Writers’ Theatre-Chicago

at Books on Vernon

The title of Dear Master, a richly wrought “dialogue in letters” adapted by Dorothy Bryant from the correspondence of Gustave Flaubert and George Sand, is a quote taken not, as some might assume, from the woman but from the man: Flaubert valued Sand as a mentor as well as a friend. Twice his age and notorious for her liberalism, feminism, and breaking of taboos–wearing men’s clothing, smoking cigars, loving Chopin and Alfred de Musset–Sand also loved to champion writers. When she defended Flaubert’s Carthaginian epic Salammbo against accusations of immorality in 1863, it was the start of a stunning friendship.

Thanking her for her support (she compared him to Dante!), Flaubert began a correspondence that lasted until her death at 72, in 1876. Charting two great lives in full flow over a 13-year period, these marvelous letters chronicle the writers’ ambitions, domestic difficulties, artistic integrity, creative struggles–and irreconcilable views on love, politics, and art. Sand was prolific where Flaubert was a tortured, truth-seeking perfectionist, optimistic where he doubted, believing in progress and people where he despised the Normandy peasants (but loved his old family retainers).

They were very good for each other–at a safe distance. So it’s not surprising that in Michael Halberstam’s excellent 90-minute staging for Writers’ Theatre-Chicago, Sand and Flaubert keep to separate sections of the elegantly appointed stage and address each other through the audience (producing the same sort of tension born of separation that worked in Dear Liar, about the correspondence of George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and to a lesser degree in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters).

Opening their hearts, they expose their contradictions and complexity. A sybaritic recluse, Flaubert was famous as the elitist writer-monk of Croisset, priding himself on a manic devotion to art and to the mot juste. Prizing solitude, despising nature and socialism, preferring promiscuity to romance, and seeing stupidity everywhere, the neurasthenic Flaubert imagined himself a martyr to his one love: “Writing is a torture like a terrible itch–but scratching it is ecstasy!”

If Flaubert’s letters reminded Sand of why she wrote, hers kept him human. She glowed with love for her family and hope for humanity, was filled with the kind of romantic idealism that Flaubert both mocked and exalted in Madame Bovary, and was suspicious of male possessiveness. She offered Flaubert a glimpse of a life lived at high stakes, an antidote to the self-pity that threatened to consume him. (At the same time he saw her voracious love life as proof she belonged to a “third sex.”)

Set to the music of Chopin and Berlioz, Dear Master teems with confessions: Flaubert agonizing over his mother’s death, Sand describing her daughter’s awful marriage (a passage that immediately recalls Emma Bovary), their frenzied exchanges after Paris capitulated to the Prussians. Gretchen Sonstroem offers an intense, endearingly eccentric Sand; whether she’s recalling an old love from the revolution of 1848 or rejoicing in her life, she remains quirkily human. Rob Stormont strongly connects Flaubert’s crusty isolationism with his fanaticism about fiction; his Flaubert grows more and more real as he admits the sacrifices he’s made for art as well as the pleasures he’s gotten from it.


Joeken Productions

at Playwrights’ Center

The literary source for Nothing to Hide, a curious new one-man show performed by Daniel Shore, is a diary rather than letters. Director-author John Lisbon Wood draws from the journal of playwright Joe Orton, mixing stream-of-consciousness confessions with disjointed biographical tidbits. The diary, like its maker, is outrageous, irreverent, and unrepentant. Orton lived to shock, and his art often stole from life; the lengthy entry presented here, a searing description of his mother’s death and funeral, oddly recalls the corpse shenanigans in Loot.

On August 10, 1967, Kenneth Halliwell–Orton’s patrician lover of 15 years–took a hammer and beat the brains out of the 34-year-old playwright, then offed himself, swallowing 22 Nembutals (an event surrealistically depicted in John Lahr’s Prick Up Your Ears and Peter Fieldson’s Black and Blue). And much of Nothing to Hide is as ghoulish as this occurrence–intended, I suppose, as a black homage to Orton and his work.

The first half of the play is delivered by the psychotic Halliwell just after he’s smashed his lover-rival. Filled with envy and blaming his victim, he performs grisly amateur theatricals over the bloody body (including sodomy with the corpse) and snarls his hatred for the theater world’s “sour grapes and bitter fruits.” Halliwell then acts out his clumsy variations on the types Orton patented in his farces–prudish hypocrites, venal cops, a smarmy entertainer named Allen the Wisp, and (most inexplicably) a cockroach. We learn how at the age of 11 Halliwell watched his mother die of a wasp sting, and how 12 years later he came down to breakfast to find his father asphyxiated in the oven–not that any of this excuses his crime.

Fortunately, the miserable, self-pitying Halliwell doesn’t get the last word in Nothing to Hide. The second half features a posthumous Orton, his brains oozing picturesquely from his head. Cocky as ever, the murdered man indulges in a loose flow of reminiscences: threats from the authorities, bonehead observations from audience members, and anecdotes that reveal how much grungy grit he took from real life and put into his plays.

Wood’s script is an impressive bit of writing, as pungent in its gallows humor as Orton was–though the necrophiliac bits go beyond anything Orton would have attempted even if the Lord Chancellor had let him. And unfortunately the verbal shock effects quickly wear thin.

Aside from the fact that much here charts the same course as Black and Blue, what’s disappointing, especially for anyone unfamiliar with Orton’s work, is the lack of a social context for Orton’s bad-boy behavior. Neither he–nor Halliwell, for that matter–rebelled in a vacuum; they weren’t just cocking a snoot at authority because, like a mountain, it was there but because their world was filled with real ills and excesses. And despite his sensational end, Joe Orton can’t be equated with the likes of Sid Vicious or even Lenny Bruce, nor do his shock comedies have anything to do with his grotesque death. Indulging in ironies on that score must be resisted.

Baroque flourishes and iconoclastic excesses aside, Wood’s script is a tour de force for Shore, thanks to Wood’s enterprising staging. Despite the play’s obsession with Orton’s crushed skull, Shore plays the literal overkill with dexterity, even dignity and poignance. His commedialike Orton is even more impressive than his Halliwell (and as scripted is often accurate: he shows Orton’s pride in his pumped-up body and his compulsion to “do the Freddie,” a particularly stupid 60s dance). Abandoning Orton’s shifting facades, Shore shows the hurt behind his mockery, the desire–especially tempting to gay writers–to reshape through their art a world that’s all too interested in reshaping them. Shore brings surprising grace to Wood’s assaults–no small feat when you spend half the show wearing a bald skullcap and the other with enough gore stuck to your hair to make a zombie wince.