March 2009


The City

Paris is a two-act musical theater piece written by Hudson Owen, Bowden Simmons and Nicholas Cieri. Other than a workshop production, it is unproduced. We welcome inquiries from anyone interested in producing or aiding in the production, performance or promotion of this work. At the end are three mp3 songs from the show for your listening pleasure. The WordPress player gives them comical titles.

Overview

Before television, rock stars and the bomb, there were writers, painters and composers who, driven by Prohibition and lured by the cheap franc, traveled from America to Paris in the 1920’s where they lived and worked, dominating the local scene and making an important contribution to the Modernist revolution in the arts. Frequently America was their subject. By the end of 1929, after the stock market crash, most of them came home.

This is their story.

You will meet the young Ernest Hemingway, sharpening his pencils at sidewalk cafes and working on the short stories that made him famous, ever ready to administer a boxing lesson to the literati; Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who battle alcohol and each other on the way from one party to another; Robert McAlmon, writer and editor, who put into print the early efforts of expatriate authors.

You will sit in on a soireé with the funny and imperious Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; join the avant-garde in the street struggling over who will lead in the sometimes violent game of Modern Art; drop in on the legendary Bricktop in her restaurant and hear the latest songs; listen to the plight of a Russian nobleman fired from his job as dishwasher in a fancy hotel.

The narrative follows the fortunes of original characters Robert and Louise Harper, who travel from New York to Paris in 1926. Act 1 focuses on Robert’s efforts to make it as a young fiction author in the expatriate community. At the end of the act Louise announces that she is not content with being a “writer’s wife” and wants to become a writer herself. So at intermission we are left with the question what will happen.

In Act 2 Louise becomes the Paris correspondent for the new The New Yorker, and tension develops in the marriage as she strikes out on her own in the free Paris air. The couple becomes estranged and Robert prepares to leave Paris alone as the era winds down. Events come to a happy conclusion in the final scene as Louise joins Robert on the train platform to begin the voyage home.

Character Breakdown

NARRATOR – older gentleman, Maurice Chevalier type

ROBERT HARPER – leading man, early 20s, tenor

LOUISE HARPER – leading lady, early 20s, soprano

ROBERT MCALMON – sardonic, medium build, late 20s, tenor

ERNEST HEMINGWAY – athletic, large build, mid-20s, tenor

SYLVIA BEACH – modest yet spirited, late 30s, soprano

GERTRUDE STEIN – grand dame, large build, early 50s,
soprano

T.S. ELIOT – aesthete, mid-30s, tenor

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD – high strung, medium build, late
20s, tenor

ZELDA FITZGERALD – femme fatale, slender, mid-20s,
soprano

MADAME SELECT – tough older café owner, does not sing

ANDRÉ BRETON – aloof art theoretician, late 20s, does not
sing

TRISTAN TZARA – firebrand art radical, late-20s, does not
sing

ALICE B. TOKLAS – submissive, slender, 40s, does not sing

BRICKTOP – spunky black singer, early 30s, soprano

BOOKSELLER – older gentleman, tenor

PLONGEUR (DISHWASHER) – older Russian nobleman, tenor/
baritone

A cast of a dozen actors, with many filling one principal and one or two minor roles, can do the job. For example, the actor who is principally Scott Fitzgerald can also play Robert McAlmon and André Breton. The actress who plays Zelda can also play Sylvia Beach and Alice B. Toklas. The Gertrude Stein actress will double nicely as Madame Select.

Likewise, the Narrator is available for additional roles such as the Bookseller. The Narrator provides word pictures of scenes that may not be feasible to construct in a low budget production and provides information that might be useful to the audience in this wide-ranging story, as well as being a convivial stage presence.

The decision as to which historical figures to include in the play is, of course, subjective. There are hundreds of characters to choose from. In a longer version of the script, Picasso appears in two scenes in Act 2, Hart Crane becomes a character instead of gossip, and James Joyce is a flesh and blood character.

