Book Review: The Theatre Of e. e. cummings Edited by George Frimage
Most people, if they've heard of him at all, will identify the name of e. e. cummings (Edward Estlin) as the American poet who didn't like capital letters. Even in the spelling of his own name he eschewed the normal use of upper case letters. What they might not know about cummings was the body of work he produced aside from poetry. There were his works of prose recounting both his time as a volunteer ambulance driver in France during WW 1, the enormous room, and his time spent in communist Russia in 1931 in the novel Eimi. He was also a painter. In fact he had initially set out to be a painter, travelling to Paris in 1919 to study art. While he eventually focused his energies primarily on writing, he continued to paint for the rest of his life and he published several books of poetry and prose which he provided the illustrations for.
On top of this extensive library of work he also wrote four pieces for the stage; three plays and a treatment for a ballet based on the book Uncle Tom's Cabin. While there have been a number of plays produced based on cumming's poetic works, of his three actual plays, Him, Santa Claus and Anthropos, only the first has ever been staged. While all four works for the stage were each individually published initially, only Him was released in something other than a limited edition. Eventually all four were gathered together and published under the title of Three Plays and a Ballet in 1967. Out of print since 1970, it has now been reissued under the title The Theatre of e. e. cummings by Liveright Press, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company and distributed by Penguin Canada.
In his poetry cummings dealt with themes ranging from the nature of love to social/political issues of his day. While he would put down American consumerism he was also opposed to anything he saw as a threat to what he considered sacrosanct, the individuality of the artist. His experiences with Stalin's form of communism garnered while traveling in Russia were enough to convince him there wouldn't be any room in that system for free thinking. Critics on both the left and the right dismissed his work as politically naive and overly romantic. However, close reading of his poetry shows he, like almost no other American poet, showed a man in love with the ideals upon which his country was founded. While everyone else might be giving lip service to things like the freedom of the individual, cummings celebrated its true meaning.
It didn't mean a person should be able to do what he wanted at the expense of others. Nor did it mean everybody should desire to amass material goods and personal wealth. You should be free to celebrate the act of living, loving, being and experiencing the world. His poems were chaotic explosions of words which took readers on flights of fancy. They encouraged readers to think outside the box of success being measured by the accumulation of wealth. In the four works for stage in this volume not only are these themes expressed, you will see how throughout the span of his writing life cummings continued to experiment with language and the ways it could be used for communication.
Him, the earliest piece written in 1927, is a mixture of realism and absurdity. There are two central characters, the playwright Him and his mistress Me. Interspersed between their scenes together are, we are led to believe, scenes from the play Him is currently struggling to write. However the various scenes we are presented with seem to have no relationship with each other. They range from an elaborately staged musical number based on the folk song "Frankie and Johnny" to absurdist skits with a variety of characters. At various points characters who appeared in earlier scenes show up again, but are loosely disguised as someone else. It's clear cummings wants the audience to know this is still the same character pretending to be someone else.
The action between Him and Me takes place over what is apparently a number of years and follows the ups and downs of their relationship. His struggles with the creation of his art run concurrent with their struggles with love. While he doesn't appear to have any problems expressing his passion for his art, he always resorts to absurdities and playacting when it comes to expressing how he feels about Me. As a result the play contains some of the most beautiful and stirring language concerning the creation of art and the nature of love you'll ever read. ..."And always I'm repeating a simple and dark and little formula...always myself mutters and remutters a trivial colourless microscopic idiom - I breathe, and I swing; and I whisper: "An artist, a man, a failure, MUST PROCEED". (The Theatre of e. e. cummings (HIM) Liveright Press 2013 New York p.12)
Both Anthropos (1930) and Santa Claus (1946) are more in the line of social commentary and satire. Unlike Him both are quite short and focus on a single theme. In the first cummings uses cave men like beings, he calls them infrahumans, to comment on the role of art in society. For while three infrahumans are trying to come up with slogan to motivate their fellows one is busy creating a cave drawing depicting their life. While they eventually decide on evolution as their slogan, their means of devising it reduces it to something meaningless so it becomes just another cliche.
In Santa Claus cummings has created a commentary on what he sees as the great imbalance in the world. We put great store in science and knowledge, but love is given short shrift. The character of Santa Claus, wandering alone and bereft, encounters Death. Death convinces him happiness can be found through Science and Knowledge. However, it's not until Santa Claus is reunited with his long lost wife and daughter, and by extension, love, he finds happiness. Subtitled "A Morality Tale", this short play is a little simplistic, but this does nothing do depreciate the author's point. Science might be able to explain things, but it can't teach us to appreciate something for its beauty. Its about finding a balance between the mind and the heart in order to fully appreciate the world.
The final piece in this book is probably the most difficult, the outline for a ballet based on Harriet Beatrice Stowe's book Uncle Tom called simply Tom. cummings divides the story into four episodes with each one depicting an important part of the book. However, instead of merely describing the action he gives detailed descriptions of the type of movements the dancers should be performing and the emotions that motivate them "George, right-frontstage,whirlleaps inward, catching Eliza when she is about to fall - files of dogmen swoop from left- and right-midstage convergingly outward - enter, right-and left-backstage, a group of men and group of women (the Friends or Quakers) all dressed in grey; all holding bibles over their hearts" (The Theatre of e.e.cummings -Tom Liveright Press New York 2013 p. 170)
Anyone familiar with cummings' poetry will recognize the manner in which he manipulates language in order to allow it to express more then it was originally intended. The above excerpt from Tom is a mild example of how he employed those techniques in this instance to both give instructions to potential dancers and choreographers and to heighten the experience for those simply reading the piece. In fact, one of the amazing things about reading Tom is how cummings creates the sensations of dance with just his words. His words actually convey movement and have a fluidity that catches the grace and expressiveness of dance.
The Theatre Of e. e. cummings sees the return to print of four pieces in the e. e. cummings' canon that have been unavailable for far too long. Fans of his poetry will appreciate how he manages to incorporate both his sense of the absurd and his appreciation for the beauty of the world around him into his prose. Plays like Him show not only was cummings breaking new ground in poetry with his experiments with language, but the conventions of the theatre as well. Further proof, if any were necessary, that he was the first great modernist American writer.
(Article first published as Book Review: The Theatre of e. e. cummings Edited by George Firmage on Blogcritics.)