Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #233: The Underpants by Sternheim & Martin

As far as I can recall or search, I've never reviewed a play here -- neither a production or a script. This is semi-surprising, for a few reasons: I wrote a lot about movies, for a number of years; I've been seeing five or six stage shows a year with my sons for most of the last decade; I've covered books of very varied types; and I've always had a tropism to things that read quickly (particularly when I'm doing something like the current Book-A-Day run). I also started off my publishing career, in part, assisting on The Fireside Theatre, a departed (and I hope lamentedly so) reprinter of playscripts. But that's the truth: this is the first time I'm writing about something with stage directions.

The Underpants is Steve Martin's version of Carl Sternheim's 1910 farce Die Hose: Martin's introduction focuses on the work of adapting Sternheim to the modern day and idiom, and neglects to mention that Sternheim wrote in German. So it's unclear from the beginning who did what: did Martin translate Sternheim into English, along the way of adapting it? Did he work from some "official" translation, from 1910 or later, by Sternheim or someone else? The book doesn't say, so I'm working on the assumption that all of the work post-1910 -- turning Die Hose into The Underpants, from German to English, from then to now -- is Martin's.

Martin didn't move the action of Die Hose, though: like the original, The Underpants takes place in 1910 Dusseldorf, one Sunday after a parade featuring the King and over the few days afterward. It may have a modern sensibility and concerns, but Martin hasn't moved it or changed the essential nature of the characters.

During that parade, one pretty young woman, Louise Maske, rose on tiptoes to see better, and her (old-fashioned, pre-elastic, tied-at-the-side) underwear fell down off her hips to her ankles. (Shades of Art Frahm!) Her husband, the dull, aggressively masculine and utterly rule-abiding Theo, is horrified, mostly at what this may do for his career. (He is something of a German caricature, of the kind only another German would zero in on.)

The Maskes have a spare room that they've been trying to rent, and they quickly have two potential tenants, both of whom witnessed the event at the parade: Frank Versati, a young gentleman who wants to seduce Louise nearly as much as he wants to write poetry about her; and Benjamin Cohen, a barber with less-defined desires who quickly decides what he really wants to do is foil Versati. Thrown into the mix is Gertrude Deuter, the upstairs middle-aged busybody widow, who loves gossip and wants to have an affair vicariously through Louise.

Theo is too unimaginative to see what the renters are about, but also too avaricious not to take advantage of them: he crudely divides the room and rents it to both of them. And Louise has almost realized that she doesn't care for Theo: she wants more out of life, and her brief reality-show-like fame as the underpants-dropper could get her some excitement and affection for once.

What follows is a farce, but it's a German farce: it's more about feelings and desires and thwarted ambitions and changed circumstances than actual sex and love and the flesh. There are no slamming doors, and the underwear on display later in the play are mostly in he hands of Gertrude, showing off pieces she made for Louise. And perhaps it can be more accurately called a satire, since no one quite gets what they want. It's a play about sex, and sexual desire, rather than a sexy play.

As usual with Martin, the language is impeccable and the dialogue sparkling -- there's no sign at all in the words that this was originally in another language. The audience for The Underpants as a book will be inherently limited: it's not a novel, and most people don't like reading raw dialogue and stage directions. But it's a smart and interesting farce, and, having read it, I now hope I can someday see a production.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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