Notes on Gem of the Ocean (04282021)

Notes for all five sessions consolidated on substack. Click here:

Session #5

I’ll begin with two characters mentioned who show up in subsequent plays in the Cycle. Roper Lee hangs out with Citizen in Gem and shows up again in Joe Turner. Rev. Tolliver preaches the Garret Brown eulogy in Gem and also appears in Joe Turner.

But overall, Gem is Aunt Ester’s play. We meet her as a fully developed character. We find out about her childhood, her children’s names, and even her plans for eventual succession to Black Mary. We learn about her former husbands and current suitors. And Wilson introduces us to her cooking methods, her manner of consulting and giving advice and even her orchestration of the journey to the City of Bones, a process she has obviously supervised before.

In previous sessions we talked about Solly’s day job as a collector of pure, or dog feces. Pure collector is listed as one of the ten worst jobs in London during the Victoria era. Mixing the pure with water makes compound called “bate,” and bate is applied to leather to beak up the fibrous structure to make the leather soft and pliable before the final stage of tanning. I visited rooftop tanning operations in Morocco, but I never saw (or smelled) pure being used. Maybe they do it differently in Morocco.

It’s a bit advanced in the Cycle, but I would like to propose yet another way of describing and analyzing the structure of the plays.

Northrop Frye, a Canadian literature professor, described and analyzed the books of the Bible, and the stories contained therein, in a book named The Code.” As a unified book with a coherent narrative, Fire described the plot changes and development as a “U-shaped Plot” type of comedy, beginning with Genesis and the creation story, followed by a long line of historical disasters and triumphs, concluding with the final victory of the eternal city of Jerusalem at the end of Revelations. The Bible subplots, i.e., the various kingdoms and rulers in the Old Testament, as well as the lives of various disciples, all provide a sort of repetition of images and issues that serve to tie together the many “books” of the Bible, creating as well a sense of deja vu and premonition across the repetitive action and suggesting that the images and issues are “both themselves and not themselves,” suggesting that time itself may be an illusion.

In Frye’s second book, “Words with Power,” he expands his analysis from the internal structure of the Bible above to relationships and interrelationships between Biblical language and thought and the language and thought of everyday life, of mythology and of literature.

You see where I may be going with this.

The decade plays portray triumphs and disasters of families and individuals in the Hill District. In each play there are events that seem to take the wind out of the sails of the characters, especially the protagonists. But in each play there is a little something at the end that suggests that the tide may be turning and the ultimate fate, improving.

There is repetition, of character personality types and of issues, like incarceration, inter-community violence, urban renewal and gentrification, theft of land and refusal to pay an honest wage, and we see infidelity, and distrust, and resentment. The repetition, on the surface, might suggest a deficit of imagination on the part of the playwright, But that would be a very superficial analysis that overlooks the role of repletion as a unifying factor across the decades as well as across the plays themselves

We see interspliced the language of religion and spiritualism and the language of everyday life, augmented occasionally by the language of the blues, Wilson would add, always descriptive of a less than optimal situation, but always celebratory at some level.

Frye wrote about the primary concerns of life, the things we share with all plant and animal life, like food, drink, sex, property and freedom of movement, all embodied in myth and literature. Then he contrasts these with secondary concerns of religion, class, nation, tribe and their concerns, piety, virtue, patriotism, embodied in culture.

We see these issues played out in the alternation of decades in the Cycle plays. Wilson goes out of his way to focus our attention on food, drink, sex (in a subtle way – the plays are never pornographic), and certainly property and freedom of movement. Every play features these things prominently. But there is also the focus, often soft-pedaled, on piety, virtue and patriotism and we can think of plenty of examples.

The long and short of it is that Frye provides us an interesting model to thinking about the plays, but we have to work past the inherent resistance to comparing Wilson’s storytelling to that of the Bible.

Columbia, Gem of the Ocean has its own interesting story twists. Was it an original or was it copied by/from Britannia, Pride of the Ocean? (See Session #2). Was its author Thomas A’Beckett, David Shaw, or George Willig? What is the significance of its 1957 revival in the Broadway hit, The Music Man, a musical about a fraudulent band director and a con man?

One final post-discussion idea is the meaning of the title away from the above idiosyncracies of the song. Perhaps, as someone in the group discussion mentioned, the actual “gem” is the City of Bones itself, and not just the name of a ship. “It is a beautiful city,” Aunt Esther describes, where “the people made a kingdom out of nothing.” What if it’s not the lady with the flame in the Columbia Pictures logo, nor her antecedent in Roman mythology, Minerva, nor her antecedent in Greek mythology, Athena, all representative of Isis, of the great Egyptian pantheon, but an actual submerged city, maybe even the mystical Atlantis.

