Thursday, March 24, 2011


I would give the current revival of the Anne Bogart-Ellen Lauren collaboration a mixed but generally positive review. I would give the talk-back after Tuesday night’s show five stars.
Room is a one-woman show about Virginia Woolf, from a script drawn from Woolf’s writings, selected by Bogart and adapted by Joceyln Clark. Lauren starts the show in an aisle seat in the audience, severely dressed with a severe expression on her face. The only thing distinguishing her from a really mean English teacher (or Miss Hathaway in the Beverly Hillbillies) is the spotlight. There is no curtain on the nearly bare stage; just three huge scrims of the palest blue and an armchair. The play begins when, from row F one hears a commanding “GOOD EVENING.”

The show is largely drawn from A Room of One’s Own and Moments of Being and, I think every word uttered is a quotation from Woolf (although the interludes about a pear tree were said to be from Between the Acts and were not familiar to me, to my shame). The first few minutes are strangely discomfiting: Lauren is stern and a bit goggle-eyed and the play feels like parody, although it’s hard to discern what’s being parodied. However, as the play unfolded, the uncertainty about what we were to think and feel took an encouraging shape: the play deals honestly (albeit indirectly—I wanted more) with war, alludes to mental illness, and is direct about sexual abuse without imposing a reading and always, always with tremendous interest in and respect for Woolf as a mind.

Lauren’s movements are jerky and constrained and, as quickly becomes apparent, she is restricting herself to a very limited range of gestures: a Cassandra-like pose, hands upraised; a pedagogical gesture, finger pointing down at an imaginary text; an inward twist of pain, hands folded together and low to protect her most private parts and thoughts.

Some of the editorial decisions struck me as brilliant. All the names of women writers are stripped from the famous opening of A Room of One’s Own, so we just have the catalog of what one could do (anecdote, mention, etc.) without the list of forgotten women that would distract a 21st century theater audience (even one as literary as those likely to attend a one-woman show on Woolf). She recites the long quotation from Jane Eyre and Woolf’s ensuing commentary brilliantly and the gothic lighting in that segment is fabulous. There is a gorgeous sound cue of an air raid, during which Lauren lies on stage, breathing hard. I only wish that afterwards she’d recited from “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid”—I longed for that 1, 2, 3, 4… that Woolf uses in that essay to mark how impossible it is to think during a bombing. Toward the end of the play, Lauren works herself into a frenzy of movement, a kind of final crescendo of word and gesture, emphasizing, over and over again, how hard it is to know a person.

At other moments, because there is no clear through-line to follow, I found myself a little bored. Sometimes, because Woolf is the chief intellectual companion of my life, I could float off on Woolf’s words, even when I disagreed with Lauren’s interpretations; sometimes Lauren brought new meaning to familiar phrases; sometimes I just worried about what my students in English 3502: Modern British Writing thought.

But the talk back was absolutely brilliant.

Lauren and Bogart described rehearsing in Bogart’s upstate home where the rule was that Lauren was to work on memorizing the script then, at some point in the day, to come upon Bogart in a room and intone “GOOD EVENING.” From there, Lauren would recite all that she’d thus far memorized, stop, and withdraw. Bogart then followed Lauren to a new room where they’d discuss what they’d done before.

The strangely limited choreography came from a series of 29 photographs of Woolf, the poses of which Lauren memorized. These were limited back down to 9 gestures which then became the language of movement for the play.

They said that they wanted Woolf to seem old-fashioned, limited as the play began and that then, as we were more and more confined in our seats and we saw, more and more, how much she had in her mind, how bravely she faced her life—its beauty and its despair—we would see that she was far more free than we.

I left thinking the show was interesting, feeling that the thought behind the show was brilliant—beyond what I’d been able to detect as an audience member. Was that failure mine or that of the production? I don’t know.

Room is playing through Sunday, 3/27, at the Julia Miles Theater on 55th and 9th and, if you’re interested, there are tons of discount codes on the theater’s website.

Here's an interview with Ellen Lauren: 

In New York magazine, Scott Brown says:

Lauren's delivery sounds a wee bit Mrs. Doubtfire at first, and for a good half-hour we wonder if we're watching nothing more than highfalutin semaphore. But halfway through, the flint hits the steel, and the show's soul catches the flame. Room isn't a perfect translation of Woolf's gestalt, but watching Lauren climb the walls of Neil Patel's terrifyingly empty set leaves one images, both haunting and heroic, of a great mind abandoned to itself — free and unmoored, equally.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Uncanny Room

About six weeks ago, a colleague whom I admire tremendously was diagnosed with acute leukemia. She died on Tuesday morning, a fact I learned just before going to teach the first class after spring break, the first class on Mrs. Dalloway.

