Tag Archives: poetry

194: Street Rat

11 Jan

I found Street Rat in a book on Ethnodrama. The play was adapted by Johnny Saldaña, Susan Finley and Macklin Finley from the ethnographic research of the Finleys into young homeless people living on the streets in New Orleans in the mid 1990s.

graffiti rat by Banksy

Street rat by Banksy

The play uses the research, the interviewees’ words and also the poetry that Macklin Finley wrote about the experience. As a play, I found it at times didactic and a little clumsy but this is likely to be a result of trying to turn interviews into theatre without including the character of an interviewer.

When characters articulate their politics and beliefs, it comes across as answers to an outsider’s questions but is presented, unconvincingly, as dialogue between young people.

TIGGER: I know plenty of f*cking straight up prostitutes. They’re cool as hell, but that’s not something I’m going to do.

ROACH: It makes you compromise yourself. People who do it have to be comfortable with doing it. Sometimes people get caught up in it, when they aren’t comfortable doing it, but they do it anyway. That causes so many problems.

The inclusion of Macklin’s poetry worked really well in some instances but in others felt perilously close to self-indulgent. The authors saw it as a Brechtian narratorial device, and it works best when it is making comment on the action, like the following example which followed the dropping of small change at Roach’s feet.

MACK: Three pennies
fall like
rain in
the thunderous
silence after.
Remorse is
a court word
holding no
tender in the
lives of men.

My response on reading Street Rat was that the poems shouldn’t all have been included in their entirety: sometimes one stanza says it all and extending is unnecessary. There were also too many poems so that, by the end of the play, I was becoming frustrated with their inclusion.

For an ethnodrama (a play that ‘consists of dramatized selections of narratives collected through interviewing and participation observation’ Denzin & Lincoln) Street Rat feels as if it has barely scratched the surface of the lives of its subjects. The poetry is real and sincere, but it is the poetry of an educated man, visiting the homeless youth, rather than being their stories.

Publisher: Altamira Press (in Ethnodrama: An anthology of reality theatre)

Cast: 5M, 4F

150: Daniel Keene part 2

18 Aug

So, today I read the next five plays in To Whom it May Concern and other plays. If I thought my heart was broken yesterday, it was well and truly wrung out today. Every drop of feeling spent.

Daniel Keene: To whom it may concern

Play four, Untitled Monologue, is spoken by a young man trying to survive in the city. He’s left his home and his Dad (who brought him up on his own) to try and find a job in the big smoke. But jobs are scarce, he doesn’t have the sort of experience people want and he’s staying in a hostel where no one wants to talk to him. The play is told through a series of letters home to his Dad interspersed with his thoughts and feelings as it all gets too much for him.

Dear Dad
I almost had some good news on the job front today but it turned out not to be I got called back to a place I’d been interviewed last week but they’d contacted the wrong person and it wasn’t me they were after just someone made a mistake it was a job in a warehouse they wanted someone young and strong to help with loading trucks but it turned out not to be me

Desperate for contact and feeling, never hearing from his Dad and with no money to pay for the hostel, the young man ends up on the street and hurts a woman who speaks to him. He’s lost and seems to have no chance of getting his life ‘back on track’ despite all his good intentions when he arrived.

Play five, Night, a Wall, Two Men, is about the relationship between two older homeless men. They meet every few evenings to talk about life and share stories of what they’ve eaten and who’s dead or suffering more than usual.

Tommy Randells lived in the shed in his old mother’s back yard he hanged himself from the peppercorn tree his mother cut him down herself his tongue sticking out blue and she kissed him on the cheek and said goodbye Tommy goodbye my little darling but he wasn’t little any more he was dead not poor not deaf not hungry not fucking miserable anymore

There’s humour and despair in this piece and the language is as blue as you’d expect from two old blokes who’ve lived rougher and more alone than most of us. There are also short descriptions that hit you in the solar plexus, like this one: There’s a face under these bruises she said it’s my face before Matt got through with me.

Play six, Kaddish, is one of the shortest in the collection and one of the most powerful. A man stands in the room he used to share with the woman he loved and recounts losing her and having to bury her in a pauper’s grave “that was the best I could do for her”. He longs to scream and describes the scream he’d like to give: Pigs I think it’s pigs that have the loudest scream when the butcher sticks his knife into them I’d like to scream like that I’m sure it’s pigs it makes your hair stand on end I’d like to scream like that. Instead of screaming he starts to quietly tear his clothes.

