If there is one word to describe unknown playwright Martha Patterson, that word would be versatile. She works in a variety of genres and deals in everything from based-on-fact monologues to fun one-acts as well as full-lengths, covering all sorts of topics.
Martha kinda has theatre in her blood. Her aunt Elizabeth Patterson had a massive acting career in Chicago, on Broadway and on film and TV. Audiences might remember her from a few episodes of I Love Lucy she appeared on.
The Ghost is starting to get it. As is the dorky Danish prince –
Spoiler alert: Hamlet falls for whatever lines his dead dad tells him, just like in the original.
This play is pretty funny and also quite silly, thus making it highly entertaining. And it’s an appropriate shortened alternative to that behemoth Hamlet, which seems to run 3 hours, minimum.
Hamlet’s Revenge has been performed in Korea by The Seoul Players in 2010 and has an upcoming production in the Phoenix area.
The next short play of Martha’s that we’ll take a look at is Richard Gerstl, a serious monologue illuminating the life and sad death of the Viennese artist.
Martha uses a very traditional and classical technique when setting up her plays –
This certainly gives us a particular moment in time.
Richard introduces himself…in a way.
Mathilde Schönberg wasn’t repulsed. Anyways, this is interesting because so much is made of the male gaze, that it’s quite a relief when a different perspective is offered.
For those who don’t know the term, it’s kinda like when you can tell the heterosexual male director of a film is in love with the female star – then extrapolate that to how our culture tells stories. This is still endemic in theatre. You can read more about the male gaze here.
Sounds like Richard has a bit of the male gaze himself. And he is not the most pleasent character…
Did I mention he’s coiling a noose as he’s talking?
This is a good play about a difficult topic. I don’t know if the real Richard Gerstl sought help. The play adequately summarizes the conflicts and crises in his short life…now you’re getting a brief lecture. Anytime this blog mentions a work dealing with suicide, we need to mention this…
SUICIDE STUFF FOLLOWS….
A former classmate of mine has had 5 (FIVE) of her brothers commit suicide, including 4 (FOUR) since last year. The last one was less than a month ago. She is absolutely one of the nicest people I know. This has brought suicide to the forefront of my mind.
If you’re in the US and are thinking about suicide, the hotline is here. Or simply text CONNECT to 741741.
In Canada, a database of info is here or you can text 686868.
Every day I think about what my friend is going through.
If those don’t work, you can always message me at this blog. I WILL get back to you as soon as I see it.
END OF SUICIDE STUFF
Now back to Martha and a very funny play of hers…
Do y’all know steampunk? Our friends at the Oxford Dictionary say: A genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology.
This is a very bare-bones definition and for further enlightenment, one should look here.
Martha has cooked up a comedic steampunk revenge based around a fairy tale – Cinderella’s Revenge.
Drizella and Jeremiah carry on like a couple of rich idiots for the first bit of the play.
Jeremiah and Drizella argue and bicker until Cindy shows up with Prunella, who takes no guff from hyper-misogynist Jeremiah. Oh, and CIndy had previously married a prince who “ruined” her –
Let’s analyze this exchange.
Setting up Cindy’s bad treatment earlier in life. Check.
Some down-home misogyny from Jer. Check.
Steampunk sex joke. Check.
Useless male. Check.
This being Steampunk times and all, Jeremiah doesn’t quite approve of Cindy’s choice of life partner. He hectors Cindy and Prunella until something cool happens.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for Jerry Douchepunk.
Now we’ll turn to another monologue by Patterson: Amarilis.
A little background info. Haïti and the Dominican Republic share the same island, Hispaniola. They often do not get along. Vox was kind enough to make an entire video about it:
In 1937, soldiers of the Dominican Republic, under orders from dictator Rafael Trujillo, commited the Parsley Massacre. This was a massacre of thousands of Haitians in the Dominican Republic.
It is called the Parsley Massacre in English because the pronunciation of perejil – “parsley” in Spanish – was used to distinguish Dominicans from Haitians.
When an elderly person asks “Are you sure you want to hear this?” you must think about it carefully. There’s a reason they ask it.
That’s your reason, right there.
The play ends with Amarilis focusing again on the present.
The final play of Martha’s we’ll take a look at is the wondrous and wonderfully horrific short play A Doll’s Life. Let’s see what that’s about:
This sounds fun.
Because grilled cheese sandwiches totally own evil dolls.
This video could be retitled “How to kill Satanic dolls” – she uses enough butter to kill 13 Satans precisely. Geez.
