “race” (embarking on writing a Dublin update of Homer’s Odyssey).

Bertha is not an intellectual like Richard, Robert, or Beatrice (Robert’s sister who is still carrying a torch for Richard and would have been a more suitable mate both in terms of social status and in the ability to understand Richard’s writing and, indeed, speaking). Joyce treats her mind as a region of mists, though he gives her complete sentences rather than the caroming fragments of Molly Bloom in Ulysses). Again in Joyce’s own notes, “Robert wishes Richard to use against him the weapons which social conventions and morals put in the hands of the husband. Richard refuses. Bertha wishes Richard to use those weapons in her defense. Richard refuses…” and has an erotic stimulation in imagining his best friend bedding his wife, however unjoyful such excitement is.

Reading the play as autobiography (which it would be very difficult to avoid doing), I wonder if Joyce realized how much he manipulated Nora and the various men he all but threw at her to test her and them (notably Cosgrave and Roberto Preziosa)… and himself.

Nora/Bertha differ significantly from Hedda Gabler, though Ibsen was clearly Joyce’s role model as a conventionality-defying playwright, as is well-documented, including correspondence with Ibsen himself. Joyce has his alter ego seemingly more in love with Nora’s than Ibsen has the artist who uses his wife in “When We Dead Awaken,” though having the grace to wonder if he (Richard) has ruined her (Bertha’s) life and innocent simplicity for his artistic/philosophical experiments in breaking the chains of conventionality (social here, artistic in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake).

My guesstimate is that without cuts the play would run three to three-and-a-half hours, though cutting the first part of Act Three and much of the second part of Act One (both involving Archie, the son of Bertha and Richard) might make the length manageable. The characters are archetypes of Joyce’s private mythology of betrayal. Although they rattle on, the dialogue is more realistic than that in either Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses.

Exiles seems to me to be a key text, though one I rarely see or hear mentioned (less even than Stephen Hero, the first draft of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Joyce revisited Ireland in 1909, 1911, and 1912, but did not repatriate even after the establishment of an independent state. There is no certainty within Exiles that Richard will remain in Ireland, though it seems that Robert is going into exile after the return after nine years of Bertha and Richard

Turning one last time to Joyce’s notes, in regard to the play’s title: “Why the title Exiles? A nation exacts a penance from those who dared to leave her payable on their return… [In the Biblical tale of the Prodigal Son] the father took the side of the prodigal. This is probably not the way of the world—certainly not in Ireland.

Yeats rejected the play for the Abbey Theater, and it was not mounted by professionals until Harld Pinter directed it in London in 1970.


©2010, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Edna O’Brien ‘splains Jame Joyce

The greatest living Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s (b 1930) brief (179 page) biography of James Joyce was aimed at people like me who are curious about Joyce’s life, but not curious enough to undertake Richard Ellman’s definitive but massive biography. O’Brien venerates Joyce’s writing, but recognizes the high cost to most everyone who had any contact with Joyce. As a vainglorious, insanely jealous, epically condescending, boozing spendthrift he does not strike me as a very good husband, but he was a worse son and father and brother, ruthlessly exploiting anyone he could, including various younger writers (the most notable of whom was Samuel Beckett) he enlisted as publicists and treated like serfs, and a series of patrons (one of whom, Miss Weaver, over time gave him what would be more than a million dollars in today’s currency) whom he hated for helping him but exercised cunning flattery to keep funds flowing his way.


There is certainly a sense in which the increasingly blind expatriate Irish writer was a martyr to his art. But weighing the price of his achievements against the human costs involves the hurt and misery he inflicted on others. Perhaps because she values the achievements more highly than I do (indeed, as “immeasurable”), she is more willing than I am to suggest that the result was worth the suffering inflected on others. In his treatment of his mother O’Brien justly calls him “monstrously indifferent” and I would extend that label to many of his other relationships, particularly with his son.

O’Brien does not attempt to defend Joyce from being viewed as a monster; instead, she answers her question “Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do.” (I doubt that she is such a monster, though no doubt pilfering in the privacy of those she knows to stockpile material for her fictions.)

