By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The new play that premieres in the Shadow Theatre season this week has a premise that’s bound to make you smile.
Conni Massing’s Fresh Hell brings together on one stage two women who not only didn’t meet in real life, having died some 536 years apart, but are unlikely ever to meet in the afterlife, if there is one, either. One wielded a martini in one hand and a pen in the other. The other’s instruments of choice were the sword and the banner.
Fresh Hell, named for the famous Dorothy Parker line “What fresh hell is this?” (so useful in all exasperating situations) imagines three encounters between that American wit and satirist and Joan of Arc, the sainted heroine of the Hundred Years’ War.
Both have been imagined as characters by the world’s playwrights before — but never together. Now, for the first time, thanks to Massing, they’re show-mates. “Where did the play come from?” laughs the playwright. “It’s a bit of a mystery to me, too….”
“I’ve always loved Joan of Arc,” says Edmonton-based Massing whose writing career encompasses theatre, TV, and film. “I think many teenagers fall in love with her; she’s the ultimate rebellious teenager, with an incredible life story…. And I played her in a high school production!” to wit Ponoka Composite High’s production of Anouilh’s The Lark.
Massing, a conversationalist of puckish wit and good humour, is amused by the memory. “I decided on my own I should bind my breasts because Joan of Arc was flat-chested and I wasn’t. Yes, I took that on myself! I also decided I should wear sparkly blue eye shadow — because I was gonna spend so much time looking up at the sky…. And nobody stopped me from doing this! Clearly they were not monitoring my choices very closely.” What Dorothy Parker, would have made of the production — she was Vanity Fair’s theatre reviewer from 1918 to 1920 before getting fired when her caustic assessments scorched a few influential egos — must remain forever a mystery.
Massing fell in love with Parker later, at university. “I loved the savage wit, the short stories, the famous one-liners — I keep saying to people she’s the great precursor of Twitter.” And the bonus was Parker’s milieu, New York in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when everything was just somehow more interesting.”
So, Joan and Dot, a high-contrast pair if ever there was one. “At some point some years ago I somehow got the idea to put them both in the same play,” says Massing. “And the idea stuck with me. Eventually I succumbed, and started puddling around and researching.”
Gradually Massing discovered things they had in common. “Which sounds mad, I know,” she says cheerfully. For one thing, “they both worked in a man’s world. For another, “they both faced death,” again and again. For Joan it was on the battlefield. Dorothy tried to commit suicide at least three and maybe as many as five times (unsuccessfully, she lived to be 71).
And there’s this: “both battled with language.” Parker’s dexterity with the language is legendary, of course, her turns of phrase in reviews, short stories, poems, and off-the-cuff wisecracks, caustically funny and much-quoted. As she said “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
But Joan “was very articulate in her own way,” a surprising skill in an illiterate peasant girl. The Joan who emerges from the transcripts of her trial, as Massing discovered reading them, “could duck and weave weaving around the highly educated men of the clergy.” She held her own, to the point that proceedings, “originally in a church where the cheap seats were filled with priests, were made more private, a testament to her general wit, and her conviction.”
The Massing theatre archive includes plays rooted in the prairies (The Aberhart Summer, Jake and the Kid), and ranging widely on the spectrum between light and dark, romantic comedy (The Invention of Romance) and prairie gothic (Gravel Run). Matara (2018) explores in a strange and haunting way the relationship between people and animals, a solitary elephant in a zoo dreaming of home. Still, plucking Dorothy Parker and Joan of Arc from the ether of free-floating centuries to meet in a play is a bold move.
“There was obviously some fun to be had in putting two very different people together,” says Massing, one who died at 19 and one who died at 71 more than five centuries apart. And they both had “extraordinary event-filled lives.” But how to have them meet? “Dorothy is writing about Joan of Arc, and she’s being funny, rude, dismissive. So Joan is on Dorothy’s mind when (the warrior heroine) is summoned by her. It comes at a moment, in the assault on the fort Les Tourelles in 1429, when La Pucelle has been hit by an arrow and feared dead (later to return to battle). It’s a gap in the action, corresponding to a similar “window of opportunity” in Dorothy’s story.
As Massing explains, “Dorothy has slit her wrists, but phoned to the restaurant downstairs and ordered food. Which is how she’s saved…. In the play I’m proposing that both are pulled from the action at a moment of crisis, a pause in their stories” between life and death.
“There was a period in her mid-‘60s when Dorothy, really not well as alcoholism caught up with her, stopped writing. Then a weird revival, a resurgence (of writerly activity) in the last couple of years of her life…. In the world of my play that rejuvenation is a result of this final encounter with Joan of Arc.”
What made Parker so appealing to Massing as a writer herself was that “she’s so full of contradictions…. She could be so so savage, so mean, but was so generous with money. She spent a lot of time as an activist, involved in civil rights. She left her estate to Martin Luther King. She went on marches, protests, spoke at luncheons. She co-founded the Hollywood anti-Nazi League, and got blacklisted….”
Of Parker’s brilliant writerly accomplishments — short stories published in prestige magazines like The New Yorker, poetry collections, captions for ads (“brevity is the soul of lingerie”), lyrics for musicals, essays, screenplays (she was the co-writer of A Star Is Born) — one eluded her. She never published a novel. “In her perfect universe she would have published a great novel, had a last drink, and slipped off the moral coil at 50,” says Massing. But she lived on, obsessed with ‘making it’, still trying to figure out how to be successful. “Not a lot of self-love there.”
As for Joan of Arc, who started to hear Voices at 17 and was executed at 19, “I’ll never get over being boggled by her early rise to power,” says Massing. “To be a child, a girl!, in the countryside, and convincing someone to take her to the next level, that led to her leading an army…. It’s so unlikely. She was powered by such incredible conviction. You meet those people now and then, and sometimes their convictions are disturbing. It’s hard to resist.”
The Shadow production at the Varscona brings the playwright together with director Tracy Carroll, a long-time collaborator. And it marks the return to Edmonton after many years of actor Kate Newby, “my dream Dorothy Parker,” as Massing says. Joan is played by newcomer Sydney Williams, notable in the premiere of Amanda Samuelson’s Pressure at last summer’s Fringe.
Would Massing call Fresh Hell a comedy? She pauses, and laughs. “I’m leery of labelling things a comedy; it sets up an expectation. I hope there are many moments that’ll make people smile, or grin. Or laugh even. At this stage of my life I’ve decided you’re better off calling things a drama. And if people get some laffs, l-a-f-f-s, along the way, it’s a bonus.”
Written by: Conni Massing
Directed by: Tracy Carroll
Starring: Kate Newby and Sydney Williams
Where: Varscona Theatre
Running: Wednesday through Feb. 5