September 10, 2014

book revOur tuxedo cat, Nora, was not named for James Joyce’s wife. She and her brother Nick got their names from Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) of The Thin Man movies. That said, it wasn’t until I was curled up with her early one morning reading Joyce’s Dubliners, which was published 100 years ago this June, that I made the Joycean connection. In addition to her name, Nora the cat shares Nora Joyce’s no-nonsense disposition. Just when she’s nuzzling and purring most blissfully, she’ll abandon me without so much as a farewell meow, and though she doesn’t expect breakfast in bed like Nora Joyce’s fictional alter ego Molly Bloom, she wakes me at 6 a.m. with a poke of the paw and down I go sleepwalking to the kitchen to open the cat food for her and her big brother.

Fighting for His Art

My Nora stayed within cuddling range right through to the end of “Two Gallants,” a slice of Dublin street life that evokes the moment when Joyce approached Nora Barnacle of Galway (“a tall young woman, auburn-haired, walking with a proud stride”) on Nassau Street in Dublin, spoke to her, and set things in motion for a meeting that took place on June 16, 1904, the day Joyce singled out for Ulysses, thereafter known and celebrated as Bloomsday. My reason for reading “Two Gallants,” however, is that it was the story “destined to precipitate disaster” for Dubliners, according to Richard Ellman’s James Joyce (1959). An English publisher, Grant Richards, had accepted the book early in 1906, a contract had been drawn up and signed, and all was well until the printer had issues with “Two Gallants” and then went on to mark passages in other stories he deemed objectionable. The result was a domino effect, with Richards taking a closer look and finding more to object to, including the use of the adjective “bloody” in various stories and numerous suggestive sexual nuances, not to mention unflattering references to Edward VII. Joyce argued that these details were crucial to the stories, that cutting them would leave Dubliners “like an egg without salt.” Richards not only stood his ground, he asked that “Two Gallants” be dropped altogether, and eventually decided against publishing the book, putting Joyce off with a vague promise “to do the stories later.”

In 1912 Joyce fought the good fight even more doggedly than before, this time with an Irish publisher, who came to the conclusion that the book was “anti-Irish” and whose demands for cuts and changes were even more excessive and peremptory than Grant Richard’s (a key problem was Joyce’s persistent use of real names for various pubs and places of business). In the end, though the book had been typeset, the publisher refused to publish it. Fortunately Joyce managed to obtain a complete set of the proofs before the printer destroyed the lot. Thanks to the proofs Joyce rescued, thus bypassing another fretful printer, the first edition of Dubliners was published in June 1914 — by Grant Richards.

Heroic Joyce

As can happen with geniuses as witty, eloquent, and indomitable as Joyce, the flap occasioned by Dubliners was almost worth the long delay, given the colorful blowback it inspired. In one letter on the first go-round with Richards, Joyce makes a Cyclops of his nemesis: “O one-eyed printer! Why has he descended with his blue pencil, full of the Holy Ghost, upon these passages?” He then urges Richards to join him in elevating English taste, reflecting on whether English literature “deserves or not the eminence which it occupies as the laughing-stock of Europe.” In another letter, the self-exiled author becomes a moral and spiritual patriot in the cause of salvaging the threatened passages: “If I eliminate them what becomes of the chapter of the moral history of my country? … I have taken the first step towards the spiritual liberation of my country.”

Richards chides Joyce, telling him he “could not afford to be so heroic about his art.” Of course one of Joyce’s most characteristic qualities is his heroic vision of himself, his struggle, his art, and the sordid poetry with which he makes his case: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”

Joyce’s Range

Joyce shaped the order of the stories to reflect the movement from childhood to youth to adulthood and old age, from solitude to society to death. In the opening paragraph of the first story, “The Sisters,” a boy inhabited by the author gazes up at the lighted window of the room where the old priest who had been his “great friend” lies dying, and says softly to himself the word “paralysis,” which sounded “like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.”

After the Joyce who can expand on the word “paralysis” in the style of Walter Pater describing the Mona Lisa, there’s the Joyce with an ear for the street talk of Lenehan and Corley in “Two Gallants,” which I read aloud with Nora the cat throatily ruminating at my side. Who could resist giving voice to Lenehan’s reaction to Corley’s tale of conquest: “Well …. That takes the biscuit! …. That takes the solitary, unique, and, if I may so call it, recherché biscuit!” And when Lenehan asks about a second pick-up, Corley says, “One night, man …. I was going along Dame Street and I spotted a fine tart under Waterhouse’s clock, and said good-night, you know. So we went for a walk round by the canal, and she told me she was a slavey in a house in Baggot Street. I put my arm round her and squeezed her a bit that night. Then next Sunday, man, I met her by appointment. We went out to Donnybrook and I brought her into a field there …. It was fine, man.”

It was poetry, man. Especially when you recall how James Joyce picked up a girl from Galway on Nassau Street and later “met her by appointment,” an everyday Dublin liaison that changed the course of 20th-century literature. When Joyce spoke to Nora Barnacle, she was not “a slavey,” just a chambermaid at a “slightly exalted rooming house” then called Finn’s Hotel. Had there been no Nora in Joyce’s life, Ulysses would be without the Molly Bloom who performs the long and lusty night song that brings the book home to the essence of its humanity, a sexually active woman saying “Yes.” When Nora claimed not to have read a word of “that book,” and said that “nothing would induce her to open it,” Princeton native Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Company and publisher/savior of Ulysses, knew Nora had no need to read it since she herself was “the source of the book’s inspiration” and one of the luckiest things that “ever befell” its author.

Michael’s Song

Nora Barnacle was no less vital to “The Dead,” the masterpiece that brings Dubliners to its moving conclusion. For the first 40 pages of the 57-page story the scene is a holiday party hosted by two elderly sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, where numerous characters, themes and motifs are kept in play, interacting with and accompanied by a subtle recognition in the prose of a “death in life” undercurrent of disembodied sounds and voices,

At the center of the story, which Joyce conceived in Rome in 1907, is Kate and Julia’s nephew, Gabriel Conroy, whose wife Gretta is from the provinces like Nora (“country cute” says Gabriel’s mother). Though there are some distinct differences, it’s clear that Gretta and Gabriel are modeled on Nora and Joyce, who had only been together three years and thus were still in close proximity to the incident that inspired the story’s justly renowned conclusion. As Ellman recounts, Nora had been courted by a tubercular boy named Michael in Galway the year before she met Joyce. Michael “stole out of his sick room in spite of the rainy weather, to sing to her under an apple tree and bid her goodbye.” Shortly after this happened, Nora went to Dublin, where she learned that the boy had died.

If you read Ellman’s biography, you know how sensitive Joyce would have been to the idea of a wife haunted by the thought of a boy who might have died for love of her. He himself was so haunted by the notion that he wove it into the fabric of “The Dead.”

As the party ends, Gabriel is in the entry hall making conversation with the departing guests when he sees Gretta at the top of the stairs, “listening to something.” All he can hear is “a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.” When Gretta comes down she’s so deep in the plaintive mood of the music, she seems unaware of the talk going on around her. Back in their room at the hotel, she’s still abstracted, still in the music. He asks what she’s thinking about. She mentions the name of the song and bursts into tears. Asked why the song makes her cry, she says, “I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.” Almost in spite of himself, he wants to know more, and every word she says harrows his heart — “I think he died for me …,” “I was great with him at that time …,” “Poor fellow … he was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy …,” “O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!”

The rest of the story defies paraphrasing. There’s no way to do justice to the extended coda that begins with a single sentence — ”She was fast asleep” — followed by five paragraphs resembling movements or themes in a sonata with the title, “One by one, they were all becoming shades.” As Gabriel’s soul approaches “that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead,” James Joyce enters “that region where dwell the vast hosts” of English language and literature, which he will in time meditate upon, explore and exploit, unmake and remake, but never again quite so simply and beautifully as he does here with “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

———

Nora’s looking up at me as I write, not unlike Leopold Bloom’s “pussens” as she stalks (“Prr. Scratch my head. Prr … Mkgnao!”) over his writing table.

“Mr. Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes.”

What do you know, “the pussens” is a tuxedo.

 

September 3, 2014

book revWhen I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer — say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, … it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.

—Mozart, from a letter

My ideas flow best when I’m driving a Honda CRV named Moby, preferably with music on the stereo. For more than a month now it’s been all Mozart, the piano concertos, with a loving emphasis on the slow second movements generally referred to as andantes. I try to keep the volume at a reasonable level, but Mozart will have none of it, and if you’ve been walking on Patton Avenue, or Ewing, or Mount Lucas Road, or Harrison Street, north or south, in recent days, you may have heard your friendly Mozart Mobile driving by, scattering fragments of Amadeus on the ambient air, all from the concertos I’ve been listening to, namely numbers 9 (“one of the wonders of the world,” says Alfred Brendel), 20 (Stalin’s favorite), 21 (remember Elvira Madigan?), and 27 (the last one). Imagine a Good Humor truck without the ice cream, that’s me.

Another recent event that has improved the flow of my ideas, such as they are, is that after coming from behind to win three games in a row, the St. Louis Cardinals have taken sole possession of first place in the Central Division of the National League for the first time this year. What has this got to do with Mozart, you may ask? Not a thing, except that I think were he given the opportunity, he would have liked watching baseball almost as much as he liked playing billiards.

There’s even a hint of the notion of “coming from behind” in the dynamic of the andantes. What would you rather have, an easy win, as clear cut as a 10-0 shut-out, or a hard-fought victory against odds? True, baseball, unlike billiards, is a team sport. But then so is the concerto, where one person sits at the piano surrounded and supported by a community of musicians. Keeping in mind that andante is the present participle of andare, to walk, meaning that the music should be played “at a walking pace,” this puts the pianist in the role of a single lonely thoughtful figure not unlike a pitcher working his way through a tough inning, his job being to allow no further scoring. Keep in mind as well what Mozart said in the letter, that the ideas “flow best” when he is “entirely alone.” Of course when the crisis comes, the lonely pitcher needs his teammates, and nothing, not even a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, can equal Mozart when the orchestra swoops down and takes full possession of the melody. Then it’s as if the lonely, onward-striding human bravely sustaining the melodic line, seeing it through to the end, looks up to behold a sky that is to all the skies ever seen as Mozart is to all the music ever heard and Shakespeare to all the words ever read.

Stalin’s Olga

Driving past our former residence on Patton Avenue with Stalin’s favorite piano concerto on the stereo, I thought of the spring morning when I was invited over by our musician neighbors Bill and Janis to meet little Olga, who was having a piano lesson with Janis. This was no ordinary kid, this was Svetlana’s Olga, Joseph Stalin’s granddaughter. At the time of my visit many Aprils ago, I didn’t know how strongly Olga’s grandfather’s felt about K. 466, Mozart’s no. 20. So this drive-by was my way of celebrating a memorable Princeton moment. While Svetlana seemed shy, quiet, and pleasant, her Olga was a six-year-old life force. I thought again of all the energy bouncing off the living room walls of that little house while watching Valentina Lisitsa play K. 466 on YouTube. As she attacked the keyboard, swaying her head, all but singing the andante to herself, did this Ukrainian pianist know how close Joseph Stalin was to the music she was giving herself to so passionately? Did she know that the man responsible for the deadly Ukrainian famine had a recording of the same concerto on a record player in his room the day he died?

A Mount Lucas Moment

Driving toward town on Mount Lucas Road one recent sunny summer day with another Mozart andante on the car stereo, I pass two people walking in the same direction, first a woman in her thirties, in untucked blouse, jeans, and sandals, her brown-gold hair tied back, and in the next block a teen-age girl in shorts, halter, and sandals, her blond hair in a ponytail. The woman walks thoughtfully, the girl lightly, carefree; both are smiling to themselves. Neither looks up as the Mozart Mobile passes, releasing the chillingly beautiful slow movement from Piano Concerto No. 21 into the morning air, the music merging with the moment, the day, the light, the woman and the girl, each walking in her own way, no longer visible, gone with the coda, the piano ending its own promenade, note by simple note.

Some Passing Impressions

After listening to Mozart’s String Quintet in G-minor, in June 1816, 19-year-old Franz Schubert tells his journal “The magic notes of Mozart’s music still gently haunt me …. Thus does our soul retain these fair impressions, which no time, no circumstances can efface, and they lighten our existence. They show us in the darkness of this life a bright, clear, lovely distance, for which we hope with confidence.”

In February 1903, 41-year-old Claude Debussy observes that Mozart’s E-flat symphony is “full of a luminous lightness, like a group of lovely children laughing joyfully in the sunshine!”

Michael Kelly (1762-1826), an Irish tenor who knew Mozart well when both men were in their twenties, says that though Wolfgang could be touchy, “like gunpowder,” he was “lovable,” and when his face was “lighted up with the glowing rays of genius,” it was as impossible to describe “as it would be to paint sunbeams.”

Billiards and Dancing

Of all the biographies, critical studies, and books of letters I’ve consulted in this spell of mid-to-late-summer Mozart madness, the most rewarding has been Paul Johnson’s short but densely informative Mozart: A Life (Viking 2013). It was thanks to Johnson that I found Michael Kelly and his first-hand account of playing billiards with Mozart, who spoke fluent English, picked up during 15 months spent in London when he was a boy. “Again and again I played with him at billiards,” Kelly recalls, “and I always came off second best.” As Johnson tells it, when Mozart entered a public billiards room, he had music paper in his pocket “and composed while waiting his turn. He calculated a long break as twenty or thirty bars. ‘Right! Three pots in a row! Now what key was I in?’ ‘Oh, come on, Wolfgang, it’s your turn!’”  Once he moved to Vienna for good in 1781, he had a billiard table of his own in his apartment. According to Johnson, “He had a fetish about smooth, rolling objects. He liked to handle them while thinking and creating. Billiard balls were perfect for this purpose.”

