About 2/3s the way through Hungry, Part One of The Gabriels, the family begin to talk about the election campaign supposedly 8 months before election day, and when they come to talk of Hillary Clinton, and talk of how she is disliked, and women are not keen on her because of what seems to be her privileged background, they make this vague reference to Trump without using his name, too “unthinkable” and “dreadful” to contemplate. Then one character says: he feels “something very bad is just about to happen.” The audience as a group made this sound, not a laugh, but a real groan of what felt like semi-distress. The reference in immediate context is now Inauguration Day …
Dear friends and readers,
During this week seeing Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels has taken enough time from my wide awake hours to write about. I was more moved by Parts 3 (“Women of a Certain Age?”) and 2 (“What did you expect?”) than I’ve been at any movie, play or opera, for a very long time. Ben Brantley of the New York Times, comes closest to doing justice to the whole trilogy and making available what is so tremblingly relevant to us, two days before “a very bad thing is about to happen” (a line from Part 1 (“Hungry,” written and first produced months before Trump gained the nomination of the Republican Party).
From The Gabriels… Part Three: Women of a Certain Age? (Maryann Plunkett is Mary leaning over the mother, Patricia played by Roberta Maxwell; George, her son is played by Jay O Sanders is comforting his mother who has lost her house; Hannah, his wife to the back, is played by Lynn Hawley; Joyce, Patricia’s daughter round the back (Amy Warren)
Let me begin with Part Three first, Women of a Certain Age, as I began there Saturday afternoon into early evening. Here is a brief synopsis (scroll down).
I loved it. The experience might be regarded as aesthetically old-fashioned, but the realism is done in such quietly rigorous naturalistic ways I’d call the technique innovative: how the talk was delivered, the gestures, the rooting in private realities brought forth indirectly was among the most naturalistic experiences on offer I’ve seen. The directors included Oskar Eustis and Patrick Willingham. It is about previously comfortable white middle class people who have lost out badly. The house owned by the mother, Patricia, is being foreclosed because she fell for a con-artist and went for a reverse mortgage and didn’t understand what this meant; she has been quickly fleeced at an assisted living facility and is now bankrupted by them. Mary, a widow, a doctor by profession, has not kept up her license to practice, as a result of four years of caring for a beloved husband who had Parkinson’s disease, intense grief. We gather over the play that his marriage to Thomas Gabriel, relatively late in life, was her second: she has a daughter from a previous husband (divorce ending it) and her one daughter feels so hostile she tells her mother not only can Mary not count on her for a place to stay however temporarily and to move near, but the daughter wants Mary to stay away from the whole city she lives in (Pittsburgh) or she’ll never even speak to her again. All three plays open with Mary (as the action takes place in what she discovers is nominally her house from her mother-in-law, now foreclosed). The relevance of details is obvious: the foreclosure king is now in charge of one of Trump’s departments of government, Treasury I believe and he was convicted (though had no money to pay or prison term) of foreclosing over thousands illegally to enrich his bank (himself and associates)
Hannah has taken a job as a maid in a hotel working with Hispanic people to try to get some money and keep her son by George (Gabriel), until late years a deeply proud carpenter — in college, which seems their own (however forlorn) hope. What George has had to endure in the last years is the very wealthy no longer think they need to pay him much (when they do pay him). The play has quiet tragedy beyond anguished humor — as the Gabriels are gifted people. Karin, Thomas’s first wife, now teaching play-writing, and come to live with the Gabriels (allowed out of Mary’s kindness) and trying to find a venue for her play on Hillary Clinton, can never tell if she has a date: she shows up for appointments to discover the man wants to exploit her monetarily, to learn about the house Mary has allowed her to rend a room in. The place is the Berkshires where there are many sites of memory, summer culture for the very wealthy. They are hard put to name Trump. At one point someone says what if “he” wins, and Mary replies, well, we’ll just all take a walk to a cliff and jump off.
Among other things, the play puts paid to the notion that it is declining standards of living, a feeling of being left out of globalization and technology led to voting for Trump. This group of people is not super-educated at all. But they are not racist, not bigoted, are mildly feminist (they would be with five women there), not into glamor– the audience for the New Yorker. It’s Edward Albee without the wrenching, Terence Rattigan in American mode.
From The Gabriels … Play One: Hungry: beyond Joyce (Amy Warren) leaning over on one side; next facing us to the left is Thomas’s first wife (Mary was his second wife), Karin (Meg Gibson) who was once Patricia’s daugher-in-law and Hannah’s sister in law (but divorce cancelled that); and then Hannah (Lynn Hawley), George’s wife so Patricia’s daughter-in-law & Mary’s sister-in-law; then facing Joyce on the other side, we see Mary (Maryann Plunkett), also Patricia’s daughter-in-law
Onto Part One, Hungry: there is this problem if you choose to see the plays separately. And I admit not everyone has the time, stamina, to say nothing (at the Kennedy Center where it’s $23 to park in the garage) of the price to see all three plays (nearly two hours each) in a row. Partly (for me and a woman I sat next to who was so un-entertained that she said she would not go on to see the other two when she had planned to with friends) Nelson is expecting too much of a theater experience, which is unique and cannot be replayed, rewound, fast forwarded.
