Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Review of Billy the Kid & Battle of the Somme (missing text)

by Michael Oandaatje
at The Marsh

(Apologia: I found the performance and the newness of the material made it hard to isolate monologue elements. Much of my difficulty had to do with the actors being overwhelmed by the sheer verbiage—talking heads. I was awash in Oandaatje’s poetic language. Since the director veered from the original order of the text, it’s unfortunate that his vision didn’t extend to cutting more of the text—as the second half of the play was drawn out and confusing. But I digress: this is not meant to be a review of the play. . . )

There is very little by way of traditional dialog per se in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Onadaatje (who also wrote The English Patient), as the entire play is comprised of loosely juxtaposed monologues and vignettes—some in the form of prose poems, others as small poems. The director’s vision shaped the format of the play as to what character said which dialogue and where. I chose both a throw-away monologue, and what I considered to be the most essential and riveting monologue for review.

For a non-essential monologue, I focused on John Chisum’s drinking story on one upmanship, where he spins a yarn about his friend Livingstone and his mad spaniel dogs.

The second monologue, a desert scene, I consider absolutely crucial to the structure of the play. As Pat Garrett rides Billy the Kid in for trial under the grueling sun, Billy undergoes an epiphany and comes to terms with both himself and with Garrett’s betrayal. 

When I later saw the text, I discovered that Chisum’s monologue picked up many through lines I didn’t realize were there: themes of animals—especially of dogs and of Billy hissing like snakes; and hidden madness; the role of hunters & assassins; and of strange, primal imagery: red dirt to ease pain, the maddening heat of the sun, the qualities of light, and Billy’s irrational fear of flowers (= death).
This is a story of corruption, greed and betrayal. Billy is a sacrificial lamb being led to slaughter on a trumped-up murder charge, even though everyone was guilty of killing someone during the three-day Lincoln County war, because the law has no other incriminating evidence to convict him of cattle-rustling. This theme becomes a thread throughout the play. The cattle politicians considered Billy’s occupation a hindrance to New Mexico’s new image. “We were bad for progress” says Billy in his opening lines.

The scene: Fort Sumner, New Mexico, sometime before Christmas, 1880. The story unfolds with Billy, on his 21st birthday (Nov. 23—the day before mine) experiencing several flashbacks. It’s hard to tell if he’s having all the flashbacks or if each character is simultaneously having flashbacks as well. The play works well either way. 

Gathered on John Chisum’s front porch one evening are John, his daughter Sallie, Billy, his girlfriend Angela, and Pat Garrett. After we learn that John Chisum’s daughter Sallie, who may or may not be having an affair with Billy, talk about her exotic Basset as being overbred for the fat French nobility, Chisum launches into an unexpected monologue about a singer friend of his from New Orleans. 

Livingstone who, after the Civil War, bought spaniels and bred a race of mad dogs that hissed like snakes. Chisum said, “it was like breeding roses.” The dogs’ eyes were slits and bulged like marbles. Livingstone learned to gauge a dog’s madness by the width of its pupils. Hunger and fornication were their only motivations, they were so inbred they were toothless and hissed like snakes. 

Livingstone hid his madness, but Chisum notes there was a perverse logic in Livingstone’s breeding the worst of the worst. The dogs turn on him and eat him—even his watch—everything except the hand that held the whip. So much for man’s best friend. 

The clock and this hand motif are echoes of an earlier line of Chisum’s about Billy’s shooting hand—how it was so beautiful to watch him unconsciously exercise that slender hand 12 hours a day. He never used it for anything else—even to pick up a cup of coffee. It only had one purpose: to kill. 

In retrospect, the monologue picks up several threads within the larger structure of the play. It was not only effective, it was a riveting attention grabber as the subject matter is unforgettable. Totally unexpected, it prepared the audience for the brutality that was to come: man’s inhumanity to man, and how not all legends are created equal ....that fine line between truth and fiction is stretched and inexorably expanded like verbal angioplasty. 

We learn of existing social structures within the play, the lengths character go to hide aberrant behavior—this is ironic foreshadowing since Pat Garrett will turn Billy in a few weeks hence. Also a complex character, Garrett, with all that self-taught French in his head and nowhere to use it, who meticulously stuffs exotic birds for a hobby, isn’t exactly a model of sanity either, though he is portrayed as such. 

Perhaps this is the metaphoric message: the danger of hidden insanity inbred within us—especially the pup-pets of the nobility, or of those in power. This scene could easily be cut without disrupting the integrity of the play. But Billy’s self-revelatory monologue is the heart of the play.

Billy is being taken across the desert for trial in Messilia. Chained to his horse, Billy begins to hallucinate: On the fifth day the sun turned into a pair of hands. Then it began to unfold my head..The sun ... washed his finger on my tongue..touched my heart with his wrist...followed cul de sacs of bone there when I was born, brushing cobwebs of nerves...down the last 100 miles to my sack of sperm...cock standing out of my head..then he brought his other hand into play. 

