Monday, November 26, 2012

Class Conflicts- 'Lincoln,' 'Good People' and 'The Stranger's Child'

Friends may find it difficult to stomach this but back in school I was really lanky. What they may not find all that difficult to believe is that I wasn’t particularly good at anything else apart from writing essays in English. My English teacher was fond of me. One day while she was taking a lesson on the American Civil War with one of the junior classes, a student perked up and asked her what Abraham Lincoln looked like. She thought for a while and answered ‘Do you know that boy in Class IX, Vijay Nair? I think he looks a bit like Lincoln.’ This was duly reported to me by my juniors when school got over and because I was always hungry for affirmation, I was delighted to hear that. I felt I mattered a little more than all my classmates put together, none of whom had the good fortune of resembling an American president.

I carried that happy piece of nostalgia with me when I went to see ‘Lincoln’ with two of my friends in Pittsburgh. As it turned out, the latest film by Spielberg held many more surprises to delight me. Daniel Day Lewis is brilliant as the tormented President leading a pack of rivals and trying to push the amendment that had to do with the abolition of slavery. 

The film is not a stereotypical biopic. It unfolds during the last phase of the American Civil War and concludes with the assassination of Lincoln.  The film portrays him not just as a great leader but also an astute politician. Spielberg’s job is made easy because of the accomplished ensemble cast he has at his disposal, the taut screenplay as well as the stupendous cinematography. It is a long film, around two and a half hours. But despite the inordinate length of the film, I was riveted to the screen for the entire duration. Some members in the audience actually clapped after the film got over and I had trouble resisting the temptation to join in.

For a film that concerns itself mostly with political wheeling dealings, my favourite scenes in the film are those that show Lincoln playing with his young son and one that doesn’t have Lincoln in the frame at all. Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field berates and taunts the radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, when he comes to attend a party thrown by Lincoln to win over his rivals before the vote. It’s not that Field is exceptionally good at hectoring but the scene is made memorable in the manner in which the recipient of her ire uses his silence to communicate myriad emotions. Tommy Lee Jones is a text book on what good acting is all about in that one scene.

There was plenty of good acting at display in Pittsburgh Public Theatre production of ‘Good People,’ directed by Tracy Brigden. The playwright is the Pulitzer winning David Lindsay- Abaire. Lindsay- Abaire’s most famous work is the visceral ‘Rabbit Hole’ that has also been made into a film with Nicole Kidman in the lead.

In a work rooted in class tensions, the playwright does well in the opening scene by paying a tribute to the most legendary of American plays, ‘Death of a Salesman.’  Middle aged Maggie working as a cashier in a Dollar Store is being sacked by her young boss, Stevie, who happens to be the son of one of the women she grew up with. She uses that relationship to win a reprieve much like Willy Loman tried with his young boss in the classic. Having that reference with us, we know Maggie’s life is going to spin into a downward spiral and it does, although as a character, she is much more feisty and upright than Loman ever was.

Maggie’s friends suggest that she tap her old boyfriend Mike for a job. Mike has made it good despite the shared neighbourhood of their growing up years. He is a doctor who works as a fertility specialist and lives with his trophy wife in the most affluent part of Boston. The reunion between the estranged lovers who belong to two different worlds within the same city can be milked for humour as well as pathos and Lindsay-Abaire’s mastery over his craft ensures that we laugh and cry with the characters on stage. It is a stunningly nuanced and layered script and the actors rise admirably to the demands of the edgy dialogues and the evocative pauses. I couldn’t detect a single false note in the rendition by a single member of this talented cast. I am happy I chose this play as the first to view in the longish stay I am going to have in Pittsburgh. I know I couldn’t have made a better choice.

‘The Stranger’s Child’ is not the first book I have read by Alan Hollinghurst. I did read ‘The Line of Beauty’ that won the Booker Prize and I am familiar with the elegant prose that Hollinghurst seems to muster effortlessly. But I have to admit that I preferred ‘The Stranger’s Child’ to ‘The Line of Beauty.’

 This one has an amazing structure. The plot leaps by a decade or more in every section and not only do we see the characters changing but also the British society dropping many of its old baggage and acquiring some new ones. Hollinghurst is the kind of a writer who can be sly and compassionate at the same time and that is always engaging.  He also has the ability to communicate through a single episode what lesser writers say in several chapters.

‘The Stranger’s Child’ is a work full of yearning and wistfulness and nostalgia and longings that we think we have lost until brilliant works like these bring it all back. Literary to the core, the strength of the book is that it is so smartly paced that once you have started reading the book, you don’t feel like letting it go.  When I had finished reading it, I knew I would revisit it again in a more leisurely manner.

It’s been a month and a half since I arrived in Pittsburgh and I have managed to watch a brilliant film, a great play and also read a really really good book after a long time. This in addition to all the research and writing I have been doing.

That’s not too bad. 

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