So dad doesn’t really get it. But Amelia bugs him enough that he decides to inspect the closet, while complaining 100%.
Womp womp. We’re lucky enough to have a real live production of A Doll’s Life.
Martha was kind enough to take some time out of her busy writing schedule and answer a few questions:
1. How did you start playwriting?
I’d always been a writer – of stories and poetry, as a kid – but I started writing plays in my late 30s, while in grad school studying Performing Arts Education. I had thought I’d teach drama to high school students, after being an actress in California and New York, but discovered I didn’t really like teaching. However, if I hadn’t gone to grad school I probably wouldn’t have become a playwright. My acting training definitely informs my writing, in terms of characterization and knowing what kinds of parts are fun to play.
2. What are your influences?
In college as a Theatre student, I had to read lots of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov, so I’m influenced by them. Interestingly, when I started writing plays I wrote lots of long monologues into my scripts, partly because those writers did, but as time’s gone on, I keep my dialogue more clipped. I’m told that audiences have short attention spans and prefer not to listen to long speeches.
3. What is your most memorable production and why?
Of my own work? Probably a production of my political monologue AMARILIS, about the conflict between Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the early 1900s. It was produced by the Border of Lights Festival in NYC, and they had an space in a church, served wine and cheese, and had a musician playing before and after the show. I went to New York to see it and was really glad to meet the producer, who’s still a penpal, and the woman who played the elderly lady I wrote about. The whole affair was elegant, and I always love being in NYC again.
Of other people’s work, I really liked Caryl Churchill’s CLOUD NINE, which I saw Off-Broadway. Clever mixing up of sexes and ages in the cast, and I don’t remember the plot well now – this was years ago – but I certainly enjoyed the play.
4. What is your least memorable production and why? [you can leave out specifics or names]
There was a production of mine in Hawaii and they sent me a DVD of the performance because I couldn’t go, and one of the actors fluffed his lines, and the lighting was too dim, and the show wasn’t very well staged. I guess that’s my least favorite.
5. What’s your funniest theatre story?
I started writing my first play in grad school, and the guy I asked to read the man’s part out loud to the class was so good, I kept writing the play and finished it with him in mind. He wasn’t even really an actor. I’ve never seen anyone play the role as well as he read it. He had a quiet, deadpan delivery and it’s funny because it was an accident that I “cast” him.
6. What are your writing habits like?
I usually have a vodka-and-tonic next to me, even if all the ice melts and it gets watered down before I drink it, and I often write late at night into the wee hours of the morning.
7. What advice do you have for new playwrights?
Don’t be afraid to try it, and do have your work read out loud, preferably by people who’ve done some acting. You’ll find out where the dialogue lags. Share your work with other playwrights – they’ll often give good feedback, which you can take or leave, as you choose, but don’t be defensive – often after thinking about someone’s critique you’ll find they had valid comments.
8. Who are some other writers you feel should get more attention?
Shakespeare. (Kidding.) Actually, among the writers I’m friends with, they’re all doing as well or better than I am, production-wise. Dan Guyton is a pen-friend from Georgia who’s a really strong writer, has lots of funny plays but also wrote a full-length drama in verse, set in Hell – I don’t know how he managed to complete such a piece of work, all in verse. Evan Guilford-Blake is another playwright from Georgia – lately he’s focused on fiction, though – but he’s excellent, and I recently read a beautiful, elegiac short story he wrote that he’s trying to get published.
9. What are common themes in your work?
Relationships are something I focus on – marriages or families with conflict. But I also have political plays, and recently wrote one about the workplace, and I have a few plays for youth, and I can’t really say I have themes. I will tell you I’ve written for themes requested by theatres, and even if they didn’t choose my play, I’ve usually gotten it done elsewhere. So writing for themes has been very productive for me – it gets my creativity going, when otherwise I’d be at a loss as to what to write about. AMARILIS was written for a themed event. I think HAMLET’S REVENGE was, too.
10. What is one thing you wished you knew now, that you didn’t know starting out?
Keep lots of your lines short, a rapid-fire back-and-forth. Seems to work for me these days; as I’ve already said, long monologues can be dull.
11. How has the playwriting market changed since your first production in ’97?
It’s more competitive. I got three long one-acts produced right off the bat as a writer, Off-Off-Broadway, but this past year has a been deadly – only three productions and a few publications, which is less than my average. I belong to the Playwrights’ Binge, an international listserv, and I share lots of opportunities with those people, but it’s been suggested to me to be less generous, just because I’m up against so many other authors! There are 1000s of playwrights out there.
