Joe Cocker had a song on his third studio album back in the day, as the kids like to say (note the deliberate imprecision of that phrase, “back in the day,” by the way — any time whatsoever from the past, yesterday or ten thousand years ago, could be “back in the day”— the same kind of intentional vagueness and incomprehension of truth or reality that led to the mistaken perceptions I wrote about yesterday) titled “I Get Mad.” (That self-titled album came out while I was in college, also by the way, in 1973. I still have my vinyl copy, available for sale as a rarity and antique — sighing sadly — if anyone wants to buy it.)
I do. Get mad, that is. And sometimes getting angry is very productive for me. Like yesterday.
Getting angry also gave me (and Andrew High School) a whole quartet of full-length plays for fall production.
I wrote my very first three-act play because I got mad at Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggert and that other televangelista con man with the excessive eye-make-up wife (Jim Bakker and spouse Tammy Faye, I now recall by name). And the second play, too. (Letting me watch daytime television during the summer can be an issue for falsehoods I dislike.) I tried artificially inducing such anger when I wanted to write a third one. And the fourth (and so far final) full-length play dropped into reality because I got angry about how kids treat each other at school.
The first long play was originally entitled Lower Than The Angels while I was writing (the pros call that a “working title”). Somehow, about the time I finished it and sent it off to the Area Education Agency for duplication just before auditions in the fall and the start of school, a much more memorable title hit me — Speak No Evil. Although I lured you all in with my reference to writing from anger, the actual inspiration for the play was an experience of genuine delight — reading Carl Saganʼs Dragons of Eden, which I did at the International Thespian Festival in June, 1978 (along with several Poul Anderson Polesotechnic League and Flandry novels). Among a thousand bazillion other things Saganʼs little book got me thinking about, one provoking issue was teaching apes to “speak” through American Sign Language, novel and successful experimentation begun in the early Seventies. That species-shattering idea, crossed with some really awful experiences watching Godʼs self-approved, deluded Little Reactionary strut his pseudo-stuff on The 700 Club in the summers of ʼ79 and ʼ80, got me writing, and the resulting play was ready for practice and production in the fall of 1980.
Writing that play was one of the major joys of my life. I recall the composition period (which I did originally longhand! I wonder where that notebook is today…) as pure excitement, imaginative bliss. I even wrote to the original real-life experimenters, Drs. Allen and (the late) Beatrix Gardner, for information and asking their permission to refer to them, Washoe and their work in the play. Lost somewhere in my chaotic files are the reprints of their papers that they sent me (and which I used in finalizing the typed script) along with a request to see my finished play. I hope I had the nerve to send them a copy (today I donʼt remember, and I have always been shy and unsure of myself).
Speak No Evil features a classic American TV family in Oklahoma (a state I selected because the Gardners sent their original experimental primate, Washoe, to a chimp refuge there, where she taught her children some signs — indicating that she truly understood language and communication) — mom, dad, daughter and son. Trouble erupts when the daughter (our protagonist), inspired by her young biology teacher, decides to do a science fair experiment teaching sign language to a chimp (played by a human in mask and costume — I still have the then-$40 ape mask I bought with my own money through the mail for the show).
The unrevered Rev. Robertson entered as an organized reactionary religious group in my play (imaginary, by the way) that dreaded the inclusion of “evil-ution” in the school curriculum. At the time, thirty years ago, I feared that my literary swipe at stodgy scaredycats — terrified of truth, the long-dead Darwin and the future — was already out of date (how little did I dream that fear and cowardice — and perhaps the unchecked influence of tradition-pounders like Pat — would reduce so many to just that inverted, terrified, knee-jerk and unreflective opinion). However, most of the story emphasized science and reason, so the religious right was a pretty minor issue in the play. The left even got clouted through a jargon-spouting liberal school counselor who mealy-mouthed her way around the problems of the play.
Conflict centered on the disruption of raising a chimp in a family home, frustrations of the experiment distracting our heroine from her boyfriend, and the chimp not seeming to develop any skill or interest in signing. Ultimately the chimp “spoke” out of jealousy when her mistress and the boyfriend started kissing, and in the end all worked out well for science and rational reality. The show played smoothly and strongly before an audience, too (possibly owing more to a very talented and ingenious cast than my script or direction).
—And thatʼs the story of how I wrote my first full-length play, a comedy of science and poor manners.
One running gag in the play involved ignorant people calling the chimp a “monkey.” When you combine that reference with the title of my next play (tomorrowʼs post), you get my corporate monicker, as the title of todayʼs post suggests.
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