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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Djuna Barnes remembers what it was like to be young and uncomfortable in the theater

In a recent Guardian blog post David Jays reminds us that “autobiographical writing about theatre is typically a blend of myth and memory.” As testimony he cites the Djuna Barnes memoir included in The American Stage about her days with the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village during the first decades of the twentieth century.

An amateur group of writers and artists, the Players produced some of the first plays of Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Floyd Dell, Edna Ferber, Theodore Dreiser—and three one-acts by Barnes. Tickets were only by subscription, with new plays offered every three weeks in a converted stable. It was an experiment ripe for myth-making. As Jays writes:
A fervid modernist, Barnes’s addictive journalism always reads as if she had taken sober fact for an evening of bar-hopping. Her 1929 piece . . . is less an analysis of early Susan Glaspell or Eugene O’Neill, and more an ardent, if humorous, paean to her own youth, turning into myth as she wrote.
But let’s hear Barnes tell it:
Why, in those days we used to sit on the most uncomfortable benches imaginable in that theatre, glad to suffer partial paralysis of the upper leg, and an entire stoppage of the spinal juices, just to hear Ida Rauh come out of the wings and say “Life, bring me a fresh rose.”
We used to sit in groups and recall our earlier and divergent histories. . . So we talked, and so went our separate ways home, there to write, out of that confusion which is biography when it is wedded to fact, confession and fancy in any assembly of friend versus friend and still friends.
Then where was the catch in the blood? When and on what day, or succession of days did we, unknowingly, walk over our own dead line and into the general life of the world which, until then, had been the audience. . . . Our legend was bought and paid for by those who did not live to walk over.
Similar accounts pervade theater history. As Jays concludes, with wary delight:
The bliss of being young, questing and exquisitely miserable colours [Barnes’s] account. It’s an enduring, entrancing current in theatre writing: the detail may be suspect, but the feeling runs true.
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: The American Stage: Writing on Theatre from Washing Irving to Tony Kushner (include two pieces by Djuna Barnes); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes Barnes’s 1914 article for The New York Press “Come into the Roof Garden, Maud”)

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