Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Benito C. Cook

My grandfather was Benito C. Cook. He was from Concepción del Uruguay, Entre Ríos, Argentina. He died before I was born. Many people talked to me about my grandfather. There’s a street with his name in Concepción del Uruguay and a monument in his honor. He was a doctor and he had a sign outside his office that said: “Los Pobres, Gratis”. It means that poor people could be seen for free. He had a vase in the waiting room where people were depositing the fee for the visit if they could afford it. But if they were poor and needed money for the medicine, they were allowed to take money from the same vase. My father was the youngest of his children. His daughter Eloisa contracted Meningitis when she was 8 years old and she died. My grandfather got very depressed and they moved to Buenos Aires in 1910. The people of Concepción de Uruguay gave him a big book with their signatures and messages of gratitude. That book is in my father’s house. They collected money among all the people in the town to give him a present, and they bought him a watch, Patek Philippe, where they engraved this inscription: ”El Pueblo al Dr. Benito Cook, Filantropía y Abnegación Abril 19, 1910, Concepción del Uruguay”
“The Village to Dr. Benito Cook, philanthropy and abnegation, April 19th, 1910”

After my grandfather died, the watch was in the house of my uncle Julio. When Julio died, his wife Coleta, instead of giving it to my father, donated it to the local school, where my grandfather used to teach. It was there for many years until it was stolen apparently. Recently I found this website that says that the watch of my grandfather was auctioned by Christies:

I contacted Christies but they cannot give me information about the buyers. Whoever has that watch has no idea who my grandfather was and why that inscription is in there.

I would like for the person who owns his watch now to know the extraordinary life of my grandfather, and that I have the missing case for the watch.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Susana Cook and Lisa Haas. Photo by Vivian Babuts

Monday, October 05, 2009

I Am My Own Wife

Wright, Dough, I Am My Own Wife. New York: Faber And Faber, Inc., 2004.
by Susana Cook

Both truth and lies and reality and fiction become interwoven in I Am My Own Wife. The introduction by the author prepares us to see a piece of documentary theater: The life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. He is interested in showing to the world this very unique human being. “If her life didn’t merit two hours on a New York stage, he reasons, who would?” The play is a piece of political theater, where politics are spelled out very clearly. The characters talk politics and describe specific and real historical moments.
The author makes a crucial decision in the script: one person will play all the characters. This is a one woman show-- or a one man show--or a one transvestite show. This decision is significant at so many levels. All the genders, personalities and stories live inside this character. The versatility of Charlotte as a transvestite, and as a person who had compromised her ideals to work as an informant for the Stasi regime in order to survive, makes her the charming and adorable character that people get to hate and love again. We are used to seeing solo shows, where the actor changes wigs, voices and characters. But the characters in this play are not doing monologues, they interact fluently, building a very alive and multilayered story.
Charlotte owns a lot of objects that have witnessed important parts of history and she is part of that history. Her museum is almost like another character during the play—the only objects in the set. The symbiosis of Charlotte with the objects and the history they represent becomes evident during the play. “ She doesn’t run a museum, she is one! (36) Says Dough. Charlotte has an amazing monologue where she describes herself as becoming the objects that were left behind by the people who were killed or kicked out by the Nazi and the Communists regimes: “When families died, I became this furniture. When the Jews were deported in the Second World War, I became it. When citizens were burned out of their homes by the Communists, I became it. After the coming of the wall, when the old mansion houses were destroyed to create the people’s architecture, I became it.” (18).
The character of Dough, the playwright, becomes as important as the character of Charlotte. He needs Charlotte to be a hero for gay and transgender people. The playwright is doing research, interviewing Charlotte, trying to build the story of this incredibly symbolic character. During his search and during the play the heroine falls apart, becomes a liar and a fraud. Then Charlotte rises up again, in all her complex dimension and duplicity.
The play looks at the history of Germany and WWII through the life of a transvestite. “Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, had lived openly as a cross-dresser under the twentieth century’s two most conformist regimes—the Nazis and the Communists—for almost her entire life.” (X) Describes the author in Portrait of an Enigma.
The character of Charlotte is very important, and the need of the playwright, a gay man in search of a hero for his mistreated community, is very important too. Both stories interact during the play, and both stories are relevant. Dough is ready to forgive and understand Charlotte, but he is not ready to make her a fictional hero. He needs her to be real, a historical figure that will become a hero for all transgender and gay people. She is the character of a play, but it’s very clear that we are listening to the story of her life in real East Germany during WWII, the third Reich, the Communist regime, the coming and the fall of the wall. “I grew up in the Bible Belt; says Dough to Charlotte; I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like during the Thrid Reich. The Nazis, and hen the Communists? It seems to me you’re an impossibility. You shouldn’t even exist.” (19).
The author wants to tell a story of survival—creating an icon of transgender visibility and pride. However, the story becomes an enigmatic biography. Many questions remain unanswered. We’ll never know the real story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. In a way—and probably against the author’s intentions-- she becomes a fictional character, interacting with an author that is trying to make her real, and is convinced that she can serve a great purpose: to be a hero for the gay and transgender community, who are thirsty for heroes who challenged the system and prevailed.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley

Shanley, John Patrick. Doubt, a parable. New York: Theater Communications Group, 2005.
by Susana Cook.

