Freedom to Read

Originally posted July 6, 2011.

Fourth of July, right?  Not when you live in Travis County.  There has been a drought here for so long that even the biggest, city-run firework shows were cancelled.  I think I could’ve seen some fireworks, but only if I was willing to drive an hour or two outside of the city.  Lame.  The closest I got to these lovely, holiday explosions was the Katy Perry song.  So how did I decide to celebrate instead?  Reading by the pool. Super lame, I know.  But my family really tried to make the day exciting.  We went to go see a movie as a family that weekend and then tried to brainstorm something exciting to do on the actual holiday. Except none of us woke up until eleven that morning and by the time we were awake enough to go anywhere, the day was halfway gone. Instead we exercised our freedom to do almost nothing by tanning, listening to awesome music, eating apple pie, and pretty much having a lazy summer day.

It’s funny that I finished The Trial on July 4th because the judicial system outlined in the book is so labyrinthine, obscured, and unapproachable that it made me appreciate the American judicial system even more.  Yes, there are plenty of people angry at it now in the aftermath of the Casey Anthony murder trial.  But think about having a judicial system where people can be arrested and (spoiler alert) privately executed without ever being informed of their alleged crime.  It’s disgusting and from what I could tell, Kafka did a fantastic job of conveying this mysterious and off-putting judicial system. Actually, it took me a while to actually enjoy his writing.  The paragraphs went on and on and the sentences wound around in circles as he described the details of each new event in the trial.  It wasn’t until I was halfway through the novel that I could appreciate how this prose worked.  I actually felt dizzy from reading these circular paragraphs, just as Josef K. probably felt trying to keep up with the circular logic of the court system.  Once I understood how Kafka was working, the book became that much more engaging.

Kafka’s work is interesting, not only for the great way he manipulates prose or the subject matter, but because of the author’s history.  Kafka never published any of his major novels during his lifetime.  At his death, Kafka left all his work to his best friend, Max Brod, and told him to burn them all, unpublished.  Thankfully, Brod didn’t listen.  He took all the bits of Kafka’s work, from his most polished manuscripts to the barely-pieced-together ones and worked hard to publish it all.  The Trial especially gave Brod a difficult time because it was unfinished. Brod found multiple chapters and stories about Josef K. that linked together, but Kafka did not leave any clear order in which to put it all together.  The translation I read made sure to tell the reader about this history and included extra pieces in the back, fragments that didn’t clearly fit into their version of the novel, but that still obviously related to Josef K. and his trial.  When I finished the main portion of the book I thought of it as a complete story that flowed well from the beginning to the end.  But then I read the fragments and realized that those chapters just happened to be in that order in my copy.  They could be read in almost any order and no one can figure out the “right” way because we can no longer ask the author.  It blows my mind and makes the questions in the novel that much more important.

But that’s not all I read on July 4th!  With a whole day out in the sun, I had way more time to read.  So I switched to plays.  I’ve recently become dedicated to the theater and playwriting so I wanted to devote part of my summer reading to drama in order to expand my repertoire and study the craft.  I re-read Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cellphone.  She is one of my favorite playwrights and I’m SO jealous that my theater organization, the Rice Players, will be producing it in the fall, for the one semester that I’ll be gone!!! (Yes, I do know studying abroad will be worth it, but why oh why did I have to suggest this play, knowing they would pick it because it’s amazing?)  I haven’t read any of her work in a while and I was so happily reminded of how smooth it flows.  Ruhl almost effortlessly switches between the real and the imagined, the living and the dead, the United States and an airport in South America, the digital and the tangible.  I hope I get to hear a lot about our production because I’m curious to see exactly how the Rice Players decides to translate some of the more creative aspects (a cellphone ballet, a house of paper, moments of “Edward Hopper paintings”) to the stage.

And this is what led me to the next playwright: Splendor in the Grass. Fantastic film, directed by Elia Kazan, Natalie Wood (!), and Warren Beatty’s film premiere.  I watched for the first time with my mom at the Paramount as part of their summer film series last year.  I have to say, the Paramount is one of the best places to watch old movies.  Even bad sci-fi flicks seem much better there, although I would suggest brining socks and a blanket because it’s freezing in there.  I probably love this film more than any other that I’ve seen at the Paramount (and that’s saying a lot).  Not only is the acting brilliant, but I find it incredible how they could film a movie in 1961 that revolves around the issue of teenage sex, and yet they never directly mention the word and they never show anything besides some passionate kissing.  No pulling up on the dress, no long-legged naked girls.  And there’s only one scene I can recall with a boy without his shirt on.  Now, I completely understand how it’s important to open up these issues and to make sure nothing stays completely taboo; that’s how a lot of conflict arises in the movie. The kids can’t directly mention the issue of sex to their parents, so the parents can’t listen and have a mature, enlightening discussion on the topic.  On the other hand, I find it refreshing to leave some of the bedroom activities behind closed doors.  It’s not like the audience couldn’t figure it out.  Instead of treating us all like baby sex-fiends, Kazan treated us like intelligent viewers.  But Kazan could only make this film because of the screenwriter behind it: William Inge.

William Inge was a pretty famous playwright.  He wrote “Come Back, Little Sheba,” “Picnic,” “Bus Stop,” and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” which all debuted with moderate to smashing success on Broadway and were all turned into Blockbuster movies with stars like Burt Lancaster, William Holden, and Marilyn Monroe.  I’m finished reading the first three of those four plays listed.  They are fantastic so far.  I found his foreword to the book of plays comforting, too.  He talked about his theories on playwriting, but mostly he talked about how hard it was to accept success and keep working after his first play. Now, my first play only premiered in an extremely small college setting, but it was a triumph all the same and I’m finding it much harder to work on my second play this summer.  Partially the problem comes from having a steady job to suck my time away and a later start, but I also have some mental blocks to get over.  And from what Inge writes, it sounds like some of these confidence issues occur to other playwrights.  So for me, it’s heartening to know that other writers have struggled with the same issues and come out on the other end both prolific and memorable (in a good way).  But how does Inge relate toSplendor in the Grass?  After so much success in adapting his plays for the screen, he decided to write a story specifically for the screen, which ended up as Splendor in the Grass.  Actually, Inge even has a small role in the movie (he’s the priest in the church scene).  That makes him even cooler in my eyes!

As you can read, I’ve been much busier this week with my reading. They cut back my hours a little at work, which is just fine by me.  This way I’m still earning plenty of money to spend next semester in England (which you guys will hear all about right here in this very blog), but I’m not too exhausted when I come home.  Instead of crashing, I can write beautifully long blog posts like this one.  Next week should be interesting with the premiere of the final HARRY POTTER movie.  I’ll be sure to post pics of my costume and to share my personal history with the most famous wizard of our time.

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About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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