SOME THOUGHTS ON THEATER AND ETHICS :–|
Discussions of theatrical ethics often revolve around questions of factual accuracy, or how people depicted in plays feel about those depictions. These conversations inevitably end in a logical muddle because we know that dramatic invention must be unfettered, so how can we censure an artist for making things up, for combing through life for the most vivid material? The answer is that issues are not matters of ethical concern to our craft, though they may indeed be breaches of one’s personal ethics, or of journalistic ethics. But the ethical concerns of our craft lie elsewhere. I propose that they are embedded in the form of theater itself.
Before I was a playwright I told anecdotal stories on stage. At some point I began to yearn to create “theater,” which I sensed was somehow different from storytelling, though I had no idea how. I spent the many years since parsing those differences in my work and my thinking and I offer the following comparison not as a denigration of storytelling, an infinitely compelling form even older than theater, but because I have found that the differences between these two reveal a great deal about theater’s essential nature.
Stories and the events they describe are not the same, though we often conflate them. The world is vast, inchoate, endlessly multivalent. A story is a handful of elements lifted out of the infinite swirl and presented as “what happened.” It is a collection of random elements grouped together and shaped into an arc of cause and effect (this led to this led to this…). It is an assertion of pattern. It’s not hard to understand why we crave these structures of order in the world. Even when they are frightening, heartbreaking, or unsettling, they give us a framework for considering the world.
A great storyteller draws us into a story with the authority of her idiosyncratic worldview. We enter the world of David Sedaris or Flannery O’Connor or J.D. Salinger or Jane Austen so that we can view world through the brilliant and particular lens of their consciousness. When we enter a story we accept the singular consciousness of the teller as the frame, as a given.
Plays, on the other hand, contain stories, but the frame is expanded to show us that a storyteller exists in a context alongside other people who have different stories, and in a world with complexities beyond the comprehension of any one of them. Great plays never, ever entrust their truth, their meaning, to their characters. Characters, of course, have worldviews, often compellingly stated and sometimes containing wisdom, but always the play knows more than they do. It is this mechanism that draws us into a play. We’re hooked by the limitation of a character’s view, not its authority. Oedipus knows his curse and he knows for absolutely certain that he has avoided it. If someone asked Oedipus, the young man, to tell the story of his life, it would be a story of how he escaped a curse. And we can see why he believes this. We see that he has actually been thoughtful and diligent in his actions. But, the play tells us, there’s more to Oedipus’s story than he can possibly know. And this is what makes it theater. The play is a play because it shows us that his ideas about the world are insufficient.
If ethics is the field that asks how we ought to live and what we owe to one another, then theater’s answer lies in its insistence that no single version of events can be counted as truth. Theater seeks not a single truth but a field of truth. It offers us a way of framing things that don’t align, of holding in our view the confusing and elusive fact that everyone else has a consciousness as complete and worthy as our own, and the ability of any one of us to consider the world is limited in exactly the same way. Not one of us can see over the next hill, into the heart of the person standing next to us, or into the future, even though each of us at some time or another is full of presumption to the contrary. This is the essence of theater. It is a map of the democracy of consciousness. It is a map of humility. It is a map that leads us to connection by way of our shared confoundedness.
It may sound as though I’m advocating some manner of theatrical constraint, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I do say that for theater to be theater it must operate according to these principals. But that’s not a prohibition. It’s an operating principal and it not allows but invites endless formal invention. I offer two examples:
When Anna Deveare Smith performs her recreations of interviews, she assiduously reproduces all the myriad nuances of the person’s presentation, coughs, stutters, interruptions and tangents. We listen raptly to the narrative – but we never forget that there is a person creating who lives inside a physical body, which is situated in an actual place, speaking at a specific moment in time. We see minds darting from place to place, sometimes confused, sometimes illogical, sometimes distracted, vain, tired, busy… By including the quotidian physical life of her speakers in her recreations shows us people seeking understanding, rather than mouthpieces for the play, offering them.
Our Town offers a dazzling example of the formal acrobatics that flow from this principle. Though Wilder labeled his lynchpin character the Narrator, the play would not endure if he were, in fact, a presenter and explainer. But what Wilder actually gave us is an extraordinary and exquisite theatrical construction, the searching voice of all human wonderment in the guise of a man.