“Life happens when the tectonic power of your speechless soul breaks through the dead habits of the mind. Doubt is nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the present”. (viii) In the preface, the author prepares us for his statement about doubt. We “may come out of the play uncertain”, he says. He is asking us to look down on that feeling, and then the play starts. Father Flynn talks about doubt in his first sermon, as Dough Wright does in the preface. Right away we associate the priest with the author-- they think the same way. Sister Aloysius on the other hand appears as a very unkind, uptight, almost malicious person-- enamored with rigid discipline. She hates ballpoint pens, art and music classes, and history. She shows no compassion-- she is mean when she talks about a piano teacher who has a goiter. We know right away that we are not supposed to like her-- she is obnoxious. She is the person who will try to unveil the truth—whether or not Father Flynn had sexually abused Donald Muller, a new boy in the class. Sister James is a younger, kinder teacher who appears as the opposite of Sister Aloysius, and she is the first one to notice that the boy came back disturbed and smelling of alcohol after a meeting with Father Flynn.
What Wright might be proposing is that we should question the moral certainty that condemns man-boy love. The arguments given by NAMBLA (North American Man Boy Love Association), to justify their actions are similar to some of Father Flynn’s statements: “There’s nothing wrong with love.” (41). In the context of this play, and especially at this particular moment, this statement carries a very strong message.
Sister Aloysius invites Mrs. Muller, the boy’s mother, to talk to her about her suspicion that Father Flynn might be taking advantage of her son. This is the part that I found most surprising and disturbing. The mother seems to be okay with the idea of the boy having an intimate relationship with the priest as long as he graduates from the school. She insinuates that the boy is gay—and that seems to justify the abuse from the priest. “It might be a good thing for him.” “And he’s got your son.” Says Sister Aloysius to her. “Let him have’im then,” responds Mrs. Muller. She then adds: “Maybe some of them boys want to get caught. Maybe what you don’t know maybe is my son is…that way.” (48). It seems as if the mother is justifying rape or child abuse if the kid is gay. The friendship he has with the priest seems to be good--the “only thing he had”. He is the only black boy in the school and he is gay.
The play ends with Sister Aloysius doubting. Father Flynn resigns and he receives a promotion. He is now the pastor in a different school and “Donald Muller is heartbroken that he is gone” (57). Sister Aloysius doubts at the end of the play don’t make sense to me. She suddenly appears vulnerable, weak, and emotional. She is opening her heart to Sister James. She doesn’t doubt that Father Flynn abused the boy—she says herself “his resignation was his confession. He was what I thought he was”. Sister Aloysius tells Sister James. So what are her doubts about then? The last scene of the play implies that Sister Aloysius was transformed by this experience and she becomes more “human”. So now she has doubts—even though she condemns doubts at the beginning of the play.
What is she doubting? Her faith? The church hierarchy? Her life? I believe that the play implies that now she doubts that maybe it was a good thing for the boy his relationship with Father Flynn after all.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Saved, by Edward Bond

Bond, Edward. Saved. Plays: One. London: The Master Playwrights, 1977
by Susana Cook

I don’t think it’s possible to “like” Edward Bond’s play Saved. Critics discuss its meanings, make interpretations, find intentions, and award value to the play as a classic. But it’s certainly not a play to enjoy. The images displayed onstage are harsh and disgusting. Some critics see Bond as a successor of Brecht and see his plays as a political tool that sends a message of hope through the horrific scenes. The intention of the author is not to entertain us; he seems to have a mission, and his writing is a commentary about the state of world, the consequences of capitalism, and the brutality of poverty. Bond’s intentions are change and protest. Rejected by most critics in the 1960s, the play is considered, after many years, a classic of British literature. I am interested in seeing why the super-violent images depicted onstage seem to have taken a life of their own and created an impact and fascination in so many people’s minds and a revolution in British theater.
“Saved represents the London underclass of the 1960s,” we read in every glossary and review of the time. Saved is not the story of a random group of people--it claims to be a naturalistic representation of a whole social group: the poor working class. It seems as if by going to see this play, the audience will learn something they don’t know about the “underclass,” that something new will be revealed to them, that they will confront a reality hidden to their eyes (unless, of course, they were part of the social group represented onstage. But in that case they probably wouldn’t be at the theater.) The implied assumption that members of the actual underclass would not be among the audience members, or reading the reviews, and the subtle message that “they are worse than you think,” makes me wonder what is accomplished with this kind of naturalistic representation.
“Violence has always been a tool for Edward Bond through which he criticizes society,” says one of his reviewers. I think that the problematic aspect of this play is that it takes on the task of representing a particular social group as uniform, homogenous, and with a consistent behavior by all the characters throughout the play, with the only exception of Len, who is the one who will be “saved,” apparently. The dehumanization of the underclass presented in Saved makes the characters brutal, amoral, and worse than you could possibly imagine. “Violence shapes and obsesses our society,” says Bond, “It would be immoral not to write about violence.’’ But he is not writing about violence in the play, he is writing and staging violent acts, representations of violence, by people who seem to have lost any trace of humanity, love, and compassion.
In scene 3, Pete, one of the youngsters in the play who had killed another boy with his van, is dressed up to attend the dead boy’s funeral while joking about it. His friends admire him for killing the boy and for getting away with it. Later, in Pam’s living room, we hear a baby crying until she chokes, and nobody pays attention to her. The most famous scene of the play is when the gangsters kill a baby in the park by stoning her to death in her carriage.
I wonder where are we placed as the audience of these excruciating scenes, and what is our role, if any. We are not supposed to be having an enriching or pleasant experience; apparently we are supposed to be learning a moral lesson. The characters seem to be a reflection of a violent, brutal society. They are also the victims of a political system that the author intends to criticize. But the portrayal of the characters is so brutal and pitiless, that as audience we are left with no compassion for the victims of a society he tries to expose and condemn. Rather than identification, we feel disgust and repulsion for their behavior, and we can’t see any kind of perspective in terms of how the system made them into the monsters they are, or how they could be saved from their misery. They seem to be hopelessly lost cases. The play is “irresponsibly optimistic,” says Bond. He sees hope in Len.