12. Please tell us about the process behind writing Amarilis.
First I had to do research, which I did online by reading brief histories of Haiti and the Dominican. Then, I had to write the speech. I came up with the character of a little old lady, I don’t know why, except that she had to be old because she’s recounting the conflict between those nations and it happened decades ago. I imagined her talking to her neighbor, who is unseen, and the whole thing unfolded from there.
13. You have Hamlet’s Revenge and Cinderella’s Revenge – both comedies. How does one make revenge as hilarious as possible?
By using the unexpected. I’ve read that there are two reasons why people laugh: 1) because the same thing’s happened to them (like slipping on the proverbial banana peel), or 2) because what happens is unexpected – the audience isn’t anticipating that action or line. In HAMLET’S REVENGE I have Hamlet idly eating a sandwich while his father chews him out, and Hamlet is very unconcerned about avenging his Dad’s murder. That’s an innately funny situation and you’re not expecting him to be so blase.
14. Multipart question: Have you faced ageism and/or sexism in your career? If yes, what advice or tips would you give fellow writers coming up against those obstacles?
No, I don’t think I’ve faced ageism or sexism. Most of the playwrights I know are over 45 or 50 anyway, and I don’t think it’s a hindrance, except when you find an opportunity to submit that’s only for under-30s, but that’s the theatre’s choice.
Much has been made of the need for gender parity in the theatre, especially among writers, but I’ve gotten my fair share of productions and publications, so I’m not complaining.
15. What is a question you’d like to be asked? Please go ahead and answer that question.
I suppose one question I’d like to be asked – do I attend the theatre often? – has a surprising answer: No, I don’t. I saw so much theatre in my youth, and appeared as a leading lady in lots of productions, that I don’t feel the need to go very often these days, and it really is an expense. I probably should get out and see what’s going on in theatre right now. But often I’d rather read a play than actually see it, which I can do in half the time it takes to watch a performance. And sometimes when I go to the theatre I get bored and restless. I’d rather be at home writing!
Thanks so much Martha for sharing your talent and knowledge with us!
William Edgar Easton came from five generations of human rights activists. His paternal ancestors had served in the American Revolution and his maternal ancestors served in the Haitian Revolution. He had African, European and Native American (Wampanoag) ancestry. His skin color was light enough to pass as white, yet he always identified as African-American.
Much like Angelina Weld Grimké, Easton had some illustrious ancestors and was brought up partially in Massachusetts.
As previously stated, he was the fifth generation in a line of activists – let’s just check in and see who some of those were:
James Easton (1754-1830)
William Edgar’s great-granduncle [great-grandfather’s brother]. Of Wampanoag and African descent.
He fought in American Revolution, worked as a blacksmith, ran his own foundry for over 20 years, opened an academic and vocational school for African-Americans and seemed to have a hobby of using sit-ins to integrate churches. Seriously, throughout his adult life he and his family tried to integrate the segregated congregations to which they belonged.
It seems nearly all of James’ children took up his activist ways, most prominently…
Hosea Easton (1799-1837) was a minister, abolitionist, author and human rights activist.
Next in line is James’ grandson…
Benjamin F. Roberts (1815-1881) who was a printer, publisher, writer and activist. Is greatest claim to fame is pursuing Roberts v. Boston – he sued the city of Boston because of its “seperate but equal” schooling system. Despite the involvement of lawyer (and soon-to-be senator) Charles Sumner and lawyer Robert Morris, Roberts sadly lost the case. The case would be cited in US Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 in which “seperate but equal” was enshrined in law.
Octave Oliviers was an ancestor of Easton’s mother Marie Leggett. I couldn’t find out much about him except he was a general in Haïti’s revolution.
Easton wrote the play Dessalines, a dramatic tale : a single chapter from Haiti’s history for the 1893 Exposition. The play was performed in Chicago, but not exactly at the Haïtian exhibit.
Now we must delve a bit into Haïtian history…
Haïti was a slave colony run raped by the French. The export was sugar cane. Eventually the slaves found a way to rebel and did just that in 1791. Dessalines was one of thousands of soldiers fighting the French. He became a leader, working closely with the famous Haïtian badass Toussaint Louverture. Meanwhile, having its own revolutionary problems, France declared slavery abolished. Then it gets kinda weird. Louverture and Dessalines then joined the French to fight the Spanish and British. Louverture invaded the Spanish side of Hispaniola and freed the slaves there.
