1st semester, freshman year, 17 years old. The class was, I think, Intro to Theatre, required for all majors therein. Did you know that “theater” refers to a physical theater, but spelled my pretentious way to the discipline? Well, now you do.
The textbook: Masters of Modern Drama. I saw a copy of this hefty tome in a used bookstore not that long ago. Not the kind of thing you want to drop on your foot, and too big to chuck at a loved one’s head in a fit of pet. In any event, it was crazily exotic after a high school diet of Neil Simon and musicals. Sure, I read The Crucible (witches!!) and I was crazy about Williams from the time I read Streetcar in 10th grade. But here were Strindberg, Ibsen, Ionesco, Chekhov, Gorky, Beckett, and Synge. Thanks to them, I can actually snicker when one of Woody Allen’s wives in Annie Hall claims that her headache is “Oswald in Ghosts!” Heh.
Honestly, I didn’t like a lot of the plays, and I didn’t really get them. But there was one I completely fell in love with as soon as I read it: The Visit, by Friederich Dürenmatt. In it, a once prosperous, now ruined town awaits for the return of its only citizen who amounted to anything, Claire Zachanassian. She was chased out of the town as a pregnant 17-year-old, became a whore, and ended up marrying one of the richest men in the world. Now, at the request of the guy who got her pregnant, Anton Ill, she returns to wreak a glorious revenge. Dark and absurd, the play has moments of sadistic glee but is suffused with longing and broken romance. It chronicles the last act of a love that started in relative purity but has been shaped over time into something ugly and destructive.
As a senior, I performed Claire’s monologue, and with excellent coaching, I actually sort of nailed it. I wasn’t particularly great shakes as an actress, but good casting can make just about anyone look like they’re better than they are. Somehow, I understood the character of Claire deep in my soul: her intelligence, intensity, fire, and ability to delight in the absurd. She is an incurable romantic in the most extreme way possible. What’s not to love?
The translation in Masters is a bad one; Ill is named Schill for no good reason, and a heavy retouching apparently made the play more palatable for either English-speaking audiences or for Lunt and Fontanne, who acted it on Broadway. At some point, I found out that there was a translation much closer to Dürenmatt’s original language, and I found a copy which I’ve had for close to 25 years now. About 15 years ago – I remember exactly where I was when I had the thought – I was trying to think of something that would make a good narrative, and then I thought, well, why not the back story to The Visit? And then I thought I didn’t really want to write about some small European town (I always assume it’s German, but Dürenmatt was Swiss; it’s unspecified in the play), I wanted to write about the place where I most wanted to wreak havoc at the time: the small, nearly 100% Mormon town where I went to high school.
I turned the idea over for a couple of years. When I left NY with the kids – Perrin would join us later, but we weren’t so sure of that at the time – I wrote the whole damn thing out in 6 weeks. I called it Fly. I tried to sell it, but the spouse and I seemed to be in a mutual Can’t Get Arrested period. Life intervened, and bills had to get paid.
I finally got up the courage to dust it off a while back. I reread it, was glad I hadn’t sold it, cleaned it up and now…am not quite sure. No vampires in it, so no more marketable now than ever. It would have to move on the strength of the writing and story, and, well…..dream on. But while I’ve mentioned moving in a different direction, I’m not sure how or if Fly fits into that space. It was meant to be a book, not anything else.
Anyway, it’s written. If anything happens, I’ll keep you posted.