Sunday, February 19, 2017

Too much a stickler?

I saw My Night with Reg this afternoon.  It's very well acted, though in some ways it was dated.  I learned it was actually first produced in 1994, but this is the Canadian premiere apparently!  I had a couple of gripes with the third scene, which I'll get to after the appropriate SPOILER warnings.  But really I think what threw me (both at the time and in thinking over the play later) is that the internal chronology seemed off.  This is something that I actually spend a lot of time thinking about, particularly as it relates to my own work.  I've addressed it to some extent in the second half of this post, but it is so important that I like to come back to it from time to time.  Basically, if one is going to set a play in a particular time (especially if that time isn't "the present" whenever the play was written) it is really incumbent for the playwright to do the extra research, since it just doesn't take much to throw off the audience.

As far as I can determine from the internal markers of the play, the three main characters of the play (Guy, John and Daniel) were in university in 1972 or 1973 (since Ziggy Stardust (1972) was a big part of their lives).  (It's not specified, but they are almost certainly Oxbridge graduates.)  The first scene of the play is set in 1984 (that's the latest that even someone from the sticks, i.e. Eric, could claim that the Police's Synchronicity (1983) was the cool new sound).  The second scene is a couple of years later, so 1986.  The last scene is likely set in 1988, which would be just about right, since Daniel mentions that Guy has several photos from their uni days that are now 15 years old.

Now it's not impossible that they were Masters students, but I think that highly unlikely in John's case.  Daniel and John seem to be the same age, though again, Daniel is now working as high-profile art historian, so maybe he was indeed a graduate student at the time.  In the scene set roughly in 1986, Guy moans that he is nearly 40 when by most accounts he is probably not more than 35.  (Again, I suppose he could have been a Masters student, along with John possibly, and in the early 70s, homosexual undergraduates and graduates mingled more due to being a despised minority group.)

Certainly, it is a bit strange that Guy, Daniel and Bernie all seem to be Yuppies which was more of a mid to late 30s thing in the mid 1980s (and if they were undergraduates in 1973, they would be closer to early 30s).  So maybe most of them are mid 30s (and Guy even a year or two older) and John may be the youngest of the bunch.  It isn't that you can't line up the ages, but I have to work at it, which really pulls me out of the play...

A much bigger issue to me is that in the mid-80s, the AIDs crisis was really raging, and information about the disease was scarce.  Gay men were very hesitant to trust the government pronouncements, let alone public health messages.  It was much closer to the scene depicted in Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart or Kushner's Angels in America.  The tone of this play is much closer to late 80s/early 90s when gay life sort of began to return to normal and sex became ok again, so long as it was protected sex.  My understanding is that there was still much uncertainty in 1984 and the big push for condoms wasn't until 1986 when more was known about the disease.  (Here is a useful timeline.)  In any event, some of the teasing that Guy gets about safe sex seems unlikely to have occurred under these circumstances, and I would have thought that between 1984 and 1986 (when everyone in the play except for Guy sleeps with Reg) casual gay sex would have been at an all-time low.  Maybe human nature is just too hard to rein in, even with the threat of death looming over the bathhouses and the public parks and other avenues where casual sex could still be found.  (Interestingly, while bathhouses were essentially all closed in San Francisco and New York by order of public health authorities, gay saunas apparently were not all shut down in London.  So maybe it really was a different world over in the UK compared to North America.)

In terms of bigger SPOILERS,

I really didn't like the tired trope of Guy having unprotected (and actually unwanted) sex once and catching AIDS and everyone else being quite careless in their couplings with Reg, who also dies of AIDS, and yet they all seem ok.  Oh, see how random and ironic Life is...  (Also, I can't believe that no one in the play says or hints that they are going off to get tested, particularly in the second and third scenes.)  I didn't like quite how pathetic Guy seems with his completely unrequited crush on John.  It was just too much, though I thought John's difficulty in dealing with this affection (he only found out extremely late in Guy's illness) was well-acted.  (The bit about Eric really wounding John by saying that he has gotten old was also a cliche, but it was believable...)  On the whole, I enjoyed the play, but only the first two scenes.  I didn't care for the last third.  Still, I would have believed the play more if I didn't think the author was muddling up his timelines a bit.