Both my examples involve the solo voice and this is not a coincidence. Solo voices are common in contemporary theater and the formal challenges of theatricalizing them are considerable. Documentary theater often attempts bypass (or reject) the rigors of theatricalization and meld the genres of storytelling and theater, allowing the speaker to speak in the authoritative voice of the play. I understand the temptation. The topics of these pieces are always worthy and often urgent. But when a piece conflates stories about the world with theatrical representations of the world problems arise. We have an implicit understanding of the rules of engagement when listening to a storyteller (or a reporter). But the metaphorizing glow of a theater stage lifts the speaker slightly above that set of rules. And yet these pieces are also not operating as theater. In the absence of a truly contextualizing background the stories these characters tell us are offered to us as “truth,” to be credulously swallowed whole. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that ethical questions often come up around these very plays.
Theater breaches its own ethical code when it trusts the narrative of one or more of its characters to convey the ultimate meaning of the play and therefore vests an individual with higher knowledge than individuals actually have. Whatever else this principle is for, above all else it serves the art. Picture, if you will, Willy Loman’s solo show about himself and his career. No, better yet, picture two solo shows. One is the version this athletically self-justifying, fatally unreflective man would write about himself. This is a show in which a robustly jovial guy shares all the secrets of being a great salesman and tells us how those secrets can be applied to the rearing of fantastic sons. Now picture Arthur Miller’s version of this same solo show. We see Willy delivering perhaps the same monologue he would write for himself. But we know that Miller would find the theatrical devices to show us the things Willy can’t see about himself. Which show would be captivating? Which show would be more “true”?
A STRAIGHT LINE :–|
A friend of my parents called me. Her daughter, a high school senior, was thinking of going into theater. Did I have any advice? Not really, I said. If she’s meant to be in the theater she can be an econ major and she’ll still end up in the theater. If not, she can go to the Yale Drama School and by age thirty-two she’ll be doing something else.
As far as I can tell you don’t choose the theater, the theater chooses you. It’s our version of the clerical vocation. I did not do high school plays. I did not do community theater. I did not declare my drama major until the end of my junior year in college. I didn’t even see a stage play until I was 15 years old and I recall thinking it was “weird” and being more enthused by the strolling bazouki player at the Greektown restaurant where we went after the show.
Until about 7 years ago I was still planning on another career if I could just figure out what it was I really wanted to be. But finally I gave in and admitted it. I love the theater. It’s not a choice. It was something I was born with. And now I can look back and see the tendencies all along: the made up performances for family, friends and at my synagogue; my decision at age 12 to make myself the kind of girl about whom others would say, “she’s the funniest girl I ever met. ” And I remember the year after college when I was living at home and working in a luggage store to save money so I could move to New York and I got cast in a production of Cabaret at the local community college. Suddenly I felt like the world had returned to color after a summer of black and white. Because I was in a play.
It was in college that I discovered my true home. I was dazzled by life in the theater department. I had spent a long childhood consciously counting the hours to adulthood. I just knew when I went to college things would be different and so they were. In the Fine Arts Department I met artists for the first time. People devoted to unconventionality and invention. We went to our classes in the day, rehearsed all evening, then stayed up all night prowling around the Fine Arts Building. We tried on all the clothes in the costume shop. We wrote our overdue papers in the Green Room. We lay on the floor of the glass walled lobby and talked and laughed for hours. The department was made up of gay men, the women who pined after them and me. To be honest, I pined after some of those clever, clever boys too. There were no other lesbians in the theater department. There were no other lesbians anywhere in theater as far as I could tell.
In my Senior Spring the mainstage show was William Inge’s “Picnic.” During the preceding three and a half years I had honed my talents playing an array of bit parts as old women, neighbor ladies and the occasional animal. I had been told by the head of the theater department that he couldn’t use me in bigger roles because, in his indelible words, “you just don’t convey any sexuality on stage.” I was told I was a character actress which I later decided was really a code word for “lesbian.” I was told there would probably be no work for me in the theater until I was 40 at which time I might be suitable for mother roles. I was told in order to be employable I needed to either lose 30 pounds or gain 100. Needless to day “Picnic” looked like my big chance. The lead role was Rosemary, an old maid. Finally a lead for a lesbian! But the part went to a skinny, straight sophomore and I played Mrs. Potts, the elderly neighbor. I had no actual scenes, just crosses where I would utter quick but pivotal phrases like, “I baked a Lady Baltimore cake!” At the end of the play when all the women sit in the yard, devastated because the young man who had wandered into town and given them reason to live had wandered off again I had my big speech:
He walked through the door and suddenly everything was different. He clomped through the tiny rooms like he was still in the great outdoors, he talked in a booming voice that shook the ceiling. Everything he did reminded me there was a man and the house, and it seemed good.... And that reminded me... I’m a woman, and that seemed good, too.
