For Better Angels
The challenge for a verse play is to be vigorously two things at once, both poetry and drama. Somewhere, hopefully, the work finds a point where each aspect fuels and reinforces the other. At its most effective moments, Ben Mazer's new verse play A City of Angels achieves this elusive synergy. Unfortunately, the rest of play is marred by stretches of weak poetry, incomplete characterizations, and unclear plot.
The play opens with John Crick in an unnamed city in Europe in 1938. His monologue gradually reveals that he has returned to his home town, to stay with one of his old professors, named Wells. He plans to make Wells a proposition and to ask for his help. It hints at some dramatic essentials: “all is moving forward now / and there is nothing that will be the same / except the streets, the sidewalk and the trees, / the houses where this change has taken place.” His speech, which he delivers at night outside the home, awakens the professor’s daughter Mary, who invites him inside. Crick mentions some plans in the abstract, alluding again to imminent change.
The following morning, Crick pitches his plan to Wells, which turns out to be “a significant theater [. . .] a group of young people with the power to feel / the viscerality of the common truth. / And with the sensitivity to express / lucid emotions with immediacy.” Wells agrees to financially support Crick’s design for a play, vague as it is.
Then things take a turn — Crick encounters a man named Cross, who has a strange tale to tell, a propos of nothing much, about a feud involving the Crosses and another family, as well as a “girl / descended from forgotten nobility / which was proven by an ancient ring.” In the next scene, Crick’s aunts Harriet and Sylvia reveal that it was his family in conflict with the Crosses. Once the aunts go to bed, however, Crick and Mary discover in each other the seeds of star-crossed love, and the two become an item.
This delivers us to Act 3, which takes place a month later. Two Crosses converse, drunk in a barn, and reflect that if Crick’s play were to receive a good review, it would be somehow detrimental. “I’ll know this John Crick in another world,” the scene ends, ominously. In the next, and final, scene, we learn that Mary’s brother has been killed while protecting Crick, and certain revelations are made that connect the Wells, Cross, and Crick families to the old feud. A sickly Professor Wells remarks “But yet I have advices to impart. / The feuds must end. There must be a new start / as you foresaw in dreams of new art.” Mary gives the closing speech, which clarifies some of the sequence of things, explaining who has died, and how, and that “Our hopes for a new and worthwhile theater / have fled into our grief.”
This rather broad plot is accomplished in a brief thirty-three pages, almost all of which are written in end-stopped iambic pentameter. Most of the action happens off-stage and is revealed near the end of the play, but by that point there is little reason to care about the structure behind the actions of these characters. They feud and fall in love and speak as though under some external influence, retelling stories to each other in order to provide background for the reader, making the necessary movements to accommodate the plot — but the characters themselves seem almost reluctant to be involved. This sterile exchange between Crick and Mary is one example:
Then kiss me, John. It’s what I want from you.
But if I kiss you, then you might be mine.
And do you think that would be terrible.
There’s nothing could be less terrible.
We must be quiet. Everyone’s asleep.
You understand how passionately deep
are my emotions.
To be sure, they do then move to more effusive expressions of love. But nothing in the play prefigures this “passion.” It is an unearned romance in sparse lines of verse.
Iambic pentameter, such a familiar rhythm, dominates A City of Angels, and with it Mazer creates moments of beauty — but also moments of dullness. There are lines, words, and sentence structures that seem inexplicable other than that they adhere to the meter. It's the great risk of this rhythm in general: line after end-stopped line in a repeating back-and-forth of single-syllable words. Exchanges such as this pepper the script:
I'll wake you if you like when we have tea.
That would be nice. And thank you for the bed.
My pleasure, John, now go and get some rest.
It’s possible to see lines like this as simple, quiet, and domestic, like the scene they represent. In general though, where it exists, Mazer’s faithfulness to meter impedes his ability to render each character distinctively. This would be less of an issue if the resulting poetry had more to recommend it: lines such as those above feel like a problem yet to be solved by the poet. From time to time, he does deviate from his Shakespearian rhythm, and these lines are the more interesting flashes by far.
Mazer’s sacrifices for the sake of the pentametric iamb become even less understandable when poetic form is forsaken altogether and ordinary-looking dialogue takes over — pentameters buried deeply behind more conversational rhythms. Crick’s exchange with the sewing lady in Act 2, Scene 2 is a breath of fresh air, and even includes stage directions for pauses. Suddenly the project becomes a play with atmosphere and a well-paced, well-controlled conversation. When Crick meets and converses with Cross, however, they drag each other back to the prevailing rhythm. The strongest poetry appears in sections like this, spoken by Aunt Sylvia:
The midnight hours are woven out of words
that sink back into memory. A boy
is an unborn ancestral tapestry
waiting to be forgotten to emerge
as something else, the word-cloth of a man.
This, in contrast to the neutered language of the lovers, hovers around a constant rhythm without ever losing the fight. It is also somehow emblematic of Crick as he introduces himself in the opening monologue, waiting to meet Wells, “who knew my father but won't recognize / the changes that have come over the son.” Expressions like “word-cloth of a man,” along with more direct approaches to theater (such as Crick's plans to mount a production of his own), add a discursive layer to the play, which prompts questions about what theater is and can be.
Mazer here seems to use the dramatic form more as a structural device, an element in the discussion of what theater is, than as a vehicle for actual drama. Certain details are provided in such a peculiar order, or not provided at all, that a clear presentation of the plot seems almost secondary. One has the feeling that a great deal of the play is somehow “secondary,” as though the characters’ indifference to their own unprovoked behavior is just another element in a bleak, deterministic meta-drama. Characters are what their author makes of them, stripped of even the illusion of autonomous desire. They are simply words and actions fit into an arbitrary frame of acts, scenes, and metrical feet.
Perhaps, like the intentional mis-spellings and malapropisms in Act 3, the apparent weaknesses in this play are not failures at all, but features of the thing — which make it something else. When that famously beautiful combination of sounds, “cellar door,” makes an appearance in one of Mary's speeches, one starts to suspect some other game is afoot, that there is a reference point and purpose beyond the self-contained drama. If this is an essay about theater, it is about a theater that is ineffective, unimportant, and falling far short of its ambition.
It is dangerous, however, to try interpreting one’s way out of the idea that this is just a weak text, which could have benefited from more development of plot, to clarify its dramatic and poetic purposes. It could easily be both: a meta-critique of the elements of theater that also lacks the necessary common anchor of a relatively well-formed drama. Without the base, though, the critique ranges too far from its object.
Some lines, especially Crick’s occasional rhyming couplets, do exploit their metrical context. “Though you have sat and spoken not a word / your silences have scarcely gone unheard,” he says at one point, or earlier: “Many times I’ve stood in these strange streets. / How strange it is that history repeats.” These have some tension about them, a sense that something is bubbling up. There are also times when rhyme and assonance propagate down the page in subtle and rewarding ways, and it feels like there’s genuinely music being made among the wandering syllables.
effective moments, unfortunately, are incongruities in the otherwise
common and much weaker verse. My experience of this play is that
something’s just not right, no matter how I try to take it. This is a
shame, because the potential of the verse play in contemporary poetry is
immense. The combined obligations of narrative interest and poetic
beauty could make for something that is both beautiful and focused,
rewarding multiple readings at different levels. Given that Mazer has
engaged both traditions in terms of plot and meter, it remains a
surprise that there isn’t more for the reader in this. Mazer's other
poetry frequently has a character of voice, elegant intellect, and force
that's mostly absent here. A City of Angels, though it contains the odd flash of this stronger poet, does not match the standard of his other work.