It’s not clear how Johnson knows that Mozart actually rolled the balls in his hand while thinking, but if you don’t push it too hard, the compositional connection makes sense. What better discipline for a musician than playing a game that puts the harmonic dynamic in action as the chiming collision of one rolling object with another sends it spinning toward its sublime, shining alter ego?

At this point, after declaring that “God, music, and billiards were the main components of Mozart’s life,” Johnson adds a fourth — “dancing” — which “probably explained why he was so eager to make his home in Vienna,” at that time “the dance capital of the world.”

Johnson’s next line deserves a spot by itself:

“Mozart danced all his life, virtually to his deathbed.”

Phrases like that one are what make Johnson’s life of Mozart so engaging, You sense that rather than laboring, he’s enjoying his subject, even if it means spinning that sentence about a man who once called death “the best and truest friend of mankind, the key that unlocks the door to our true happiness.”

A man who can dance to his death bed can surely appreciate the emotional significance of coming from behind. A great composer with a fondness for handling smooth, rolling objects like billiard balls while thinking and creating, might also appreciate the brilliantly executed things players on a dusty diamond can do with a small shiny white ball.

The letter quoted at the top is from the introduction to Hans Mersmann’s edition of the letters (Dover). The letter was to “a certain baron” who had made him a present of wine. There is a more detailed account of my encounter with Stalin’s daughter and granddaughter in Town Topics, July 19, 2006.

 

August 27, 2014
The light at the end of Dark Passage— Bacall sees Bogart

The light at the end of Dark Passage— Bacall sees Bogart

Look at that face of hers. There you’ve got the map of Middle Europe slung across those high cheekbones and wide green eyes …. As a woman she holds all the cards. She’s beautiful, a good mother, a good wife, and knows how to run a home.

—Bogart on Bacall

It may not make a lot of sense if you look at it closely, but Bogart’s description of Lauren Bacall (1924-2014), which I found in Stephen Bogart’s book about his father, puts the geography of attraction nicely into words, along with hints of her style and his.

Bacall’s debut in Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) was one of the most spectacular in Hollywood history. But the screen time that made her a star amounts to less than half an hour at most, and it helped to have the medium’s most charismatic antihero as the witness to her allure. The homemade Bacall montages on YouTube come mainly from scenes with Bogie: The Look, which accompanies her opening line (“Anybody got a match?”); the endlessly quoted “all you have to do is whistle” line; the first speech, the second kiss (“It’s even better when you help”); and the third and most serious kiss (“I like that … except for the beard”), evidence that a real-life romance is underway.

Agee Spreads the Word

Writing about To Have and Have Not in Time, James Agee neatly nails the star (“one of Bogart’s most edged portrayals of Nietzsche in dungarees”) on his way to putting Bacall into orbit in a stop-the-presses-worthy notice, hailing her as a “sensational newcomer” with “cinema personality to burn.” After comparing her to Garbo and Dietrich, he concludes that, even so, she’s “completely new to the screen.” He singles out her “born dancer’s eloquence in movement,” “fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness,” and a “stone-crushing self-confidence” that helps make her “the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while.” Even in mandated Time-speech, Agee can swing a line like that, along with the one describing the film as “a loosely painted background for a kind of romance which the movies have all but forgotten about — the kind in which the derelict sweethearts are superficially aloof but essentially hot as blazes, and seem to do even their kissing out of the corners of their mouths.”

Agee’s review turns into a mini-profile of Bacall. Born in the Bronx in September 1924, she’s “part Rumanian, part French, part Russian (she thinks),” an only child, her idol was Bette Davis; she worked as an usherette and did some modeling for Harpers Bazaar, where a photo of her caught the eyes of Mrs. Howard Hawks, who showed it to her husband, the director; he signed her to a contract and, as Agee puts it, began a “shrewdly contrived campaign of artificialized naturalness” that produced the voice Agee compares to a trombone in Time and “a chorus by Kid Ory” in The Nation. For the better part of a year, Hawks “worked her out mainly in a vacant lot, bellowing anything from Shakespeare to odd copies of shopping news,” his purpose to turn something “high and nasal” into something “low and guttural.”

Agee includes an anecdote to show that Bacall was sometimes allowed to do things her way: “After a highly charged few minutes with Bogart, late at night in a cheap hotel room,” she “reluctantly retires to her own quarters. At this point in the shooting, she complained: ‘God, I’m dumb.’ ‘Why?’ asked Hawks. ‘Well, if I had any sense, I’d go back in after that guy.’ She did.”

To Whistle or To Smile

For the readers of The Nation, Agee offers a shorter, more cynical response, calling To Have and Have Not “a leisurely series of mating duels” between Bogart and “and the very entertaining, nervy, adolescent new blonde,” suggesting that whether or not you like the film will depend on what you think of Lauren Bacall. “I am no judge,” he writes. “I can hardly look at her, much less listen to her … without getting caught in a dilemma between a low whistle and a bellylaugh.”

I don’t have any sort of dilemma with Bacall. She leaves me smiling. So does the whole picture. Hawks has a genius for community; his ensembles are dreams of sweet disorder, like impromptu parties where everything falls into place. The story behind this film is that it was born from a bet between Hawks and Hemingway about whether Hawks could make a good picture from Hemingway’s worst novel. Out of that bet came romance and marriage for Bogart and Bacall. And only in Hollywood could you have the convergence in one film of two major American writers, however benighted the merging, Hemingway in tatters (a solid 90 percent of his “worst” novel having been “jettisoned”), Faulkner hacking out a wartime screenplay with Casablanca overtones that transforms Havana (to placate FDR) into Vichy Martinique and puts Faulkneresque charm into Walter Brennan’s lovable lush Eddie (“Was you ever bit by a dead bee?”).

And don’t forget the pride of Bloomington, Indiana, Hoagy Carmichael as the hip, laconic piano man Cricket, who asks Bacall are you happy when she comes over to say goodbye before she and Bogart head into the Caribbean sunset; “What do you think?” she says: she’s beaming. So he sends her on her way with the song he composed in her presence, “How Little We Know,” the lyric by songwriting legend Johnny Mercer (a direct descendent of the General Mercer who died at the Battle of Princeton), and as she shimmies happily off, wiggling her scene-stealing hips, she joins arms with Bogart and gives him a smile that says their adventure has only begun.

Looking Back

In the coda to the updated portion of her memoir By Myself and Then Some (HarperEntertainment), Bacall looks back from 2005 to 18-year-old Betty riding west alone on the Super Chief, too shy to leave her compartment, ordering ginger ale because she didn’t drink except for the rare Orange Blossom when she wanted “to feel grown up.” She finds an apartment in Beverly Hills, which she’s sharing with her mother when the affair begins and from which she will escape at odd hours of the night, like the time Bogart calls after midnight and asks her to meet him on a certain street corner. Writing in 2005, she remembers “running down Beverly Drive … arms held wide, green three-quarters coat flying, toward Bogie, waiting for me”); another time it’s four in the morning and he’s a little drunk, says he’s walking to town along highway 101 (“Come and get me”), it’s raining, her mother is “furious,” thinks she’s completely mad, “but I didn’t care, I was in love, I was on my way to meet my man,” and she drives for an hour in the wind and the rain on Highway 101, “hugging the right side of the road, looking frantically for Bogie. At last, as the sun rose, I caught sight of him — unshaven … and with a large sunflower in his lapel …. I don’t know how he got there. I slammed to a halt, rushed out of the car … and into each other’s arms we fell. It was the funniest, craziest thing I’d done so far.”

Heaven in Paita

In 2005, remembering, she calls it “the headiest romance imaginable,” seemingly beyond anything Hollywood could dream up for them. Until, perhaps, the closing scene in Dark Passage (1947), the third picture of their four films together and the first as a married couple. Without going into detail on the complex noir plot, suffice it to say that Bogart’s character is in hiding and on the run from the moment the film opens. Bacall takes him in, not as a lover but a sympathetic friend. Rather than the standard film noir femme fatale or the moll or the tramp, she’s a well-off young artist with a spacious apartment in San Francisco, and she appears strikingly close in style and manner to the real-life Bacall. During the time she’s hiding him out and taking care of him as he recovers from identity-disguising plastic surgery, they become chastely intimate, and the interlude of embattled domesticity they share leads to love; the song playing when they finally embrace is “Too Marvelous for Words.”

As the police close in, his only option is to get out of the country, she wants to go with him, he refuses to expose her to the risk. After he gets a ticket on a bus to the Mexican border, he phones her to tell her where he’s headed, Paita, in Peru, a little town on the coast, he makes her repeat the name, tells her “There’s a little cafe right on the bay, I’ll be there,” and in the last scene he’s sitting at a table with a drink, people are dancing, a live band is playing south-of-the-burder music, which suddenly gives way to a familiar melody. He looks past the dancing couples to the entrance, and there she is, smiling at him. It’s been three years since the smile she gave him as they walked off together in To Have and Have Not, two years since they were married. It’s a “Look at that face of hers” moment for Bogart. Lauren Bacall is smiling at her husband; no one else, no mere fictional character, would be worthy of such a smile. In the aftermath of Bacall’s death, more than one blogger sees this luminous moment as an image of a reunion in the afterlife, and why not, it makes a heavenly ending as Bogart, who has ten years to live, gets up from the table, and Bacall, who has 67, approaches. He takes her in his arms, and they begin to dance, moving among the other couples, as the orchestra plays “Too Marvelous for Words,” with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.


Bogart’s quote is from a 1953 interview in the London Daily Mirror, included in Stephen Bogart’s book
Bogart: In Search of My Father (Dutton 1995). Lauren Bacall’s By Myself and Then Some (HarperEntertainment 2005) is distinguished by a brave, unstinting account of the ordeal of Bogart’s illness and death, in January 1957. Both books are available at the Princeton Public Library.

 

August 20, 2014
Robin Williams giving Ethan Hawke hands-on instruction in the art of improvisation.

Robin Williams giving Ethan Hawke hands-on instruction in the art of improvisation.

Poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.

—Robin Williams as John Keating

In Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society (1989) a prep school English teacher played by Robin Williams crouches like a quarterback in a huddle with his students, only John Keating’s not calling plays, he’s quoting Walt Whitman after telling the boys, “We read and write poetry because we’re members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And business, law, medicine, and engineering are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.” Then he brings in “Uncle Walt,” whose portrait hangs above his desk: “‘… of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’” After repeating the last line with quiet passion, Mr. Keating looks around at the faces of his students and asks, “What will your verse be?”

Of all the parts Williams played, John Keating may be the most purely inspirational, and, in the aftermath of his death on August 11, one of the most poignant. In Dead Poets Society the plot turns on the suicide of a student whose “verse” had been his dream of becoming an actor. As the reaction to Williams’s death last week makes clear, he had already contributed more than his share of passion and poetry to “the powerful play” when he decided that he could give no more.

Over the Top

The death of Robin Williams at 63 was a media event of remarkable magnitude. According to several reports in the New York Times, the news led to a 370 percent spike in mobile traffic, and hit website readership harder than any breaking story anywhere last week. In the immediate aftermath, the number of tweets about Williams spiked to about 63,000 a minute, and Steve Carrel’s 10-word tweet “Robin Williams made the world a little bit better. RIP” had been “retweeted” 63,276 times, and “favorited” by 84,710 people.

With numbers like that, there’s no doubt that the online hits on Williams highlights reached or exceeded the same level, from live full-length performances in theaters or night clubs, to appearances on Johnny Carson, to excerpts from his film career. All this instant fragmented access is in keeping with the nature of things in a brave new world where services like Twitter and Instagram and YouTube favor the parts over the whole. I’ve adjusted to the Age of Moments, which comes with the territory when putting together a weekly column with all the resources of the Net at hand. If you don’t own or can’t find DVDs of favorites like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, you can still zero in on special moments.

Stand-Up

Watching Robin Williams’s stand-up routine can be exhausting. There’s a life-or-death desperation in the way he goes at it, as though laughter were oxygen and if he doesn’t breathe in enough of it, he’ll be in need of immediate medical attention. You can almost hear the adrenaline. Charlie Rose or Johnny Carson are lucky to get a word in with Williams firing off one-liners like a man possessed. When the venue is live, in theaters and clubs, all bets are off. The drunken Scotsman-inventing-golf routine bellowed with obscene in-your-face gusto in live performance gets toned down for Parkinson, England’s most popular talk show, where all is civil and conversational and guests are expected to go through the usual motions (say your piece, get some laughs, be charming, plug your latest). Unfortunately, you can’t mention “Parkinson” now without reference to the part the disease with that name may have played in Williams’s suicide. The fact that he’s already been posthumously linked to Parkinson’s indicates the scope of what he’d have been up against; in addition to the patronizing display of sympathetic head-shakings, knowing glances, and sad smiles, there would be wisecracks, sick jokes, and worse, notably in the blogsophere where the venom already being spewed on his daughter Zelda’s Facebook page was so vile that she had to shut it down.

The Poetry of Improvisation

Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam (1987) is the Robin Williams film I remember particularly enjoying, the one where his comic spirit could soar within the confines of a plot. It’s also a reminder of his USO visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he’d performed for 90,000 troops by the time of his final tour in 2010.

Williams talks frankly about keeping his improvisational genie at bay in a 1982 interview with Dallas talk show host Bobbie Wygant about his first film role as the title character in The World According to Garp. Asked if it’s true that director George Roy Hill discouraged him from improvising on the set, he admits as much, saying that it was good for him: “you settle into yourself and find things you wouldn’t have found when you’re going out.” One day Hill allowed him to let go, to make the point, “and then we had to get down to some serious work.”