It occurred to me that spring that this speech summed up everything I might ever be given to do in the theater. It had been made clear to me that I would never be adequate to play a wife or a girlfriend. I could play neighbor ladies, and eventually mothers. My job would be to reflect upon the actions and importance of the male characters. I would never play a character who grapples with work or love or friendship or politics or religion or sex or power. Theater seemed so compelling to me, so powerful and that spring it was clear to me that that power to affect, to transform was in someone else’s hands and the best I could ever hope for was to catch a ride on someone else’s view of the world.
I moved to New York had moderate success in productions such as “Trees,” a musical about a bunch of trees who wanted to become Christmas trees and conveyed this yearning through songs like Diddidly Doop De Doo Kind of Christmas and Ach du Kleiner Christmas and the Light Opera of Manhattan’s heartwarming seasonal favorite, “Babes In Toyland” in which I played a doll, and a lollipop. Then in 1985 I saw the Split Britches Company perform their play “Split Britches” and everything changed. I couldn’t imagine how such a thing had been created. It seemed like it must have sprung fully formed from their heads -- it was so beautiful and complete and so utterly unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was strange yet totally familiar. Funny and heartbreaking and so sexy. It was non linear - that blew my Midwestern MIND. And - they made it themselves. To me this was a revelation. It turned out in order to perform you did not have to psych out the mind of a casting director so he would think you were the suited to play Tree Number Four. It turned out you could make your own show.
Through Split Britches I found my way to the WOW Café. My work at WOW challenged every rule I had learned about theater including the part about learning your lines before you went on stage. The work there was a beautiful mess -- largely created by women who had never set foot in a theater class so they had no concept of how things were supposed to be done. It was free from political or aesthetic agendas and fueled by the wild excitement of an audience who had never seen themselves reflected. Shows in which you could fall in love with the characters and the actors and not have to think, “what if she was a lesbian?” They were all lesbians. At WOW even the women who weren’t lesbians were lesbians. Shows were put up in a months or sometimes a few days with sets and costumes made literally out of trash from the streets. They were full of magic. I remember late one night sitting in the first WOW space, a tiny storefront on East 11th Street, in the hush of a New York blizzard and watching out the window as a woman danced for us in the snow under a streetlight. Never rehearsed. Never done before. Never repeated.
I learned to be a lesbian at WOW. Through our plays and variety nights and rent parties and fashion shows and retreats and staff meetings full of lesbian “process” and lots of lesbian drama, we made a place in the world where it was taken for granted that girls like other girls and we could drop the explanations and justifications and become fully human.
I justified leaving behind my ambitions for a conventional acting career by telling myself that by doing my own work I could move back into the mainstream on my own terms but I was just rationalizing. I never thought that would really happen. Friends of mine took seminars which told you exactly how to make a career in the theater. You read Backstage every week, went to all the auditions you could and sent out regular mailings of postcards with a montage of photos in which you alternately looked excited, studious, working class and sexy. I did buy Backstage most weeks but I never went on auditions. All I did was go to my various temp jobs and hang out at WOW.
When I did my first solo shows there, a friend of mine, an older woman who was a theater reviewer gave me names of a handful of women producers to invite. They produced on Broadway and Off-Broadway and some of them were lesbians. They’re not interested in this work, I told her. People from uptown, they don’t understand what we’re doing down here and their not interested. She said, “You’re scared.” I told her she didn’t know what she was talking about but some years later I realized she was right. I was afraid of rejection because I had been rejected. I came from a world that implied and sometimes told me directly that I was not feminine, not sexual, not attractive, not funny and not interesting since male experience is universal and female experience is not only trivial but generally whiny and that goes double for lesbians.