So now seeing Part One I began to better understand Part Three. Bad events are about to happen in Part one (foreclosure on the mother’s property) I hadn’t understood everything in the third play, and upon seeing the first, much was explained. Even the names of the central characters and how they related as “long-time” family and friends. I now from seeing Hungry know a lot more: who the characters are, their relationships. Now I’d like to re-see Play 3 — which one reviewer whose reviews I trust said is the best. There was a standing ovation for Part 3. But understandably, not so Part 1. It was scene setting and character and situation explication. Since I had seen Part 3 I was more moved by Part 1 (relatively hopeful than people who’d seen none: a woman sitting next to me who said she was disappointed and would not come to see the others. I knew more of what these characters were hiding (Hanna about to go to work the next week as a “maid” in a vast luxurious hotel, the only white cleaning woman. Nelson’s problem is he is expecting too much for a theater goer who has literally to get him or herself there. The experience of The Gabriels (cooking and preparing food, political discussions reading aloud to one another taking 4 hours to develop his story to intense engagement.
From The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, Play Two: What did you expect?: George and Hannah the married couple, son and daughter-in-law to Patricia (brother- and sister-in-law to Mary)
Part Two, What did you expect?, the last I saw: I felt unbearably moved tonight (Wednesday) at the close of Part Two. If anything Part 2 is the most moving of the three. Since we are not encouraged to weep, I cannot liken it to Chekhov but the experience is closely analogous.
In Part Two the hard economic conditions under which this group of people are living emerges. What is conveyed is the inexorable lack of any help for the average person from gov’t or any other entity, and how family groups as individuals with no group to belong to (no union comes to mind, but there could be other entities such as I remember in the UK: Friendly Societies for mortgages, Building Societies, school programs), they are fleeced and cheated so fundamentally that they cannot win to security, and in the present gov’t induced “austerity” are condemned to struggle which gets them nowhere. They have lost the family house they are now living in because the mother was preyed upon by mortgage in reverse people — she agreed to give her house away and get payments for it because her social security was so small. She did not understand what she needed to pay and now she has lost the house. She must leave her assisted living because the charges are way too high and she now owes them thousands she cannot pay. The charge is $4500 a month for living in a single room, for meals, and for the individual dinners she had with her son and daughters-in-law. The discussion over this that suddenly breaks out is painful in the extreme to watch because it is the kind of discussion families avoid and allow to come out only in parts.
The one saving that George, the son, and his wife, Hannah have done, has been for the boy’s college and they must use that just to get the mother debt-free; they will have to borrow to pay for the boy’s college. We the audience know he may not get a decent living from this degree. They live in a community where super-rich people come for the summer to their summer homes. George wants to go on a picnic with a rich friend he recently made because they will go on a literary walk, but it emerges he is hoping to be hired to build bookcases for this man all over the man’s house. The man’s wife has three times since buying the house renovated the walls. We have seen how easy it is to cheat him of his pay. Hanna says the man agreed to it because he’s hoping to hire George to carry things for him (be a handyman-drudge). She has been asked to provide the picnic because George told these people she caters sometimes, but it was put as a favor, and she is not to be paid. We see the whole family preparing this picnic in What Did You Expect?
It’s just endless. The election as backdrop is a show, there is no sense that this Hillary or Bill who come round will do anything in gov’t for them. Nelson seems to know that Trump will win. We see a hollow government order. There are hidden powers these people don’t come near that are keeping them this way. They live in a vacuum. These powerful people are what is putting Trump (or Hillary) in power and it is they who call the shots. Nothing will be done to help these people, and they sink more and more. George we are told is not well but does not go to the doctor. He is not an aggressive man and during the second play we see how easy it is for a woman to buy a precious piano for much less than she should pay. It’s an upright no prestige, has these scratches (just what the Toyota store used to give me much less money for the car I traded in); it breaks his heart to lose the piano and he gets so much less for it than he should. He is a kind good-hearted man. I thought to myself that now that Trump won he will take power not because the constitution is being obeyed: when Obama wa sin power the constitution was not obeyed over senate appointments and they congress stopped him from passing everything they could. Becaus of Citizens United (put in place by the courts and corporations who brought the case) huge sums have put Republicans in power in all states and in congress. Now these powers will back whatever Trump does to the to the hilt now no matter what he does or says as long as he gets rid of the New Deal, and runs a gov’t by billionaires for millionaires.
