In the last post I mentioned a performance of Macbeth I’d seen last summer. One collected thought led to another and I found myself remembering a piece I had written years ago and submitted as a homework assignment at Keele in February 2011. Joe Stretch was holding the gun to my head for the first draft of a new story (following the “Pioneer Boulevard” debacle), and I didn’t have time to compose something new for Tim Lustig’s Life Writing class. I couldn’t risk having two guns held to my head. One would be sure to go off.
Even though I can still feel that one muzzle against my left temple, and even though I wish I had written something new for Tim’s class, I’m glad I submitted the old piece because Tim and my classmates suggested some very helpful edits during the workshop. I read the tweaked version at the open mic session that evening (to indulgent applause) and, upon returning to LA later that year, submitted it to Smithsonian for their Last Page humor section. I heard back promptly, and although the editors were kind enough to call my piece an essay, what they had to say was more disappointing than a outright rejection. Smithsonian has discontinued the Last Page! It was always the first page I would turn to as a subscriber.
I am publishing the piece here because my publisher recently told me it deserves to be published. (Incidentally, I have given her permission to go through my emails, so it’s not like she hacked into my account to discover the piece. In general I don’t like people reading my mail, but it’s a trade-off. Constance Brooks said she’ll never read my blog, to allow me my artistic freedom, so I let her read my mail instead. It’s less interesting anyway.)
“I loved it, Sharon!” she gushed (as she only does when talking about my writing). “It’s genius! Like everything you’ve written! I laughed till I cried!“
She added that if I didn’t publish it, she’d take a huge cut from my royalties. She does that anyway, but since I don’t want the cut to become huger, if you run into Constance somewhere please don’t tell her my real reason for publishing the piece. The thing is, Thursday draws nigh and I don’t want to receive another friendly reminder from WordPress.
The Play’s the Thing
Every year I watch the plays staged by Shakespeare By The Sea, a nonprofit organization that holds outdoor performances across Los Angeles in summer. One night at my favorite location, Point Fermin Park in San Pedro, as I shivered under two blankets, sipping hot chocolate for added immunity against the chilly ocean breeze, I was taken back to a sweltering April evening in India when, as a second-year undergrad, I received a long-awaited opportunity to coax my classmates onstage.
My English class had been asked to arrange a farewell party for our graduating seniors, and I was responsible for the entertainment. The play’s the thing, I decided, as I set about looking for something that could be condensed into a fifteen-minute skit. It had to be a comedy, because anything else would have made the already melancholic seniors lachrymose, and it must be a famous work, preferably Shakespeare, because I didn’t want the Head of Department to disapprove. Furthermore, the play would have to be heroine-oriented, because I couldn’t think of any boy in our class who might secretly possess histrionic ability. These requirements restricted my choice to The Taming of the Shrew which, two toilsome evenings later, was reduced to a somewhat witty version set in late 20th-century India.
After I’d managed to assemble a cast of seven, the girls outnumbering the boys five to two, I faced the thankless task of assigning the parts. I was mercifully spared the ignominy of reversing the Shakespearean tradition and making the girls play the male characters when the boys agreed to play Petruchio and Baptista. The latter would double as the priest in the wedding scene, and I hoped no one would notice the unexplained absence of the father of the bride. The girls unanimously elected me Katherina and divvied up the less demanding roles of Bianca, the mother, and the two maids who later play wedding guests.
We stumbled through rehearsals for one nightmarish week. Each day saw new improvisations by the actors, and I finally gave up trying to restore my script to its original version – which was, after all, itself a mere adaptation.
If the truth be told, my unabashed license probably made Shakespeare writhe in his distant grave. For instance, the inclusion of Katherina’s mother, who in the opening scene serves her husband chai and urges him to advertise in the matrimonial column of a national newspaper, since all other means of procuring a groom for their daughter have failed. The dauntless Petruchio, who considers himself more than equal to taming the shrew, responds to the ad in person and achieves the feat, to the tune of the latest Bollywood hit, in one brief scene. Katherina’s final speech, so poetically penned by the Bard, was in my play reduced to a meek “Your wish is my command, dear Pet.” Unable to believe his ears, Baptista faints, and the dramatis personae exeunt, carrying him out.
Despite my misgivings, the play went off well enough, with only a few minor slips. Petruchio tripped while making his entry and Bianca let out a giggle, which she tried unsuccessfully to convert into a cough. Halfway through that ill-fated scene, Baptista was beset by an attack of stage fright and repeated the line “But you don’t know my daughter” three times. Later, when he doubled as the priest, he started the wedding ceremony before the groom could arrive, and from under the voluminous folds of her bridal sari, the kneeling Katherina was heard to hiss irreverently, “Wait for Petruchio, stupid.”
Happily, these faux pas heightened the comic effect, causing some seniors to laugh till they cried, and when we returned onstage for the curtain call I noticed that the Head of Department was smiling indulgently as he applauded. Still, it was nothing to match the ovation Kate and company received when the play ended that night in Point Fermin Park.