I began to perform all throughout the East Village in the many, many performance spaces that existed in the mid-80's. A small group of us from WOW seemed to share an artistic affinity and were interested in making a show that could tour and so began The Five Lesbian Brothers. We began to acknowledge our ambition – something we had not thought about before. We told ourselves we were just having fun. Just doing it for ourselves. We said broader success was not available to lesbians. In some ways that was true. There was and still is a prevailing assumption that lesbian work will be didactic, boring, self-righteous. The Five Lesbian Brothers have often quipped that we’re going to call our next play, “Big Heavy Handed Message from Five Angry Lesbians who are too Ugly to Get Men – An Evening of Song.” But certain doors were opening to us. We were in the right place at the right time and my solo work and the work of the Brothers began to reach a professional level at the very moment when some mainstream theaters were opening their doors to lesbian work. We learned then that part of the responsibility for bringing lesbian work to a larger audience lay with us. We would have to learn to open ourselves to these opportunities and set aside the fear that if we dared to reach for more we would be once again dismissed as being incapable of conveying anything of worth or interest to those that count.
My solo work and the work of the Brothers received professional recognition beyond what had been available to lesbians who came even a few years before us. Still, I could write a long and bitter book full of offers we would have had if we were not lesbians. But mostly I feel grateful. The sit coms and movie deals we never got definitely would have made us a lot richer, but an easier life isn’t necessarily more interesting. Because no one else cared about what some crazy dykes on East 4th Street were doing every night we made work that was unselfconscious and vibrant. We got to make theater that felt like it mattered.
I love working in the theater. I love it. I love it. I love it. Sometimes when I’m on stage I feel seized by the joy of it. Sometimes, when I’m working on a piece and things are going horribly I still feel grateful that I get to be miserable in a rehearsal room rather than at a temp job. It took me a long time to admit to myself that I cared about the theater. After my years perusing the NYU Continuing Education Catalogue trying to find my true career it turns out I’d already found it. I am what I really want to be – a lesbian writer and performer. For such a long time I felt I was wandering aimlessly through my life until I finally realized I’d been moving with great deliberation in a straight line toward a goal I hadn’t known existed until I got there. What luck.
RYAN, THE YESHIVA BUCHER :–D
When asked to write an essay for Heeb’s back page about my background as a Midwestern Jew, I leapt upon the opportunity to acquaint a larger audience with the work of the great chronicler of Midwestern Jewish Life, Lars Israel Peretz Larson . If this name is unfamiliar to you it is because, in the master’s efforts to make his work truly reflective of his experience as a Midwestern Jew. he always had his work translated into Hebrew which he, like his readership, could sound out but not actually comprehend. This rendered his work quite obscure until it was recently translated back into English by someone trying to get their doctorate. Larson’s work provides a window into a little-considered but surprisingly vibrant pocket of Jewish life -- that is the Jews of Michigan, or, as the region is sometimes known, the “Mitten of Settlement.” Many of his stories are set in the Michigan village of “Lansing” which he describes as follows in his story, “The Zaddik and the County Commissioner.”
To say there were few Jews in this corner of the world is not precisely true for, while it cannot be argued there was any comparison with the great Jewish centers of Bloomfield Hills, Royal Oak or Skokie, Lansing was home to a small but lively community. The precise number of families no one could say for sure because at first glance in dress and manner the Jews of Lansing appeared to blend in with their gentile neighbors. The men ritually covered their heads only while at prayers, the married women did not hide their hair and in fact, often had the same bad perms as the non-Jewish women of that region.
Larson himself was not from Lansing, but from a much smaller Jewish community, actually – Battle Creek. But his father, Mordechai Larson, was a distributor of beverages and young Lars traveled with his father on many occasions and so had great firsthand familiarity with many towns in the region. [[MORE]]In stories such as “The Gaon of Luddington” he lifts the veil of time and reveals for us the rhythms of Jewish life as it existed in the Midwest in the late 1990's with descriptions such as this:
The Luddington shul was rife with the usual squabbles. For instance, Zalman, the town periodontist, thought that the greatest portion of the congregation’s wealth should be allocated to the hiring of a permanent rabbi, while Shmuel, the town dealer in pre-owned Hondas, would slam down his fist in board meetings and raise his voice, threatening to quit if the greatest portion did not go to the building fund. Every autumn a heated disagreement would break out between Yonkel, the town psychologist and Mendel, the other town psychologist, as the time neared for the festival of Succot. Each year Yonkel insisted the community Succah should be framed with aluminum while Mendel would declare Yonkel, “an idiot not worthy of his place on the ritual committee” because Yonkel would not accede to Mendel’s belief in the superiority of PVC.