She does challenge the view that Joyce was misogynist. This despite noting that the young man chose as his confirmation name Aloysius, a Catholic saint who (like Mohammed Attah) feared any contact with women. O’Brien argues that “in all the stories [in Dubliners] the women, despite being victims attain a moral superiority,” and that after carrying off Nora Barnacle the women in his writings are “temptresses and sorceresses.” The idolization of primitive life force in those he considered s-l-u-t-s and idealization of asexual, indulgent patronesses seems to me a very familiar, very Catholic Madonna/w-h-o-r-e dichotomy with an unoriginal delight in pulling the madonnas down into the “filth” that is sex in this worldview. (I am not sure what O’Brien means in writing that “if he depicted women as sexually primitive he was more prescient than anyone before or since. It probably says more about her than about Joyce, but the “pre-” may be a cunning annulment of the seeming praise.)

After the celebration among the cognoscenti of Ulysses and letting Finnegan’s Wake loose on the world, the world was swallowed up by war (WWII). Joyce got out of occupied France and died in Switzerland. A problem of biography, even one so novelistic as O’Brien’s, is that the endings are often anti-climactic. In this instance, the climax was also smudged between the triumph of Ulysse and the dragged out excesses of Finnegan’s Wak. For me Ulysse pushes the boundaries of readability (I greatly doubt I could reread it and am not even sure I could read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a third time) and Finnegan’s Wakis far into gibberish.


O’Brien makes some sense out of Finnegan’s Wake and provides interesting responses to Joyce. Hard-core Joyceans will already have processed Ellman’s biography—regarded by some as the best biography of any writer ever written. The somewhat curious have a fine guide in O’Brien. She sometimes indulges in Joycean wordplay and some of her sentences lack verbs, but her book is generally readable, and I am inclined to trust her sense (as a novelist, as an Irish novelist) of what in Joyce’s fiction is autobiographical. (Very little is invented, but much amalgamates experiences and characteristics of multiple models).


The volume is an excellent match of biographer and subject, like Edmund White’s Marcel Proust that began the series of Penguin Brief Lives, a welcome antidote to the mountains of details that make so many biographies exhausting or too daunting to undertake.


©2002, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Spying on Bertolt Brecht in East Germany

Jaques-Pierre Amette’s 2003 novel La maîtresse de Brecht became the hundredth book to win the Prix Goncourt. It was translated into British English in 2005 not as Brecht’s Mistress, but as Brecht’s Lover. The young and beautiful actress Maria Eich at no point in her assignment by the KGB (The German Democratic Republic’s Ministry of State Security [Stasi] was only officially formed in 1950, though continuing to co-ordinate with the KGB until 1990) to spy on Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who has come to communist East Berlin after 15 years pereginations to Scandinavia and Hollywood is in love with Brecht, nor he with her. He uses her sexually and, for a time, promotes her career in the theater company, the Berliner Ensemble that he heads with his wife (used to his philandering with younger actresses) Helene Weigel. Maria’s KGB/Stasi handler, Hans Trow, is grateful for her zeal at copying every scrap of paper Brecht writes, including those he throws away. That Hans is in love with Maria is more plausible to me than that she is in love with him, but he is determined not to have sex with one of his agents, especially one whose assignment centers on keeping the sexual attraction of the most prominent cultural star of the East German state’s otherwise fairly dim firmament.

The novel opens with Brecht’s return to German soil in October of 1948. The “lovers” have little in common, including one-way (old to young) sexual attraction. “For Maria EIch, Germany was a new country, a series of green hills lined by birch forests, ruined motorways, clouds; for Brecht, it was a country to be rebuilt with money. A field for experimentation, a laboratory for an ideological revolution aimed at the younger generation. Neither of them had this country in common…. They would both eat at the same table, sleeping the same bed and never think the same thing at the same time.”

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(1988 German Democratic Republic stamp with Galileo, the subject of Brecht’s last major play, written and performed in his LA exile not in the GDR/DDR)


When that delight waned, by 1952, Hans Trow provided the funds for Maria to go to West Berlin, where her tubercular daughter and mother had been all along. She becomes a celibate teacher of German, most enamored of earlier German poets, Hölderlin and Heine, not paying much professional attention to the German poet she had lived with for four years. Brecht’s best-known plays other than the musicals with Kurt Weill were written in LA; he theorized and directed plays after returning to Germany, but wrote mostly poems and no major plays.

