On Joe Orton’s collected works, and a selection of quotes from his “Loot”.
I discovered Joe Orton in a second-hand bookshop, on the bottom shelf, between a travelogue and a potboiler thriller. The front cover featured a cubist grotesque, while the back cover showed a man in his early thirties, crisply sunburnt, sitting back on a patio folding chair wearing nothing but an amused smirk and a pair of decidedly front-and-centre white briefs, fashionable half a century ago. He’s looking at the camera as if to say: “What you see is only the tip of what you’ll get.”
The mixed metaphor, the innuendo, and the natural smugness are a comedic staple—black comedy in his case. The picture spoke to me. I placed a coin on the counter and the yellowing, 1987 copy of his life’s work became mine.
(Orton, English playwright and etymon of the word Ortonesque, was bludgeoned to death by his partner in 1967, at the age of 34, only a few years after his commercial breakthrough.)
It’s always poignant paying virtually nothing for all that somebody’s left behind, though I suspect that’s not what got me the awkward smile from the cashier who rang up the purchase.
This is Hamlet telling Polonius to take good care of a theatre troupe, because the acts they put on reflect and summarise the times for posterity. That was then, around the year 1600. Modern, smaller-scale chroniclers of the times (and hardly so well-regarded) are blogs. Like plays, blogs can suffer from technical difficulties, but they push on with the show and hope the audience doesn’t notice. Occasionally, the audience might notice, and the show is offered again, under better circumstances and after a brief delay.
As you may have guessed, this applies to Quiver Quotes.
In the past fortnight, I’ve had a few issues with the WordPress hosting on my blog. Some of my posts didn’t reach their readers; some readers had difficulty finding the pages or interacting with them. To fix this, WordPress rolled back my site to how it was before the problems started (which means that all the changes and posts I have made since have disappeared). As such, over the next week and a half I will be reposting four or five of the essays that encountered the biggest problems, possibly with a few small changes.
Those of you who follow me through the WordPress Reader may notice some dregs & detritus left over from the clean-up process. This too is being looked into. Please comment below if you’re having difficulties with this post or with the site.
Words, power, and the Devil in Goethe’s “Faust”, pitted against Manguel’s “The Library of Night”.
Faust or Faustus of German legend started his literary life in a late sixteenth century chapbook by an unknown author. He was brought to the English audience by Christopher Marlowe in his play Doctor Faustus, and then flourished in Goethe’s Faust more than two hundred years later (and has become a literary trope since then).
Faust is God’s favourite scholar, bent on learning all there is but dissatisfied with what he has thus far achieved. Mephistopheles is a demon who bets with God that Faust can be corrupted, and proceeds to pit his wits against Faust. In Goethe’s dramatisation, Mephistopheles is a whimsical, down-to-earth character—he is the cynic to Faust’s romantic—and he has some of the best, if not wisest, lines in the play.
Since Quiver Quotes is devoted to fine writing, and in that sense too, the art of rhetoric and the power of the word, let us hear what Mephistopheles, or Mephisto as is his hypocoristic, has to say about words, paradoxes, and human nature. (Taken from the Wordsworth Classics edition; translation by John R. Williams.)
MEPHISTO. I’ve always found that you can fox
A wise man or a fool with paradox.
It’s an old trick, but it works all the same,
2560 And every age has tried time and again
To spread not truth, but error and obscurity,
By making three of one and one of three.
And so the fools can preach and teach quite undisturbed —
Who wants to argue with them? Let them wander on;
2555 Most men believe that when they hear a simple word,
On teasing (asteismus) and on the hearing-unhearing boundary in Mark Medoff’s play “Children of a Lesser God”. Also, James Bond loves asteismus.
Today’s Quote is from Mark Medoff’s play Children of a Lesser God (1979), a romantic comedy exploring the conflicts arising in the professional and personal relationship between a former student, Sarah Norman, and her teacher in a State School for the Deaf, James Leeds. He is thirty-ish, she is in her mid-twenties.James is enthusiastic about his job at the school and motivates his students to speak through humour and fun. Sarah is deaf from birth, and she refuses to learn lip-reading, let alone to try learning how to speak; she communicates exclusively using Sign Language.
Prior to the Quote, James and Sarah have been going back and forth, between jokes and misunderstanding. He isn’t as good at signing as she is, nor is he as quick. She obstinately refuses to acknowledge any of his humour, and mocks his attempts to communicate with her.
It is assumed the average theater-goer doesn’t know Sign Language, therefore James vocalises Sarah’s lines for the audience; he signs and speaks his own words simultaneously. (I have inserted square brackets into the text to help remind you, as you read, that her words are not spoken but signed.)
SARAH. [Your timing is terrible and your signing is boring.]
JAMES. My timing is terrible and my signing is boring. If you could hear, you’d think I was a scream.
SARAH. [Why scream?]
JAMES. Not literally “scream.” That’s a hearing idiom.
SARAH. [But I’m deaf.]
JAMES. You’re deaf. I’ll try to remember that.
SARAH. [But you’ll keep forgetting.]
JAMES. I’ll keep forgetting. But you’ll keep reminding me.
SARAH. [But you’ll still forget.]
JAMES. I’ll still forget. But you’ll still remind me.
SARAH. [No. I’ll give up.]
JAMES. Maybe you won’t have to give up.
JAMES. Maybe I’ll remember.
SARAH. [I doubt it.]
JAMES. We’ll see.
In 1987, the play was made into a film of the same title starring Marlee Matlin as Sarah (she received an Oscar for the role) and William Hurt as James. If you’d like to get an idea of the dynamic—she signs, he repeats her line vocally, then he signs and speaks his lines—you could watch the first thirty seconds of the clip, up until he says “I’ll buy that”. Do not watch more, because it might ruin the film/play for you. (I couldn’t find a more appropriate clip, for example, one with the words from the quote, and I couldn’t truncate this video easily.)
Important point: In the instructions before the play the author insists that in any professional production of the play the role of Sarah and two other characters be performed by deaf or hearing impaired actors. (Indeed, Marlee Matlin has been deaf since she was 18 months old.) This is the reason I chose to discuss Children of a Lesser God; it may be a challenge for a play to explore the boundary of the hearing-unhearing world, but it can be done, with great success—a fact not so well-known, perhaps.