Arguably, the greatest of Larson’s stories is “Ryan the Yeshiva Bucher” which is set in the classroom of a Lansing Hebrew school, described by Larson as follows:
The young Jews of Lansing were given instruction in three areas: Hebrew, sometimes taught by people who actually spoke the holy tongue; Synagogue skills, in which the
children were instructed in the ancient traditions - when to sway and bow, stand and sit, and mumble convincingly as if they actually knew any of the prayers. And, of course, the youngsters were tutored in the great history of their people. That course was entitled: “How Your Ancestors Suffered And What Makes You Really Think It’s Going To Be Any Better For You?” for which they utilized the renowned text: “Seven Hundred Really Bad Things That Have Happened To Jews In History - An Introduction For Young People.”
The story centers on the somewhat buffoonish character of “Ryan Goldfarb.”
[Ryan] was widely thought to be a doltish boy who had never properly learned his aleph bet. His classmates sneered at him behind his back and wagered about whether his studies would continue long enough for him to accomplish his bar mitzvah, speculating derisively that even if he managed it he would not actually read from the holy scroll but memorize his portion off a cassette tape. When he missed one Sunday morning no one paid much mind. When he was again absent the following Wednesday afternoon it again passed unremarked. After a few weeks there was some speculation that his father was on Sabbatical but no one knew for sure and soon Ryan Goldfarb was forgotten altogether.
When Ryan suddenly reappears he shatters the calm of this insular world with the tale of what he has seen on his travels.
[Ryan’s] voice held an uncharacteristic sobriety that hinted at the weight of what he was about to impart... “I have been with my parents and my sister, Courtney Shoshana, to a place called New York City. There I have seen such wonders as you will never believe. We made the journey by car. Many roads were traveled and many tolls were paid. For two arduous days we traveled but we have a new Honda Odyssey and my sister and I watched many videos which greatly eased our agitation. Finally we arrived. In the land of which I speak, New York City, there is a region called the Upper West Side. What I saw there made me doubt my very senses. Thousands of souls reside there. And everyone is a Jew.
At this his classmates broke from their circle of rapt attention. They scoffed and knocked him about on the head, for his doltishness was well known. “Everyone?” they sneered. “Ha! Impossible!”
“No. Listen to me,” implored Ryan Goldfarb. “I have seen it with my own eyes. It is a
land of so many Jews that in every store Kosher food is sold.”
“Kosher food in every store! No wonder even the most ignorant gentile refers to you as an oafish dolt. Everyone knows you must drive two hours to suburbs of Detroit for the purchase of Kosher food.”
Ryan Goldfarb persisted. A fire burned in his eyes. “I swear it. If every word I utter is
not the truth may I be struck by a computer virus that will eradicate my entire hard drive.” A small voice piped up from the back of the crowd. “Perhaps he means hot dogs.” It was Steven Weinshank, a sickly, pale boy with a gentle soul who always sought an end to squabbling. “Even here you can buy packages of Kosher franks at the ShopRite next to the Barnes and Noble, where the scholars gather.”
“No, no. Not just hot dogs,” said Ryan. “Empire chickens, both whole and in parts.”
At this Elana Axelrod rent her Britney Spears t-shirt and began to weep. Josh Steinborn removed his walkman and eyed his returning classmate with skepticism.
“All Jews, you say. I don’t believe it. How many in the Hebrew Schools? In our grade? On a Wednesday afternoon such as this? How many would there be?”
“In the Hebrew schools!” Ryan Goldfarb exclaimed, “Not just the Hebrew schools! The public schools are full of Jews. Why, I have heard it told that the schools are closed for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.”
The children began rocking back and forth, wailing, “Lies! He is possessed!” they cried. “What sort of demon has overtaken him?!”
“That’s not all,” the boy persisted, “Alternate Side Parking is suspended.”
The weeping grew louder. “What is this Alternate Side Parking?” they cried.
“I do not know. But I have seen it written that it is suspended – even on Succot!”
At this Cheryl Rabinowitz swooned and fell to the floor a dead faint.