Songs

Act 1

Bonjour (waltz)
Parisian Couple

They Never Said A Word (tango)
Robert, Louise, McAlmon, Sylvia, Hemingway

We Are Young Lions (march)
Robert, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway

A Book Is A Very Good Friend
Bookseller

Let The World Go By
Robert and Louise

Song of The Poor Plongeur
Plongeur

Kick Off Your Shoes, Louise (can-can)
Louise

Act 2

I Am Parisienne (dance number)
Louise, Gentleman Dancers

The Twentieth Century Rag (tap)
Robert, Hemingway

A Nose Is A Nose Is A Nose
Robert, Louise, Gertrude, Alice, Hemingway

Café Au Lait
Bricktop

I’ll Take You To Heaven (dance number)
Bricktop

Gold Hat Lover (bunny hug)
Scott and Zelda

It’s Raining In Paris (beguine)
Robert

Au Revoir
Cast

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

HUDSON OWEN is the author of Harly, a one act play produced in Manhattan by P.A.S. Artists Group. The End of The Modern World was given a staged reading at Dixon Place, Manhattan. He attended the Roger Hendricks Simon Studio on Theatre Row and the 92nd Street Y Playwrighting Workshop. His poems and essays have appeared in a number of publications. He has acted in New York City.

NICHOLAS CIERI began his theatrical career as a singer. He performed at the Riveria and sang lead with The Overtones. He is co-author of the musical Born To Sing, about the life of Judy Garland, showcased at the Harry Warran Theatre in Brooklyn.

BOWDEN SIMMONS is a graduate of the Wilmington Music School, in Delaware, and has drawn cartoons commercially. She has two theatrical daughters.

Songs:
Gold Hat Lover, Café Au Lait, We Are Young Lions

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Just as America elects its first black-and-white president, it anoints its first television king. At least, I think it’s the first. I am referring to NBC’s new drama series Kings.

King Silas Benjamin is leader of Gilboa, with its capital in Shiloh, a computer-altered shiny New York City. Gilboa is at war with neighboring Gath—both Biblical names. In what looks like World War I-style trench warfare, a soldier in the ranks, David Shepherd, a country lad, crosses enemy lines and rescues two of his buddies taken as hostages. Returning to his lines, he destroys an enemy tank. One of the men he has rescued turns out to be the king’s son. David becomes an overnight hero; the newspapers read: “David Slays Goliath.” He is invited to court, where he meets the king’s beautiful daughter.

What’s going on here?

What caught my attention as I watched the latest episode Sunday night, was the overall appearance of the show and its clipped dialogue. It is very much an interior set, with vast, mostly empty, spaces guarded by Marines with current weapons. The colonnades suggest the Renaissance. The king, ably played by Ian McShane, wears a modern power suit, and was apparently divinely anointed. As a sign of this from God, a living crown of Monarch butterflies had settled on his head, a story he tells repeatedly to approving crowds and to his court. In style and precision, it resembles an English court, but wait a minute. For this is a retelling of the biblical story of Saul and David, told in First and Second Samuel and the Book of Kings, one imagines as the plot moves forward.

There is a sprinkling of minority characters strategically placed in this English-Hebrew court. The king’s military commander is played by American Indian Wes Studi. Otherwise, this is a WASP assemblage.

What’s going on here?

I don’t know what producer Michael Green’s sources were besides, obviously, The Old Testament. I sense the PBS series The Royals, which shows how the Queen puts on a dinner party, for example—all the cutlery is carefully laid out in advance. I sense a measure of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans in the “kingliness” of the whole thing, with its well-spoken dialogue, distant from the stutter speak, you know, of contemporary American vernacular. I detect it is also somewhat of a Roman court, with I, Claudius intrigues, and I get a whiff of Orwell’s 1984, with its authoritarian society at endless war with its enemies.

My notion of the Israelites is that they were a feisty, lively people like the Greeks. But we will get little that in this series.

America has longed for, flirted with, and imagined its own royalty since its separation from England. With Jack and Jackie in the 1960s, we had Camelot, which played better on stage than in the world. We have had pop kings like Elvis, various incarnations of the Mafia, with its family code and twisted sense of chivalry, and Star Wars, with its pseudo mythology cleverly contrived from historical sources, and, from the English, the Ring Trilogy.

Now, we have an American made king. An alpha male king, who speaks in measured sentences but is not adverse to throwing a punch. When soldier David slays “Goliath,” what reference do Gilboans have for the usage? What is their literature? When David plays classical music on the piano, is he playing contemporary music in his society?

What works for me is the brooding atmosphere, the language, and its disposition of power in a corporate-style regime. We all know that things work a certain way in society, democratic values notwithstanding. The rich are not like us, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. You can hope to win the lottery, but a place at court, be it the corporation or in government, with good health care, is more valuable. With power comes violence and intrigue.

