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Department of Erroneously Criticized Playwrights



To the editors:

Reading [Jack Helbig's] critique on my play Back to the Nest [October 25] I wasn't upset by your description of it as "utterly unbelievable play," since I didn't expect you to know enough about life and about human nature. There are even worse offspring than Genevieve in real life, and you had better learn about this sad fact before claiming the slightest knowledge about current sociological trends.

However, that's not all. How can you call this play "silly, melodramatic" (two blanket adjectives) without supporting what you say, save for your reference to Laurie's saying, "I don't like to use our savings unless it's absolutely necessary"? There is no housewife who had not said or thought something to that effect several hundreds of times during a lifetime. This alone indicates that perhaps you haven't grown up with a real family where people are concerned about saving a part of their hard-earned money. Moreover, the word "silly" means different things to different people: What is silly to one person can very well be moral to another; what one person considers very unethical to do, another might consider it's silly not to do.

As for calling this play "melodramatic" it's about time that you should learn what melodrama means. To begin with, melodrama is a Greek word, intended to describe the dramatization of trivia. But then, as it seems, you do consider the abuse and exploitation of parents as trivia.

What's more, you have missed every important point this play was intended to make. Unless you are hard of hearing, you shouldn't have said that Genevieve wanted to "inherit the house" and "sell it." Nor should you have quoted a nonexisting sentence, to wit: "Things are different today," nor should you have misquoted the word "safest" (in terms of birth-control) in Gene's speech and replaced it with the word "easiest." It's highly unethical on your part and detrimental to me and to the future of my play to be putting words in my mouth that are not there. Thus as the word "easiest" does not make any sense in this context, you've misquoted me with the vile, devious intention to make me sound "silly."

With regard to cliches in the play, people do use cliches when appropriate. And yet you have't mentioned even one from the entire play; unless you meant the sentence, which ironically you describe as being similar to the ones from a foreign language textbook "And they say that one of the ways to a man's heart. . . . " But then, if this is the sentence you call cliche, it was not very brilliant on your part for having realized it, since as it begins with the words "And they say. . . . " it conveys the fact that it's a saying, or a maxim, or an American cliche, if you would rather call it as such. Perhaps you don't know the difference between a proverbial phrase, a saying, or a maxim, and you lump them all in the category of cliches. Also, what you might consider a cliche could be just a stock phrase, even an idiomatic phrase.

Speaking of cliches, however, I don't understand this mania for cliche-free dialogue. True, a writer of prose, if he wants to write effectively, he must use his own fresh expressions, instead of depending on the wisdom of cliches. But avoiding the use of cliches altogether in the dialogue of a play does not show real people. Such dialogue is bound to be forced and strained, and playwrights who strive to write an altogether cliche-free dialogue do not write spontaneous speech, such as it is spoken (in the heat of anger, in distress, in bliss) by the average person, and they had better be aware of that fact. Unless of course, they want to portray a not very communicative person. Only a person who is not talkative (an introvert), or a person who does not have many people to talk with, would not learn many cliches, if any, let alone acquire the knowledge of using them. And again, only a person who is mentally retarded, and his or her span of thought does not last for enabling that person to say more than a few words at a time, does not really have any use of cliches. Most politicians use cliches all the time, among them the most high-ranking, such as the president. Just the other day I heard Mr. Bush using in a nationally aired speech the appropriate cliche "time heals all wounds."

Now, in terms of your saying that Fred and Laurie are "discussing in excruciating detail how old they are, what they do for a living, how many kids they have. . . . " those details are part of the plot as the play also has to do with the "empty nest grief" (syndrome, according to psychologists). You seem to be very impatient when it comes to domestic life, for how can you say that those details took half hour? There are only six pages of dialogue, which include stage directions of exits and entrances and description of other action--even dancing--in what, as you said, had taken half hour; but if six pages would have taken half hour, at that rate, the play would have taken six hours. As for the dialogue of Fred and Laurie while sitting on the couch, it consists of only a page, and lasted as long as it took them to put cream in their coffee and take a sip of it. I'm sure you wouldn't have been so impatient if a bunch of thugs were talking and planning a burglary for an hour, such as in the play "American Buffalo." In fact, the entire play was about this burglary, save for a hint of compassion on the part of one of the thugs towards another thug at the very end of the play. And the reason those thugs didn't succeed was not their remorse, but the many obstacles they couldn't overcome; thus, we cannot salute them for not going ahead with this burglary.

However, to go back to my play, this information on the characters had to be given sooner or later, anyway. For how can the audience sit through a play, not knowing who the characters are? True, there are plays in which we learn about the characters bit by bit as the play develops (every one of my other plays develops that way). Yet, the basic information on the characters shouldn't be delayed to the point that the viewer cannot tell why they act the way they do. Especially in this play it's essential to learn from the start that they got over that grief in order to realize the contrast between their happiness and the distress Genevieve caused them to suffer later on. So, how could they have said what their grief was if they didn't speak about their children's leaving home? Didn't they have to even say how many children they have?