Norman Lloyd, who plays the headmaster in Dead Poets Society, observed that Williams wasn’t his usual “manic” self during the filming: “He was very serious during this piece. There was no horsing around, none of the Robin one-man-show stuff. He was just an absolutely serious dramatic actor.” Even so, the subtext of the lesson John Keating is so passionately teaching celebrates the spirit of improvisation that’s at the heart of Williams’s comic genius, which is put into instructive action in the scene when Todd Anderson, the painfully shy student played by Ethan Hawke, is forced to free-associate a poem in front of the class, with Keating circling him, coaxing him, making him close his eyes, giving him no room to escape from a plunge deep into his subconscious for something spontaneous and striking (it’s free verse in action). The sequence is launched by a rapidfire interrogation about the picture of Walt Whitman above his desk. “What does he look like?” “A madman.” “What kind of madman? Don’t think about it.” “A crazy madman.” “You can do better than that. Free up your mind.” “A sweaty-toothed madman.” “Good God, boy, there’s a poet in you, after all.” And on it goes, teacher and student moving in a kind of dance with elements of incantation and hide and seek, until finally the overwhelmed student is improvising on a madman mumbling about truth and “a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.” Keating persists, “what about the blanket?” until actor and poet come to life in Todd (and, you would think, in Ethan Hawke): “you push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying, it will just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.”

At this, the class that had been laughing at Todd’s discomfort cheers and applauds him. What you’ve witnessed isn’t just the frenzied creation of a free-form poem but an exercise in acting, with Weir as teacher behind the scenes, Williams as coach, and Hawke as student.

The Princeton Connection

Dead Poets Society was a memorable debut for Ethan Hawke, who graduated from the Hun School in 1988, the year before the film was released. And Hawke isn’t the only Princeton connection in Robin Williams’s life; one of his closest friends was PDS graduate (class of 1970) and fellow Julliard student Christopher Reeve. According to last week’s memorial statement from Reeve’s children, “He and Dad made each other laugh, and they stood by each other to the end. The world knew Robin as a comedic titan, but to our family, he was simply one of our Dad’s dearest friends. From the moment they were classmates at Juilliard, their friendship transformed into a brotherhood that was built on a mutual admiration for the theater, the arts and, most importantly, laughter. After our father’s accident, Robin’s visit to his hospital room was the first time that Dad truly laughed.”

In Reeve’s memoir, Still Me, he recalls, “I already knew that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the surgery. … Then, at an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”

At Heaven’s Gate

When James Lipton, host of the interview series, Inside the Actor’s Studio, asked the ritual question, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates,” Robin Williams’s answer was, “There’s seating near the front. The concert begins at five, it’ll be Mozart, Elvis, and someone of your choosing …. Or just to know there was laughter. That would be a great thing.”

After Williams’s death, Lipton said, “Great comedians have to be great actors. And what does an actor do? He reaches deep inside his soul … and brings out something deeply mysterious, a total surprise …. One of the greatest gifts he gave us was to spare us his suffering and to give us his joy …. In the end the one person he would not spare was himself.”

 

August 13, 2014
Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell: It’s all downhill from here.

Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell: It’s all downhill from here.

To be in the center of that storm, what greater honor could a person have?

—Walton Goggins

You may think you’re delving into the past when you sort through old interviews and reviews online, but the “ever present present” is always there, as it was last night when the news of Robin Williams’s death kept popping up on the pages of otherwise ancient information. I didn’t have time to read the details until I saw David Itzkoff’s obituary in Tuesday’s New York Times. I was writing about a gifted actor named Walton Goggins (imagine the fun Robin Williams would have riffing on that moniker), and didn’t want to stray from the subject. Reading the quote from Williams reassessing himself as a performer — “how much more can you give? Other than, literally, open-heart surgery onstage?” — I realized there’s no disconnect when you’re talking about actors.

In an interview on collider.com about the conclusion of The Shield (2002-2008), the extraordinary FX series about rogue cops in the LAPD, Walton Goggins complimented the show’s creator, Shawn Ryan, for ending it “the way that he began it, from the heart and from a place of passion.” Speaking of the “many threads in this story,” Goggins refers to the complex relationship between his character, detective Shane Vendrell, and the strike team leader Vic Mackey, played by Emmy-winner Michael Chiklis. “It’s the disintegration of that friendship and what it has done to these two men that were inexorably tied to the original sin of this show …. To be in the center of that storm, what greater honor could a person have?” What Goggins goes on to say about his character tells you a lot about how much of himself he gave to that role: “I’ll never get to play Shane Vendrell again. For me, it almost broke my heart when that happened because I love him very much, not from a friend standpoint. I just want to hug him. I just want to go up to him and just kind of hug him and whisper in his ear, ‘Buddy, you’re okay. You’ll be okay. If you can start from here and try to live your life differently, you’ll be okay.’”

In the same collider interview, Goggins, who was born in Atlanta in 1971, recalls walking into the local casting director’s office at the age of 14, with no acting experience, saying, “‘I have a lot of emotions. I’m a young kid, and I want to get these emotions out in a constructive way, so I think I need to become an actor, and I need you to help me do that.’ That was kind of my trajectory. I don’t think there was another option for me, really.”

A Great Ending

In view of Shane’s devastating fate, his actor buddy’s advice about living “your life differently” is wishful thinking on the grand scale. Certainly no one who ever stayed with The Shield to the finale will ever forget a show that closed out its seven-season run with what television critic Alan Sepinwall, writing online, called “the most satisfying end to a great drama series that I’ve ever seen.” In his book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever (2012), Sepinwall suggests that from a Shield fan’s point of view what ultimately made the show great “was that it ended great.”

In the beginning, Shane was merely the lone witness to the “original sin” moment when Vic Mackey shot dead a fellow detective who had been planted on his deeply corrupt strike team in the fictional Farmington Division of the LAPD. The FX brass wanted Ryan to fire Goggins after the pilot was filmed, according to the chapter on The Shield in Sepinwall’s book. Ryan refused, and by the time Season 5 ended, “Goggins had more than justified his boss’s faith.” Up until then, the show needed infusions of star power from name actors like Glenn Close in Season 4 and Forest Whitaker in Season 5. Once Shane became “the center of the storm,” the series no longer needed “a Very Special Guest Star” because Goggins, as Sepinwall puts it, was playing “at Michael Chiklis’s level, and there was no conflict the show could create that would be bigger, or hit harder, than Vic vs. Shane, mentor against protégé, brother against brother.”

Sepinwall’s title for the chapter was “The Shield takes antiheroism to the limit,” and it’s a tribute to Chiklis’s relentless performance that you’re pulling for Mackey, the ultimate antihero, even as you’re thinking what an obnoxious brute he is. Whether he’s taking his cut, setting up monumental heists, bullying or beating on everyone in sight, he’s also doing his job. Every time the powers that be are about to come down on him, he pulls off a major bust. As a viewer, you give him credit for loving his kids, two of whom are autistic, but you never see him engaged as a father the way you do Tony Soprano with A.J. and Meadow and Walter White with his disabled son in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. 

Other Endings

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

—T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

People are still arguing about the ending of The Sopranos. Thanks to series creator David Chase’s decision to leave the final episode unresolved, with Tony Soprano sitting for all eternity over a plate of fried onion rings, many diehard fans of the show insist that what should have ended with a bang ended with worse than a whimper. A cop-out. An insult to closure. A cheating of fans who had invested almost a decade of their lives in the HBO blockbuster.

In The Revolution Was Televised, Chase tells Sepinwall that he never intended to play “head games” with the audience. “It just seemed right …. So why did I do it that way? I thought everyone would feel it. That even if they couldn’t say what it meant, that they would feel it.”

As Sepinwall points out, the ending “almost feels bigger than the show it dropped a curtain on.”

The first I ever heard of The Shield was on Sepinwall’s blog, “What’s Alan Watching” in September 2013, amid the analytical back and forth following the finale of Breaking Bad. While fans furiously weighed in on the subject of Walter White’s fate, the program they cited as the standard when it came to superior endings was The Shield.

As endings go, to use T.S. Eliot parameters, Breaking Bad went out with more  bangs than any comparable endgame situation this side of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. At the time Sepinwall interviewed Vince Gilligan for his book, Breaking Bad had not yet finished its run, so the ending was up for discussion. In reviewing the possibilities, Sepinwall presciently wonders about the machine gun in the trunk of Walt’s car, which became, in fact, the primary component in the ingeniously, if improbably, fashioned machinery of the denouement (Walt was a mad genius, after all). At that time Vince Gilligan’s thoughts about a finale didn’t go much beyond a wish “to do justice to the characters,” to “satisfy the audience,” to make sure everyone feels “that this trip was worth taking,” and to end “in the best, most interesting, most breathtaking and ultimately satisfying way possible.”

No surprise, many of the Breaking Bad bloggers were dissatisfied. Some felt the denouement was too neat, with too many loose ends left unresolved. Compared to the ambiguous finales of The Sopranos and The Shield, however, Walter White’s self-devised demise lived up to Gilligan’s promise. Lifted by the rock and roll euphoria of Badfinger’s song, “Baby Blue,” Breaking Bad ends on a high.

Losing Everything

The Shield ends in a darker place, one that moved Slate’s Mark Peters to term it “a Shakespearean tragedy in which the antihero’s sins, spinning out from a fatal decision he makes in the pilot, slowly destroy everyone around him. The main character insists he’s doing it all for his family — but he’s lying, especially to himself. There’s a lot of collateral damage, but this murderer’s worst crime might be the corruption of his vulnerable younger partner.”

As for Vic Mackey, rather than going down in a blaze of machinegun glory or landing a life term or Death Row, he sells his soul for immunity, which means a three-year sentence confined to desk duty in a cubicle, duties befitting exactly the sort of paper pusher he has for so long been the fire-breathing man-of-action antithesis of, and what would be a routine act for an ordinary employee — the displaying of photographs of his wife and children — carries a lead weight of irony for one who has lost his family, friends, coworkers, everything but his life.

Unguilty Pleasures 

Let’s face it, the stuff we’ve been watching since the millennium is gruesome fare. People do terrible things to one another on Game of Thrones, Justified, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, Luther, True Detective, and on and on, not to mention some recent horrors like Penny Dreadful and The Leftovers. While not all the abovementioned can be called works of art in a class with The Shield or The Sopranos, Deadwood or The Wire, they provide enough intensity and visual imagination to keep us from watching real-life atrocities like Congress, the Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the other Usual Suspects. We can read about all that in the New York Times, along with the untimely death of the actor who asked “How much more can you give?”

This seems as good a place as any to quote Henry James from The Middle Years: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

 

August 6, 2014

BeatlesWhen the closing credits of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood came on the screen at Princeton’s new community cinema Friday, people applauded. The Garden was full to overflowing, an extraordinary turn-out on a midsummer night, with the students away. The applause suggests that Princeton finally has a place where people go to share movies, not just to see them.

Fifty years ago this month, when the lights came on at Manhattan’s Trans-Lux East on 58th Street after a showing of A Hard Day’s Night, it wasn’t the clapping and cheering that told the story: it was the smiling. Wherever you looked there were happy faces. People were glowing, all ages sharing the euphoria, smiles here, there, and everywhere, a sense of unbounded excitement, such a surge of good feeling you thought it might be powerful enough to conjure up a personal appearance by Paul, John, George, and Ringo.

Not a Fan

At the time of that first viewing I was not a fan. It would be two years before I even owned a Beatles album. My heroes were Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. The Indiana couple I talked into seeing A Hard Day’s Night with me that first time weren’t into the music at all, even at the Top 40 Cousin Brucie level, but when we walked out of the theater, they were beaming like everybody else. By now I knew this was a film I didn’t want to see on my own; such joy had to be shared. I’d been living in the city just six months and my only other friend was a tall, super-talkative poet who had zero interest in popular music. She, too, had to be talked into going. So we went. As the picture ended, she said, “Let’s see it again, okay?” and we did. Next up was my best friend, who lived in New Haven, I paid a visit, stayed over, and he and his wife and I went to A Hard Day’s Night, and came out smiling in the afterglow, everyone giddy and loose, the same as the first time in New York. I was beginning to feel like a tour guide for the Fab Four.

Even people predisposed to hate the film loved it. Like that stodgy Elmer Fudd of film reviewers Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who begins his review by saying, “This is going to surprise you — it may knock you right out of your chair — but the new film with those incredible chaps, the Beatles, is a whale of a comedy.” Who could believe it! The chronically buttoned-up Bosley who had scorned “the juvenile madness” afflicting “otherwise healthy young people” found the “good humor” and “rollicking, madcap fun” created by those incredible chaps “awfully hard to resist.” You had to think, “Something special is going on here,” something, you might even say, magical.

Liberation

Whatever you call it — serendipity might be preferable to magic — A Hard Day’s Night would not have been possible without an expatriate Philadelphian named Richard Lester, who had directed The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), a surreal 11-minute short starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan that was admired by the Beatles, and key to their comfort level with Lester and their own ideas about the zany ambience of the film being created around them.

If anything, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film looks labored and limping compared to the pace and fervor and comic spirit of its rocking running jumping offspring. Take the romp in an open field scored to the full-tilt frenzy of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” where the film picks you up and runs off with you. Poet/critic Geoffrey O’Brien remembers walking into the theater “as a solitary observer with more or less random musical tastes” and coming out “as a member of a generation sharing a common repertoire with a sea of contemporaries, strangers, who suddenly seemed like family …. The world became, with very little effort, a more companionable place.” O’Brien’s response to the romp in the field was that “the effortlessness” of it “began to seem a fundamental value. That’s what they were there for: to have fun, and allow us to watch them having it …. The converted choose the leap into faith over rational argument. It was enough to believe they were taking over the world on our behalf.”