Will this work? So far, ratings are weak. However, atmospherics go a long way with audiences, perhaps even in hard times, when Depression-era America is on the public mind. During the Depression, Hollywood turned out fantasy. Americans plunked down their dimes to enter movie palaces and the musical world of Busby Berkeley. Now, they can enter the court of a king.

Prior episodes of Kings can be viewed online at NBC.com.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

Peezis Gets A Job

The elevator opened. Peezis stepped out
and saw a sign: PREPARE TO CRAWL.
Falderal he could believe. He wanted to go,
but had to relieve his poverty, so he wandered
in, joined a line, blankly stared at a blank design.

When his turn came, she took his name.
“Do you have a skill or degree?”
“I’m part way up the knowledge hill,”
said he, “a servant of love and industry.”
“Would you like to steal, or lie, or cheat?”

He scratched his head and thought about all
the things he’d done and read and
reluctantly said, “Cheat.”
“Great,” have a seat,” was her reply, “until
you think you’d rather die. It’s kind of
a-maze-ing.”

So he took a molded pastel plastic seat
and picked up the morning scandal
sheet. Saw who beat whom. Action
all around like a tomb. People sitting
like clothes in a bin; coffee in hand,
hand holding chin. At least, he thought,
I won’t be used. My talents will go
unabused. What talents?

He closed his eyes.
Sleep was almost realized when he
heard his name. He went to the Go
of another game. “Slosher, washer or
squasher,” he was asked. After several tries
he dreamed of a world of perfect
size and said, “Squasher.”

“Fine,” said the man, “kindly
take a seat and wait as long
as you barely can, please.”
This time Peezis had to squeeze.
At least a dozen wanted to cozen
as squashers. He waited…unabaited.

Then came his name.

“Now that you’re in the squasher section, we
find we must make a slight correction,”
he was told. “Dumping, pumping or lumping?”
he was asked.

He thought about the city dump and the
water works and their assumptions and said,
“Lumping.” And swallowed.

“Excellent. That’s really the best thing for you,
we think. Just take a test and go around the
partition.” An audition for lumping? he wondered.

They gave him a card to try to outpunch.
When he turned it in they were out to
lunch. A ho hum hour. He plunked in change
in a food machine and out came a sour.
Crumpled the cellophane. Then he got back
on the waiting train. Foot went to sleep.
Thumb thumping. Then they called his name
for lumping.

This is it, thought he. Now I get to sit in a
booth. Sure enough, the interviewer adjusted
his cuff and said, “Now, tell the truth: full or
part time?”

Peezis was about ready to commit a crime.

“Full,” he replied. That word seemed to have
some pull. “Good,” said the man. “Here’s the
job description: look like a fool and work like a
a crew; minimum wage, any age, intelligence won’t do.”

Peezis stared at the frosted glass and he knew
that great peace minds must pass.

“What do I lump?” he asked, with something
in his throat. “I don’t know,” came the reply.
“You’ll have to ask Mr. Monroe. Wait…
Polychloroltripolate.”

“Oh,” said Peezis.

“Good. Take this card and give us a call if it
turns out to be nothing at all. It’s underneath
an overpass. You can’t miss it.”

“Thanks,” said Peezis. “But, I wonder, along
with schemers and reamers, do you ever get a
ring for dreamers?” “Sorry,” said the man. “Not
on this floor.”

And Peezis walked out the exit door.

From The Endless Evolving Trilogy – A Poem Cycle
by Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

Thumping scruffy pugmark, Welsh metaphor,
loop power through our cochlea with herons’ beaks;
place pennies in our fuses, play lead guitar.

Though we might not protest, we’d be distressed
if you took up photography and only gave us
telephoto moons, gravure rocks, silhouettes not
men tackled with clouds who kneel to sunset nets.
And time lapse weather would turn around.

Prince of apple towns, reluctant mellow gorge,
you mentioned wagons. They did have cars back then;
today, dial-a-poems. Would you laugh?

You joked but also held head still
before the words bards might have known,
asleep beneath the bouncing hills,
so still the stillness might disturb.

But who can see as they in their time?
Who rides down rivers of windfall light?
Astronomers have nets to fish in stars.
Oh, poets have their grief and fun.
Ah, poets have their ways.

Your eyes hung out on stalks like snails,
you said. And so you saw, glad and aghast,
the dipping lights of a dumbfounded town,
the flashing lights of a veering world,
a country scene wherever you went
among the lords of fact and anxious ladies.