Two hands: one dead, one borne from me like crystal...then he let go...I could hear everything on my skin...Pat asking, “What’s wrong Billy?” I’ve been fucked... And a desperate Billy rolled off his horse, legs still chained beneath, to retreat from the relentless sun in the meager shade of the horse’s belly. Three weeks on a horse, at the Polk Hotel he had to be carried into his last white room, his last good bed.

Billy’s desert monologue totally envelops us. We’re right there riding along with him, we feel his pain, the heat of the sun. The lighting supports the language, as he begins to sort it all out, the brightness of the sun increases until we too are melting beneath its relentless gaze. 

The empathy that we feel for Billy despite his dubious profession, is honed, we’re left quivering and raw as Billy. We feel his vulnerability, we empathize with his victimhood. We understand that though he chose the life of a gunslinger, he has no regrets. This scene prepares us for the anticlimactic second half of the play—the Hollywood version of the myth of Billy the Kid where a drunken Frank James, brother to Jesse, is the ticket-taker.

 And the reporters’ final exclusive interview mirrors our modern preoccupation with the schizophrenic debunking and idolizing of the (in)famous. Many of the monologues serve as a framing device; the desert scene is a meta-frame that both gathers up many loose ends and holds the play together. Using metaphors that work on several levels, Oandaatje captures the myth, not fact, though the play poses much of Billy’s life as fact. What’s interesting is why Billy became a legend at all.

by Frank MacGuinness
Viadict Theatre Co.
at The Phoenix and above Kate O’Brien’s

Observe the Sons of Ulster is a menory play where the lone survivor of the Battle of the Somme, an elder Piper, the main character (as played by Earl Kingston) looks back on his life and asks why of all his troop, only he survived. The audience are vouyers. watching a man redreaming the past His long (10-minute) monologue, an angry, forced memory provides the trajectory and opens the play, it sets the scene and transmits vital information about the characters but it doesn’t give away what will happen in the play. You have to wait for it to unfold. All the players and their relationships with Piper, are introduced as ghosts. The monolog invites and anchors them. It’s a well crafted scene in its entirety

(we have ASCII HELL HERE! The rest of article is gone, baby, gone.)

he develops as a character

rebuilt image of his fallen companions

and an act of self-forgiveness,

a projection of his menory so that the audience can see

how aware is he? He’s mentally unstable, seeing ghosts

Piper awakens in an armchair where he’s dozed off, and is forced to remeber that he survived and his friends sidn/t’ He tries to rationalize the suffering.

He rebels against being forced to remember for the benefit of others.
Battle cry history he’s enfranchisinf his struggle for forgiveness with Ulster’s struggle for freedom. He equates himself with William of Orange’s soldiers. He conflates thems and reaches back into myth and legend to reinforce his moral position He reaches back to Hamlet to be or not to be evokes man’s struggle with life and death he reappropriates Cu Chulainn from the fenians to serve his cause. reusurpation of traditon modernizes it with sinn fen and links it to the puritan work ethic of the elect, the chosen ones

dev char background rebel inviting original sin self revolt it is your course upon them

Psych profile assessments I’m a fool a liar, I started out wrong i have to learn the hard way

reationalize and reconcile individual psyche with god with hhom he’s at variance with because he’s in pain

war expereince broke him self aware of inner transformation from punk to reluctant servant of god

earl internal monolog big memory recalled against wishes forced like an advancing army et s emotional tenor someone who’s psychologically tortured

a verbal battle pain of losing friends, loss of family comerafes surviving to assuage the pain

the burden of surviving after the war for you I had to be different. to rebuilt it in an image of my fallen comerades out to make Ulster a better place honor their memory and assuage his won guilt

he was practicca, he managed his fathers estates, he was politically connected

Piper wants to know if his ghosts have an existence outside of his menory. He asks for proof. He asks: why did we do it/ then answers his own questions. hate, deepest hate we wished ourselves to die (the true curse of Adam)Save me! the protestant gods are dead (enniskellen0 I have remarkably fine skin doffor a man dance ot the lord

was it expected? no it provides the scaffolding for the playwright’s conception of the piece, a theatrical convention, it provides the opening shots and motifs, piper’s thorugh lune, those involved, the outcome of war, his torture as a man, sociao-religious political issues of n. Ireland

It hints at the playright’s background even though it’s told form the other side Prot

again? I do not nderstand your insistence terror? I still see your ghost...horror into madness...the irreplaceable ones kept their nerve and died...the stuff heroues were made of...a hero+death...You taught me to believe in you. battle cry No surrender! patriotic echo of Battl of the boyne & sinn fein ourselves alone oceans of blood our inheritacne I did not wish to be chosen... \

Maureen Hurley, 11/15/2000
Justin Chinn, Creatiive Writing 605-01 

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