Last Saturday, my sister and I experienced the Westport Country Playhouse at full capacity – both in terms of audience and performance. Maureen Anderman plays the exquisite and compelling role of Joan Didion in Didion’s novel-turned-play The Year of Magical Thinking.
I am originally from Mobile, Alabama though I lived in New Orleans for the past half-decade before moving to Fairfield County. But last Saturday, I was particularly happy that my sister (who currently lives in Brooklyn) was able to accompany me to this play because it gave me the chance to tell her who Emily Post was, and why this play reminded me of her book Etiquette.
Didion’s play is based on the author’s National Book Award-winning memoir The Year of Magical Thinking about the author’s real experience of rebuilding her life in the wake of her husband’s death and her experience to emerge strengthened from even the most trying of life’s tests. Some may call it “haunting” but I think the word ‘haunting’ exudes a feeling that it is ‘more than real life’, and I can assure you; this play is a sincere portrait of “real life.”
You see, I was – as we say – “born and raised” in the South. And that meant that I was familiar with Emily Post by the time I was a teenager and that the Emily Post name is synonymous with proper etiquette and manners. Didion’s play reminded me of Post because I originally thought the title of this article should be something resembling “the path that propels us forward”, and I soon realized later that this “path” is specifically – in Didion’s case – a path of what we are supposed to do in unfamiliar situations, or simply – Etiquette. As Post writes, “At no time does solemnity so possess our souls as when we stand deserted at the brink of darkness into which our loved one has gone. And the last place in the world where we would look for comfort at such a time is in the seeming artificiality of etiquette; yet it is in the moment of deepest sorrow that etiquette performs its most vital and real service.”
As Anderman so beautifully stated during her ninety minute performance amid her simple staging and her Adirondack chair, “Do you know how to make arrangements?” These are the paths of thinking that propel us forward after a loved one dies. Didion artfully and purposefully takes the audience down her experience of this path.
In Chapter XXIV, “Funerals” in her book of etiquette, Emily Post so keenly explains, “Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal.” Anderman could not have performed this sentiment more impeccably. Her delivery of Didion’s word, her purposeful movements across stage, and her unflagging consistency convey Didion’s memoir with truth and consistency. Similar to Post’s tone, Didion’s dialogue of consistent specificity, never flags. Her emphasis remains on the practical.
There is certainly something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here, on the part of both Didion and Post. I suppose the difference would be that Post wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view. Didion was not acquainted with death in such a way until it landed, stiff and motionless, on her living room floor.
In her memoir, Didion writes, “One way in which grief gets hidden is that death now occurs largely offstage.” I can say with this play, Didion has put grief onstage.
by Joan Didion
Directed by Nicholas Martin
June 12 – 30, 2012