And maybe, to extend the metaphor even further, the submerged City of Bones represents not necessarily an ancient underwater city, but the promised destiny of America, lost at sea by a mean and selfish sea captain.


p.s. The Youtube playlist:


Session #4

Structure: Gem of the Ocean is one of two plays in the cycle to have a prologue. Why might a play have a prologue?

They say Euripides invented the prologue. He prefixed a prologue to the beginning of his plays to explain upcoming action and make it comprehensible for his audience. Other dramatists in Ancient Greece continued this tradition, making the prologue a part of the formula for writing plays. Greek prologues generally explained events that happened in time before the time depicted in the play. Roman dramatists carried the prologue to a new level, giving even greater importance to this initial part of their plays.

From Wikipedia:

In what is perhaps a coincidence, French playwright John Racine introduced his play, Esther, a choral tragedy, with a prologue with the character Piety as its speaker. The prologue in Gem features Eli, described as Aunt Ester’s gatekeeper and a friend to Solly.

“The actor reciting the prologue would appear dressed in black, a stark contrast to the elaborate costumes used during the play. The prologue removed his hat and wore no makeup. He may have carried a book, scroll, or a placard displaying the title of the play. He was introduced by three short trumpet calls, on the third of which he entered and took a position downstage. He made three bows in the current fashion of the court, and then addressed the audience.

The Elizabethan prologue was unique in incorporating aspects of both classical and medieval traditions. In the classical tradition, the prologue conformed to one of four subgenres: the sustatikos, which recommends either the play or the poet; the epitimetikos, in which a curse is given against a rival, or thanks given to the audience; dramatikos, in which the plot of the play is explained; and mixtos, which contains all of these things. In the medieval tradition, expressions of morality and modesty are seen, as well as a meta-theatrical self-consciousness, and an unabashed awareness of the financial contract engaged upon by paid actors and playwrights, and a paying audience.”

The other play in the cycle with a prologue is King Hedley II, the play set in the 1980’s where Aunt Ester dies.

Aunt Ester is featured very prominently in Gem. Of course, the setting of the play is Aunt Ester’s house, 1839 Wylie, and we know that 1839 refers to the year of the Amistad mutiny, a revolt by enslaved Africans that resulted ultimately in repatriation to Sierra Leone and, perhaps most importantly, in a crystallization of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Perhaps Wilson could have used 1831 Wylie, in homage to Nat Turner’s revolt, or 1859 Wylie, in homage to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The difference, perhaps, is in the success of the Armistad versus the failure of the other two. Perhaps.

Interesting that Eli opens the Prologue with the exhortation “This is a peaceful house.” It is a peaceful house every day, but Aunt Ester will only see visitors on Tuesdays. In one of the previous sessions, a group member revealed that in the Yoruba calendar, Tuesday is day three of a four day week and is devoted to the Orisha, Ogun. According to a book about the Yoruba religion, The Way of the Orisha (available online), “Tuesday belongs to Ogun and rituals for overcoming enemies or conflicts are best performed on this day.” We’d love it if Wilson intentionally aligned Aunt Ester’s Tuesday with the Yoruba Tuesday, but perhaps that is just another coincidence. Perhaps not.

Citizen Barlow has just recently arrived from down south and is basically homeless, sleeping under a bridge. Aunt Ester takes him in, gives him a room, and provides him work with Eli building a wall around back. The stated purpose of the wall is to “keep Caesar on the other side.” Caesar is a local law enforcement agent/officer, so keeping him out adds to the sanctuary nature of the house.

Early in Act Two, preparing for the trip to the City of Bones, Aunt Ester instructs Black Mary to “Go get the map.” Following a monologue with Mr. Citizen, Black Mary enters with a quilt that has a map embroidered on it. We can talk about how an embroidered quilt is a type of archive with information embedded in it. Historians have differing opinions about whether quilts were used as signaling devices for escaping slaves on the underground railroad. Interesting that Wilson decided to associate the map to the City of Bones with a quilt. It certainly could have just been a map.

One more tidbit and I am going to close out this “introduction.” William Cullen Bryant is supposed to have written at age 17 the famous poem, Thanatopsis, a portion of which appears is Act Two Scene Two and is echoed at the very end of the play. A year later, when Bryant went away to law school, his father found the poem and submitted a draft of it to the North American Review, a publication still in print. Critics doubted the authenticity of the poem, much like Wilson’s 9th grade teacher doubted his authorship of his paper on Napoleon. Later in life, critics accused Wilson of borrowing heavily from the playwright Arthur Miller, or at least emulating his style. So, as an aside, why is the partial text of Thanatopsis included in the play?

From William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Session #1 notes on Gem of the Ocean

Session #2 notes on Gem of the Ocean

Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (pre-group meeting)

Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (post-group meeting)

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