Charmed, I’m Sure

Imagine how it felt for first-time audiences when A Hard Day’s Night came rushing headlong at them on the wings of the iconic chord producer George Martin considered “the perfect launch,” the four lads pursued by howling teen and subteen furies, diving onto a train at Marylebone Station, driven by a breathtaking display of cinéma vérité virtuosity, genius editing, and dazzling interplay between a group of gifted non-actors from Liverpool and old pros like Paul’s grandfather, the “clean old man” played by Wilfrid Brambell, a leering embodiment of mischief straight out of an Alec Guinness Ealing-era comedy.

Everyone interviewed for the Criterion DVD, from the United Artists and EMI brass to the players of small parts, from Richard Lester to George Martin, is reduced to gushing wonderment at how splendidly the Beatles handled the challenges and demands of making a film on a tight schedule and how well they worked with professional actors. The qualities that charmed the world — the style, wit, sense of fun, sheer energy, not to mention the singing and playing — clearly also charmed the people on the set.

Speaking of charm, there’s the first song after the title number, the only one that grows naturally out of a situation unrelated to the television special the group is seen rehearsing for and performing. Composed and sung by John Lennon, “I Should Have Known Better” is delivered with such joyous force and feeling that your spirits, already high from that opening rush, are lifted even higher, and when John and Paul go up the scale to maximum euphoria singing “Can’t you see? Can’t you see?,” you’re up there with them. Every time I see the baggage car sequence I find more to admire, partly because of being at first so intoxicated by the music that I took the visuals for granted. Another of their great escapes, though not as acrobatic as the zany freak-out in the field, this one has the Beatles taking refuge from the madness on the train, much of it stirred up by Paul’s trouble-making grandfather, the old rogue having been “jailed” for the duration of the journey. Shot through wire mesh giving the impression of a cage, the scene begins as a game of cards until you hear the sound of John’s harmonica as cinematic sleight of hand turns the cards into guitars and the players into musicians, a music video decades before MTV, with close-ups of John, Paul, George, and Ringo interwoven with shots of their small, formidably cute schoolgirl audience. When John sings, “I never realized what a kiss could be,” you’re realizing what a song could be, everything’s meshing, life and music in motion, then back to earth you come, the cards once again in play, Ringo’s won, and so have we all.

“If I Fell” is another infectious song written and sung by Lennon and marked by movingly unexpected harmonic nuances.  “My first attempt at a ballad proper,” John has said. As usual in A Hard Day’s Night, plenty is happening in the background, no one stops to listen, people go about their business, everything coming together, music and life once again subtly, spontaneously interacting.

Smiling Through

Of all the songs from A Hard Day’s Night, the one that has the most personal resonance for me is “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” which John wrote for George to sing. What a gift. Maybe John felt generous, maybe he thought it too light (“I couldn’ta sung it,” he claims). What a gift for the world. In Istanbul, feeling lonely and strung-out on my way back from India, I heard the song playing over a loudspeaker at a park near Hagia Sophia. It was a lovely afternoon and as I walked among the people, families, couples, all ages, it was the first time I hadn’t been made to feel like an alien being, the object of hard stares on all sides. People were actually smiling at me, and I realized they associated me, the shabby westerner, with the music that was making them feel good. It was reflected glory, the Hard Day’s Night effect all over again.

Half a year earlier in Katmandu, sick and alone since Christmas Day, I pulled myself out of bed and staggered down the road to the nearest cafe. As I walked into the warm, bright room full of strangers, most of them from the west, hitchhikers like me, Germans, English, Dutch, Japanese, Americans, familiar music was playing. The Beatles, who else, and the song was “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You.” After a week of fever and nothing to eat, I sat down at a table with some people who seemed to know me or maybe they knew me through the music. They could tell I’d been under the weather. This was the first day of the new year. Happy New Year someone said. Happy happy happy, said the music. People were smiling as the song filled the room. It took no effort to feel that the world had become “a more companionable place.”  The Beatles had taken it over “on our behalf.”

“Boyhood”

Whenever my son, who was bathed in Beatles from day one, moans and groans about the break-up and at how disappointing the solo output has been since 1970, I keep reminding him that between them John, Paul, George, and to a lesser extent, Ringo, made enough great music in their solo careers, that if you felt inclined, you could put together at least two or three great Beatles albums using the best songs. Over the years, I’ve made provisional selections, thinking one day I might take the time to put together a tape for my son. One of the many reasons I was applauding Boyhood at the Garden the other night was the scene where the father (Ethan Hawke) proudly presents the son (Ellar Coltrane) with “something that money couldn’t buy,” his own CD creation, The Black Album, a “secret Beatles record” he’d meticulously assembled from the solo work, complete with liner notes and playlist. The father’s overkill of presentation as his laid-back son fails to come up with a response worthy of the effort, was among the truest moments in an unforgettable film.

One of the first features to play at new Garden, by the way, was the re-released version of A Hard Day’s Night. This community theatre is the best thing to happen to Princeton in ages. You can find out about joining at www.thegardentheatre.com/membership.php.

The quotes from Geoffrey O’Brien and Ned Rorem are from articles in the New York Review of Books. I also quoted from William J. Dowlding’s ever-useful Beatlesongs (Fireside 1989). You can see the playlist for The Black Album at http://blogs.indiewire.com.

 

July 30, 2014

DVD revAn actor is an interpreter of other men’s words, often a soul which wishes to reveal itself to the world but dare not, a craftsman, a bag of tricks, a vanity bag, a cool observer of mankind, a child, and at his best a kind of unfrocked priest who, for an hour or two, can call on heaven and hell to mesmerise a group of innocents.

—Alec Guinness (1914-2000)

Sir Alec Guinness would have enjoyed our mouse. More than that, he’d have been studying it, absorbing its essential mouseness, the intensity of its beady-eyed hold over two fascinated humans and two frustrated felines. For the better part of 20 minutes, the mouse occupied a miniature proscenium formed by the frame at the top of the bedroom window, poking its head over the lacy fringe of the curtains as it stared down at the brother and sister tuxedo cats glaring up at it. Every now and then the little rogue would run teasingly back and forth along the top of its curtain-rod runway or skitter up and down the outer fringe of the curtain before leaping onto a nearby wall hanging, where it was finally trapped in a plastic container and delivered to the wild the following morning.

For Sir Alec, the anthropomorphic fun would have been secondary to a meditation on what it was to be “in and of” such an agile life-form. “I go to the zoo,” was his answer when asked about “building a character” during a 1977 television conversation with Michael Parkinson. While working out the part of the Prufrock-turned-criminal in The Lavender Hill Mob, he visited the small rodent house, fixing his attention on “a nervousy little character rather sort of fluffy” and thinking “maybe something on those lines.” Looking for ideas when playing crookbacked Richard the Third onstage in Canada, he came to a zoo “every two or three days” to commune with “The Unsociable Vulture.” You can see hints of the bird-of-prey in the capacious hovering presence of his Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948), the role that launched his film career. There’s also an aspect of  the Unsociable Vulture haunting his Malvolio in an “unfortunate” television production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1969).

“I Hate Great Acting”

Well into his memoir, Blessings in Disguise (Knopf 1986), Guinness delivers the sort of statement you’d expect to see at the beginning of the book. Recalling the words of actor/writer Alan Bennett — “I hate Great Acting” — he writes, “I know what he meant: the self-importance, the authoritative stage position, the meaningless pregnant pause, the beautiful gesture which is quite out of character, the vocal pyrotechnics, the suppression of fellow actors …, the jealousy of areas where the light is brightest, and above all the whiff of ‘You have come to see me act, not to watch a play.’”

The quality setting Guinness apart from most of his stage and screen peers is articulated in Keats’s definition of the poetical character, which has “no self” but is “every thing and nothing,” delights as much in playing “an Iago as an Imogen,” has “no Identity” but “is continually in for — and filling some other Body.”

Guinness also kept faith with Hamlet’s instructions to the players, not to “out-Herod Herod,” nor to “tear a passion “to tatters,” but rather to “use all gently” to “acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness” and like Keats’s “chameleon poet” to enjoy “light and shade” and live “in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.”

A Very Literary Man

Shakespeare, Dickens, and Keats were divinities to Guinness, who was, as Gore Vidal observed first-hand during the filming of The Scapegoat, “a very literary man.” The actor visited the poet’s grave in Rome before, during, and after the Second War, and undoubtedly read Keats’s letter defining the “poetical character.” Guinness not only loved poetry and literature, he lived it as a writer and reader, which is why Blessings in Disguise is one of the best books ever written by an actor, not so much for what you learn about acting, which is a great deal, but for the characters brought to Dickensian life in every chapter.

Guinness’s working interest in literature was not confined to the United Kingdom. In 1945, back from a tour of duty as an officer in the Royal Navy, he took on the formidable challenge of adapting The Brothers Karamazov for the stage, and although he terms the result “loose” and “lopsided,” the play was staged at the Hammersmith Lyric and directed by a young Peter Brook, with Guinness himself as the volcanic Dmitri. The year before the war he had adapted Great Expectations, which ran for six weeks after “a splendid notice” from James Agate. The adaptation for which he received the most attention, however, was Joyce Cary’s novel, The Horse’s Mouth, which he mined for one of his most memorable film roles. As Piers Paul Read notes in the 2003 biography, Alec Guinness, “the precise punctual, modest, conventional, buttoned-up Alec Guinness” played “the anarchic, boastful, egotistical painter Gully Jimson.” It was quite a coup, to write your own role on your own terms and receive an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay while winning Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival and coming in second for Best Actor in the 1958 New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

The B-Word  

When playing Fagin and Gully Jimson, Guinness speaks with uncharacteristic volume and vehemence; two such vivid characters almost demand to be performed. The risk in underplaying, in being too fine, too subtle, is the b-word. Discussing how to present Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai with director David Lean, Guinness flared up when Lean suggested that Nicholson would be “an awful bore” were they to meet him in a real-life situation (“You’re asking me to play a bore…No, I don’t want to play a bore”). The pernicious word surfaces again a decade later and suggests why Guinness remembered the television production of Twelfth Night as “unfortunate.” In Blessings in Disguise, he recounts watching a run-through of the film in the viewing box with Laurence Olivier, who zinged him thus: “Fascinating, old dear. I never realized before that Malvolio could be played as a bore.” Stung, Guinness heard the word “bore” running through the rest of his performance. According to Read’s biography, the production “left Alec on the verge of a breakdown,  physically, mentally, and spiritually. To recover, he spent 24 hours alone in a suite at a grand hotel in Brighton.”

Any actor who does justice to a character as complexly fashioned as Malvolio deserves a weekend of downtime in a grand hotel.  Harold Bloom sees the insufferable puritan as Twelfth Night’s “great creation” (along with Feste), pointing out that by the end “it has become Malvolio’s play.”

On YouTube there’s a sample of Stephen Fry’s Malvolio from the Globe production of Twelfth Night that migrated to Broadway last fall. The clip is from the denouement of the practical joke as Malvolio, gulled by a forged love note, struts before Olivia, the countess he serves, crooning and kissing his fingers at her while showing off his cross-gartered yellow stockings. Fry takes it over the top, milking the audience for laughs, no “bore” he. But Olivier was right, Malvolio is a bore, at least until he finds the forged letter. And so Guinness plays him, perusing and reading aloud the letter, which becomes in effect the script giving him, the actor/character, excellent material, his lines and cues, everything a plodding “bore” needs to appear light and amusing. In theatrical terms, this buoyant transformation allows him to take possession of the scene and eventually lay claim to the tragicomic soul of the play. Guinness is too subtle and wise an actor to milk the prank for laughs, though he enters like a peacock (remember his visits to the zoo), showing off his gaily embellished legs, at first plodding Big-Bird-like, but then stepping lightly, capering, almost Chaplinesque, coyly dandling a yellow-stockinged ankle. It’s his moment. And so his dark unfunny fate is to be “notoriously abused,” treated as a lunatic, and locked in a dark cell. Any actor playing Malvolio for laughs in the scene where he cluelessly struts his stuff is out of touch with the element of the play’s genius, its uniqueness, a work so deep that, as Bloom observes, “One cannot get to the end of it because some of the most apparently incidental lines reverberate infinitely.”

A Different Hole 

The Criterion DVD of The Horse’s Mouth features a talk with the director, Ronald Neame, who died in 2010 at the age of 99. In marveling at the intensity with which Guinness attacked the part of Gully Jimson and his determination to become the character (his wife complained, “He won’t even clean his nails”), Neame tries to find words for Guinness’s uniqueness. I was struck by the figure he used more than once to describe Guinesses’s chameleon-like ability to “change colors” from part to part: “He comes out of a different hole every time.” In fact, the oddly resonant metaphor was suggested by Guinness himself. As Neame admits in a 2003 L.A. Times interview: “We knew that whatever Alec said he could play, he could play. You’d send him books and he’d say, ‘I’m immensely sorry, Ronnie, but I’ve done this. I don’t want to come out of the same hole. I have to come out of a different hole.’ “

Sort of like, you know, a mouse.

 

July 23, 2014

book revA soft summer’s day in New York. When the rain falls, you can count the drops. I’m sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park reading Twelfth Night as a drop kisses the page, then one or two or three more, just enough to ripple the paper. My afternoon in the city began well with the discovery of a shady parking spot on Charlie Parker Place, free for the duration, no $3.50 an hour Muni Meter. My CRV is parked a few yards down the street from the house at 151 Avenue B where the jazz legend lived from 1950 to 1954.