In terms of applying the same criteria to my own work, I have a very short bit in "The Pitch" where I talk about a fictional group called Seniors for Parkdale.  There actually is a fair bit of organizing in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, so that is believable.  What doesn't work is the idea that there is a train station within walking distance.  The nearest GO station is Exhibition, which is quite a hike.  Even if Liberty Village opens up, that would still not feel like a local station.  On the other hand, Mimico does have a station and the overall land planning patterns might be more supportive of the kind of tower being pitched.  Seniors for Mimico sounds a bit strange.  As it happens, there is a proposed GO station in Park Lawn, which is essentially next door to Mimico.  While the Park Lawn station is unlikely to happen for a few reasons, one could actually walk from the Park Lawn neighbourhood to Mimico.  Anyway, The Pitch is a fantasy, not set in any particular city, but I still like having a ur-city in mind in case anyone ever asked me about the setting.  So Seniors for Park Lawn it is.

I've written about trying to get the details correct for studying for the pre-1989 ACT in The Study Group.  I've done the homework, and that is (slowly) proceeding.  I'm actually going to insert a question about Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, and I decided I might as well read the whole thing, since it is on my list of recommended non-fiction books to read.

Where things get tricky is in a play set in the future, i.e. Final Exam.  I could basically assume that exams are fairly close to today or they might be a bit different.  I originally had thought this should be The History Boys with a science fiction twist, so the lads (in a private school naturally) are all cramming for Oxford or Cambridge.  (How completely weird that you can only apply to one or the other university.  So much of higher education in England (but also France and Germany) forces you into a track early on, and particularly in England to decide your future course of studies at 17/18 when you really have so little idea of what you will want to do as an adult.  Frankly, I think the North American model is vastly superior in being more flexible until the final years of university.)

For a variety of reasons, I have decided that the play should be moved to North America (and probably Toronto in fact) and, while the school will still be a posh, private one, it will admit boys and girls.  At the end of the day, I decided it was just too hard for me to really get it right in terms of how English private education works (and there is no point in trying to just parrot The History Boys).  However, this presents new challenges.  It is certainly not likely that all the students will get into Oxford or Cambridge, or even that many will apply (no matter how much some people put Oxbridge up on a pedestal).  Only something like 15 Canadians a year get into Oxford or Cambridge along with 25 or so from the U.S.

Apparently, for Canadian students with good grades, they don't even need to take the SAT or ACT to get into the top universities in Canada, though they would want to take the SAT if they wanted to go to a school in the U.S.  I don't want to write a second play about prepping for a big standardized test like the SAT or ACT.  So I poked around, and there is a fairly cumbersome process for Canadians or Americans who want to apply to UK schools, specifically Oxbridge.  It basically boils down to, you need to take (and ace) 5 AP tests and then, depending on your subject area, you'll probably have to take a specialized test off of this list.  What's particularly odd is that you must take the Classics Admissions Test (CAT) if going to Oxford for Classics, but if you want to do Classics at Cambridge, you actually do an hour-long translation of a text, presumably Greek or Latin.  I think you would be very hard pressed to find an entire class interested in the classics nowadays, and the main teacher (in my play) is focused on English literature anyway.  He might propose that they study for the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT), which conveniently is good for Cambridge and Oxford.

In general, he will also promote the following AP Courses (from the full list here) as being particularly good in getting into Oxbridge or a top-level school in the U.S.:
  • AP English Literature and Composition
  • AP French Language and Culture
  • AP European History
  • AP World History
and then either
  • AP Biology or
  • AP Chemistry

While Cambridge is particularly good in Maths, I don't think he will promote that, mostly because he doesn't really follow mathematics and feels more generally that scientists and engineers will be better off studying in North America.

Anyway, the point isn't actually to make this about studying for these particular exams, but to consider a world where exams are no longer necessary (if not this school year, then certainly within the next two years).  At that point, I just have to have the audience believe that this teacher knows his stuff (and thus buy into the world of the play), but, more importantly, that he is more than a little overwhelmed having to face up to an event that is going to change his world completely (and this applies even more strongly for the students).  In my view, you need the underlying structure to hang together before you can get to the SF trappings.

No comments:

Post a Comment