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The Dawn Powell Festival: The Artist as Permanent Visitor

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Novelist-playwright Dawn Powell dubbed herself the "permanent visitor." Perhaps, then, it's not really surprising that her work, which painted the world through the satiric and, at times, sad eyes of the outsider, had a certain resonance for artists in general and theatre artists in particular.

During her lifetime (1896-1965), she had a bohemian following; to some she was the very avatar of Greenwich Village life, a staple on the downtown scene for more than four decades, from the heady post-World War I years through the beatnik universe of the '50s and up to the birth of the counterculture in the mid-'60s.

Nonetheless, when Powell died in 1965, she was largely unknown and impoverished; she was buried in an unmarked grave in New York City's Potter's Field.

Today, Powell is enjoying a major renaissance, thanks mostly to her biographer, Tim Page, music critic for the Washington Post, and to a lesser extent, to Gore Vidal, who suggested in a 1987 New York Review of Books article that Powell was "on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion."

Consider the two-month-long theatrical presentation, "Permanent Visitor: A Festival Celebrating Dawn Powell in New York," completing its run this weekend.

Produced by the 78th Street Theatre Lab and Sightlines Theatre Company, the event featured a new production of a 1934 Powell play, "Jig Saw," a staged reading of "Big Night" (1933), a premiere of her one-act piece, "Women at Four O'Clock" (1926), several dramatic adaptations of Powell short stories, and one new piece by Laura Strausfeld, "As We Were Saying," an imagined encounter between Powell and a reporter interviewing the writer.

And there were other Powell tributes around the city, including a talk about her renewed reputation by Tim Page at the Museum of the City of New York; a new musical adaptation of Powell's novel, "A Time to Be Born," at Musical Theatre Works; and an upcoming event (March 11) at the Algonquin Hotel, with Marian Seldes, Michael Feingold, and Fran Lebowitz reading selections from Powell's novels.

"My affection for Dawn Powell comes from a very personal place," says Eileen Phelan, artistic director of Sightlines Theatre Company. "I love the fact that she called herself a permanent visitor, although she lived in New York City for more than 40 years. 'Visitor' implies a fresh view. She had a playful and intelligent eye. She had a hard life, but never became bitter. I think all people, young artists in particular, should read her work—her diaries, especially. She talks about stepping up to the plate and giving it your best shot. The festival celebrates her work; it also celebrates her spirit, and the spirit of New York."

So What Happened?

So why did Powell fall out of favor in the first place? And why is she suddenly a hot literary commodity posthumously? That's clearly up for grabs, although "zeitgeist," that catchall concept, plays its role.

Powell was never easily categorized—she was awash in contradictions—and readers and/or theatregoers found it difficult to put an emotional handle on her, according to the Powell experts we talked with. And maybe that eclectic sensibility is what makes her appealing today.

"Dawn Powell is very modern," notes Donna Linderman, associate artistic director of Sightlines Theatre. "There was a toughness in her. She was not sentimental, not your typical genteel lady writer. She didn't have much tolerance for liberalism and was not especially friendly towards women. She satirized motherhood, marriage, and fidelity—the sacred domain of the middle class.

"At the same time," Linderman continues, "She wasn't really making moral judgments. She saw that all of us are flawed and she had a sense of humor about it. She once said, 'My characters are not slaves to an author's propaganda. I give them their heads. They furnish their own nooses.' "

Adds Catherine Sheehey, a dramaturg at the Yale School of Drama and an authority on Powell: "In her books and plays, she was matter-of-fact about such things as homosexuality, unmarried sex, and abortion in an era when most people were not. When her characters were involved in those activities, they were not dashed at the end. She was a satirist in a Mark Twain mode."

And it was precisely her comic touch—perhaps more so than anything else—that relegated her to quasi-oblivion, suggested Powell biographer Tim Page in his discussion at the Museum of the City of New York. Comic literary works, he said, have never been viewed with the same respect as "serious" fiction. The fact that Powell was a woman did not boost her reputation much either, he observed.

A Difficult Life

Powell may reverberate today for another reason. She was a study in gutsy perseverance, despite a journey that was rugged from the outset. Born in Ohio in 1896, and later abused by a vicious and vindictive stepmother, Powell ran away from home when she was quite young; later on, she made it her business to attend and graduate college when few girls did; she then traveled to New York by herself in the teen years of the 20th century, and struggled professionally and personally for the next 47 years.

As noted, her career never fully took off, none of her novels making it beyond one printing. Her marriage was disappointing, and her son, who was mentally disabled, spent most of his life in an institution. Yet Powell viewed her own life with a certain wry detachment.

