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A playwright recalls seeing shows with his mother in the '80s, courtesy of TDF
"She loved the theatre, would arrange groups of ten with TDF.
She had lists of people, teacher friends mostly -- we went every week.
10am -- the minute tickets became available -- in bed, pressing the button on her demon dialer."
Those lines are from my play Notes on My Mother's Decline. They're spoken by Son, about halfway through. Mother is asleep. Son, who narrates the piece, is engaged in the act of remembering -- recalling impressionistic, evanescent memories. The piece is largely autobiographical and the memories are mine. Many are about our frequent trips to the Theatre District taken in our pale red, smoke-drenched 1970 Volvo.
My mother had always loved the theatre. She believed deeply in its magic. It's part of what drew her to New York. She was born in Sardis, Mississippi in 1936, the eldest of four. Her father was a drunk. The household was chaotic and violent. Once, my grandmother shot my grandfather in the shoulder after he'd threatened to hit one of the children. Another time, she stabbed him.
My mother found refuge in books, and in her dreams of escape and reinvention. She'd known from a young age that Manhattan was where she belonged, and she spent her childhood preparing for that destiny. Born Eugenia Mae, she rechristened herself Tracy. Her senior year in high school, she traveled to New York with her friends to see Broadway shows, including the original production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Barbara Bel Geddes and Burl Ives. I found the program among her belongings.
My mother moved north soon after college with her first husband, Bill. By the early '60s, they were settled in New York, in a rundown cold-water flat on Lower Second Avenue. I don't know how much theatre she saw in those early years, but I imagine some. I vaguely remember talk of The Living Theatre (she wasn't a fan), and of a distant acquaintance with playwright Amiri Baraka née LeRoi Jones, who lived in the East Village before moving back to his native New Jersey.
Bill and my mother split in the late '60s. A year or two later, she met my father Harold, and they married in June 1970. While pregnant with me the following spring, she found a rent-controlled three-bedroom apartment on 4th and A where she would spend the next 47 years of her life. The original lease (which she held on to, along with every other correspondence from her landlady) indicated that the original rent was $275 a month. After my mother's death in 2017, I got the security deposit back -- with interest: $501. A few months later, the apartment, completely unrenovated, sold for $1.6 million.
I don't recall my parents going to the theatre much when I was a young child, but we started going regularly once I was in middle school and could come along. Although we lived downtown, the shows my mother was interested in were mostly uptown, and the tickets we got were almost always purchased through TDF. This was the early '80s and my mother enjoyed organizing groups of ten or more for these outings. Thanks to her long tenure at Baruch College, where she'd been teaching since 1969, my mother had a wide range of colleagues to invite. I remember standing outside theatres, helping her distribute tickets to her many friends and acquaintances. Their names are etched in my memory: Joyce Barrett, Mary Hiatt, Bob Stolinsky, Fran Barasch, Harry Bixler. She and Harry would go on to organize group trips, for professors mainly, to Egypt, Turkey and Greece, along with theatre trips to London.
We went to the theatre regularly, sometimes as often as twice a week, both on Broadway and off. Most of the productions have faded from my memory, but a few have stuck. I remember quite liking Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road and Tina Howe's Painting Churches. I fondly recall the 1983-84 Broadway revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo starring Al Pacino. As a 12-year-old, I was very into all the cursing. We also caught the 1982 mounting of Sam Shepard's True West with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. I loved the play -- still do -- though the only specific thing I remember from that production is all the toasters on stage in Act II.
And then there were the comedies. Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You paired with The Actor's Nightmare might have been the funniest thing I'd ever seen... until I saw Greater Tuna at Circle in the Square and Larry Shue's The Foreigner at the Astor Place Theatre.
Other plays have remained in my memory for different reasons. Take Steaming, starring Judith Ivey. I was 11 and the cast was naked, though far away as we were at the back of the house. And, thanks to my mother and TDF, I attended the final preview of Broadway's most infamous flop, Moose Murders, which closed the night it opened. Then New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich's extraordinary pan of the comedic whodunit begins: "From now on, there will always be two groups of theatregoers in this world: those who have seen 'Moose Murders,' and those who have not." As a kid, I rather liked the show.
I don't recall exactly when my mother stopped organizing groups. My guess is that it was sometime in the '90s, after I was grown up and out of the house. Perhaps they had become too much work. But as I look back, I feel like those groups had been arranged partly for me, so that I might value theatre and theatregoing as she did: as an activity that was social, communal and important. While raising me, she strove to expose me to all of the arts that New York City had to offer. Her hope was that my childhood would be better than hers, and -- despite my father's long-term unemployment and my parents' eventual divorce -- it was. Clearly seeing all those shows made an impression since I grew up to be a playwright -- a rewarding if not particularly practical life path.
My mother and I had very different theatre tastes. My interests as a writer and audience member lean toward more experimental fare. We did, however, share a love of Tennessee Williams. I thought of her when I saw Cherry Jones' extraordinary performance in The Glass Menagerie a few years back. My mother was still going to the theatre at the time, but she was no longer attending Broadway shows. In her seventies, disabled and beset by anxiety, she couldn't handle Times Square crowds or steep stairs up to the balcony. Instead, she had subscriptions to Playwrights Horizons, Lincoln Center and New York Theatre Workshop. Her dear friend David would drive her to shows, packing a portable wheelchair in the trunk of his car.
In the fall of 2017, my mother's mind seemed to be going. In retrospect, I think she may have had a few mini-strokes earlier that summer. Over the decades, she had made a point of calling me after seeing plays so that I would know her opinions -- something that I did not always welcome. Suddenly, she could no longer effectively describe what she'd seen. She couldn't retain plot anymore. In December she had a large stroke, which paralyzed the left side of her body. Two weeks later she died.
Although I've been working on it for years, I never shared any drafts of Notes on My Mother's Decline with my mom. I didn't want to be beholden to her feelings, to her versions of her life, or mine. I also didn't want to hurt her. After her passing, I revisited the script. The original ending, I came to realize, had been a kind of stand-in; our ending together had to be lived before it could be written.
In the new one, Mother and Son have a conversation after she is dead. They are in Istanbul, her favorite place, on a hotel veranda overlooking the Bosporus. She's in a red silk bathrobe, smoking and eating baklava. He says to her: "I like to think that you would have loved this play. That you would have seen through the haze of sickness to the rhinestones underneath, and pictured yourself in all of your Faulknerian Tennessee Williams East Village glory." And she replies: "It's who I am. I am a glamorous dame. Eugenia Mae Moseley Bragen. Tracy Bragen."
I imagine my mother would have enjoyed that moment of magic. I'm sorry that she won't get to see it.
Top image: The author and his mother during the '80s. Photo courtesy of Andy Bragen.
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