My colleague, Margaret (Mimi) Lamb was an older woman, a Vassar grad who left North Dakota and never looked back. More than once she told me that her Vassar professors used to say “our marriages are our failures.” She was a pistol: kind to people but utterly straight-shooting and uncompromising about literature and plays. She was a great, great New Yorker: the kind of person who, without pretense, would always know one deeper, cooler, richer thing about any place, any theater, any stone, any street corner, you happened to mention. She loved being alive—in spite of years tending to a chronically ill husband (who predeceased her) and poor health herself)—she was full of a zest for life, curiosity, engagement, sharpness. I so admire her. We both loved our Norwegian sweaters and had the same J. Jill corduroy jacket.

When her diagnosis came, it fell to me to staff her freshman class. Still, she had been teaching at Fordham for 33 years and, for all that I admired her, she was not a close friend. Nonetheless, through a friend who knew her better, whose loss is so much greater, I sent her a card and a copy of Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ Wench to keep her company in hospital.

On Sunday, we learned she’d been moved to hospice and would be glad for visitors. Four of us planned to visit Tuesday afternoon. I put on a vivid flowered skirt and tried not to worry about the hospice. Tuesday morning, right before class, the word came that she’d died.

Such a strange feeling. At once, the sadness of knowing that never again would I see her shambling by my office, papers under her arm, maybe stopping to tell me what was on her mind, maybe wearing one of the sweaters that she and I both love. At the same time, the guilty relief of not having to learn, yet again, how bad I am at hospitals and, worse, the recognition that I had my afternoon back to catch up on email.

But there was that class to teach. Sure, it was on Mrs. Dalloway, but I didn’t have a plan.

I talked—about moments of being, about Septimus’ madness in the park, about Woolf’s esteem for Jane Harrison.

After class, a dear friend who has a real West Coast 70s yoga vibe stopped by my office. He offered his condolences, admired my skirt, and said he could tell that my “energy” was with Mimi, that I was helping her make her transition.

I didn’t think much of it--I love that sincere spirituality, but do I believe it?--until I went to the play. Somehow, the intensity of my loss, of my love for Woolf, of my raw unpreparedness for class meant that I quoted for my students almost every passage that was central to Anne Bogart’s production. It was uncanny and beautiful. Maybe we can count it as a tribute to Mimi. May she rest in peace. We miss her here. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

City of Immigrants

Ford’s The Soul of London (1905) has great praise for immigrants and the city’s ability to assimilate and absorb them. I hadn’t expected to find this sentiment about London of over a century ago; in spite of a different, more old-fashioned way of speaking about races, nationalities, and assmilation, (provincially) I tend to associate this sentiment—the wonderful metropolis that lets all become of it—with New York more than London:
London is the world town, not because of its vastness; it is vast because of its assimilative powers, because it destroys all race characteristics, insensible and, as it were, anaesthetically. A Polish Jew changes into an English Hebrew and then into a Londoner without any legislative enactments, without knowing anything about it. You may watch, say, a Berlin Junker, arrogant, provincial, unlicked, unbearable to any other German, execrable to anyone not a German, turning after a year or two into a presentable and only just not typical Londoner, subdued, quiet in the matter of collars, ties, coat, voice and backbone, and naturally extracting a ‘sir’ from a policeman. London will do all this imperceptibly. And, in externals, that is the high-water mark of achievement of the Modern Spirit.
Edited to add that my friend Beth Rosenberg of UNLV notes that 1905 was the year of the Aliens Act, restricting immigration. How blind, how willful is this vision?

Monday, March 21, 2011

In Praise of London

I’m trying to finish up an article on London and Woolf and came across Ford Madox Ford’s 1905 book (from Duckworth, Woolf’s half-brother’s publishing house), The Soul of London. This beautiful sentiment on London, as rich as Samuel Johnson’s familiar saw, deserves to be better known.
One may sail easily round England, or circumnavigate the globe. But not the most enthusiastic geographer…ever memorized a map of London. Certainly no on ever walks round it. For England is a small island, the world is infinitesimal among planets. But London is illimitable.
Lovely, yes?