Over her lifetime, she wrote 15 novels that fell into two discrete categories. There were her Ohio novels, like "Dance Night," and "My Home Is Far Away," depicting soulful characters with poignant yearnings and the unfulfilled need to escape the parochialism of their world. And then there were her New York novels ("The Wicked Pavilion" and "The Happy Island") with their sharply-etched portraits of café society and its shallow, ambitious, and on occasion, ruthless denizens: the social climbers, the artistes, and those who just hung-on.

Her playwriting efforts were especially disappointing. Out of the 10 plays she penned, only two were produced, and not with any success. She also co-authored the book for a musical, "The Lady Comes Across," which, while trying out in Boston in December of 1941, lost its star, English songbird Jessie Matthews, to a mental asylum. Though offering the choreography of George Balanchine, it ultimately lasted less than a week on Broadway starring Matthews' understudy.

The story behind her play, "Big Night," is equally distressing. Staged by the legendary Group Theatre, the production was apparently so sweaty and overwrought it completely missed the mark. The fact that Stella Adler rewrote the ending to conform to her own heavy-handed politics didn't help. Whatever the play's shortcomings, it desperately needed a light touch.

Tone, Subject, and Themes

"Big Night" tells the story of a disintegrating marriage; Ed is a go-getting advertising man who views his wife, Myra, as not much more than a vehicle to his professional success.

In this unpleasant, pre-feminist universe, as drawn by Powell, a wife's physical attractiveness and her willingness to "make nice" (translation: be sexually available if necessary) to her husband's potential clients is what gives her value. Indeed, it's her most marketable asset.

During the course of the play, which takes place at an all-night "networking" party, the marriage unravels as the boozing continues; at the end, Myra leaves Ed for an old acquaintance, a bully of a man she at one time despised, who will probably treat her as even more of an object than does her spouse.

In Stella Adler's rewritten conclusion, which was incorporated into the production, the beleaguered Myra—now a kind of Nora-figure from a "A Doll's House"—slams the door and stalks out on all of them. The reviews were dreadful and the play closed in nine days.

In her diaries, Powell writes: "At first I was dashed, then challenged and even flattered—to be attacked as a menace to the theatre was the first real sign that I had a contribution to make there. It was like finding out that you could hurt the elephant—the only defeat or failure is in being ignored or being told you have appeased it."

That's all well and good. But why is "Big Night" being resurrected now? (In addition to the most recent reading that took place at Barnes & Noble at Union Square, the play was mounted as a full production at Yale Repertory last season.) Beyond its cultural-historical interest, does "Big Night" have any application to contemporary audiences?

"I don't think you should stop doing a play because it's of another era," asserts Evan Yionoulis, who directed the staged reading and heads the M.F.A acting program at the Yale School of Drama. "I feel that if it's truthful to its time, it will have application for a contemporary audience. In any case, there are correlatives today. Many Hollywood couples live like Ed and Myra, and so do many Wall Street couples, where the wife may even have an M.B.A. and is on the floor, trading. The situations may have changed, but there is still a premium on her attractiveness, not only at home, but also at work. Women's obsessions with thinness and plastic surgery are an updated version of what Powell was talking about.

"The challenge in doing this play is not its content, but its tone," Yionoulis continues. "You've got to keep the momentum going, the language crisp, and, at the same time, maintain a sense of reality."

Donna Linderman, who directed Powell's "Jig Saw," also feels that evoking the right tone and style make Powell's plays viable for a contemporary audience, even if the work's subject matter or underlying vision seems a tad dated.

Talking about "Jig Saw" (admittedly, a much frothier play than "Big Night"), Linderman says: "There's a dark edge to the work, but you've got to approach it as if it was a Ben Hecht play, which has a certain rhythm in its language. The actors also have to move with a certain rhythm.

"Our problem was that the stage [at the 78th Street Lab] was so small. Powell wrote for sweeping spaces. But, in any case, if you get the right rhythm, and manage to keep all the balls in the air, it will work. The danger is in overdrive.

"Jig Saw" (referring to the way love comes, e.g., like the fragments of a jigsaw puzzle) takes a hard-eyed yet amused look at the lives of over-indulged—but ultimately endearing—decadents wiling away their time conniving and manipulating.

The two main characters are Claire, a divorcée, and her longtime boyfriend, Del, a married man. The story centers on what happens when they suddenly find their world invaded by Julie, Claire's virginal daughter (from her ex-marriage), who unceremoniously shows up and announces that she plans to marry the youthful Nathan, a lad about town.

