Introduction to The Straw Market
The weeks before the world première of The Straw Market were heady times at Hollins College. To the already august presence of the author, William Jay Smith, who had come to Hollins as Writer in Residence, were added those of two visiting professional actors, Eleanor “Siddie” Wilson and Tom Ligon. Ms. Wilson was a Hollins graduate who would come years later to be one of the college’s major benefactors; Mr. Ligon had not long before given a triumphant performance at Washington’s Arena Stage in the title role of Billy Budd.
The rest of the company was filled out with students and faculty from Hollins’s very active and ambitious Drama Department, and a few other students, including some from the two graduate programs, Psychology and Creative Writing. David Jacobowitz, from Psychology, grew astonishingly from his initial uncertainty—“I don’t think I sing very well,” he said at an early meeting with Bill Smith—to the great energy with which he sold the songs he sang.
The production was directed by another distinguished visitor, Harold Stone, who had done a considerable amount of work in New York, where he was then living. His method, rather than speaking out from the auditorium for all of us to hear, was to start us on a scene, let it go through to the point assigned, and then to come up onstage with his clipboard and go from one to another of us, giving reactions and suggestions that only the person addressed could hear. The professionals had encountered this approach before; the rest of us came more gradually to see how it preserved a degree of spontaneity in our responses to whatever changes had been wrought in our cues.
On opening night it was forbidden, but nevertheless possible, to peek through the curtains as the audience came in. One moment in that procession will stay with a few of us as long as anything does. Bill had invited many of his distinguished friends to attend this performance, and many of them came. Close to curtain time, down the center aisle came Stephen Spender, all six feet five inches of him, topped by that crown of brilliant white hair, to which the formal shirt front he had donned for the occasion seemed but an introductory mark; and on his arm, looking about discreetly from a face kept straight and smilingly ahead, in a full-length shimmering gown, the diminutive Katherine Anne Porter. It was better than opening before royalty.
Even for a budding English teacher, there is nothing like a rehearsal schedule for deepening one’s understanding of a play. The Straw Market displays many charms from the outset. It has a great variety of characters, each of them composed of delicately balanced proportions of the familiar and the unique. The songs are full of liveliness and wit. The setting is weirdly exotic and domestic at once; in the Straw Markets, wherever they are, the con artists await their prey, many of whom come willingly to their fleecing. This last point took a while to register with some of us; it turns out that the eternal theme of the duper and the duped is eternal because some of us prefer not to learn from experience, but to repeat experiences we have previously failed to enjoy. There are those who think this isn’t funny; Smith, fortunately, thinks it is.
Most of the time in this play, the youthful naiveté of Americans or America is set against the background of Europe’s ancient wisdom, not to say threadbare jadedness. However, there are moments when this view is reversed, as when we encounter the freshness of “Florence in the Spring,” or when the cowboy sings of “the old Wabash.” America, like the last few minutes of The Straw Market, may be a new beginning, but the ingredients are what they have been for ages; we are all human.