Friday, March 18, 2011

The wig

I love this idea of la perruque, from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life:
La perruque is the worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer. It differs from pilfering in that nothing of material value is stolen. It differs from absenteeism in that the worker is officially on the job. La perruque may be as simple a matter as a secretary’s writing a love letter on ‘company time’ or as complex as a cabinetmaker’s ‘borrowing’ a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room. (25)
The book is wonderful, too, and I’m glad to have read it. I learned a lot. But I copied this passage out over a week ago to share with you and something's been making this post really hard to write. At first, I thought it was so exciting an idea: the notion of this kind of mild pilfering we all do at work. Then, too, since the advent of the internet, how much more must go on. Everyone I know pops onto a blog or facebook for fun at work. And I thought, too, of Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, whose entire conceit is une perruque: the speaker, Pompey, is writing a novel on yellow paper so as not to confuse it with the white and blue paper she uses, in the same typewriter, for her secretarial work.

But, I must say, that quotation is bugging me. Something as small as a love letter or as big as a manly piece of furniture. Really? De Certeau is actually better on gender issues than most of these high flown theorists, but I get bored of pointing out all the unconscious hierarchies being perpetuated all the time everywhere.

Being a feminist is a full-time contact sport, people.

The need to call out all these theorists, all the time, saying “good idea, but you really haven’t thought through the implications for women…” makes me long to write a book that is, from its conception through its execution, feminist to the core.

BareBurger Japan benefit, 3/22

One of my wonderful former students manages the Village location & he convinced the owners to donate 20% of sales (not profits, but SALES) to Japan relief on Tuesday. Of course, direct gifts are better, but sometimes, it's also good to get a burger. If you need a burger anyway, show Joe and BareBurger that it does matter when our businesses support relief efforts. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Cambridge Edition of Virginia Woolf: here it comes!!!

Woolf scholars of the world, rejoice! Maybe you caught the brief celebratory mentions inthe Independent recently? In any case, the first two volumes of the Cambridge edition of the novels of Virginia Woolf are out. You can buy The Waves or Between the Acts for a mere $130 a volume and have the benefit of full textual and contextual annotations.
Or, if you’re me, you can burrow even more deeply in the library so that the Cambridge edition of Mrs. Dalloway doesn’t trail too too far behind.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Friends of the (New York Public) Library

I have written many times before of my debt to the New York Public Library. I have my seat at the Wertheim Study until the end of May and, believe me, I am making every use of it.

Librarian Jay Barksdale wrote earlier this week to say that budget woes have sharply curtailed the library’s book-buying budget. If you’re moved to help the library, this is the week to do it: every dollar you give will be matched by $2 from an NYPL Trustee (up to $100,000). This challenge has the potential to purchase 7,500 new books for the library. Click here to give.

These books are help scholars like me consult expensive monographs but they also help new immigrants learning to read, mothers reading to their children, students studying for the SAT, and readers across all five boroughs. If you are moved by the power of reading, please do consider giving a few dollars.

And if not to this challenge, you can always click here and, for $40/year, become a Friend. I just did. For all it’s done for me, it was the least I could do in return.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Pearls & Power, 2

My post from last week on the signification of pearls in literature and a dustup on the Woolf listserv has been nominated for a prize for arts & lit blogging over at 3 Quarks Daily.

Voting ends tomorrow. Vote for me!!!

Edited to add that I made the seminfinalist round! Hooray! Thanks so much for voting. Now, 3 Quarks Daily will send the top 8 or so on for judging.

Monday, March 07, 2011


I had never read Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms (1883) until last week. It’s a short little book and a strange one. Written when Woolf was one, it’s Woolf’s mother’s long, impressionistic essay on nursing, or rather, on tending to the sick when a nurse or doctor is away or otherwise occupied.

The voice is amazing: brisk, efficient, and full of care. It made Woolf’s mother—and her resemblance to the fictional Mrs. Ramsay—clearer to me than anything else I’ve read. She trips along, associatively, from one subject to the next, beginning in praise of nursing as a practice and ending in the humble pride a nurse can take in her role in nursing someone to a good death. Along the way, she explains how to make a bed when the patient is too ill to get up, describing that amazing process I have occasionally witness of rolling a patient gently onto his side, removing the dirty and adding the clean sheet, and then completing the operation by rolling him back.

