On The Shelf

The Advocate

The reader who looks into the current Advocate must be prepared for some hard reading. He will have to devote considerable time and effort to the two verse plays which comprise the bulk of the issue; he will not be able, either, to skim through the two poems. Only the story and the article are entirely comprehensible on a first reading.

The fact that most of the material in this issue is difficult to grasp does not, however, mean that the reader should slink back to Quick without at least testing his mettle. He can feel safe, with this issue of the Advocate, that he will get something for his effort.

The two most important offerings are verso plays: one a translation by Gerhard Nellhaus of Bertolt Brecht's "The Lesson," the other an original one-acter, "Three Words in No Time," by Lyon Phelps. "The Lesson," which is the better of the two, I think, defies analysis. It has almost no action, its characters have no individuality (they are called "The Speaker," "A One" and such), it has a chorus and a musical background, the audience is expected to join in and repeat certain lines. The ostensible topic of discussion is a crashed airman who is on the verge of death, but Brecht merely uses him as a reflector for his ideas about death, man's place on earth, and his relationship to modern technology. The tone of the piece is didactic.

"The Lesson," of course, is fearfully modern and different, and hence it is almost impossible to assess. I found it very interesting. Nellhaus' translation appears to be excellent: certainly the play emerges in English as well worth reading, and its poetry is smooth.

"Three Words in No Time," which was produced by the Poets' Theatre last month, is fundamentally a much more orthodox kind of play than Brccht's, in spite of its many anomalies and tricks. Phelps, poor backward fellow, is tied to the convention of idiosyncratic characters with names (which help distinguish them from other characters). So, although the poetry frequently wanders off the edge of strict meaning and leaves one a trifle bewildered, one is always bolstered by the thought that the ideas being expressed have a definite relationship with the character who is expressing them, and that he is expressing them primarily because they mean something to him and only secondarily because they may have general significance. Precisely the opposite is the case with the Brecht play: the characters do not speak as individuals at all; they merely express general ideas.


It is not necessary to go into the complexities of Phelps' plot. "One need only explain that the setting is a "life-sized portrait of Melville's study" and that the people in the painting come to life and philosophize and indulge in banter with people of our own day who are looking at the painting. The philosophy got beyond me at times but it has to do with Time (represented by a grandfather clock) and white whales and is quite satisfactory; the banter, which I presume is meant to provide another frame of reference for the philosophy (besides the picture frame, which dominates the stage) is decidedly inferior. It is supposed to be humorous and leans heavily on the obvious (the Painter protests to Hawthorne who has stepped out of the picture: "Mr. Hawthorne, if you please! What's happening to my exhibition? People will talk!...")

On the whole, the play is pretty good, and is certainly worth four pages and twenty minutes' reading time. The longer speeches of Hawthorne and Melville, which are the poetry of the play, read very well, both as poetry and as dialogue. The three words, by the way, are "Call me Ishmael."


Billy Joyner's story "At Four O'clock to Remember" is the third good piece in the issue--within its limits, in fact, a better job than the more ambitious plays. It concerns a feebleminded 25-year-old farm girl who is seduced. Joyner shows a fine touch in portraying the girl's dulled, slowed-down feelings, and manages, too, to catch the quite desperation of the parents weighed down by the burden and shame of such a daughter. It is an excellent story, simple and yet not shallow.

As for the two poems. Frank O'Hara's "A Prayer to Prospero" reads smoothly and is relatively easy to understand, but after half a dozen re-readings it still passes smoothly down my gullet like a puree, without making any positive impression. "The Fiction of an Afterthought" by George A. Kelly is a different matter: it is far too elaborate and obscure for my taste, but many of its lines at least make impressions--and mostly favorable ones, though Kelly has a regrettable fondness for words like "defiling," and "infinitely," and a line like "The awkward dignity of death, seems prefabricated.

The series of four articles on theater groups here is entertaining enough in its limited way but seems hardly worth space in a literary magazine that publishes only about 125 pages a year.

I hate to end a review of what is really a very interesting Advocate on a sour note, but is it too much to ask that the magazine be edited and proofed with more care? When the name of the Pegasus is spelled differently in two places, when a whole line is left out, when a character in a play changes name and sex twice in one page, when there are over twenty errors in edition and proofing in twenty pages, something must be done. John R. W. Small