Unmeasured Pleasure: Metering Couplets and Desire with David Grimm
WILL BLUNT: I’m no one’s clown; I’ve had enough of playing your buffoon.
From now on, if you want to dance, it’s Blunt who’ll call the tune!
Like many characters in Restoration comedies, Will Blunt lives up to his emblematic name. Even when challenged to a duel, he is as dangerous as a dull knife. Words are his weapons and, although he is a servant, he speaks candidly to anyone who will listen. Will is particularly fond of talking to the audience, who he instructs not to fall asleep since, as they know, “theatre ain’t cheap.”
WILL BLUNT: See, once you get past all the staggering excitement of discovering when the sun comes up, there’s light, and when it buggers off, it’s dark, there’s really very little left worth writing home about. Assuming that you have a home. Assuming you know how to write. Assuming anyone gives two wet farts if you should live or die.
Will changes his tune when he falls in love with Molly, a cross-dressing maid who turns his life into “complete and utter bollocks.” Molly falls for Dick Dashwood, who is about to lose the love of his life to Will’s libidinous master, Sir Peter Lustforth, and they all have a penchant for duels, disguises, and their local sex cave.
Literary scholars might assume they would find these characters in an 18th century Restoration comedy such as The Rover or The Rivals. The most devout character in their farce, Dame Stickle, certainly seems to have been pinched from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Although we meet these characters in their 1751 milieu, their playwright, David Grimm, is alive and well and living in Brooklyn. He has been recognized for his comic writing talents with such awards as the Bug ‘N Bub Playwriting Award, and his plays have been produced by theatres such as La Jolla Playhouse, Public Theatre, and Hartford Stage. His new play, Measure for Pleasure, has been called a neo-Restoration comedy crossed with a modern sex farce.
A writer writes about their own time and place, no matter when or where the play is set.
Measure for Pleasure opens at the Public Theatre this month with the advantage of having been workshopped at Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah last summer. In its idyllic mountain setting, Sundance is designed to support creative artists and the development of their new work. Support typically includes an artistic team, rehearsal space, and music stands for a staged reading during the final week of the lab. For David and his director, Peter DuBois, support expanded to eighteenth century costumes, set pieces, and props (including a large dildo which is surprisingly easy to come by in Mormon territory). Instead of remaining in the rehearsal hall for their staged “reading,” they sweet-talked their way into an outdoor amphitheatre on the side of Sundance mountain.
One might think from these measures that David’s emphasis at the Lab was on lifting his play from the page to the stage, but he kept a close eye on the script throughout the process. Plays rehearse every other day at Sundance, giving playwrights time to rewrite, and he consistently took advantage of his writing days. Measure for Pleasure actors, including Taboo star Euan Morton and Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight, were so fervent about the play and its future at the Public that they decided to memorize the script, even as it changed with his constant revisions. After three weeks of rehearsals and rewrites in a state which does not allow bartenders to measure their “for pleasure” (drinks are metered at one ounce per serving and beers are under 3.2%), Measure for Pleasure was a huge success on the amphitheatre’s windy stage.
The incredibly supportive community of artists at Sundance emboldened me to experiment with a range of storytelling techniques and gave me the opportunity to further the emotional depth of the characters in a very organic way.
In person, David is as quick-witted as the characters in his neo-Restoration comedy. He smiles wryly and waves a cigarette around like a silk fan as he dispenses waggish remarks. When it was time for his actors to incorporate fans in rehearsals at Sundance, he had so closely regarded the moves of his favorite opera singer in Marriage of Figaro, he could demonstrate proper fan gesticulation as if it were second nature to him. “Talk to the fan!” he quipped, and, as is not uncommon when in his company everyone within earshot burst into laughter.
Language can tickle, it can stab, it can move us to laughter, tears, meditation.
I spent July at Sundance and assisted with Measure for Pleasure. My favorite task was to find all the rhyming couplets in the play. I felt like a detective, searching out sister sounds even when they were hidden in the middle of a line. Sometimes my sleuthing went, admittedly, a little too far and I would find sets of rhyming words that were too close to each other to form a couplet. David and his dramaturg, Jocelyn Clarke of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, reined me in so that my final list solely included true rhyming couplets, but this close investigation of the text encouraged me to focus on the rhythmic patterns in the play’s speeches. For instance, Will Blunt usually speaks in prose, but sometimes arrives at a fourteen-syllable ballad meter as in the “I’m no one’s clown…” lines above.
David recently told me about his interest in the possibility of a theatrical opera in which the only music is spoken language. Measure for Pleasure might be considered an unsung opera buffa, the comic opera style from Italy that features dialogue sung in the rhythm of everyday speech. David’s arias and leitmotifs would be the sound of verse rushing into prose, characters finishing each other’s verse, and alliteration touching a seemingly impossible amount of words in a line. Even though many of the rhyming couplets are meant to excite laughter, the play sidesteps the feeling of a sing-songy translation of Molière because David does not sacrifice content for form. The characters are often unreasonable in their pursuit of passion, but there is always a reason for their rhymes. Their verses emphasize ideas, complete thoughts and, not incidentally, can induce sidesplitting laughter.
A rhyme, well placed, can create something magical. The tradition for this goes back further than Shakespeare. Today it is most alive and
thriving in Hip-hop culture. It’s the sound of our heart beating through language.
Even if the ornate fans and artful conversations in Measure for Pleasure succeed in whisking audiences away to 1751, the play ultimately triggers thoughts of our own time and place when, at its conclusion, two male characters promise to love and marry each other. But just because the play will likely find resonance with current audiences does not mean it should be labeled an “issue play.” The playwright does not want his characters to be reduced to agendas and issues, and I frankly don’t see how they can be. If they are to be reduced to anything, it should be their inexorable desires. In every one of his characters in Measure for Pleasure, David magnifies the deep passion that is so great a part of human experience. Whether they pursue a transvestite prostitute, a virginal bride, or “sweet King Jesu,” desire is the commonality that brings these diverse characters together.
WILL BLUNT: Is happiness only for children and the mentally deranged? Perhaps that is the price we pay to learn to be adults. What’s
an adult then but a sad and lonely git who doesn’t have the merest clue of how to see or think or feel or talk to anyone at all. If happiness
is born of innocence, I want it back. I want to run and laugh and dance and know that I’m alive.
Comedies often end in marriage because the ritual signifies union and happiness. Once duels are dispensed with and disguises are disrobed, the characters in Measure for Pleasure recognize their shared humanity and treat each other with compassion. This is a far more meaningful goal for our own world than “tolerance,” which is a word, I have discovered, that both David and I hate. Who wants to be tolerated? In playing up our desire to love and be loved, Measure for Pleasure reminds us that we are together in our quest for fulfillment. We can learn from comedies. They advocate pleasure without measure.
Measure for Pleasure, by David Grimm, directed by Peter DuBois, runs through March 26th at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Manhattan. Tickets: $50, at 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
David Grimm, a resident of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter and the recipient of an NEA/TCG Residency Grant. His other plays include “Kit Marlowe” and “The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue” He has taught playwriting at Yale and Columbia, and is a member of New Dramatists. Currently, he is working on several new projects, including a comedy about torture.
Cristina Pippa is a playwright who no longer lives in Brooklyn, but in Buffalo, where she teaches at Buffalo State College and is an Artist in Residence at the Center for the Arts.