My seventh grade English teacher Leon Hart Jr. was a giant of a man, in both stature and heart. He was the son of Heisman Trophy winner and Detroit Lion footballer Leon Hart, and he turned my thirteen-year-old suburban lump of unformed Play-Doh mind onto the poetry of Richard Brautigan. I was never the same after that.
Mr. Hart was one of the first teachers who encouraged me to write. Indeed, it was in his class that I wrote and performed my first play, a short parody of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," called, unimaginatively enough, "One Flew Into The Cuckoo's Nest." It was part Monty Python, part Mad magazine, part let's-see-what-happens-if-I-don't-finish-writing-it-by-the-deadline-because-I-am-fundamentally-lazy-so-let's-just-go-out-there-and-do-it-anyway-and-see-what-happens.
The only thing I remember about the guts of the play itself was the character my friend Mike DeSantis played called The Nizzard, who wore a red rubber devil's masque that his dog had chewed all to hell. The Nizzard's only line was, "I am The Nizzard," which he uttered sporadically, with great menace, at his own discretion. The play ended, in perfect junior high school fashion, with a food fight, and we got good laughs throughout for the purity of the work's stupidity.
Little did I know at the time that I had written my first Theatre of the Absurd piece. The discovery of Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello et al., would come many years later.
(The Nizzard also featured prominently in a notoriously merciless "Lord of The Flies" substitute teacher incident a few months later, during which I experienced my first real taste of the destructive side of my ringleader power, and which ended with multiple suspensions, a flurry of forged documents, and a big black blotchy Rorschach stain on my permanent record. My father would have killed me if the full details of my role in the whole brouhaha had leaked out, so let's just leave it at that, God rest his soul.)
Flashforward—or, if you're reading this in the present, from which where I'm writing, flashback—to South Florida, early mid-1980s. Approximately. Give or take two or three years. Could have been closer to 1989. Maybe. The tattered yellowed title page says 1992, but that can't be right. I was already living in the Bay Area by that time, and I'm pretty sure I wrote "Glass of Beer: A One Act Ghost Sonata in Esperanto" while I was still tanning myself crispy silly in Pompano Beach. But I could be wrong. I'm not really sure. However, I do know with 100% absolute certainty that I bought the little green hardcover Esperanto dictionary that I used to create the play's dialog in South Florida, that much I know. Pretty sure. I think. But then again, I might be mistaken.
Clearly, the only thing that's certain about the provenance of this play is that it's murky. Regardless, and all youthful alcohol and substance abuse aside...
I've written quite a few short plays. I've always found their writing to be fun and exciting. It's never felt like work, like some writing can be. (I'm looking at you, novel in progress.) With a short play, the pressure is off. It can be about anything, be of any length, and it doesn't even have to be designed to be staged. It can be a piece of prose or even a poem. I learned this from Federico García Lorca, the great Spanish poet and playwright, who disappeared during the opening days of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
I didn't set out to become a writer. When I first started college, I took the same exact curriculum I had taken in high school—i.e., only those classes that interested me. Molière was a great new discovery, but most literature I had to read in my first semesters of college bored me to rages of tears. Was someone really trying to get an eighteen-year-old Sandinista-wannabe, with a copy of Spark in his back pocket, who had already read everything by Kerouac and Vonnegut by the time he graduated high school, to read "Pride and Prejudice"? Or 300 plus pages of "Jude The Obscure"? Jeepers H. Crackers, what the hell were these people thinking? It wasn't going to happen.
So, a year and some change passed, and then two things inspired me to drop out of college, with great unceremony. The first was a mimeographed set of pages that my Philosophy teacher handed out, which listed "All The Books You Must Read Before You Die." It was altogether comprehensive: from Aristotle, the Bible, and Shakespeare, all the way through to "The Tibetan Book of The Dead," Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search For Meaning," and "The Breakdown of Consciousness in The Bicameral Mind." It was all there, everything. The master key. Everything was on that list.