So incomprehensible was his story that the children fell about in a frenzy. They wept and pinched themselves. They wailed that surely Ryan Goldfarb had been possessed by a dybbuk for what sane person could imagine such things? Only a demon could put such visions into the head of a young boy. But Ryan swore to them - “If all I’m telling you is not true, may my grandparents never give me that Nintendo Game Cube!”
At this, Josh Steinborn pushed back his stackable molded plastic chair and approached Ryan Goldfarb. So extreme was his anger that the wispy hairs which had recently sprouted on his upper lip trembled with rage. He stood before Ryan and demanded, “What is your friggin’ problem, dude? A town where everyone is a Jew? I seriously doubt it.”
Larson’s powerful story comes to a narrative and spiritual climax with the children’s visit to the part-time town rabbi, Menachem “Phil” Wasserman, who had problems of his own:
A dry chuckle emerged from the rabbi, carrying a hint of the bitterness which sometimes came upon him and caused a sour taste to rise in his mouth when he thought of Chana Berkowitz, his fellow student at rabbinical school. How often he had wrestled with his resentment of Chana for securing a top position at a gay synagogue on the North Fork of Long Island! The question that had so often tormented him rose up unbidden in his soul, “Why, Lord, could you not have made me a lesbian?”
Though so much more remains to be said about Larson and his work, my space ends here. It is my fervent hope, however, that the platform provided by this fine magazine will spark the wildfire of popular and scholarly attention so deserved by this Jewish genius of the heartland.
THE LOST DIARIES OF QUEEN ESTHER :–D
The following rare documents were only recently rediscovered. These are journal entries from the actual diaries of Queen Esther. They have only recently been made available by biblical scholars so if you haven’t heard about them that’s possibly why. They were unearthed about two and a half years ago in a storage locker in Babylon (Long Island), which seems a little odd, I know, but once you hear them I think you will see their authenticity is pretty undeniable. And, of course, the scholars agree on this point. The following entries cover roughly the same time period covered in the biblical Book of Esther.
This first entry seems to have been written in the Royal Harem. Well, anyway, it’s written on Royal Harem stationery. It’s dated September, 478 BCE (which is kind of interesting that they used BCE at that time but, whatever).
I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve never kept a diary before now but so much is happening so quickly I thought I should write it all down. Okay, I guess I’ll just start at the beginning. Well, last Tuesday, Uncle Morty was reading the bulletin board in front of the granary while he waited for our millet to be pulverized and he saw a flyer about a beauty contest and, boom! Here I am. Preparing to begin my training to compete against the most gorgeous and talented girls in all over the whole kingdom for the title of queen! I can’t believe it.
Just one week ago I was just another sophomore at Shushan High with nothing more important to think about than whether to take an elective in sandal making and now here I am. It’s so trippy! I’m still trying to get my bearings. When Uncle Morty dropped me off he told me not to tell anyone here I’m a Jew, which seems a little weird but I totally trust him. I mean, Uncle Morty’s been just like a father to me ever since that horrible night when I lost Mommy and Daddy in the accident. I’ve prayed every day since that someday there will be laws against driving oxen while intoxicated! Maybe that’s something I can work on if I become queen! Okay, stop. Don’t even go there. It will never happen so just put it out of your mind. I mean, could you imagine? “Queen Esther.” Yeah, right. That sounds normal.
The next entry was apparently made on or around Esther’s fourth day in the harem:
Time is really flying! I had no idea there’d be so much to do! I need to have gowns made for Parade of Provinces and Royal Banquet plus a modest but pleasing swimsuit for “Fitness at the Roman Baths”. Most important, I need to prepare for the interview portion. I still can’t decide on my platform. Should I go for Plague Education or just stay more traditional and stick with Leprosy Awareness? One good thing is that I do feel good about my talent. After all, it’s not every girl who can weave and tap dance at the same time. Oh! I shouldn’t even dream that I might actually be win the title of Queen but if I could just get one of the scholarships to U. of Persia it would be incredible. In any case, the allotment of an ephah and half of grain given to all the contestants’ families is reason enough for me to be here. I need to keep that in mind, not get my hopes up, and just do my best. But, gosh, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed!