The novel captures the grayness of East Berlin and the dread of the whims of Stalin in his final years that even the secret police in far-away Berlin constantly felt. The title character is Maria, who is not an intellectual.

Though doubts have been cast (especially by John Fuegi) on how much of Brecht’s oeuvre was actually written by him, he was a gruff intellectual and an avowed Marxist, though of the heterodox Karl Krosch variety rather than a communist subservient to Moscow. Brecht’s most notorious support for the German Democratic Republic’s suppression of dissent came after the period covered by the novel, the GDR crushing of 1953 rebellion using Soviet military force. (He praised the regime for “safeguarding the socialist achievements,” even while living a life of relative privilege that included subscription western publications generally banned in the GDR.)

The characters in Amette’s novel are attempting to understand what Brecht really thought, especially about Stalinist communism. He chose to live (in comfort denied most residents) in the Soviet zone, but had an Austrian passport and Swiss accounts accruing his royalties. Many have considered him a hypocrite. I think that in a bipolar world he managed to prosper as a heterodox (usually) Marxist capitalist, and if he was a sexual predator, much of the prey, including Soviet-sponsored spies was willing to work with and submit to sex with him.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

A delirious love story disguised as a police procedural novel

The first novel by Higashino Keigo (1958-) translated into English (in 2011)* is the 2005 Yōgisha X no Kenshin (as The Devotion of Suspect X), which won the Naoki Prize (the Japanese prize for genre fiction) and several Japanese mystery novel prizes. In that it starts with the gruesome slaying by his ex-wife Hanaoka Yasuko and her teen-age daughter (by another man) Misato gruesomely slaying Togashi, there does not seem to be a mystery. There are protracted attempts by Tokyo policemen to prove that Yasuko murdered her ex-husband. I have doubts about labeling the killing “murder,” since Yasuko was defending her daughter, but that issue never comes to trial.

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Indeed, the novel ends before any trial, with some definite surprises revealed along the way.

In that the suspect is Yasuko’s neighbor, mathematician Ishigami, I don’t know why the title has a “suspect x.” The only uncertainty on he part of the police and Ishigami’s former Imperial University friend, physicist Yukawa (who sometimes aids the police, who have dubbed him “Dr. Galileo”) is how many people committed the murder, more specifically if Ishigami was involved before Togashi was strangled. (The police are skeptical that a woman ten centimeters shorter than the “victim” could physically have strangled him).

I’d say that the key word in the title is “devotion,” not “suspect,” and that rather than being a mystery novel, or even a police procedural one, it is a love story. The measure of devotion is astounding, and more troubling than the initial strangulation.

For me, the pace is slow, especially since the police don’t investigate anyone else who was associated with Togashi, a quite nasty character whom I can imagine multiple people wanting to eliminate.


* Since then, Alexander O. Smith has also translated Salvation of a Saint and Midsummer Equation (and another five Hagshino novels not in the “Dr. Galileo” series have appeared in English).   “Suspect X” has also been filmed twice, once in Japanese, once in Korean.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Contemporary Chinese Limbo

[Rating: 4/5]

Pros: father/adopted-son relationship

Cons: not much of an ending

Born in 1960 in Hangzhou, Zheijiang, the son of two physicians, Yu Hua is the living Chinese writer best known outside the PRC. Though some of his work has been unpublishable there, others have sold substantially, including the 1992 Huózhe (To Live) that was the basis for the 1994 Zhang Yimou movie starring Gong Li that was not only banned by led to a two-year ban on Zhang making films. IMO, Yu’s work is more deserving of a Nobel Prize than the two writers in Chinese who have received the award (Gao Xingjan and Mo Yan).

