by Bianca Morrison Dillard, dramaturg
Every play is a product of a specific time and place and has references specific to that cultural milieu. As a dramaturg, these “little” references can prove especially difficult if the lingo from the time your play was set has not been carried down, or if it’s not something that was commonly enough referenced for the explanation to be written down.
And, unfortunately, so far, nobody’s put together The Complete and Annotated Works of Philip Barry (I guess he’s not as famous or important as Shakespeare), so all we have is the text itself, which means we have to look elsewhere to decode cultural references that are lost on us today. Below I’ve listed a few cultural references we were able to find enough clues to make sense of. My hope is that they will enrich your understanding of the play as you view it as much as it has enriched our experience in production.
But, the thing is, I’m stuck on a couple of things–and here’s where you can help. I’ve listed a few phrases that we were unable to find a definitive context for. If you have any ideas, please think about putting on your dramaturg hat and helping us out. After all, we live in the age of social media and needn’t be limited to the combined knowledge of a single production team. You can be a dramaturg!
Cultural references we were able to find clues to uncover their context:
“Dan to Beersheba” is a phrase used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the Israelite nation–from Dan, at the Northernmost tip of the settled area, to Beersheba at the southernmost end.
“Hammacher Schlemmerr” was the first national hardware store in the US and holds the record for oldest continuously published catalog in the United States. See if you can spot the joke in the second act that relies on our knowledge that Hammacher Schlemmer is a hardware store and not a fashion designer.
“Grant took bourbon” Most people know that General Ulysses S. Grant loved his liquor. What we discovered is that his preferred drink was bourbon. He was especially fond of “Old Crow.”
References that, even with our combined wisdom, Google, and scholarly searches, still remain a mystery:
“ashman’s touch” One of the characters refers to another who ruins a party by taking it over as having the “ashman’s touch.” It’s not capitalized, leading us to believe it isn’t in reference to a specific person. Is he simply referring to someone who cleans chimneys and would have soiled things had he or she touched them? Or is there something we are missing? Have you heard or used this phrase? Have you read anything else with this phrase?
“Russian L” The line is “If you are so set on being violent get a few Russians in and talk life with a great big L.” Could the character be talking about Lenin? Is his name too horrible to be uttered and must be abbreviated? Was Lenin ever referred to as the big L, or just L?
So, my newly dubbed social media dramaturgs, have you got any ideas? Please share your thoughts, clues, and insights below in the form of a comment. Please take the time to help us follow your trail by including the reference that uncovered the information, even if it’s as simple as, “My grandma used to say that.”
Thank you and good luck!