Apparently from sometime in the second week:
The training program here in the harem is rigorous. It calls for six months of work with oil and myrrh followed by another six months with perfumes and cosmetics. Before I got here I would have told you perfumes or cosmetics couldn’t be interesting for 6 hours! But I guess that’s why I’m not a eunuch. Those guys are incredible! There is this one eunuch, named Kevin, who is a wizard with makeup and he can make himself look just like Cleopatra and Nefertiti. Oh my god! And there’s this other guy, well, you know, eunuch, named Matt, who dresses and acts just like Delilah. They are fantastic. Every Friday night do a late show in the harem. It’s a scream. There’s something about eunuchs. I don’t know how to describe it. They’re just so creative!
Dating from the second month:
I am so freaked out right now! Ron, the eunuch in charge of talent told me today he thinks my act is all wrong! He said, “Listen, Missy, if you don’t play the lyre you don’t have a chance in hell.” Just like that! I went right to Matt and I was like, “Matt, I’m so totally freaked out right now. Ron wants me to switch to a whole new talent” and Matt just laughed that high-pitched laugh of his and patted me on the ass and said, “Honey, you got all the talent you need for this contest.” I’m so confused. I really want that scholarship.
From the second or third month:
I think I’m starting not to have such a good time here. Everyone seemed so nice at first but now I see they’re totally great to your face and then they just talk behind your back. And the one they rag on the most is Vashti. I don’t think anyone here has ever laid eyes on her but they love to talk about her. Like, they say, “I heard Vashti is a total bitch.” Or, “Everyone knows Vashti had a boob job.” Or “Did you know before Vashti was queen she was a waitress at that greasy kebab house on North Jericho?” It could all be true, I don’t know. I mean, there must be some reason the king wants to replace her. Right?
Somewhere around the sixth month:
Ugh! I am so bored in this f-ing harem! (Pardon my Babylonian). But seriously! There is nothing to do here! And I’m so sick of hearing about beauty products! It’s all we talk about. I mean, come on. Either you’re wearing cosmetics or you’re not. You know? Either you smell like myrrh or you don’t. And let’s face it. I’m the prettiest one here anyway. All the eunuchs say so. When I first got here I was like, there is no way I’m winning this contest because all these women are so beautiful – like I had never seen women so gorgeous. Around the camel park where Uncle Morty and I were living before I came here and he started hanging out at the town gate, the women were, you know, all dragged out from having babies and hauling water and trying to keep the mud hut from turning into a Sukkah. I think sometimes about somebody like Loretta, the goat tenderess. If someone would have offered her a six months supply of myrrh and she would have been like, “What in the name of joseph’s coat dost thou think I’m going to do with this crap?”
When I first got here six months ago I was blown away. I was, like, these women are a whole different species, so beautiful with their smooth hands and rouged lips and eyes all outlined with khol. But, you know, it’s just different once you get to know people. Like, for instance, take Rhonda the Geshurite. Okay, when I got here I thought she was the most gorgeous woman I had ever met. Now I see that she’s actually kind of homely but she totally knows how to accessorize with, you know, splendid ornaments of gold and silver and like that. And that Jackie from East Dabbesheth. What a body. Wow. She really fills out her robes of finest brocade, if you know what I mean, but personality-wise she’s about as interesting as a sack of chaff.
I just see things so much more clearly now. Kevin and Matt have really helped me to refine my sense of beauty. Like, I was always taught it’s virtuousness that makes you beautiful, you know like it’s all about like chastity, honoring thy father and mother… blah, blah, blah. But now I see: It’s all about perfect skin. And no amount of cosmetics is going to give you that. And you know what? I’ve got it. I also have totally silky hair. The silkiest of anyone here except for Tiffany, daughter of Kish, but she’s got a walleye which cancels it out. Best legs, me. Best tits, me. Best ass, so totally me it’s not even funny.
I think I might actually win this thing.
Probably a few weeks later:
I saw Uncle Morty today. He yelled at me for “haughtiness”. I was like, “Oh, right, I’m so sure. You made me come here and you’re not even my real dad.” I’m just so angry at him. I really am. He told me today he’s gotten himself into big trouble with Haman, that guy from, oh, I don’t know, he’s an Amelekite or something. Anyway, Uncle Morty wouldn’t bow down to him on religious principles. And I was like, you have got to be kidding. Why is it okay for you to have religious principles but I’ve got to hang out here in the harem acting like a shiksa. Do you think it’s easy to keep kosher in a harem? The lactose intolerance line works for some things but eventually you’re just going to have to smile and eat a pork chop.
