Saturday, August 7, 2010

Taking the "Measure" of Flannery O'Connor

Several years ago on a visit to Savannah, I came upon Flannery O'Connor's house on Lafayette Square. Her childhood home is now a museum, but that didn't stop me from walking straight up to it and hugging it. Or hugging a corner of it. I've done this with the houses of several writers whose art has deeply influenced the way I see the world. The first time I went to Paris, I walked directly to Gertrude Stein's house and hugged it, too.

But Flannery O'Connor has been in my thoughts these days as I've been reading "Measure for Measure," running Aug. 19-29 as this summer's annual production of Shakespeare at the Stonington Opera House. Director Jeffrey Frace, who played Oberon in last year's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Stonington, has a literary crush on O'Connor and decided to run "Measure" through the filter of her Southern Gothic style and Catholic sensibility. The production reportedly is "dripping kudzu and Spanish moss," according to Linda Nelson, executive director at the Opera House.

Here's what Frace says about O'Connor:

She creates characters and situations that are as real as she can imagine, and then, as events transpire she learns more about them. Often she’s surprised at what transpires. But she is interested in flawed characters, characters suffering from spiritual blindness and in need of grace. Sometimes that moment of grace arrives in this lifetime: often it is accompanied by violence and death. Shakespeare, uncharacteristically, was more merciful on his characters in Measure for Measure. At least they all live. It is a comedy, after all. But there is spiritual blindness a-plenty, and real suffering along the way. And what is at stake is more than the love life of a sympathetic young person or two: it is the health and welfare of a whole community.

Now, for a brief primer on O'Connor:

  • She was born Mary Flannery O'Connor in Savannah, GA in 1925.
  • Her work includes novels, short stories and essays.

  • She studied writing at the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop with the likes of Robert Penn Warren. In her 20s, she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease from which her father died when she was a teen. She died at age 39.

  • She was obsessed with birds.

  • Her work can be very funny and very creepy.

  • It's likely her most famous work is "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," a short story about an argumentative southern family that meets a serial killer. You can see the cutting approach to the human condition in this line about the annoying grandmother in the story: "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

  • Her work is deeply concerned with redemption -- and the tension between the Christian mission and un-Christian people.
That last part makes O'Connor a perfect fit for "Measure for Measure," which shines a surreal light on the workings of justice -- in the state, the city and in love.

Theatergoers always ask me the best way to prepare for attending a production of Shakespeare, and I encourage them to read the original text. This time, I also invite readers to pick up a copy of Flannery O'Connor's short stories and explore her world, too. She and Shakespeare have much to say to each other.