But France is tricky and in 1801 Napoleon thought it’d be a grand idea to restore slavery. Louverture was taken prisoner and died in France. Dessalines and his followers defeated the French soldiers and secured Haïtian independence. Oh, and he ordered a massacre of almost all the white people in Haïti (except for the Poles). And he became president and self-proclaimed emperor of Haïti. As such, he reimplemented the plantation ssytem, ostensibly to maintain Haiti’s economy, but the people felt like they had been enslaved again and it wasn’t long before Dessalines was killed, but we’re not quite sure how.
Thus, Dessalines’ legacy is quite mixed. He was a brave patriot and competant leader who led Haïti to victory over the hated French. He also ordered massacres and in a way re-enslaved his people. And proclaimed himself emperor.
This isn’t quite the same guy in the play – let’s take a look!!
Cultural note: in the Haïtian Revolution, the dark-skinned Haitians and the mixed-race Haïtians (mulatres) didn’t get along much.
I’ve noticed this seems to happen when the colonizers create a class that isn’t at the top nor is it at the bottom: they tend to be despised by both sides, warranted or not. A similar thing happened to the mixed-race Indos of Indonesia during their revolution.
So mulatre Flavien is kind of a dick. And Placide is pretty direct about his feelings.
Flavien being a dick to Placide. Dessalines shows up and takes all the slaves.Mulatre General Rigaud thinks about joining, but remains loyal to France. Dessalines becomes captor to Rigaud’s sister, Clarisse. Dessalines wants to punish the soldiers who tricked Clarisse and were going to abuse her. Clarisse begs him to spare them. Rigaud and Lefebre meet – again about France. Dessalines shows up. They don’t fight. Later Rigaud confronts him about honor. Fight. Clarisse saves everyone. Clarisse prays. Dessalines becomes Catholic.
Not a shabby plot, but the play is WAY better than the above. The strongest part is truly the dialogue. Easton had a way with words…Flavien is all butthurt over Placide’s insult – he complains to the slaves…
The published volume has several illustrations – the one featuring Dessalines is earlier. These are the others:
Then, after a period of nearly 20 years, Easton published Christophe; a tragedy in prose of imperial Haiti.
The author actually made his own synopsis of the play:
Now it’s not a bad play, but even the synopsis is where things start to falter. There are some things in the synopsis that aren’t even in the play. Not a good sign.
And we must jump back into Haïtian history a bit…
Much like Dessalines, Henri-Christophe had been a general in the Haitian Revolution. Of interest to Americans, he may have served in the American Revolution as a drummer boy with the French at the failed Siege of Savannah in 1778.
On 6 April 1805, having gathered all his troops, General Christophe took all male prisoners to the local cemetery and proceeded to slit their throats, among them Presbyter Vásquez and 20 more priests.
He was involved in the conspiracy to kill Dessalines and when he proclaimed himself emperor, he went all in:
“Henry, by the grace of God and constitutional law of the state, King of Haiti, Sovereign of Tortuga, Gonâve, and other adjacent islands, Destroyer of tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian nation, Creator of her moral, political, and martial institutions, First crowned monarch of the New World, Defender of the faith, Founder of the Royal Military Order of Saint Henry.”
This isn’t quite the Henri-Christophe that appears in the play.
In real-life, Christophe shot himself in the head with a silver bullet [insert werewolf joke here]. In the play he stabs himself with his sword before stabbing someone else.
The play, in my opinion, is quite pedestrian, especially if we compare it to Dessalines. It seems to lack the vigor inherent in plot – it moves forward simply because it has to.
There’s a lot more French used in this play than in Dessalines.
The pseudo-Shakespearean language has been toned down immensely. There’s a part where some Haitians accuse Dessalines of planning to allow white people to live in Haiti:
I found the best bits of dialogue deal with the honorable Dessalines and the traitorous Christophe.
“Puppet of my whims!” <<<< Dessalines pwned Christophe right there.
Sadly, Dessalines dies pretty early in the play. And as previously stated, the play plods… a lot. But the book has illustrations. Let’s check out the Classics Illustrated version:
The most interesting thing about the play is the part played by Henrietta Vinton Davis – that of Valerie, who dresses up like a murdering vengeful priest!!!!
If the entire play had been about a woman dressed as a priest killing people, yeah it would be a classic.
It’s still worth a look and maybe other folks will disagree with my assessment.
The play was produced by Miss Davis at the Lenox Casino in New York City with an opening night of March 21, 1912. Fun fact: in 1912 this “casino” was busted for showing stag films.