The 1924 Oxford thin-paper edition of Shakespeare’s Works spread open on my lap is bound in soft leather like a Bible, with paper so delicate that it takes a touch as gentle as the rain to separate one page from the other. My reason for reading Twelfth Night; or What You Will (Harold Bloom thinks the secondary title more fitting) is that I’d been planning to write about the centenary of Alec Guinness, who played Sir Andrew Aguecheek at 23 and Malvolio at 55. Everything changed when I found that parking spot on Charlie Parker Place. It’s a “what-you-will” situation, by way of the “divinity that doth shape out ends.” Goodbye Sir Alec (for now), hello Shakespeare, hello Charlie Parker.

On this balmy Thursday afternoon everything makes Shakespearian sense, the diffidence of the rain, the interplay of sun and shadow, the sparrows’ chirping, the pigeons rumbling, a society of dogs romping in the dog playground, children squealing and screaming, a jazzy free-for-all of a comedy from 1601 spread open before me in bold black type on white India paper, and less than a stone’s toss to my left, the austere three-story brownstone rowhouse from 1849 where dwelt the man named on plaques from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation. The latter plaque notes the Gothic Revival style of the residence, “a style most often used for churches,” and refers to “the world-renowned alto saxophonist” and “co-founder of bebop.”

Jazz critic Barry Ulanov called him “the Jazz Mozart,” and Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz said he was “the jazz world’s Mozart” because he “gathered together” the styles that had come before and transformed them into “a brilliant new design,” everything “fresh and whole” and “precisely right.” When Gary Giddins cites Mozart at the conclusion of Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (University of Minnesota Press $17.95), he’s thinking of more than the music: “As with Mozart, the facts of Charlie Parker’s life make little sense because they fail to explain his music. Perhaps his life is what his music overcame. And overcomes.”

But Mozart isn’t enough. For the music, you need to bring in, among others, Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Moondog, and the Rubiyat, which contains a stanza Parker was fond of quoting, the one that ends “the Bird is on the Wing.”

“That strain again!”

When it comes to quoting, however, there’s nothing to equal the supple book of riches in my lap. For instance the opening line of Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on!” And in the same speech, the most eloquent player of them all, he whose 450th birthday is being celebrated this year, plays on: “That strain again! it had a dying fall/it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound/That breathes upon a bank of violets” and over and among the flowers blooming in Tompkins Square.

The “dying fall” will make Bird sense to listeners who recall the dismissive moves the master performs in mid-flight, when as if to relieve himself of a cluster of “nipping and eager” notes, he simply drops them and soars on. He says it himself — “There’s too much in my head for this horn” — in Robert Reisner’s oral history, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker (DaCapo 1991), where he tells Charlie Mingus “Would you die for me? I’d die for you.” It’s easy to hear a cadence resembling that one-two punch in the mid-flight moments that sometimes move audience members at certain crudely recorded club dates or concerts to shout, “Kill yourself!” Knowing his days were numbered, it was as if he had a special claim on death. More than once, as recounted by friends and acquaintances in Reisner’s book, he says his goodbyes days and months before 8:45 p.m. on March 12, 1955. Again, Shakespeare has a phrase for him — in Twelfth Night when Sebastian says “My stars shine darkly over me.”

Family

What sort of a family life did he lead with his white common law wife Chan in the ground floor of the brownstone at 151 Avenue B? His stepdaughter Kim, for whom he named one of his fastest, happiest compositions, remembers a black bedroom, a fireplace with a white death mask above it, and “family Sundays, family dinners.” In an online interview with Judy Rhodes, the eventual owner of the house, Kim remembers “Bird was a really wonderful father — very kind, very gentle with me.” When she was in first grade at a school “two or three blocks up the street” and had to make her own lunch and walk there by herself, she was “a nervous wreck” and would throw up every morning, prompting the school to send a note home demanding that she see a doctor. Her stepfather took her to an MD on 10th Street who said she was “terrified and needed to be reassured.” So “Bird walked me back to school and back to my classroom. I had no sense of colour or prejudice. When I walked into school holding my daddy’s hand I was at the top of the world — walking with this big Black man into the classroom full of little white snotty kids that I was terrified of. Being there with my daddy made it all ok.”

In Celebrating Bird, Gary Giddins quotes tenor man Al Cohn’s recollection of a visit to Avenue B (“They had a very nice place”): “It was a Ukrainian neighborhood and we went to three or four different bars. All the Ukrainians, working-class guys, knew him as Charlie. I don’t think they knew he was a musician, but it was obvious they liked him and were glad to see him. I saw a different side of him; he was like a middle-class guy with middle-class values.”

Interviewed in Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz, Giddins points out the daily challenge Charlie Parker faced during this period. He had to live three lives: the working musician, the drug addict constantly scuffling to raise money for a fix, and the family man.

The Open Door

Robert Reisner begins Bird with an account of his first meeting with “a large, lumbering, lonely man, walking kind of aimlessly” on a rainy night in 1953. It was just after midnight, Reisner was coming home from a party when he recognized Parker and wondered what he was doing “in this poor Jewish neighborhood, walking by himself in the soaking rain.” Parker said his wife was having a baby and he was walking off his nervousness. Asked where he lived, he said “In the neighborhood, Avenue B,” and seeing that Reisner wondered why “a guy of his tremendous reputation lived in such an out-of-the-way poor section,” he explained, “I like the people around here. They don’t give you no hype.”

Later, after Reisner decided to stop teaching art history at the New School to become a jazz promoter, the venue he picked was The Open Door on 3rd Street south of Washington Square, a place “that had enough seating capacity to pay for a band solely on admissions.” He launched his first “Sunday jazz bash” on April 26, 1953. Three months later, Chan left 151 Avenue B with the tape recorder she’d been given for her 28th birthday the month before. According to the liner notes for the 2-CD set on Ember, Charlie Parker at the Open Door, the tapes Chan made were stored away until she sold them to Columbia Records where they remained for decades in the vaults until they were smuggled out and released in Italy on the Philology label.

My copy of the Open Door performance has been sitting on the shelf for years. One reason is the poor recording quality. It sounds as if Bird and the band, in particular Art Taylor, the drummer, are playing in two different rooms, and on some of the uptempo numbers the drums seem to be crashing randomly about in a void. One of the perks of studio albums that include retakes are those moments when you hear a glitch and everything stops as Bird shouts “Hold it!” But in this acoustical shipwreck of a setting he has to keep bravely blowing, which is what gives low-grade live recordings an existential subplot. It takes several numbers to adjust to the unreality, but with “The Song Is You” the man from Avenue B takes command, changing the “You” to “Me,” and when he gets to “Ornithology,” you hear what Giddins calls “the uncorrupted humanity of his music.”

Shakespeare’s Weaver

It isn’t really all that much of a stretch to speak of jazz in the same breath as Twelfth Night because, as in other Shakespearian romps, the effect is that of a group of players jamming, drunk on the elixir of language. Between Feste the Clown, Fabian, the hapless Sir Andrew, the perpetually soused Sir Toby, and the madcap diva Maria, you have the equivalent of an extended cutting session, or at least that’s how it seemed reading Shakespeare on a Tompkins Square park bench off Charlie Parker Place. For now, listen to Sir Toby Belch in Act 2, when after the clown sings “Youth’s a stuff will not endure,” Sir T suggests rousing “the nightowl in a catch that will draw three souls out of one weaver.”

In case we need an explanatory note for Toby’s flight of fancy, the 1836 edition, the one Melville used, provides this: “Shakespeare represents weavers as much given to harmony in his time.”

And so it is at the Open Door on the night of July 26, 1953, as the weaver of souls, the stars shining darkly over him, plays on.

 

July 16, 2014

book revJohn Howard Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century — and lifts the hearts of the rest of us. 

—Studs Terkel

John Howard Griffin (1920-1980) is known best for the book that inspired people in his hometown of Mansfield, Texas, to hang him in effigy from a traffic light on Main Street. The book is Black Like Me (1961), an account of his six weeks in the Deep South passing as a Negro.

A decade before Black Like Me, Griffin’s first novel, The Devil Rides Outside (Smith’s, Inc. 1952), had created another sort of stir. Hailed by the Saturday Review (“This first novel has in it the power of life itself”) and the New York Herald-Tribune (“this big symphonic novel sets up a theme worth writing about and attacks it with passion, knowledge, and the authority of experience”), the Book of the Month Club selection sold well (400,000 copies in hardcover and paper), and later in the decade the critic Maxwell Geismar declared The Devil Rides Outside one of the best novels of the 1950s. Meanwhile, Griffin’s “long, strong, and tormented story of the war between the flesh and the spirit” was condemned by the Legion of Decency and became the subject of a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Felix Frankfurter: “The state [Michigan] insists that, by thus quarantining the general reading public against books not too rugged for grown men and women in order to shield juvenile innocence, it is exercising its power to promote the general welfare. Surely this is to burn the house to roast the pig.”

Blindness and Beethoven

The Devil Rides Outside is absolutely unique among American novels of its time, or any time, for that matter. How could it not be? It was written by a blind musicologist from Texas whose formative years were spent in France. Since he felt more comfortable speaking French, Griffin told the story into a wire-recorder each night, translating the French into English the following day and typing it. The blind author needed a week to learn how to get around on a typewriter and seven weeks to complete the first draft of what would be a 596-page novel. In Griffin’s autobiography, Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision, he says he began The Devil Rides Outside with Beethoven’s Quartet, Opus 131 in mind, “a work that I knew intimately. The characters enter as Beethoven’s themes enter and are developed in the same way …. When the thematics of the novel did not match the music, I changed the novel.”

A year before the book’s publication in 1952, Griffin converted to Catholicism, having written himself “into the church” by reliving in fiction his time in the monastery at Solesmes, France, and the Benedictine Abbey there, “the motherhouse of the Gregorian Chant,” where he had a cell and was allowed to work on various original manuscripts. At the same time,  his sight was “rapidly diminishing,” and when he became totally blind and could no longer work on the music, he experienced “an unexpected awakening to the realities of the spirit” that eventually led to a friendship with philosopher and longtime Princeton resident Jacques Maritain.

The problem with writing about Griffin is that his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction personal history diverts attention from his literary labors. This man’s whole life is like a novel written to enlighten readers about the nature of faith and vision in a world blinded and violated by prejudice. Born into a genteel Texas family that detested the vulgarity of racism but treated segregation as an absolute, Griffin went to France at age 15 as a scholarship student at the Lycée Descartes, then to the University of Poitiers in Tours to study music and psychiatry, becoming assistant to the director of an asylum where he experimented with the therapeutic effects of music, the Gregorian Chant in particular. With the Nazi occupation of France imminent, and having by then been shamed by his French friends into accepting that blacks were allowed to eat in the same restaurant with whites, he saw the lethal evils of another form of racism first-hand. Staying on to oversee the asylum when the director was conscripted, he joined the underground resistance, using the asylum ambulances to transport children of Jews out of Tours to the country and then to the port of Saint Nazaire. Discovered by the Gestapo while attempting to help an Austrian family, he escaped to the U.K., returned to Texas at the age of 21, joined the Army Air Force, was shipped to Guadalcanal, and then to the Solomon Islands on a special mission that involved living with the natives. Wounded by a bomb that caused the concussion that ultimately destroyed his sight, he married, had three children, wrote The Devil Rides Outside and Nuni (about his time in the Solomons), and in 1957, after a decade of blindness, he suddenly regained his sight and saw his wife and children for the first time. Two years later he dyed his skin and lived the nightmare of prejudice described in Black Like Me.

That’s only a shamefully superficial tour of Griffin’s “once in a century” life.

An Incredible Work

What is it like, then, this massive, passionately written novel? Right away you’re caught up in a first-person present-tense narrative that’s sustained throughout except for an 11-page past-tense flashback. The present-tense creates a sense of acceleration and sometimes seemingly involuntary forward movement. Griffin says he used it to “feel the immediacy of the experience in contrast to the eternal rhythms” of the monastery. He chose not to name his protagonist, intending his anonymity to match that of “those unknown masters who had composed the chants centuries ago.”

Knowing that Griffin, like the American music student who narrates the story, has studied Gregorian Chant, you become aware of the way the prose evokes a chanted rhythm that can seem alternately incantatory and prayerful; the effect is of intense, charged passages of prose encompassing long interludes of dialogue. In the notes I made even before I learned that he’d dictated the narrative in French, my way of describing Griffin’s often awkward, fragmented, unstable style was to compare it to reading something in a sound and occasionally eccentric English translation.

You can get an idea of what the reading experience is like in the following passage:

It grows late. Nothing satisfies. I open a volume of Rilke, but I can’t read. I stand at my window, nose pressed against the pane, breath fogging the glass, and stare down the street. Strange brassy tonality of the full moon, now breaking through the clouds onto clustered housetops: more abstract, more frozen than abstraction. We strive for warmth in color to forget these scenes, these moments, these liturgies of dissonance, these cold angles lost in heavy shadows, just as we try to live warmly to escape death.

It’s a passage in which you hear more than you see, with the “brassy tonality” of the moon on the other side of fogged glass, a moon that isn’t shining so much as blaring, an abstraction imagined by a man speaking into darkness, unable to make out the equally abstracted housetops. Rather than seeing color, he seems to want to wrap himself in its warmth. This is heavily, almost oppressively internalized writing, driven by a visceral “power of life,” that breaks through the divisions of the senses and not always gracefully.

“A frightful and horrible creature”

While the novel’s first third is essentially concerned with the American’s relationships inside the monastery, its most eventful scenes occur outside the walls in the town where he rents a room in a villa overseen by Madame Renée, a middleaged widow who sees to his needs, arranges for a maid, cooks delicious meals for him, and slowly, subtly begins to impose herself, body and soul, on his life. What begins as an innocuous relationship develops into a battle that by the end has become a matter of spiritual life and death.