That is the larger political reality this play slowly conveys. Not through speeches and a strong allegorical mirroring situation but in bits and pieces through real talk. In this talk we see a group of people who are good to one another and supportive: these characters are luckier than many. They have known griefs. Thomas whom Mary so loved and who was her meaning and mainstay for the last ten years did divorce Karin who now has come to live with Mary. In the first act Karin comes for a visit to commemorate Thomas’s death (Mary’s birthday), by the second she is renting Thomas’s old office to live in; by the third she has to find herself a new place she can afford. Not easy. She is alone, and at first Patricia and Hannah are not sure Mary should even let Karin stay the night (which is how she begins to insinuate herself into the family group). Mary’s one daughter will have nothing to do with her and it breaks her heart. Joyce, the third child of Patricia’s family now grown has intense “issues” with her mother who favored her two sons, George and Thomas, heavily. She has come each time because of an important occasion: Mary’s birthday where they commemorated Thomas; the mother moving out of assisted living. She is an assistant dress designer and like George services the super-rich. Hanna clearly loves George for him, what he is. The desperation is Chekhovian, the delicacy of the talk that moves into anguish only at heights. It seems that both George and Joyce resented Thomas’s success and his search for an “identity,” which seems to have meant really him trying to break away from this group and be a successful playwright, which he didn’t manage.
Something is omitted: like other middle class vehicles which play to white audiences (all three audiences were mostly white people): the systemic racism that fuels the refusal of the average person to identify with social programs and want to end them. This is a group of people seemingly not bigoted, the only time ethnicity comes up is when Hannah says in play three she will be the only white woman on the staff. Rhinebeck where they live is apparently heavily white in the native as well as the summering rich groups of people. It does show that immiseration does not have to lead to voting for Trump. These people are for Hillary Clinton because they are not racist; they never bring up immigrants either. This is probably improbable. Never to mention these as issues. Only Bill Clinton’s sex life, the bill that let the bank loose on people. Never as women to mention the end of welfare — since they are women who might need to go to unemployment offices. So there’s the flaw if made acceptable by its placement.
There is self-reflexive talk by the playwright too as when Karin is going over Thomas’s plays to see if anything can be sold. Talk about playwriting, what people go to plays to see. Nelson justifies his technique and goals in some of this. When George is pretending the sole reason he is going on the picnic, he goes on with great warmth over Hawthorne, Melville and Emerson and other American writers who lived in the area once upon a time. They read from a novel at one point (a graphic charged description of a scene of sexual intercourse from a woman’s point of view). And how could it not be implicitly truly feminist with five women on stage, and it’s deeply humane social vision. As with Austen’s Emma, the play has other invisible presences or characters so intensely talked about they are there: Thomas, the dead man; Paul, George and Hannah’s son, someone George gives a piano lesson to, the cruel women who drives down the price of the piano and lies she has another she might buy, and plays games like going to leave; the two dates that Karin goes out on, only to return quickly as they wanted only to exploit her (she is too old to attract a man); others they describe in their stories.
Women of a Certain Age as title fits this scene: going round the table left to right: animated Joyce, single (never married); Mary, widowed (previously married with one estranged daughter); Hannah, married but now must work as a maid in a hotel; Karin divorced and no where to go, a stray (in patriarchal arrangements that’s what women of a certain age frequently become … )
So I came near tears at the end of the third play, and my last night at the end of the second didn’t dare speak or look at anyone or I would have burst into crying. Each play opened and closed with Mary, and her grief and loss. Here I sit week after week writing what I do? why? it’s the only way I know how to communicate with people.
So many thousands years in solitary confinement in the US. The extreme symbol. It was the play’s human dimension that hit me hard. The acting is so persuasively real and not at all overdone. What a relief. I did recognize people in the audience from Part 1, there for Part 2, and a couple from Part 3 on both nights. So I was not mesmerized alone.
I get so involved with literature that allows me to be with others and talk to others (or write) because (from Virginia Woolf on novels) “they are about people, they excite in us [me] feelings that people excite in real life.” This play attaches itself to an idea of what life is about, what makes it valuable, beyond community people need self-esteem, they need to be comfortable and secure, they need to feel good about themselves, need to value their activities and think of them as worth while. The Gabriels are a form of angels because they do want the finer values, not sheer material wealth, though they need some of that too. It’s about America’s spiritual condition which is being torn down and torn apart. In my solitary life I am representative of a lot of people. Karen in the play is closest to me but I recognized myself in all the women and recognized men I’ve known in George and Thomas (including Jim, in his last years an adjunct dressing down the way George does).
As I looked at the audience last night I saw displeased faces. People there did not like what they were shown. All three times the audience auditorium was about half full at best. There was a standing ovation at the end of the third part, but only applause (and standing has become a new standard) at the end of the second. I almost did not stand at the end of the second, but I so respected these actors for conveying such a depth of intelligent understanding and Maryann Plunkett for what it is to be a widow, containing in herself such stifled emotion and loneliness even amid these family members that I stood. I caught the eye of one of the actresses, Lynn Hawley who played Hannah and saw she was grateful to me. My standing made her feel better. Another woman had stood up too.