And there was always comfort and cheer,
that voice and the light in the barroom glass,
golden in the mercy of their means, awhile.

Green and golden you were and are,
huntsman and herdsman of sawn, splay sounds,
wondering which way is the owl in the wood,
certain of the splash of pebbles in streams,
words tossed greatly as coins, English and song.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved. This poem is included in Selected Poems 1967 – 2007.

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In the February 22, 2009 New York Times, poet David Orr wrote a long and thoughtful essay titled “The Great(ness) Game” about poetry. Quoting from diverse sources, Mr. Orr sounds the alarm that with the passing of John Ashbery and his generation, “American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.”

“The problem is,” Orr continues, “that over the course of the 20th century, greatness has turned out to be an increasingly blurry business.” To put a date on it, he quotes from Donald Hall’s 1983 essay “Poetry and Ambition,” in which the poet accused American poets of playing small ball, when they should be trying to “make words that live forever…to be as good as Dante.”

Actually, I think poetry became especially blurry after the death of W.H. Auden in 1973, (see my Auden essay) the last of the Big Three in English-speaking literature, including Eliot and Yeats, and maybe also Robert Frost, to make it the Big Four. Roughly speaking, that was the end of the Shakespeare Standard and the rise of factionalism: postmodernism, political correctness/diversity/multiculturalism, anti-poetry, the triumph of the rock lyricist over the lyric poet and consequent retreat of official poetry into the university. Murky business, indeed.

Some of these trends, such as the rise of the rock lyricist—Bob Dylan over Dylan Thomas—began earlier in the 1960s; while political correctness didn’t gain steam until the 1980s. But it all started to hit the fan in a big way in the 1973-1984 era.

So, what to make of all of this?

First, I would say that we are now living in historical times, when the forces of anti-poetry are in retreat. I would include Mr. Ashbery in this crew, so, rest assured, poetry will not run out of greatness with his passing. It is now fashionable in some quarters to write rhyme and reason, that is, verse that resembles, to the eye and ear, historically great poetry. Whether any of the poets now writing in this vein will attain the exalted rank of Great Poet remains to be seen.

Mr. Orr asks the question: “Is being a ‘great’ poet the same as being a ‘major’ poet?” Good question. Which of the factions would give up literary turf to acknowledge a Great Poet? How many women poets and critics would acknowledge a Not Boring Live White Male genius? How many newly minted establishment minority writers would yield market share to same? Or are we all one big, happy family?

Without historical guidelines and references to historical standards, what we have is the dominion of politics. And politics we have aplenty today. But the times keep a-changing, and, as I say, we are now living more with traditional standards. This includes oral poetry, an ancient practice, which today is reinvented in the open mic and collaborations between poets and musicians. Slam poetry, which is hugely popular in live performances and on the Web, ultimately fails John Keats’ Truth & Beauty test. Slam poetry is energy added to art minus beauty. Just as there were rock lyricists who were giants on stage, and great hell raisers, who looked puny in print. Jim Morrison belonged to this category.

It is not easy to do away with the book standard augmented by spoken word performance. One cannot ignore the popularity of poet-performers such as Billy Collins, a middle weight with a gift for phrase making, who make big bucks from readings. Ultimately, we will all be subject to the book standard for quality. Whatever their personal weaknesses, keepers of books, of the written word, will have the last say on great vs. non-great, even as books become digitalized.

David Orr mentions Samuel Johnson’s phrase “exquisite in its kind” as one of poetry’s enduring legacies. He is right in this. Being best in show is what we poets can aspire to today and in the foreseeable future, if we get noticed at all in this new Web-based universe of millions of artists and writers, blogs and workshops. This means a new intellectual honesty is required.

You gatekeepers and empowerers, stop giving the prize for the Shelley Award, say, to someone who in no way resembles Percy Bysh Shelley. We’ve had enough of this 60s-era contrarianism already, this favor- giving based on race, gender and political affiliation. We have plenty of poets, be-ribboned like Soviet generals, who have never written a line that will live on the lips of the common reader. It won’t end, I know, favoritism. We could do with less of it. And less of the cult of ugliness that Modernism has fostered.

We don’t need new definitions and new categories except as they arise naturally in the culture. What we need is new readers with open hearts and minds eager for what smells and sounds and looks like a great poem. You might agree on that.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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