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(Yu, ca. 2005)

Yu’s novel Diqitian, published in Chinese in 2013, translated by Allan H. Barr and published in the US by Pantheon in 2015 as The Seventh Day. Though quite melancholic and satirizing many aspects of PRC governance and society, it is gentler than some earlier Yu books, e.g., Shí Gè Cíhuì Lǐ De Zhōngguó (translated and published in English in 2011 as China in Ten Words) remains banned in the PRC.

On the first day, Yang Fei wakes up dead… and perplexed by instructions to go to a crematorium, recently euphemized as a “funeral home.” Once there, he finds that he/his sentient corpse cannot be processed, because he has neither a burial site nor an urn into which his ashes can be put.

He soon starts to meet others in this Chinese limbo, including his ex-wife, his birth mother, and a woman whose suicide he witnessed hours before his own death (caused by an explosion in a burning restaurant in which the family of proprietors was blocking the doorway endeavoring to collect payment for orders). “Mouse Girl” (so called because she lived underground in what was built as a bomb shelter) leapt off a tall building (after online discussion of sites for her suicide) because her boyfriend, who prevented her from making money in casual prostitution, gave her a knockoff iPod.

There are a group of embryos following the skeleton of a woman who saw them floating down a river and made a scandal of the hospital dumping and another group who died in a fire that officially had a death toll of only seven so that the cause would not be fully investigated (as any catastrophe in which more than nine died would have to be; two remain alive in critical condition), and a couple who died when the building in which they lived was demolished.

Those with burial plots awaiting them receive VIP treatment with padded seats rather than the plastic ones for ordinary corpses.

There is also the black comedy of a pair of recurrently bickering chess players with a macabre backstory and the tragic case of Mouse Girl’s boyfriend who sold a kidney to buy a burial plot for her.

I guess Yang Fei, who lived 41 years, could be said to “get closure” during his week of hanging out with the unburied/unburiable dead, who are more genial and kinder than the living and seem better off and more content than the traditional vision of dangerously “hungry ghosts” (Chiunese èguǐ,/ Buddhist preta).

Both Yang Fei and his father and the neighbor who breastfed the infant would seem more “self-sacrificing” to the reader if they had more self (or sense of self). I wouldn’t say they are “place-holders” in the Chinese Dante’s schema, but they are not very individuated (and less numerous than those Dante encountered in his visits to hell and purgatory).

In a 2004 interview while he was at the University of Iowa ( Yu said: “What I had written in the 1980s, my attitude was that the writer knows everything, the writer is god and can create everything. So, these characters were more abstract, like signs. But later, in the 1990s, I suddenly discovered characters could actually have their own voices, that they could talk for themselves. When I first started writing, I knew what I would write next, and next, and what would follow after that, and would know that—well this part will be difficult, and this part will not. This all started to change when I began to have a different attitude toward the characters. I found that the characters could lead themselves. The story would lead itself. That is when I found the difficult parts were not so difficult anymore since the characters had control, and they would lead. I would give up a lot of control and let them take me through the story themselves. After this realization, I’ve noticed these characters have become more alive.”

It seems to me that the construction of a limbo in which skeletons with empty eye sockets can see (and even cry) and the contrivance of connections between Yang Fei and most everyone among the living dead is willed in the way Yu says he has abandoned. The devotion of Yang Fei and the railroad employee who found the newborn, raised him, and gave him his family name is touching, and that of his ex-wife whom he granted a divorce to pursue a business liaison strikes me as wish fulfillment even more than as sentimentality. But, then, Dickens is one of Yu’s favorite writers. (“There are a few writers I really like … Shakespeare, Dickens … I really like nineteenth century writers … Hawthorne … and of twentieth century Americans I like Faulkner the best. Among American writers still living, I like Toni Morrison the best.”)

I don’t think a novel needs to “add up” to anything in particular, and a lot of loose strings in the lives of Yang Fei and others are tied up, but the novel does not have much of an ending. Like a typical New Yorker story, it just ceases.

I think the novel would better have been titled “Seven Days” than the stress being on the “Seventh Day” (the “seventh” rather than “seven” is the choice made in the Chinese title); “Seven Days in Limbo” or “Seven Posthumous Days” would have been more informative. (And I prefer the Chinese cover design to the American one.)