Play seven, The Violin, is spoken by three members of a family, each alone and remembering a time in the past when they were together. I imagined that they were Jewish and that the time they talked of was when the Nazis were in power but this isn’t explicit. What we know is that the man plays the violin, that he sleeps in a bed with his wife and their child between them and that he’s frightened.

Each night he asks his wife the same question, Are we safe? Each night she answers, Yes. But obviously they aren’t because one night they have to pack a suitcase and stand “very straight like bristles on a brush” on a train. The violin case lies open on their table and the candles are never lit again.

The final story, The Rain, is one of the most overwhelming (and seems to follow on from The Violin). It’s narrated by an old woman. She used to stand in a field just a field an ordinary field with nothing in it nothing growing in it just after a while these paths the people wore in the earth all those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people walking across the field. The field was where the people were herded to board the trains for the concentration camps. She was young and would be out walking when they filed past her. As they went, they’d give her things: the precious things they’d been collecting and which they weren’t allowed to take on the train.

She safeguarded everything, sure that one day they’d be back for their treasures. As her house filled up with other people’s things, she had to move into the garden and that’s where she slept while her home became a museum, a shrine to the thousands who’d walked past her in the field.

I dare you to read this collection without a tear in your eye and a lump in your throat.

Publisher: Black Pepper

Cast: Play 4: 1M; Play 5: 2M; Play 6: 1M; Play 7: 1M, 2F; Play 8: 1F

149: To Whom it May Concern

17 Aug

Daniel Keene mixes poetry with stagecraft to create something heartbreaking and beautiful. It’s extremely rare for me to cry when reading a play but he’d managed it in a few masterful pages.

Daniel Keene: To Whom it May Concern

To Whom it May Concern is a collection of short plays, linked by love and loss. The first one, the one that had me crying and from which the collection gets its title, is about an older man who has just discovered he has inoperable cancer. It could be an ordinary story except that this man is the sole carer of his profoundly disabled 40-year-old son.

We follow the father as he tries, unsuccessfully, to find someone to take Leo and look after him. We see him pack a case for his son and (like Paddington Bear) pin an envelope to his coat with all his money and a note asking the finder to look after Leo. But no one is willing to approach the lost boy in a man’s body. We see the father take his son to the ocean and help him out of his clothes.

I want you to go in the water you’ll feel good it’s peaceful in the water you’ll feel the tide pulling you all that blue so big it’s all so big you’ll feel safe Leo out there in something so big it covers the earth just floating you know how to float don’t be scared put your trunks on don’t stand there naked like that you look so Leo you look so please Leo go in the water let the water take you please Leo
the son starts to whimper covering himself with his hands
Put your clothes on put your clothes back on we’ll go home it’s too cold today I’m sorry Leo
the father picks up his sons clothes and starts to dress him
I’m sorry

Keene writes the plays with almost no punctuation and with no character names. This makes it a much more challenging read and some of the dialogue scenes are quite hard to grasp until you work out which character is speaking. But the sparse beauty of the language and the emotional connection with characters and situations makes this extraordinarily beautiful reading.

In the second play in the collection, A Glass of Twilight, a travelling salesman and another man meet and hook up in a bar. The salesman wants love and companionship but compromises by paying for sex.

– I know about plays I’m not stupid everyone knows what the end is going to be when it happens they go home everyone goes home even the actors I knew an actor once at least he said he was an actor he was the loneliest man I ever knew
pause
-Until now
pause
– Until now

The next play, Neither Lost Nor Found, is about a mother reunited with her daughter who has been fostered out for nine years. There’s the push-pull of connection, regret, guilt and longing and, off stage and almost out of our thoughts, are the foster parents, who’ve been left bereft without the child they’ve loved for all this time. The love and hope we see blossoming on stage comes at a cost for someone else, someone we never see but who haunts the play.

Today I only had time to read the first three plays in this collection. I hope to read the next five tomorrow.

Publisher: Black Pepper

Cast: Play 1: 2M; Play 2: 2M; Play 3: 2F