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Paperback Originals

May 18, 1986|by JONATHAN KIRSCH

The script of a play or film is rather like a sex manual: It may be illuminating, but it cannot capture the sheer pleasure of the thing. Still, since the screenplay has replaced the novel as the work-in-progress in the bottom drawer of nearly every aspiring writer in Los Angeles, I suppose that a recent flurry of published plays and screenplays will find a certain appreciative readership. By far the most readable of the lot is Aunt Dan & Lemon by Wallace Shawn (Grove Press: $6.95; also available in hardcover, $15.95), a dark and disturbing exercise which suggests--in the words of the playwright--that "a perfectly decent person can turn into a monster perfectly easily."

Aunt Dan & Lemon, last year's hot controversy of Broadway and the West End, is a minuet of outrageous ideas and frustrated passions as performed by two women--the reclusive and vulnerable young Leonora (or Lemon), and Aunt Dan, the eccentric older professor who was her mentor and, in a way, her seductress. "I'm a very sick girl," Lemon announces in the very first scene, and the metaphor for her illness is a wholly unhealthy intellectual flirtation with Nazism and the Holocaust. "Today, of course, the Nazis are considered dunces, because they lost the war, but it has to be said that they accomplished a great deal of what they wanted to do," Lemon prattles. "They were certainly successful against the Jews."

Such monologues prompted revulsion and censure when the play was performed on the stage, which is precisely what Shawn intended. In a curiously rambling and inarticulate essay that accompanies the script, "On the Context of the Play," Shawn explains that the moral abyss into which his characters have slipped, and not too reluctantly, is a threat to us all: "If we live from day-to-day without self-examination, we remain unaware of the dangers we may pose to ourselves and the world," Shawn writes. "But if we look into the mirror, we just might observe a rapacious face . . . . And maybe most of us look a little bit like Hitler, that ever-present ghost." Of course, he delivers the same sermon in the play itself, and much more effectively, through the chilling but fascinating example of Lemon, whose malady is the secret malignancy of our Western civilization, and Aunt Dan, a charming miscreant and the straw woman of Shawn's argument.

The Unseen Hand and Other Plays by Sam Shepard (Bantam: $7.95) is a collection of 14 early works by the celebrated triple-threat man of stage and screen. These one-act plays, mostly conceived and performed off-off-Broadway in the tumultuous 1960s, are the potent (and portentous) but uneven outbursts of an artist of boundless energy and ambition. "I wrote all the time," Shepard recalls in a brief preface. "I'd have six or seven ideas for plays rolling at once. I couldn't write fast enough to keep up with the flow of material flowing through me. Needless to say, I wasn't very good company." Shepard was encouraged by the ease of mounting a stage production in those heady days: "Anybody could get his piece performed, almost any time," Shepard explains. "If there wasn't a slot open at one of the cafe theaters or in the churches, you could at least pool together some actors and have a reading. You could go into full-scale rehearsals with nothing more than an idea or half a page of written text."

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