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Drama Brings Odets and Churchill Under One Roof

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November 4, 1937. New York City. A time of fear and simmering hope, the air is filled with whispers of “War!” The Group Theater is thriving as the one of the best acting ensembles of its time. One of its members, a quiet and moody Clifford Odets, has written a new play, Golden Boy, and tonight it will be presented in its premiere. Now jump forward in time—flashing past World War II, the civil rights movement, and man’s first steps on the moon. It is August 1982, England. Margaret Thatcher is prime minister and England is in the midst of the second-wave feminism movement. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is presented for the first time at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Jump forward again, to October  2010, onto the third floor of The Juilliard School. The years 1937 and 1982 will merge in one room as the Drama Division’s third-year class performs Golden Boy, directed by Daniel Goldstein, and Top Girls, directed by Janet Zarish, in the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Drama Studio.

Third-year drama students will perform Top Girls, directed by Janet Zarish.

(Photo by Kristine Walsh)

Third-year drama students will perform Golden Boy, directed by Daniel Goldstein.

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Aside from sharing the stage, it seems on first glance that the only way to connect these plays is to travel through time, which is, of course, impossible to do in real life, but much easier to do on paper. On the surface, the plays couldn’t be more different from one another. Not only because of the gap in between the decades in which they premiered, but because of the themes and issues surrounding both works. When asked in a recent interview if he could describe Golden Boy in one word, Goldstein said, “It’s got to be about the fight.” When Zarish was asked the same question about Top Girls, she couldn’t have come up with a more contrasting answer: “Compassion.” 

The first play, Golden Boy, set in 1936, tells the story of Joe Bonaparte, a young, gifted boy from Brooklyn with a quick temper. Born to a family of Italian immigrants, Joe faces poverty and ridicule throughout his life. Although he has a deep passion and talent for the violin, he turns to boxing as his way of finding his place in the world. He becomes surprisingly good at boxing, yet struggles to find support from his father in his career in the ring. The play reveals a series of battles—inside and outside of the ring. According to Goldstein, Golden Boy is about “the battle that one faces with [oneself]; about art versus commerce; about responsibility versus desire; about need versus want.” And once the battles are laid out on the table, there only leaves room for a messy, thrilling, emotional throw down.

Odets’s unique use of language in Golden Boy brings the conflicts of his characters to life. “There’s a lot of metaphor to the language, and so much desire from these characters, that it’s sort of thrilling to watch them butt heads against each other,” Goldstein said. Although Golden Boy did not hit the scene as fervently as Odets’s first two plays, Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing!, it stands as one of his finest works, as it redefines his skillful use of language and structure while introducing a very personal story to his repertoire. Goldstein showed a great deal of enthusiasm for this gem, noting: “I was particularly thrilled about it … I love the language of it and the heightened sensibility of the language that [Odets] has, and the sort of extra humanness of these characters.” He added: “Everyone exists on a heightened level.”

The second play, Top Girls, follows the story of Marlene, an Englishwoman striving to establish herself in a male dominated society. Having been raised in a small town in the country, she has just been promoted to managing director at Top Girls Employment Agency in London. As she gains authority in the workplace, she discovers how much she sacrificed on her journey to get to the top. Churchill writes about “the ever-changing role of women in the world and what they have to sacrifice to forge a path toward equality,” Zarish said. Churchill’s work was a very large part of the second-wave feminism movement. She reveals the dichotomies of feminism in the 1980s, exploring the idea that feminism turned itself on its head, causing women to suppress themselves in order to take on the roles of men.

Churchill was an advocate of reforming feminism and successfully changed the way people viewed feminism by changing the way people saw plays. She was able to completely reinvent dramatic form by boldly breaking the walls of convention. Some of this can be recognized in the very first scene of Top Girls. Here, Churchill toys with the idea of time, as Marlene eats dinner with various female historical figures of the past. She also plays with the text. Like Odets, she used language in an innovative way.

“Caryl Churchill has such a beautiful symphonic way of writing,” Zarish said. “She was really the one that birthed the overlapping of text and the dancing of connected and disconnected ideas, overlapping as women are dependent on other women and independent of other women.” 

Both works reveal a great deal about class/gender issues, oppression, and the individual’s struggle to find his or her place in the world—Joe as an Italian immigrant in the late-1930s and Marlene as a successful working woman with a troubled past. At second glance, “the fight” and “compassion” actually go hand in hand: without compassion the fight becomes irrelevant. As Zarish noted, “We’re all trying to struggle towards global compassion.” With this in mind, the third-year class will tackle these plays with agility and strength while discovering the compassion that both works have to offer.

 

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