Double the “Ups” Means Double the Downers? Carpenter’s “Up,” Day 1

Up, Day 1

Click here for discussion questions on Up.

Carpenter’s play Up will be running from June 28 until August 23 at Steppenwolf in Chicago; meanwhile, Disney/Pixars’s Up has been playing in movie theaters since May 28. In addition to sharing a title, both revolve around an older male protagonist who has aspired to fly from a young age  and used helium balloons to do so.  Hard to believe, but this is mere coincidence, and there is no conscious link between the two works.  Or at least so claims Carpenter, whose play received its first production six years ago, in 2003 in Perseverance, Alaska.  Check out this interview with her from June 15, which touches on this point and others.  I can’t recall the link at the moment, but I also read somewhere that years back Carpenter worked as a writer for Disney…hmmm…  

I saw the film a few weeks ago before reading the play, and I had no idea what was in store. You want the truth? Here it is: Disney’s Up is  bit of a downer!  This is an animated film for adults that kids can also appreciate; not the reverse formula we have become familiar with in films such as Aladdin, Shrek, or Madagascar that cater to kids but also feature fond and familiar voices of adult actors and comedians.  In the first few moments of the film, I found myself being easily captivated by the pleasant colors, images, and sounds that accompanied my initial meeting of the main character, Carl Frederickson, a boy who idolizes a famous pilot and aspires to fly like he does. On his way home one day, he sees and enters an abandoned house, where he meets Elllie, a tomboy who shares his passion and who will eventually become his wife. What follows next is a quick succession of scenes set to music without dialogue: their courtship and marriage, their work at a zoo, Ellie’s pregnancy woes, and eventual death. We are left, then, with a curmudgeonous, 78-year-old version of Carl to take us through the remaining 60 minutes of the film. It is heavy. Maybe not for my 3 year old, but for me, at least. Even the end of the film, in which Mr. Frederickson accompanies Russell, his boy scout sidekick on an excursion to South America in a house propelled by helium balloons, to the award ceremony where Russell receives his badge for helping the elderly, is weighty and emotional because Russell’s dad is absent. I realize Bambi’s mother dies in that classic and that the step-mother in Cinderella, and the evil queen in Snow White are far from pleasant. But this film’s depiction of miscarriage, aging, and mortality is almost too realistic, and some may wish Disney had buffered these themes with a few more fairy tale film conventions. 

On the other hand, I fully expect to be confronted with brutal realities of life in contemporary plays such as Carpenter’s.  Even musicals these days take on heavy subjects: Next to Normal, after all, is about a manic-depressive suburban woman.  What I find most interesting about Carpenter’s play compared to the Disney film is the fact that her play manages to depress me less.  And this is not merely because no one dies in her play.  The play explores concrete, mature subjects: the troubled marriage of Walter and Helen Griffin and its effects on the Griffin family dynamic and the couple’s relationship with their son, Mikey; the tumultuous life of the pregnant teenager, Maria, whose mother cast her out to live with her rough-around-the-edges Aunt Chris; and the relationship between Mikey and Maria that bursts as quickly as it blossoms; all of which play out against the backdrop of Walter Griffin’s life-long penurious whims of invention.  Yet Up manages to uplift in the final two scenes, by emphasizing the value of something that can not be assigned a dollar sign, namely, love, and by traveling backwards in time 15 years to highlight the power, awe, virtue, and charm of curiosity, creativity, and imagination.

Biographical information on Carpenter.

At “New Dramatists” you can find a complete list of Bridget Carpenter’s plays, accompanied by brief synopses.

At Doollee, a database of playwrights, you can find a  history of premieres of Carpenter’s plays.  Up was first staged in 2003, but not published until this year.

Below Carpenter discusses her inspiration for writing Up. This clip originally appeared on the Steppwolf website.  

One Response to “Double the “Ups” Means Double the Downers? Carpenter’s “Up,” Day 1”
  1. Stephen Tillman says:

    Alright, so I haven’t been keeping up with the summer reading… my bad. I repent. I am particularly interested in reading Up because it’s 2009 publication date and apparent relationship to the Disney movie makes it appear much less intimidating than the earlier writers whose works have been discussed on DramaDaily. I assume Up will be a quite different, perhaps easier read. I’ll see when it arrives; I ordered the play just a moment ago.

    I had done some reading up on Carpenter and actually came across this same video, and yes, it is very hard to believe that Disney’s and Carpenter’s works have no correlation despite the resemblance they bear of one another; however, I’ve not yet seen the picture or read the play.

    From what I’ve heard in the video, Up seems to be rooted in strong character development. She mentioned that for her, theater was a way to get what she wanted by writing a story that she wished were true, in this case, a story about Larry Walters, whom she wishes were still alive. I am always fascinated with authors who use the premise of fact to gain leverage in works of fiction.

    Another thing that stood out to me was the way Carpenter said that she “gave him [Larry Walters] a family and a life beyond” his flight. I can already picture Carpenter’s Walter as a rich, believable, well-developed character. At least that’s what I look forward to.

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