The reviewers’ comparisons of Griffin to Balzac are inspired by the creation of Madame Renée, the embodiment of French subterfuge and perversity so vividly documented by the author of the Human Comedy. In his New York Times review, Orville Prescott refers to Griffin’s “gruesomely expert study of a hysterical woman consumed by vanity, hypocrisy, and old-fashioned meanness … a frightful and horrible creature, but never a monster. She is pitifully human, too.” He goes on to observe that she is “a character such as Balzac would have enjoyed writing about.” Of course Balzac, the master, not only wrote about such characters, he invented them and the France they inhabited, much as Dickens invented England.

In and Out of Print

The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown on this day, July 16, in 1951, was put into best-seller orbit by the Book of the Month Club. A year later, the BOMC did the same for The Devil Rides Outside. Salinger’s book has been read by millions and will be in print, it seems, forever. Unless you troll the net for a used copy, Griffin’s novel, which has long been out of print, is available only as an e-book. According to amazon, it can apparently be downloaded on Kindle for $7.95.

Anyone interested in knowing more about John Howard Griffin and his work should visit www.wingspress.com, which published the Kindle version of The Devil Rides Outside, along with other fiction, non-fiction, and photography by Griffin, not to mention a book I found especially helpful, Robert Bonazzi’s Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me.

Black Like Me promises to be in print indefinitely, however. A 50th anniversary edition issued in 2011 is available at the Princeton Public Library. In February of that year, 50 years after his hometown had hung him in effigy and driven him and his family into exile in Mexico, the former first lady Laura Bush came to Mansfield to unveil a plaque honoring Griffin at a ceremony sponsored by the Friends of the Mansfield Public Library.

Note: The image of the battered cover of The Devil Rides Outside shown here belongs to the copy I’d been meaning to read ever since I found it many years ago for 25 cents in a Hutchinson Kansas rental-library book store that was going out of business. My excuse for finally reading this amazing novel was due to an online error that gives Griffin’s birth date as July 16 when in fact it is June 16. Serendipity works in strange and wonderful ways.

 

July 9, 2014

Record revArt is the most beautiful deception of all!

—Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Simplicity and truth are the sole principles of the beautiful in art.

—Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Debussy’s line about art and deception jumped out at me while I was searching for a quote to liven up a column on Gluck’s tercentenary. It’s one of those I-dare-you-to-dispute-this statements that gets your attention, starts you thinking, and then follows you around until you begin to distrust it. As for Gluck, Debussy has little good to say about him, far from it. The composer of Orfeo ed Euridice is “a court musician” whose music is tainted by the “pomposity of moving in such high circles.”

After bringing together art, beauty, and deception in the same brief essay for Musica (October 1902), Debussy bemoans the idea of incorporating “the everyday events of life in art,” which he hopes “will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory.” Yet when taking Gluck to task in a snarky February 1903 Open Letter to “Monsieur le Chevalier C.W. Gluck,” Debussy chastises him for being so far removed from the everyday events of life that “the common people participate only at a great distance,” as if Gluck’s music were a “wall behind which they know something is going on.” Debussy won’t even give the man credit for conducting the first performance of Iphigénie en Aulide in his nightcap; that spontaneous assertion of independence was only “for the sake of pleasing” his “king and queen.”

On Beethoven’s Wall

But what of Christoph Willibald Gluck? What did other composers think of his music? Beethoven kept Gluck’s portrait on the wall of his room along with Handel, Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, because “they can promote my capacity for endurance.” Mozart’s admiration is expressed throughout his letters. In Schubert’s diary, he contrasts the “pure, holy nature” of Gluck to Beethoven’s “eccentricities.” According to Johann Mayrhofer’s recollections (1829), Schubert was 15 when Gluck’s Iphegénie en Tauride left him “moved to the depths and to tears.” After that he embarked on “the keenest study of all of Gluck’s scores,” which “quite enraptured” him for years. As for Berlioz, Gluck inspired him to give up medicine for music. In his Memoirs, Berlioz writes, “The Jove of our Olympus was Gluck. The most passionate music-lover of today can have no conception how fiercely we worshipped him.”

Gluck’s Travels

Gluck was born on July 2, 1714, in what is now called Bavaria, his father a forester who became head forester in the service of Prince Philip of Bohemia and who expected his son to, as Gluck puts it, “follow in his footsteps.” But at that time music was “all the rage” and “inflamed with a passion for this art,” Gluck “soon made astounding progress and was able to play several instruments.” His “whole being became obsessed with music” and he left all thoughts of a forester’s life behind.

After studying at the University of Prague, Gluck turns up in Milan in 1737 composing operas for the Milanese Carnivals, before venturing to London in 1745, where the future mover “in high circles” decides to raises some money, according to a handbill he had printed, “By performing a Concert upon Twenty-six Drinking Glasses, tuned with Spring water … being a new Instrument of his own invention, upon which he performs whatever may be done on a Violin or Harpsichord; and therefore hopes to satisfy the Curious, as well as the Lovers of Musick. To begin at Half an hour after Six. Tickets Half a guinea each.”

From London he goes to Dresden, Prague, and finally Vienna to the Hapsburg Court where he becomes Princess Maria Antonia’s music teacher, though she’s not much good at the harpsichord. According to Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette, she was “a dilettante,” but she “had a liking for this seemingly fierce man, broad in the beam and jovial” and when she went to Paris, Gluck went with her. He’d written Iphigénie en Tauride, which he wanted to present in the French capital. When court musicians called it “unpresentable,” Marie “insisted it have a fair trial.” But “the unruly and choleric Bavarian, animated with the characteristic obstinacy of the great artist,” in Zweig’s words, “did not make it easy for her to advance his cause. At the rehearsals he berated the ladies of the cast so savagely that these spoiled darlings complained bitterly to their titled lovers. He dragooned the instrumentalists, who were not used to the demand for such exactitude; and, in general, played the tyrant in the opera house. His mighty voice could be heard resounding from behind the closed doors as, time after time, he threatened to make an end of the whole business and return to Vienna. Nothing, in fact, but the dread of the Dauphiness prevented an open scandal.”

Marie was steadfast in supporting “her bon Gluck,” made his cause her own, and seeing that the opera seemed to be getting a lackluster reception at court, she “loudly applauded every aria” so that the courtiers and their ladies had to chime in. Though Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride would be remembered as a “famous event in the history of music,” it was Marie’s triumph, the first time she had “imposed her will upon the capital and the court.”

The Wig

As for the nightcap Debussy dismissed so cavalierly, Gluck kept one handy because he was prone to throw his wig at the ground whenever the singers and musicians were not performing to his expectations. His wife Maria had to go to rehearsals and performances to restrain her husband “within the limits demanded by French manners, and moderate the hostility that the orchestra and above all the women singers show him.” No wonder. According to the account included in Michael Rose’s recent book, The Birth of an Opera (Norton $35), “Gluck’s impatience with pretension was notorious.” When the “eminent soprano” Sophie Arnould complained that the music was all declamation and that she wanted to sing great arias, Gluck said “To sing great arias, you have to know how to sing.” Rose provides an account that has Gluck running “like a man possessed from one end of the orchestra to the other; sometimes it was the violins who were getting it wrong, sometimes the basses, or the horns, or the violas. He would stop them short and sing them the passage.”

In time Gluck’s eccentricities became famous, the gossip going viral in the 18th-century Parisian version of the social media network. Accompanied as ever by Mme Gluck, he would be “bathed in sweat” and “had to be revived with hot towels and a change of clothing,” and when the rehearsal was over, “one could see great noblemen, even princes, eager to present him with his overcoat and his wig, for he was accustomed to throw all these off and put on a night-cap before beginning rehearsals, just as if he were about to retire for the night at home.”

Time to Listen

Earlier in the essay celebrating deception, Debussy looks back to Bach (“the essence of all music”) and the age when “music was subject to laws of beauty inscribed in the movement of Nature herself.” Listen to Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Gluck’s arias from Orfeo, not to mention the overture to Alceste, and you’re hearing the essence of music and some of the most beautifully un-deceptive works ever composed. When a melody is close to the movement of nature, the effect is, for me, much as it was the first time I heard Orfeo’s aria lamenting the loss of Euridice. I had no idea what the words meant. I was in another room when it was playing and suddenly it was as if the music were coming from an open window on a street in another country, the prelude to a romantic adventure, a hauntingly beautiful song sung by a stranger. The effect was the same the first time I heard, really heard, Clair de Lune. The identity of the pianist was of no importance because in that moment, thanks to the “beautiful deception of art,” the music coming through an open window in some twilight dream of Paris was being played, thought out, composed by Debussy himself.

—Stuart Mitchner

Three hundred years after his birth, the glories of Gluck can be accessed on YouTube and Spotify. I found him the old-fashioned way in the form of the only secondhand record I ever purchased at the Bryn Mawr Book Sale, a very used, musty-smelling Bach Guild boxed set of Orfeo ed Euridice featuring Maureen Forrester as Orfeo and Teresa Stich-Randall as Euridice, with the Akademie Choir and Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras. There is an online version of the aria Che farò senza Euridice? from the 1982 production staged at The Glyndebourne Festival Opera, with Dame Janet Baker in her final operatic appearance singing as she holds Euridice (Elisabeth Baker) in her arms. The quotes from Debussy come from Debussy On Music (Knopf 1977).

As usual, I have the Princeton Public Library to thank for the numerous Gluck recordings I listened to and for Michael Rose’s excellent book.

July 2, 2014

DVD revI hate guns, have never had any use for them.

—Eli Wallach (1915-2014)

A week ago Eli Wallach, the actor who gave the world Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez, died at home in Manhattan. Tuco was last seen, freeze-framed forever, shouting curses at the distant figure on horseback played with cryptic cool by Clint Eastwood, the supremely sane, enlightened Don Quixote to Tuco’s feral Sancho Panza.

Chances are there is no Actor’s Studio exercise for how to enter the body of a man standing on a crooked, creaking, perilously unsteady graveyard cross with a hangman’s noose around his neck, hands tied behind his back, a fortune in gold spilled out on the ground below, shining in the sunlight. As the wooden cross teeters under his weight, the noose tightening, he’s sweating, gagging, his eyes darting up, down, and all around, he can hear the caw of crows as he struggles to keep his balance. Lose it and he’s dead with his share of the treasure at his feet. Since the mere effort to speak might be fatal, he can’t talk, can’t call for help, can’t finish the word “Bl–bl–” for Blondie, the name attached to his only hope, the bounty hunter who has strung him up and left him to his lonely fate. There’s no hangman present this time, no audience as in the past charades of execution he and his fair-haired cohort played out in small towns  across the West. With the Bad (Lee Van Cleef) dead and buried after a trumpet-glorious shootout, and the Ugly teetering between life and death, the Good lifts his rifle, sets the sight, aims, and fires, the shot severing the rope, and down goes the Ugly, a 51-year-old Jewish actor from Brooklyn howling out the closing seconds of a performance for the ages.

Filmgoers may question Quentin Tarantino’s claim that Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967) is “the greatest achievement in the history of cinema,” but by now you’d think that anyone conversant with the motion picture medium would at least comprehend the possibility. The sad truth is that people who should know better still seem to be unaware of the magnitude of Wallach’s accomplishment, not to mention Leone’s. In the June 25 New York Times obituary (“Eli Wallach, Multifaceted Actor On Stage and Screen, Dies at 98”), there is only passing mention of the actor’s appearance in a “so-called spaghetti western.” In the late sixties it was worse; if you dared to enthuse about Leone to a “serious” film person, they’d have laughed in your face. No wonder Eli Wallach had doubts about what he was doing when he went to Rome in the spring of 1966, asking himself what does an Italian director know about westerns (“An Italian western sounds like an Hawaiian pizza”). But the money was good and he was curious.

“A Great Clown”

The notion of Tuco as a more villainous Sancho Panza was integral to Leone’s picaresque vision of a Mexican lowlife joining forces with a mysterious bounty hunter. The actor playing Tuco had to have a natural comedic ambience, a knack for one-liners, and an abundance of raw humanity to go with a crazed, unstoppable ferocity. Although he’d seen Wallach as a Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven, what convinced Leone was a moment in How the West Was Won when the bad guy played by Wallach amuses himself by pointing both index fingers at some children and miming the firing of two guns. People had warned Leone to stay away from Wallach (“he comes from Actor’s Studio”), but the director “knew he would be a great clown.” And something quite a bit more, as it turned out.

Wounded in Brooklyn

Long before Wallach had anything to do with the Actor’s Studio, there was Brooklyn. In his memoir The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage (Holt 2005), he remembers Saturday mornings at the Rialto watching westerns starring Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson. One day after seeing a “particularly bloody” silent version of Beau Geste, “I lay on my bed and began to fantasize. Reenacting episodes that I had seen in movies always gave me a sense of power. I always seemed to be crawling around on the bed wounded, shot, or about to be sentenced to death. My light tan blanket was the Sahara desert, and I began crawling over the sand dunes … surrounded by enemy Arabs. Suddenly, a shot rang out and I was wounded.”

Another incident from Wallach’s Brooklyn childhood that foreshadows his penchant for darker film roles took place one stormy night when he saw from the front window of the family candy store “a man kneeling in the middle of the street, his hands above his head. Standing over him was a dark figure holding something in his hand.” Hiding under the counter, young Eli hears a shot, and is dragged to the back of the store by his father, who tells him, “You didn’t see anything.” Eventually the family moved from their Mafia-friendly neighborhood to Flatbush, where Wallach attended Erasmus Hall High School. From there he went to the University of Texas, as unlikely a destination for a Brooklynite as Leone’s west would be three decades later: “I felt as if I’d landed on another planet …. Here, everyone looked tall and strong, spoke slowly, and wore boots.”