The problem is that Claire is in the process of seducing Nathan, her affair with Del notwithstanding. Beneath the brisk and witty dialogue, "Jig Saw" presents a thoroughly unflattering picture of marriage, motherhood, and, most especially, the distaff members among the wealthy.

Indeed, Powell wrote that "Jig Saw" was drawn from "all the selfish mothers I know—the futile, idle women that America is so full of."

Linderman acknowledges that these are not the most appealing figures, and perhaps difficult for contemporary post-feminist audiences to take, not least the way Julie is vehemently pursuing her goal—trying to tie the knot with the aforementioned Nathan who has no interest in marriage—with all the warrior determination of a commando raiding an airplane that has been taken hostage. In fact, she is no different from her mother.

"But all of these characters emerge from a familiar comic tradition with a long history," Linderman points out. "Julie and Nathan are Debbie Reynolds and Frank Sinatra in 'Tender Trap' or Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra in 'Pal Joey.' And the two older people, Claire and Dell, both of whom suffer from too much pride, have their roots in Beatrice and Benedick, Elizabeth and D'Arcy, and many of the characters Tracy and Hepburn played."

"Women at Four O'clock" (1928), the third and final Powell play mounted by the festival, comes out of a very different universe—one that is downright expressionistic and perhaps, for that reason, more interesting to a modern audience. It's also noteworthy in its portrayal of a sexually frustrated single woman who feels, among other things, that she is a failure because her boss does not choose her to "entertain" his clients. Remember, this is decades before "sexual harassment" on the job entered the public vocabulary.

Image of Theatre and Theatrefolk

Playwriting was not Powell's strong suit; nonetheless, theatre was a world she aspired to be part of. One thing is certain: she knew and understood its players. They appear in many of her novels and short stories.

"An Artist's Life and Other Cautionary Tales About the Theatre," a trio of short plays adapted from three Powell short stories, offers a view of theatre and theatrefolk that is at once comic, poignant, at moments cruel, but (paradoxically) deeply affectionate.

In the title piece, "An Artist's Life," a bragging and exploitive wannabe playwright who should, in a morally just world, become a dismal failure, turns into a soaring success. In the second one-acter, "The Audition," two losers (financial and otherwise), who have been stiffed by a theatrical producer, pretend to be casting directors and toy with a talent-free young actress who comes to audition for them. But she is engaged in as much subterfuge as they are—comically inventing her resume as she goes along.

In the third and most disturbing playlet, "You Should Have Brought Your Mink," an unsuccessful New York actress, whose airs and pretensions camouflage her failings, visits her judgmental mother and sister (in the Midwest) whose criticisms thinly mask their own frustrations.

This is a story without villains; and the young actress, who ultimately sees her family in a kinder light, almost decides to give up her dreams of an acting career—which, in all likelihood, will never go anywhere, anyway—and return home to settle down to whatever. But, in the end, she is compelled to go back to New York, whether or not she has a viable future there.

Theatre functioned metaphorically for Powell, and so did New York, as a literal place and an idea, which became for Powell a powerful image evoking liberation and almost limitless possibility.

Powell writes: "…You can be yourself here and it's the only place where being genuine will absolutely get you anywhere you want." (In light of her fate, it's an odd observation.)

In all three one-act plays, New York is the silent character and a repeated visual motif on stage, embodied in a sepia-colored cityscape projected onto a box that is utilized—sometimes decoratively, other times functionally—in each of the one-act pieces.

Powell and Future Artists

A theme throughout the festival, assert its directors, is the return to New York—literal and figurative. Put another way: Pursuing an artistic goal, regardless of its elusive outcome, is worth doing.

"Dawn Powell herself, who could have taught somewhere and made more money than she did, chose not to," Linderman underscores. "Instead, she decided to do what she was doing and remain where she was.

"I think what is so wonderful about Dawn Powell's characters," Linderman continues, "is that even though they are not succeeding—they may even be on a sinking ship—they're hanging on. I think that's very important for young artists to hear, especially today."

Adds Phelan: "Although the particular obstacles may change, there are always obstacles for artists. It may be harder economically for young artists today, but years ago, it was harder for women. Years ago, artists lived in Greenwich Village. Today, they may live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But there is a connection between generations of artists. If you come to New York to be a creative person, you are going to have a lot of failure. But you will have a rewarding life."

And that, Phelan says, is what Powell's work—indeed, her life—testifies to.

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