American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MEN’S LIVES (first perf. 1992; pub. 1994). Written by Joe Pintauro (1930- ), Men’s Lives is a dramatization based on the nonfiction work titled Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork (1986) by Peter Matthiessen* (1927- ). Pintauro’s play adapts Matthiessen’s documentary and chronicles the way of life of the fishing families on the East End of Long Island.

The narrator, “Peter,” interacts with members of one particular old fishing family, alive and dead. In a series of nostalgic flashbacks and stories, Peter tries to impart to the audience the purity and beauty of their tenuous existence, threatened by a shortsighted environmentalist bill that would outlaw their method of fishing. The family is descended from fishermen and neither knows any other way of life nor wants it. Alice, the mother, is proud and thrilled with her life in the shack that she inherited; Lee, the charming oldest son, realizes their impending doom but doesn’t want to change; William, the youngest, just wants to be a fisherman like his father. Shortly after the bill is passed, Walt, the father, dies of a heart attack, and Lee is killed in an alcohol-related accident. William goes to the city to learn a trade, is reduced to mowing lawns for weekenders, and misses home.

The sea in Men’s Lives is a powerful presence, a place of history and natural rhythm, one of fear, death, and beauty. The men and women brought up in its cycles live with it and for it and fear suffocation away from it. They would literally rather die than give up their lives. The sea washes up bones and relics, making concrete the cycles of human history. The fishermen’s close bonds with one another and their simple harmony are presented in sharp contrast to the sport fishermen and corrupt politicians who distort the environmental threat and extinguish a civilization for their own greed or misguided idealism.

Matthiessen’s book includes photo-documentation and a full history of the community from colonial times through the twentieth century. [See also DRAMA OF THE SEA]

Gwen Orel