Therefore, Laurie's covering the furniture up was to show her that she finally got over that grief, which ties up as well with Gene's using this as an excuse to shock her parents later on. Moreover, Laurie's being a nutritionist also ties up with Gene's accusation later on that her mother used her children as guinea pigs. As for telling what kind of work Fred is doing, wouldn't it have seemed odd to let the audience wonder about it? especially since we had to learn about the kind of work Laurie is doing? And yet, all the information given in everything mentioned above didn't take more than a sentence or two. And as there is so much to say in this play, I've even overlooked the "three times rule" in an effort to make it shorter. Thus, as I must refer to your saying "her characters say in three lines what other writers would have them say in one," I also wish to point out that you thought it safe to say this and that there is no way that anyone could contradict you. Yet, there is: I've already asked the Reader to tell you that I challenge you, and to convince you to rewrite five pages of dialogue and try to say with less what (according to you) my characters say with more. I also explained what pages I mean: (1) Fred--Laurie--Gene; (2) Fred--Laurie; (3) Laurie--Gene; (4) Fred--Gene; (5) Gene--Kurt.

I don't offer you any pay for this, but I assure you that I will not adopt one word from what you might come up with, and that the dialogue in those pages is exactly as it has been delivered during the production.

In terms of your saying that "the playwright never gives any explanation of how such sweet, bland parents could spawn a child so insensitive she thinks nothing of . . . " I didn't have to give any explanation since the badness in a person is not a disease in the genes which can be inherited. Nor is it manipulation pathological. Manipulation is the purposeful means by which one hopes to gain, whereas a pathological impulse, such as kleptomania, is not. Therefore, you are not qualified to use scientific terms you know nothing about. Many good parents have bad children and vice-versa. Gene's badness or insensitivity, as you call her obnoxious behavior, is her purposeful manipulation to shock her mother. Especially as she realized from the start that her parents were shocked by her expressions. Gene knows her mother loves her very much and does not want her to get hurt in any way and Gene takes advantage of it. Thus, the more she shocks her parents, especially her mother who Gene has more chances to shock, the more she can get from them in order to keep peace. At that time Gene didn't conceive the idea yet of trying to take everything from them.

Gene saw her chance to get it all once she grabbed at the idea of trying to convince her father to turn everything on her name so that their finances will not be depleted by the hospital bills. As Kurt tells her, she is not satisfied with what she can get by being nice, and she thought she could get it all by appearing to be mean and cruel. Thus in terms of your saying that we don't get "to know the woman behind the villain," we do know more about Gene that we know, let's say, the man behind the villain in Iago, in Macbeth. We know that she had an abortion, that she loved Tony, and then Kurt, but not Frank. We know that she does not hate her parents and that she is willing--even eager (once her plans are brought to fruition) to make up with her mother. For after all, a greedy person is not a pathological monster. We also know that Gene believes her "parents wouldn't miss this house." In addition, we know that Gene knows her parents are conservative and would rather keep their problems within closed doors. Gene's knowledge of her parents' conservatism becomes more obvious as she tries to convince her father that she needs to give her parents' address so that people would not realize she can't get along with them, and as we hear her father say "Oh, my God! How convincing she sounds!"

Now, I wish you can be more specific about what you mean by "information-free comments." For instance, do those comments lack information, or do they give free information? This is a more pressing question than the one you made about how this script got a production. Not only are all the actors and actresses college educated, and had time to examine the script thoroughly, but as they realized the great truths in it, they didn't mind bringing them to the attention of the public. This is something I cannot say about you. For although you might claim that you had no reason (other than informing the public) for your negative critique, not only are you far from being qualified to write a critique on issues that require a deep understanding, but also you lie by quoting words and sentences that are not in my script with the intention of influencing unfairly the public against my play. You thought that by coming down so viciously on a play or two, and by praising others, people will think you credible enough and run to see what you intend to promote. Thus, you had better stick to comedies in which the strings of coarse, funny one-liners don't require much intelligence, not to speak of that they pay off. And since you do prefer coarse humor, it must be the reason you haven't realized the fine humor at the beginning of my play when Laurie and Fred were happy, and before Gene came down on them like a catapult with her destructive plans.

However, you are right that Christine Irwin was not dramatic enough at the time you saw the play (as you judged by her "too-quiet delivery"), but you are wrong about Shaneyfelt. He does not look over his shoulder as he exits, but when he does, as a person parting with a loved one (his wife or daughter), it's natural to give a last look to her. I do the same even though the person I'm parting with is not always someone I'm very close to.

Christina Athanasiades

W. Hood

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