The other thing that inspired me to fasten the non-degreed, scarlet letter of Audodadicism upon my breast was something the same Philosophy teacher had said in class (I forget the context or who he was quoting exactly), to wit:
If you want to make a thing a carried thing, carry it
So, with that list of books and Zen one-liner in hand, I felt I had everything I needed to embark upon my life's journey. Everything was new, everything was waiting for me to discover, as I stepped out into the Bohemian wilderness of higher, esoteric knowledge found only in coffee shops, used book stores, repertory movie theatres, and dingy basement performance spaces, my throbbing mind-sponge lusting like an intellectual boner for the next great new (to me) writer or artist whose complete works I could ravish and devour.
It was in one such used book store that I found a slim volume of Lorca's called "Barbarous Nights," and a short play within titled, "Buster Keaton's Stroll." The play opens with a rooster cock-a-doodle-doodling (Spanish roosters quiquiriquí instead of cock-a-doodle-doodling, don't ask me why):
(Enter Buster Keaton with his four children by the hand.)
BUSTER K. (He pulls out a wooden dagger and kills them.)
My poor little children!
O! He pulls out a wooden dagger and kills them! This sentence exploded like a stun grenade in my wide-eyed, fertile mind. We can do that?! We're allowed to write like this? Holy smokes! I was blown away, absolutely. To this day, those lines remain permanently etched in the hardwood joists of my memory, as if burned there by the cheap toy wood burning kit of my childhood. (Although I can't for the life of me recall a single project made of wood that I ever burned, I do recall burning my fingertips off every time I picked that damn thing up.)
Lorca quickly led to Eugène Ionesco, who led to Samuel Beckett, who led to Buster Keaton, and so forth and so on, all the way through to contemporary writers and artists like James Tate, Neo Rauch, and Jesse Ball.
Life is funny. Life is absurd. So, I like the clowns, I like the absurdists. They float down life's river of absurdity with their own self-guided creativity and wisdom, laughing and laughing all the way. And boy how I cannonballed right smack into the middle of that river, without hesitation, the very moment Buster Keaton pulled out his wooden dagger.
Three Short Plays: Glass of Beer
It was shortly after reading Lorca that I wrote "Glass of Beer," the first and shortest of my short plays. It was a personally liberating gesture of writing, and it still gives me a little mental tingle, deep inside the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe in the Imagination Network of my brain, whenever I read it. This was followed more than a few years later with another shorty, "Home For The Holidays: A Tragedy," an Oedipus at Thanksgiving mashup which spawned a feature screenplay (well-received), a fully-staged staged reading (major flop), and aforementioned novel in progress (jury TBD). And then there's my personal favorite, "The Girls in The Van," which I staged at the Vancouver Fringe Festival when I first moved to British Columbia in 2005.
Presently, I'm compiling these three plays into an e-book, called "Three Short Plays." You can buy it (once I get around to putting it together), and keep me and my retinue of floozies and strumpets awash in champagne and caviar. Or you can just read the plays here as I post them, in three easy installments. Your call. If you sign up for my mailing list, I'll give you the e-book free.
I have started the Mod Podge part of my socially conscious series of stuff attached to wood project, a.k.a. the collage, for submission into ArtSpring's SURFACING: EXPLORATIONS IN TWO DIMENSIONS show here on Salt Spring Island this fall.
The show opens Friday October 28. There's usually really good food spreads at these kind of things, so get there early. The show runs through Tuesday November 7, the date of the 99th anniversary of the Bolsheviks seizing power in Russia, an event which led to masterworks of literature, music, and film by John Reed, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Sergei Eisenstein, respectively. Ruskies of all stripes and colors are cordially invited.
You're squawking like a pink monkey bird, and I'm busting up my brains for the words. Jump on the Facebook bandwagon, sign up for my mailing list—Veda Pierce of Glendale, California did, and the very next day she met the man of her dreams! Love, Greg