I’m being unfair to my uncle, I know that I am. It’s just that the contest is in three weeks and everyone’s a little bit on edge. The pressure is starting to take its toll. Becky of Gedar has been compulsively pulling at her hair and now she’s got a funky little bald spot right above her left hear. And that girl Britney throws up after every meal which I think is totally abnormal but she said that’s what all the girls do back in her hometown in Northern Bulimia.
The last day of the second six month preparation period:
Dear Diary, Tomorrow’s the big day. Can’t sleep a wink. Oh Diary, wish me luck!
The next morning:
Hel-lo! There’s no beauty contest. No talent portion, no panel of judges. Just me, the King and a bottle of Mateus. What a shocker. I should have suspected something was up. God, could I have been any stupider? I mean, we haven’t rehearsed in three weeks! I should be so furious at those eunuchs. But, you know, ultimately I guess I’m just grateful I had that much time hanging out with those bitches and watching their fancy shows because what I really learned was acting and boy, did that come in handy last night. As far as the King knows there is nothing that gets me going like a hairy back.
Anyway, I won.
Two weeks later.
Sorry I haven’t written in so long. I’ve fallen into total lethargy here. I thought it was boring in the harem but here there’s nothing to do but feast and sleep, feast and sleep.
One really neat thing happened yesterday, though. I met Vashti. I thought she’d be in exile or something but, no, she’s still here. And, you know what? She is so great! I couldn’t believe it and I felt so bad for all the terrible things we said about her when we didn’t know her at all! What were we thinking? I mean all that stuff about how she screwed her way to the top. Well, duh. I mean, how else are you gonna get to be queen around here. She and I had a really good laugh about it.
A few weeks later
Okay, I have just gone from zero to sixty in about two seconds. Uncle Morty was just here and he told me that that guy, Haman, the one he wouldn’t bow down to, is so pissed at him for not bowing that he’s gotten the King to issue an edict to kill all the Jews. Unbelievable. Steve warned me about him, actually. He said, “Tell your Uncle to watch his back around that Haman because he’s a bitter little man with a tiny little you know what.” Odd as it may seem, this is a total insult coming from a eunuch. When Uncle Morty told me I was like, “What are we going to do?” And he was like, “The question is what are you going to do?” And I was like, “What do you mean me?” And he was like, “You’re the Queen.” And I was like, “Yeah, and… That’ll buy me a roasted squab and a bus ticket to Samaria. So what?” And he was like, “You have to go before the King and ask for mercy for our people.” And I was like, “If I go to the King without being summoned he could have my friggin’ head cut off.” And Uncle Morty was like, “Hello, wake up, you’re a Jew. Your friggin’ head’s going to be cut off anyway.” And I was like, “Dammit, you’re right.” So, long story short, I’m on my way to see the king.
Two weeks later.
So much has happened since I last wrote. SO MUCH. Even if I tried to write down all the details I don’t know if I could remember them all so here are the high points: Let’s see, where to begin… Haman is dead. He got hung on a gallows he had built for Uncle Morty, which is particularly gratifying. I’m not dead. That’s the other good news. Believe me, when I went to see the king I was shaking like a leaf. Luckily I found favor in his eyes. I put on an extra splash of Myrrh and Vashti’s advice to enter his chamber right as he finished watching Wheel of Fortune didn’t hurt either. I begged for the lives of my people and the King said that while he couldn’t reverse the edict he would send out another edict allowing us Jews to defend ourselves. Now, of course, I’m like, “That’s the best you can do? You’re the king.” But in the moment I was so glad not to be decapitated I was like, “Yeah, great, that’ll be fine.” Anyway, it all worked out really well and our people prevailed here in Shushan and in all the Provinces. And, finally, Uncle Morty has been elevated to a high position at court which is fantastic for so many reasons, not the least of which is he finally has decent health insurance.
What a crazy year this has been. Kevin, Matt and Ron have really been pressing me to do a show about it. Needless to say, Ron wants to direct and Kevin, of course, is dying to play Vashti. But, I don’t know. Sometimes I think they’re right and it is a great story: you know, where I came from, what I’ve become. But other times I think, why get into it? I mean, at the end of the day who really cares? It’s just a big, long megillah.