Wallach’s time in the Lone Star State would come in handy. Though it was the low tuition ($30 a term) that made Texas his choice, he still needed to make money, and in addition to selling soft drinks at football games, he had a job working with polo ponies, which is when he learned how to ride; another job involved “sitting in the library typing up memoirs of old cowboys and their battles with the Indians in the Southwest.” More important still, after playing minor parts with a theater group called the Curtain Club, he was cast in the title role of Ferenc Molnar’s play, Liliom. Like Tuco, Liliom is flawed but essentially sympathetic, in  Wallach’s words, a “tough drifter … who got involved in a robbery, and was ultimately killed.” He felt “strong and secure” in a role in which all his “fantasies, dreams, and yearnings about acting came to fruition.” He knew “then and there” that this was to be his life’s work.

The Gun Shop

The scene where Wallach’s Tuco truly comes into his own as a character occurs in a gun shop run by a little rosy-cheeked Gepetto right out of a Commedia dell’arte farce. While the shop owner (Enzo Petito) winces and flinches and lovably rolls his watery blue eyes, Tuco, fresh from a desperate trek across the desert, rummages crudely but purposefully through the shop, swigging whiskey from the old man’s bottle while assembling the perfect gun and at the same time revealing qualities unexpressed until that moment; now you’re seeing an artist at work, as actor and gunman. Watching how methodically and expertly Tuco creates a perfect weapon, it’s hard to believe Wallach’s claim in the memoir that he hates guns and never had any use for them. His only direction from Leone was “to take apart some of the guns, then put them back together using different pieces.” Wallach writes, “I pretended to be an expert as I squinted through the barrel of a Colt … and spun the bullet chamber of a Winchester and put it to my ear.”

“Pretended” doesn’t do the scene justice. It’s almost as if Tuco were a musician tuning an instrument, gauging the pitch or timbre, which makes sense in a film lifted again and again to greatness and glory by Ennio Morricone’s score.

Ecstasy

In The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, when the composer wishes to express his feeling for the music of Christoph Willibald Gluck, who was born on this day 300 years ago, he writes, “An ecstasy possessed me.” Berlioz had been studying to be a doctor when he began to read and reread the scores of Gluck, which he not only copied and learned “by heart” but “went without sleep because of them and forgot to eat or drink,” so that when he finally heard Gluck’s music at the Opéra, he vowed to become a musician.

During the magnificent finale of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly something like a sonic ecstasy possesses the grubby, devious, scavenging, shifty-eyed scoundrel played by Eli Wallach. In fact, “The Ecstasy of Gold” is the title given to Morricone’s scoring of Tuco’s fierce, frantic run through a vast cemetery searching for the tomb under which the long-sought treasure is buried.

When Leone’s direction, Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography, and Morricone’s music come together, you find yourself in a region where ecstasy and euphoria overwhelm reality and it’s possible to imagine that Berlioz himself would be stirred by soprano Edda Dell’Orso’s wordless aria soaring over a delirium of trumpets playing at Dies Irae intensity as Tuco sprints, spins, whirls, through the immense landscape of crosses and headstones, his surroundings whirling, blurring, as if the cameras had been cut loose in the turbulence. When the symphonic juggernaut finally subsides, there’s Tuco, the unholy sinner, sobbing with excitement as he begins digging up the coffin he mistakenly thinks is filled with gold. After all the grandeur of the music, you’re down in the dirt with him, his story your story, you and the boy in Brooklyn who found “a sense of power” in movies and came home to crawl around on the bed “wounded, shot, or about to be sentenced to death.” You know what he means, you’ve been there. You feel like a kid at the grandest and most glorious of Saturday matinees, and the excitement has only just begun. Here come Morricone’s trumpets.

 

June 25, 2014

book revMusical composition should bring happiness and joy to people and make them forget their troubles.

—Horace Silver (1928-2014)

You never know. Things happen. Life happens, death happens, music happens. You set out to write a column about George Orwell and a dog steals the show. Then a thrush. Then a jazz musician. It’s like the old line, “a funny thing happened to me on the way to —” wherever. Or like “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” the Rolling Stones song from 1967 that wouldn’t let me alone all last week. Now I know why. “No one’s sure just what it was/Or the meaning and the cause.”

Something Dreadful?

So there I am buried in books from the library by or about George Orwell (born on this date in 1903), skimming my way through the Orwellian universe with Mick Jagger singing in my head, when Horace Silver dies. Talk about parallel worlds colliding.

It’s like the moment in 1984 when Winston Smith hears someone singing a song composed “for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department.” Peeking out the window, he sees “a monstrous woman” down in the court below singing, in “a powerful contralto,” “It was only an ‘opeless fancy,/It passed like an Ipril dye,/But a look an’ a word an’ the dreams they stirred/they have stolen my ‘eart awye!”

The funny thing is, she’s singing “the dreadful rubbish” so tunefully that Smith finds it “almost pleasant” to hear.

You never know what Orwell’s really up to when he uses words like “dreadful.” Like the “something dreadful” that happens in his essay from 1921, “A Hanging.”

In a May 22 New York Times column about the “pivotal books” in his life, David Brooks puts the essays of Orwell at the top and dubs him “a master of the welcoming first sentence.”

While it’s mostly true about Orwell and first sentences, “A Hanging” has an undeniably unwelcoming opening: “It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains.” The condemned prisoner is a Hindu, “a puny wisp of a man” whose mustache is “absurdly too big for his body,” reminding Orwell of a comedian from the movies. It’s a walk of 40 yards to the gallows and when at one point the prisoner has to step “slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path,” Orwell, who was an officer with the Indian Imperial Police in his twenties, admits that until then he “had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.” As if this were the essay’s intended message, Orwell expounds on “the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive …. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”

But “a funny thing happens on the way” to the hanging, something actually not funny at all but “dreadful,” says Orwell, as a “large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah” comes seemingly out of nowhere “with a loud volley of barks,” leaping among and around the men, “wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together.” And before anyone can stop it, the dog makes a dash for the prisoner, jumps up and tries to lick his face.

For a reader, this sudden surprising departure from decorum is, like the woman’s singing in 1984, the opposite of dreadful; it’s the sort of thing only a comic genius with a view of life as enlightened as Chaplin’s might have conceived. The business about “a party of men understanding the same world” is exposition; the romping dog is life as it happens.

Everyone stands “aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog.” One of the men escorting the prisoner goes charging clumsily after the happy animal, but it dances and gambols just out of his reach, “taking everything as part of the game.” Another of the jailers throws some gravel, trying “to stone the dog away,” but it dodges the stones and comes eagerly back to them again, “its yaps” echoing “from the jail walls.”

Since you’ve been reading a lot of very nuanced prose up to this point, the yapping, romping, gamboling dog is the equivalent of music, like jazz, “the sound of surprise.” At the apex of life-and-death solemnity, the uncontainable, irrepressible behavior of an animal makes you smile when you should be frowning, lifts your spirits when there is no earthly reason for that to be happening.

What does the doomed man think of this playful intervention? He looks on “incuriously, as though this was another formality of the hanging.”

It takes several more minutes before someone manages to catch the dog. Then Orwell puts his handkerchief through its collar and they move on once more, “with the dog still straining and whimpering.” In describing the grim business at hand, Orwell makes no further mention of the fact that he’s the one restraining the dog. When the noose is fixed around the prisoner’s neck, he cries out to “his god,” chanting incessantly the one word, “Ram! Ram! Ram!” No command has been given the hangman. Everyone’s waiting for the “Ram! Ram! Ram!” to stop. It’s as if he’s being allowed “a fixed number — fifty, perhaps, or a hundred … each cry another second of life.”

Finally the command is given, the lever’s released, the prisoner plummets, “the rope twisting on itself,” and at this moment Orwell lets go of the dog! All this time he’s been restraining the animal, the one lyrical, spontaneous, poetical element in the narrative, its unacknowledged glory, until the fatal moment wherein the dog gallops immediately to the back of the gallows, stops short, barks, and then retreats to a corner of the yard, standing “among the weeds, looking timorously out at us.” The last we hear, the animal is “conscious of having misbehaved itself.” The word “misbehaved” is no more to be trusted than the word “dreadful” here or in 1984, where such spontaneous behavior can put you in Big Brother’s sights and land you in Room 101.

The Playerrecord rev

Having compared Orwell’s dog to music, I may be straining at the rhetorical leash to intrude on the Orwellian moment by extolling the virtues of Horace Silver. But thanks to that half-Airedale/Pariah, it makes a kind of sense. Who else, after all, could do justice in music to such happy cavorting in the face of death but the composer of “Nica’s Dream,” “Peace,” “Sister Sadie,” and “Blowing the Blues Away”? The internet makes the accomplishing of such unlikely associations swift and seamless, as happened the other night when I went from a reading of “A Hanging” to the online New York Times headline, “Horace Silver, 85, Master of Earthy Jazz, Is Dead,” to YouTube, which instantly puts you face to face with the man who has given so much serious joy to so many people.

A wave of the iMac wand and here he is very much alive, in person, smiling out at you, in his early thirties, as ready for a romp as an Airedale at a hanging, a vagrant forelock drifting over his forehead, his shoulders hunched; this man is something better than handsome or charming, he could be a gypsy in suit and tie or a surrealist poet moonlighting on piano in a Latin Quarter dive. As he hovers over the keyboard, dark hair tumbling in further disarray, long stiff fingers driving the hypnotic riff that begins “Señor Blues,” this most cheerful and welcoming of musicians takes on the sinister aura of a demented genius capable of “seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding” the same world where “with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”

Happenings in 1984

Things happen when you “read around” in Orwell. D.J. Taylor’s Orwell: The Life (Holt 2003) contains a full-page full-face photograph of Orwell’s first wife Eileen that stops you, holds you, and haunts you. Photographs of Orwell himself somehow never really quite happen or adhere; you have to search online to find a smile, which turns up, not surprisingly, whenever he’s shown holding his adopted son.

Look through 1984 and the words and phrases that are set apart from the text proper stand out, most obviously and famously, the slogans of Big Brother. Even more conspicuous, however, are the lyrics of that “dreadful” song (“It was only an ‘opeless fancy”) and the three words Winston Smith finds on a small piece of paper handed him by a young woman he hardly knows — “I love you.”

Life happens, death happens, love happens, and it’s love that seals Smith’s fate, that and the “torrent of song” poured forth by a thrush when he and his lover are standing in the shade of hazel bushes, their hiding place. The music goes “on and on, minute after minute, with astonishing variations, never once repeating itself,” a “flood of music” that flows “all over” him and gets “mixed up with the sunlight” filtering “through the leaves.” It’s a passage that might seem florid or cliched in any other novel, with phrases like “her body seemed to melt into his,” but this is 1984, where “pure love or pure lust” are impossible, where “their embrace” has been “a battle, the climax a victory … a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”

But not the singing of the thrush. That’s life as it happens.

 For a more in-depth appreciation of Horace Silver, see my July 16, 2008 column, “Charming Persuasion: A Stroll with Horace Silver,” http://www.towntopics.com/jul1608/book.html.

June 18, 2014
The Astor Place Riots - The Macbeth curse?

The Astor Place Riots – The Macbeth curse?

The theatrical superstition known as the Macbeth curse has it that terrible things may happen if you say the name of the play offstage; to be safe, say “the Scottish play.” The legend of the curse is said to have begun with the first performance, at the court of King James in August 1606, when the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth became ill and died; according to legend, he had to be replaced at the last minute by Shakespeare himself. Inhumane though it may be to think so, that tragic twist of fate had its upside, since the Bard was apparently an esteemed actor, having played, among other parts, King Hamlet’s ghost. The prospect of seeing Shakespeare impersonating one of his greatest creations, and in Medieval drag, is amusing to imagine in this, his 450th birthday year.

Of course if any of Shakespeare’s works is likely to carry a curse, it would be the one driven by the prophetic ravings of witches. But then Macbeth has been anything but unlucky at the box office, witness the three productions playing in New York in the past year, a major film currently in production, not to mention perennial allusions in the news media (“The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock”) and the updated version of the fearful couple played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Penn Wright in the Netflix hit series, House of Cards. 

Amazing Space

Since Macbeth is wrapped in a language as often as not unfathomable to members of the audience new to Shakespeare’s music or else innately antagonistic to it due to boring classroom assignments, the challenge is how to package it, or how to most effectively exploit its horrors and wonders or even its poetry? Last year’s Alan Cummings version at the Ethel Barrymore simplified matters by reducing the production to a one-actor, one-act virtuoso piece set in a mental institution. Now, not five months after the closing of the Lincoln Center Macbeth, Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s you-are-there spectacular is playing at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue through June 22. In an online introduction to this, his New York stage debut, Branagh expounds on the theatrical advantages of the space, the military associations inherent in the massive Gothic Revival building with its vast drill hall once used by soldiers preparing for war, or coming back from it. Branagh and Ashford envision theatregoers being engulfed by the production from the moment they pass through the castle gate into “an amazing space, of amazing dimensions.” On its way to the heart of the action, the audience experiences the mist and rain of the heath, the world of the witches, wholly exposed to the “primitive energy” of the play, close enough to the battle scenes to see the sparks flying as swords strike swords. “You’ll be there in all the rain and blood and sweat,” says Branagh.