She loves nursing because “ordinary relations between the sick and the well are far easier and pleasanter than between the well and the well.” That impatience is wonderful, isn’t it? You can hear, in the book’s opening lines, this strong, practical preference for defined human relationships: none of this petty bickering, this nattering on and on about this and that. Give me a role and I will happily play it, nurse or patient, both are fine. Hardly sounds a bit like what Bloomsbury would become.

I leave you with two gems on crumbs, and hair:
“Among the number of small evils which haunt illness, the greatest, in the misery which it can cause, though the smallest in size, is crumbs… the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention” (5) 
“Hairs are not so bad as crumbs, but they are very tormenting bed-fellows, and there is little excuse for any nurse who, after brushing the patient’s hair, allows any stray hairs to remain on the night dress or bed-clothes” (20)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Overheard, Midtown Pret

Around the corner on the banquette, and to my right, sat two strikingly beautiful businesswomen, late 30s. The suited blonde ate her salad while the ballerina brunette in navy pashmina and dress and orange Prada bag talked, without cessation, about her amazingly perspicacious people skills. These skills seem to have lead her to work, unhappily, in consulting, for many years, and to have been a contributing factor in her divorce from a man who made a lot more money than she. Ballerina drank a diet coke, left her boxed salad unopened and untouched, and, when blonde went back for a lemonade, got herself a still water. I think ballerina was being recruited by blondie.

To my left, two scruffy cute Euro-hipster men, sweatshirts and jean jackets, early 30s. They purchased one cup of coffee between them. The one seated immediately next to me pulled two sandwiches out of his backpack and they proceeded to have a conversation that moved between English and a second language (Italian? Russian? Portuguese? I’m ashamed to be able to come no closer than that). So I would hear, “Well, it’s not really human nature, I mean it’s more xxxxx, xxx xxx Spinoza.” “Ah, Spinoza! Well, xxx xxxx xxxxx Heidegger xxx.”

To my immediate left in the corner seat sat, first, a middle-aged women, eavesdropping, and then a businessman reading the Knicks box scores from last night’s loss.

I was reading Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. The Morroccan chicken soup was good.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

In Memory of Peter Gomes

The Reverend Peter Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the School of Divinity and the Pusey Minister of Memorial Church, has died at age 68. I am so sad to hear it.

I was a lecturer at Harvard from 1994-98 and, during those years, spent many Sundays at the Memorial Church. It’s an intimidating New England building, white, beautiful and austere, anchoring a side of Harvard Yard. To me, a young lecturer on the fringes of Harvard and on the fringes of Christianity, it took a lot of courage to even cross the threshold.

When Rev. Gomes was preaching, it was worth it to find the courage. He was the first and best minister at delivering sermons that made you think about the ethical world of the Bible, compare it to our ethical world, and then want to go back into that world, determined to make it better. I never judge ministers against his standard—none could meet it—but I always brighten a bit when I’m in a church and the minister gives a sermon that enacts the process of intelligence working on a great text.

What first got me to the church was not Gomes himself but my friend Janet Legro, his junior minister (after years of ministry, she’s now teaching in a Quaker school in Virginia). Part of her job was to line up a daily homily for morning prayers. She asked me if I would do one.

I balked. I told her that I wasn’t sure if I believed in God. I told her that I had never been confirmed. I told her I hadn’t read the Bible.

That doesn’t matter, Anne, look, there are 12 weeks in the semester and I need to find sixty people each semester, no repeats, to give a five minute meditation on a passage from the Bible. If you say yes, I only need to find 59 more.

Of course, I said yes. And, in saying yes, I found that I really should go to the church once or twice, and in going to the church once or twice, I found Rev. Gomes and I went many, many more times.

Many have been saying this all day in remembrance, I’m sure, but I will repeat that he was a great, charismatic man. Wholly his own person and one of those wonderful Ivy League originals who exudes intelligence, kindness, and confidence all at once. He was a short man but a great man with a huge, charismatic presence and a beautiful, booming voice. The obituary mentions James Earl Jones and that seems right. He was formal and even a little vain of his clerical robes and a profoundly New England, even Harvardian type. Though I have never met anyone like Rev. Gomes, he seemed to fit in to Harvard completely and the fact that this openly gay, African-American minister from Plymouth, MA seemed to fit in perfectly made me feel a lot happier about God and Harvard.

And my homily? It became an essay here.