A Priest, A Dean, And A Math Teacher … Walk Into a Fight

GELFAND’S WORLD--Sunday, August 16 was celebrated worldwide as the 95th birthday of the late Charles Bukowski (photo), known for his novels, stories, poems, and, shall we admit it, famous for his wanton ways. The BBC invited its readers to nominate choice Bukowski sayings, and out of this came What Bukowski taught us about life in nine quotes.  Bukowski followers picked lines such as, "Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead." 

Bukowski, although born in Germany, was identified as a Los Angeles writer. You can take a tour of Bukowski's haunts to get a feel for some of his earlier life. 

Down here in San Pedro where Bukowski spent the final years of his life, there was another celebration. This included a panel of people who knew the man personally or had made scholarly studies of his life and work. Sue Hodson of the Huntington Library showed parallels between Bukowski's work and that of poets Geoffrey Chaucer and Walt Whitman. Gerald Locklin of Cal State Long Beach told personal anecdotes including his account of the Bukowski funeral, held on a hill overlooking the Los Angeles harbor in a cemetery well known to the locals. 

Perhaps the most interesting story came from writer and poet Michael C. Ford. It goes back to the days of the late 1960s, before there were desktop computers, much less our current internet, and social protest was published in alternative newspapers. One such paper was the Los Angeles Free Press, known informally as The Freep. Harlan Ellison and Lawrence Lipton were its first columnists. Ford was also a Freep contributor. Charles Bukowski had been writing his own column, Notes of a Dirty Old Man, in another alternate paper, but moved it over to the Freep when the other paper folded. Thus out of what was originally a small newsletter, the Free Press ultimately grew to carry protest work by some of the most prolific and influential authors of our generation, and Bukowski was a major element in spreading that influence. 

At Sunday's celebration, Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez spoke of his own troubled early life and how Bukowski's work had affected his own writing. Rodriguez then read a Bukowski poem about the act of writing itself, which begins "If it doesn't come bursting out of you/ in spite of everything,/ don't do it." This brought cheers from the audience. 

More than one speaker at this 95th birthday event mentioned going sober, and how long that state had been maintained. There was a lot of resonance with Bukowski's history of alcohol use.

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A story of phony fossils and human conflict 

David Graham (photo below)is an actor who has performed and directed a lot of Shakespeare and is currently doing Prospero in TheTempest. His first full length play as an author, And the Stones Will Cry Out,  is about a different kind of tempest. It is based on a historical scandal th at occurred in Wurzburg in 1725, and is running at the Little Fish Theatre Company through September 5. 

The play opens with Dr. Beringer, a powerful figure at the University. He is theologically rigid and the personification of the arrogant academic. He does, however, know a great deal about the natural world, including its creatures. 

To Beringer's astonishment, he discovers stones with strange shapes in them on one of his walks. They appear as remnants of creatures that do not exist in this earthly realm. He identifies them using the word fossils, but tries to explain their existence in a way that is consistent with the theology of the day. His only attainable explanation is that they are miracles, left in the ground by God for him to find. 

The play introduces two other characters, the priest Eckhart and the skeptical math teacher Roderick, and the story develops. We see Roderick and Eckhart trying to dissuade Beringer from publishing his ostensible discovery. Beringer does not accept the idea that he could be wrong, or that the stones could be fraudulent. He wants to believe that God is reaching out to him personally with this special gift. 

We thus have the setup for arguments over God's will, which segue into the concept of human free will vs divine omniscience. This leads to a logical argument cast by Beringer that God cannot, in his very nature, make a mistake. 

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This in turn leads to a certain amount of drollery among Roderick and Eckhart during periods when Beringer is offstage. 

The historical record is that the stones were in fact fakes. A few can still be seen in European museums. In the play, it is revealed that Roderick has carved the strange shapes into the rocks as a hoax perpetrated on Beringer. 

Roderick at first is gleeful that he will bring a little embarrassment to Beringer, but begins to change his mind as he begins to understand how the whole affair will develop. 

The rest of the play involves Roderick's increasing remorse, leading to his attempts to convince Beringer that the magnificent discovery is no sort of discovery at all. Beringer, in his arrogance and ambition, accuses Roderick of being jealous. 

Thus we have a classic struggle between two men who are wholly unable to understand each other's motives, nor to convince one another of the fallibility of human logic. Eckhart tries to soothe both of his friends' hurt feelings and to bring some sort of emotional peace. 

In this depiction, the author seems to be playing with the idea that the less religious Roderick can be the more moral, while the theologically sound Beringer falls prey to the sin of pride. It's not a new concept by any means, but in Graham's lines it comes alive. 

In the play, as in the historical record, the events lead to a court action which forces Roderick and Eckhart to give up their university positions, and costs Beringer his longtime friendship with both. The play is, therefore, ultimately about human pride and its effects on Beringer, combined with resentment and its effects on Roderick. 

This is a pretty good first attempt for a playwright who has a lot of potential. The one thing I noticed was that for us, the modern audience, the idea of fossils is well established, and we understand them to be the remnants of ancient life forms. There is a certain confusion for the audience in coming to the realization that these particular fossils are phonies. I think that some of us were expecting a clash between the modern understanding of fossil origins and medieval explanations involving Satan or the hand of God. 

This is the sort of problem that can be solved by inserting a few lines, and does not take that much away from the play, because the play is ultimately about human relationships. 

The other slightly jarring note was the insertion of anachronistic humor. We recognize a line borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle for example, but attributed by one of the characters to his friend Gottfried Liebniz. This is the sort of thing that will bother the few members of the audience who are versed in mathematics and physics, and is also something that can be fixed by modifying a few lines. 

Don Schlossman does a marvelous job as Roderick, managing through tone of voice and facial expression just the right level of sarcasm when sarcasm is called for, and a credible expression of sorrow when that is required. Rodney Rincon as Eckhart carries his part as the browbeaten underling who finds the courage to call both Beringer and Roderick to task when such is needed. James Rice as Beringer had a couple of rough moments in the early going but rose to the occasion in the more dramatic and emotional denouement.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)   

-cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 67

Pub: Aug 18, 2015