Outstreched arm

Thursday, June 02, 2005

'Shrivings' by Peter Shaffer

Probably inspired by my recent rental of Lumet's Equus, my brother came home with two copies of Peter Shaffer's book, both on sale for 50c at the public library. A word more about Equus: I enjoyed it - well, no - I liked it - well, I thought it was a great movie. While Burton is not as deliciously lovable/hateable as he was in Virginia Woolf (Equus the play doesn't have Albee's endlessly quotable lines - what does?) the scenes themselves are unforgettable. The night ride and the stable encounter are brilliant miniatures. I'm still pondering the totality of the movie/play - mostly because it wants so much to have a point - but the individual parts are among the most overlooked in memorable cinema.

Back to those two books. One of them also included Shrivings, at the time a never-performed play written after another one, the production of which Shaffer wasn't thrilled with. The story is of a Peace Organization commune run by Gideon, an old academic in 1970s England. He shares the house with a driven young American idealist secretary named Lois, and David, the son of a famous-poet former student, Mark, who is joining them for a weekend of political protest and ideological debate. Gideon is a clean old neo-hippie with high credentials - think aging Bertrand Russell. Lois is all activist fervor and emotional lukewarmth, much to the displeasure of David, who's a pot-smoking dude more in touch with his testosterone than with socialism. And Mark is a cynical mad genius, above the aforementioned three and with good reason, but (obviously) bitter and lost inside.

Upon arrival, Mark zanily crushes the naive idealism of the House of Shrivings - that's where we and the title are - and distances the youngsters. Gideon offers him some wise-old-man advice but Mark proposes instead a challenge: he will show that through his disrupting behavior he can get himself kicked out of the forgiving, accepting, loving House of Peace, thereby mocking its raison d'etre. This takes place whether Gideon (and Mark) like it or not...

I was at first a bit frightened by all the shallow pronouncements of love, peace & unity early in the play, and even more disappointed by Mark's quick dismissal of the same (as powerfully written as it was), but this just goes to show that Shaffer had me where he wanted me. It's not a brilliant play, but it's solid. I felt like my sympathies and alliances got pulled to different sides only once or twice, and I'm a sucker for that kind of emotional manipulation. Still, Mark and Lois are memorable characters; David and Gideon less so. The lines that stayed with me were:

MARK: (...) A boy, sitting on the kerb, wearing a sort of eider-down. Lumps of hair had been torn from his head. Can you imagine the force that needed? - and he was moaning in unspeakable pain. But with some kind of instinct for city tidiness, he was carefully dropping what blood he could into a drain. I stood in the window watching him, a dry martini in my hand. It was a day of April. Clouds of pollen were streaming down the street between us. Golden dust tumbling through the air. It seemed to be settling over him, like dandruff ... And then he raised his head and looked at me.
LOIS: What did you do?
MARK: I raised my glass.
LOIS: But ... but couldn't you have?--
MARK: What?
LOIS: Well, gotten him an ambulance?
MARK: I could. But I wanted another drink.

I was reminded of Camus' The Just Assassins, but I probably only say it because that play was also about a group of revolutionaries questioning their worldviews and the pitfalls of compromise and middle-of-the-road thinking. There are really very few similarities between the plays otherwise - but I have to attempt to sound like I'm qualified to review a play, no?

There are 1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is great that your authority dismisses 'Shrivings' as a brilliant play. From now on every copy of it should come with the inscription 'Solid - but not brilliant' on the back.
It is the best of Peter Shaffer's plays and almost as brilliant as 'Virginia Woolf'. It has the immediate actions and choices as well as a large theme that is dealt with through those immediate actions and choices. The final twist, when Gideon renounces everything he believes and hits Lois, is the only twist the plays needs, though it is certainly not the only one it has.

4:52 AM  

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