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Sunday, January 30, 2005


"All tragedies deal with fated meetings; how else could there be a play? Fate deals its stroke; sorrow is purged, or turned to rejoicing; there is death, or triumph, there has been a meeting, and a change. No one will ever make a tragedy -- and that is as well, for one could not bear it --whose grief is that the principals never met."
Mary Renault, "The Mask of Apollo"

My first introduction to contemporary dramas were the tragedies of Tennessee Williams. In particular, my favorite play and probably one of the best plays ever written, "A Streetcar Named Desire", first performed on Broadway in 1947 starring Marlon Brando as "Stanley Kowalski" and Jessica Tandy as "Blanche Dubois". Brando reprised his role in the movie, filmed in 1951, with Vivien Leigh as "Blanche". As far as I can remember, that was my introduction to Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando. Williams became my playwright idol and Brando my favorite actor.

This weekend I took another ride on A Streetcar Named Desire and it was just as thrilling a ride as that first one all those years ago. Friday night I went to see the stage production.
Saturday night a friend came for dinner and we watched the movie. It was interesting to compare the two. Most intriguing was how the movie stuck excatly to the play script and even the sets of the play I'd seen Friday were very similar to the movie sets. I could see how the actress who played "Blanche" had studied Vivien Leigh's interpretation, to that high Southern drawl to the fluttering hand movements, though Vivien was a much more fragile Blanche and her voice was often low and sultry, whereas the actress's voice sometime became too shrill and tedious and there was too much hand fluttering. The young man who played "Stanley" was also very good although not the powerful hunk that Brando was. But then, who ever could follow those impeccable, brilliant performances of Brando and Leigh?

"Whoever you are -- I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Blanche Dubois,
"A Streetcar Named Desire." Tennessee Williams, 1947

Soon after being introduced to Tennessee William's plays, (I've since seen the movie versions of all and some of the stage productions too), I wrote my first serious drama. I was eighteen and in love for the first time. Tragically, my boyfriend and his two buddies had been introduced to a drug, unknown to us kids at the time, heroin. Within two weeks I saw my beloved boyfriend become addicted for life. It was my first real-life tragedy and one that would affect me for years to come.

I first wrote "The Street: A Modern Tragedy" as a cautionary tale for my peers. As far as I know at that time, there weren't any other plays, and few novels written about heroin addiction. In fact, there was no drug education at all and I spent hours in the library researching the subject so I could understand exactly what this horrible substances was that had taken over my boyfriend's life.

Somehow, with a troupe of young would-be actors, we managed to stage the play. Of course this early version of "The Street" was santized to suit the critical eye of my parents. Everything I wrote was censored. I could not possibly portray things the way I knew they were. I was, after all, an 18 year old preacher's kid. I was not supposed to know these things.
As well, society in the '50's dictated and censored a lot of what could be talked about and performed. Even the movies then were tame and sanitized. Roger Ebert notes: "In 1951, you had to guess a lot of things that are now made clear."

Surprisingly, the little amature production, which ran for two nights in a local hall and received some publicity from the newspaper where I worked as a copy-runner, was quite a success. We also had the sponsorship of a new organization, Narcotic Anonymous.

A few months later I decided to write another play on the same subject. When it came out that I was planning another such production, my father informed me that he had received a phone call that if I was to write another drug play, I'd be in serious trouble. Who knows who it was made such a call? But it put the damper on my aspirations, so I let it be.

Many years later, because of my involvement with a small local theatre group who produces plays of social conscience and issues, I mentioned "The Street" to the producer, Jay. He wanted to see it, and more or less for a joke, I dug out the old worn script from the archives.
It was the first time I'd looked at it for years and was frankly amazed at how a pathetic, amature piece of work like that had ever seen the light of day and been performed.

Jay was enthusiastic. At that time there was much publicity in our city about the overwhelming problems with drugs. This play was an East End play, based on true events, and he wanted to produce it. Obviously he wouldn't be able to do it in its original amature state, so I took a playwright's course at the college and over the course of the next two years I developed a new version of "The Street". This time there were no censors, no parents who would prohibit me from writing what was in my heart, and from my experience. The play is somewhat autobiographical. Of course I changed some situations including names. In the play, the male protagonist, Johnny Festa, is a good boy from an East End Italian immigrant family. I did use actual settings and the name of the cafe was real as it no longer exists.
"Angela" his girlfriend, is (like me) a pastor's daughter. Although I fictionalized much of the play, I also stuck pretty close to the way it was including scraps of dialogue that I recalled had actually happened during my relationship with my boyfriend.

To bring this tragedy more up-to-date, I had actually had a reunion with this boyfriend, Jimmy, 8 years before. After all those years, it turned out he was still addicted so I had to break off the relationship. In fact, just before the play was to open, a reporter who was interviewing me, tried to contact Jimmy and found out that he had died two years earlier of a brain tumour that had gone undetected due to his years of addiction to heroin and methadone. The tragedy had played itself out. From that first terrible day in the park at the Italian picnic back in 1953 when he showed me the outfit he had in the glove-compartment, to the day of his death 45 years later, Jimmy was an addict.

The new version of "The Street: A Modern Tragedy" opened Nov. 22, 2000 and ran for three successful weeks. After every performance there was a panel of drug counsellors, police, parents of addicts, addicts, social workers etc. Some nights it was like a revival meeting. Every night there were addicts in the audience who wanted to tell their stories, and girlfriends or parents of addicts who wanted to know what to do. It was the most powerful, moving experience of my writer's life. And one of the biggest thrills was when Jay, the producer and various other people, actors and audience, told me how much the play was so "Tennessee Williams". What an honour to know that I had written something so powerful as to be given that compliment!

After the production, I was able to work together with an excellent dramaturge to refine the play. She suggested that if I could get one more performance, I'd have no trouble publishing it. So far I've had one public reading of some scenes at a downtown venue, I've been promised a complete reading by another play company (but this has been lingering for a long time now and needs more follow-up). Last year I mailed out a lot of scripts to small play companies around the province, but so far no 'bites'. As far as I know, it's the only play of it's kind dealing with drug issues, aimed at young people. It was supposed to be performed in part in local schools, but when it was suggested that they would only do certain 'scenes' I declined. I believe that to have the proper impact, the whole story needed to be told, not a laundered version.

Although the play was fiction, I drew on my own experiences in telling the story. The play is dedicated to my foster-sister Luella who died at the age of 18 in prison of a heroin overdose. The character of "Sally" the street kid in the play is based on her life. The dedication and also the presentation of the play, was a special tribute to Jimmy. He lost the battle with his demons, but he will always be remember. As one reviewer said "The Street" is interesting but its major contribution is its in-your-face reminder: nothing has changed. Well, that's not true. It's gotten worse."

"You don't understand what it's like, do you? How I've craved it? What it feels like to think about it all the time." Johnny Festa, "The Street"

"All perform their tragic play
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear." Yeats.

1 comment:

ozbhoy said...

Not wanting to sound like a pompous tit, that was a really interesting blog. Don't tell Di I can be a softy though, it'll spoil my image. Haha.