But will Shakespeare be there? The best of all possible outcomes would be for the spectacle and atmosphere to sustain the acting and the language until the audience is witness to “the things that make Shakespeare Shakespeare.” As Herman Melville observes, these “things” are not to be found in the “sort of rant” that “brings down the house” for “those mistaken souls, who dream of Shakepeare as a mere man of Richard-the-Third humps and Macbeth daggers.” Writing in the summer of 1850 shortly before embarking on his Shakespearean masterpiece, Moby Dick, Melville is talking about “those deep far-away things” in Shakespeare, “those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality.” Through the mouths of his “dark characters” Shakespeare “craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them. Tormented into desperation, Lear the frantic King, tears off the mask, and speaks the sane madness of vital truth.”

Macbeth’s truth is in all the “sound and fury” surrounding and speaking through him. Critics questioning his intellectual/poetical capacities make me think of the naysayers who refuse to believe that someone who missed out on Oxford or Cambridge was capable of writing the plays. How then to explain Macbeth’s claim to all that glorious language? In The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom imagines Macbeth’s “language and imaginings” to be “those of a seer,” the poetry coming to him “unbidden,” as with a fit or a seizure like the one that takes possession of the usurper when he sees Banquo’s ghost. Much as the poet and killer latent in the character of Hamlet are awakened by the narrative of a ghost, the poet and killer in Macbeth are spawned in the demonic realm occupied by the three witches, which, though they “terrify us by taking over the play,” according to Bloom, “also bring us joy, the utmost pleasure that accepts contamination by the daemonic.”

Bloom makes the point that while Shakespeare confers “his own intellect upon Hamlet, his own capacity for more life upon Falstaff, his own wit upon Rosalind,” he gives Macbeth “what might be called the passive element in his own imagination.” This sounds like the area Melville has in mind when he speaks of “those deep far-away things,” and like what Keats is thinking of when he speaks of Negative Capability, the quality “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.”

In the Mines of Macbeth

As a Rutgers graduate student in David Kalstone’s Shakespeare class, I happily submerged myself in the reading, with Macbeth and Hamlet the high points. But when it came to the moment of dissertation truth, I couldn’t get past the base camp on Mt. Hamlet. For Macbeth, I lowered myself down into the mines, way way down. My ravaged copy of the Yale paperback is a ballpoint-spattered chaos, all ink-specks and scribbles. This is where you set the theatrical and historical reality to one side because on the page it’s all Shakespeare. No special effects. No legends or curses. It’s the word, the word, and nothing but the word. “Close reading,” they called it. In fact, the notion became so much a part of your approach to life that on long walks you would find yourself close-reading nature or even the gritty sidewalks of New Brunswick.

Close reading develops a species of know-it-all arrogance in the student with the leaky ballpoint. What fools those mortals be, namely the mandated custodians of the text who sleep through their watch, allowing alien subversions and perversions of the Word. The most egregious example of a rent in the fabric of Macbeth occurs in the first scene of Act IV, when, after Shakespeare’s truly written third witch adds to the pot “maw and gulf/Of the ravined salt-sea shark” along with “Finger of birth-strangled babe/Ditch delivered by a drab,” a bogus Heccat enters, reducing the infernal brew to a children’s naptime sing-along, “And now about the cauldron sing, Like elves and fairies in a ring,/Enchanting all that you put in.” Though he knows the passage is spurious, Eugene M. Waith, the editor of the Yale Shakespeare, leaves it there to be pounced on by the vigilant grad student scoring and circling and exclaiming, “not WS!”

 A Deadly Riot

A few days prior to the May 1849 Astor Place Riots described at length in James Shapiro’s new anthology Shakespeare in America (Library of America $29.95), Herman Melville and Washington Irving were among the signers of a petition addressed to the Scottish actor William Macready, whose performance of Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House had been savaged by the hisses, threats, and cat-calls from supporters of his American rival, Edwin Forrest, who was across town playing the same role at a less elegant venue. When Macready refused to be driven from the stage, rotten eggs, and coins and chairs were thrown, and the police finally stopped the show. Macready had planned to take the next boat home until he received the petition, which requested him to reconsider his decision, and assured him “that the good sense and respect for order, prevailing in this community, will sustain you on the subsequent nights of your performances.”

Macready was convinced, another performance was announced, and the city geared up for a riot. Though the chief of police had 900 policemen at his disposal, he called in the militia, with the result that among the thousands mobbing the streets around the Opera House, 22 people, including a number of innocent bystanders, were killed. One can’t help wondering if the rioting would have led to fatalities on the same scale had another less curse-plagued play been on the stage of the Opera House. Few lines in Hamlet or Othello seem as creepy, as ominous, as inviting of catastrophe, as the Second Witch’s “By the pricking of my thumbs,/Something wicked this way comes.”

Voodoo Claims a Critic

Another bizarre instance that believers in the Macbeth curse could cite is described in John Houseman’s account of the Negro Theatre production overseen by Houseman and directed by 20-year-old “boy wonder” Orson Welles. Known as the Vodoo Macbeth (all-black cast, Haitian setting, a troupe of African drummers including an authentic witch doctor, the sacrifice of five goats), the play that opened on April 14, 1935 at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre and received generally good notices, with the notable exception of one by the Herald Tribune’s Percy Hammond, who panned the performance, calling it “an exhibition of deluxe boondoggling.” Housman describes Hammond’s piece as a political polemic “savage but eloquent” and as a theatrical notice, “irrelevant and malignant.” While the producers were not “unduly disturbed” by the wording, the witch doctor and members of the drum troupe solemnly informed Houseman that they believed the review to be “an evil one, the work of an enemy, a bad man.” A day later the newspapers announced the sudden illness of the well-known critic Percy Hammond, “who died some days later — of pneumonia, it was said.”

Once again this ongoing celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary would not be possible without the Library of America’s anthology, Shakespeare in America, which includes Melville’s unsigned love letter to Hawthorne (“Hawthorne and his Mosses”), from which the quotes about Shakespeare are taken, as well as the information about the Astor Place Riots and John Houseman’s essay on the Voodoo Macbeth, “Run-Through.”

 

June 11, 2014

dvd revI fell hopelessly in love with Peter Dinklage’s sexy dwarf, who is a schemer but a noble one by Lannister standards.

—Maureen Dowd

Like Maureen Dowd, who gave a shout-out for Game of Thrones in her April 6 New York Times column (“Bring Me My Dragons!”), I came to the HBO phenomenon reluctantly. Besides being generally indifferent to the fantasy genre, I’d heard nothing about the series to suggest that it would become as addictive as Breaking Bad was last year.

There was a moment in the saga of Walter White when he went over to the dark side as surely as though a bell had tolled his passage, and we began to care less and less about what happened to him even as we continued, fascinated, to follow him to his fate. With Season Four of Game of Thrones approaching its final episode, we’re caring more and more about Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, who was born on the dark side and is staying there, as he tells the love of his life when explaining why he can’t abandon the Lannisters: “These bad people — it’s what I’m good at, out-talking them, out-thinking them.” Now that his fate is in the hands of his father and his sister, who both loathe him, viewers have reason to wonder if Tyrion will survive the season, especially in view of what’s happened to other seemingly indispensable players in the series. While it’s true that the word of mouth about last season’s penultimate shocker, Red Wedding, brought many new viewers into the fold, it isn’t gore alone that’s lifting HBO’s Game of Thrones above mere sports events in the cable ratings, it’s the ongoing mortal threat looming over this witty, snarky, supremely articulate dwarf. If anyone is carrying the series these days, it’s the show’s most diminutive character, its imp genius, bastard prince, and most charming rogue.

The June 11 Club

Peter Dinklage will celebrate his 45th birthday today, June 11, 2014. While other members of the June 11 club are an illustrious lot that includes the likes of Ben Jonson, John Constable, Richard Strauss, and William Styron, Dinklage is happening here and now, a man of the moment coming into his own as an actor and a star, and if that weren’t enough, he’s a New Jersey native, born in Morristown. From all indications, Dinklage’s Tyrion is a Renaissance man who belongs in the company of his great birthmates. Given his talent as an actor, his mastery of abusive phrasing, he could do wonders with Ben Jonson’s comic invective. As someone who conceived and drew up the plans for an apparatus to make it possible for the crippled son of a rival family to ride a horse, he might have more in common with DaVinci than with Constable, although since he’s a man of vision and imagination with a gift for the grotesque (witness his disquisition on beetles in a recent episode), he might have more in common with Hieronymous Bosch. As for Strauss, who else but Tyrion is capable of an opera based on the Lannisters?  And in the unlikely event that he lives to a ripe old age, imagine the novel he could write (call it Tyrion’s Choice), he who when asked why he’s always reading a book, says that his brother, Jaime, has his swords “and I have my mind. And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.”

Saver of Lives

Match Jaime’s warrior’s heart with Tyrion’s cutting-edge mind and nimble tongue and who knows, they may well prevail against odds in the latest crisis. You could lose count of the number of times Tyrion has saved his own life with his wit and cunning, but then he’s already saved more than his share of lives in Game of Thrones. Besides saving various members of that despised rival family such as Ned Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow and wife Lady Catelyn Stark, he rescues Ned’s sweet, virginal daughter Sansa from torture at the hands of the monstrous boy-king usurper Joffrey; saves his own bodyguard the sellsword Bronn; he even saves his horrible nephew, father, and sister by shrewdly and heroically (in his own bizarre way) commanding the defense of King’s Landing against the army of Stannis Baratheon. Though he may whore and drink and discourse obscenely and outrageously, even at the point of death (as he does with devastating effect in the first of two trumped-up trials), all in all, he’s a true knight.

Tyrion’s secret, as he confides to Jon Snow, is to be himself. “Let me tell you something, Bastard. Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.” When Jon asks him what he knows about being a bastard, Tyrion replies, “All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.”

Quite a Large Man

The essential ironic dynamic of Game of Thrones is that its largest character is a dwarf. Dipping into the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s epic, which I may yet actually read, I found a passage where Lord Tyrion is visiting the Night Watch at the Wall, showing off his wit to the point where some members of the Watch think he may be mocking “their noble purpose.” After saying “We all need to be mocked from time to time,” Tyrion asks for more wine; when someone observes that he has “a great thirst for a small man,” Aemon Targaryen, the ancient blind maester of the Watch, declares that Lord Tyrion “is quite a large man … a giant come among us here at the end of the world.” Surprised, Tyrion says he has been “called many things, but giant is seldom one of them.” Looking in the direction of Tyrion’s voice, Master Aemon repeats, “Nonetheless, I think it is true.”

Aemon only says what he hears, and he hears a man who can out-talk and out-think (and out-act) anyone.

If Tyrion is a giant among those playing the Game, Peter Dinklage is becoming a giant among actors, with both a Golden Globe and an Emmy to his credit. True to Tyrion’s advice to Jon Snow, Dinklage wears the fact of his stature proudly, which means that in the course of his career he’s turned down dwarf-for-dwarf’s-sake roles and crass career moves (no leprechauns need apply); in his first screen role, in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995), he vents on the subject. Cast as a blue-suited, blue-top-hatted dwarf in a dream sequence for the film-within-a-film being directed by Steve Buscemi, he goes after the harried director: “Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it? I don’t even have dreams with dwarfs in them. The only place I’ve seen dwarfs in dreams is in stupid movies like this!”

On the Way to Tyrion

The most significant role Dinklage played on his way to Tyrion Lannister was Finbar McBride in The Station Agent (2003), directed by fellow New Jerseyan Tom McCarthy, and set, where else but in Newfoundland, N.J. One feature of this film likely to catch the attention of seasoned cable viewers is that, like Dinklage, the actors playing Fin’s friends Olivia and Joe had HBO in their future, Patricia Clarkson as Ruth Fisher’s hippie sister in Six Feet Under and Bobby Cannavale in an Emmy-winning performance as the mad mobster Gyp Rosetti in Boardwalk Empire. Fans of AMC’s Mad Men will also notice John Slattery/Roger Sterling’s brief but vivid turn as Olivia’s estranged husband. A star-in-the-making lighting up the film is Michelle Williams as a pregnant librarian with an obnoxious boyfriend.

The first third of The Station Agent is dominated by Fin’s somber unsmiling presence. I was tempted to say “dwarfed by”  because it’s more than gimmicky wordplay when you turn that noun into a verb; the double meaning perfectly describes the scope of Dinklage’s cinematic presence. McCarthy plays on extremes of scale by balancing long shots of the tiny figure trudging purposefully along the railroad track with nuanced close-ups of his remarkably expressive face. As determined as he is to keep to himself, remote and closeted in the abandoned depot he inherited, the film won’t leave him alone; the camera loves his face, much as the close-up cameras of Hollywood’s golden age loved Garbo and Bogart and James Dean. All Dinklage has to do is cast his eyes moodily upward and you’re seeing a star who could hold his own in a love scene with any actress anywhere, including Michelle Williams’s needy librarian, who is already clearly falling for him, thus the kiss when she comes to visit and chastely spends the night.

The upside of Fin’s grimly resolute withdrawal from the world and his grudging resistance to the friendship offered by Joe and  Olivia is the beauty of the moment when he finally smiles in spite of himself at Joe’s joyously uninhibited way of going at life. In this warmly human film, Dinklage’s first smile is an event, like a sunset breaking through a cloudy sky.

The same expressive power is in force in Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister. For Fin the definitive coming out — the moment that finally releases the tension created by the cumulative effect of days of being a one-man freakshow under the community gaze — is when he gets drunk and climbs up on the bar, turning this way and that, both arms extended, displaying himself, and yelling to the bar crowd that had been gawking, “Here I am! Take a look! Take a look!”

The way Dinklage growls the last “Take a look” may remind Game of Thrones viewers of Tyrion’s passionate “confession” in Season 4, probably the actor’s most intense, unguarded, Emmy-worthy moment so far; wounded and infuriated by the betrayal of his lover Shae, he dispenses with the cynical persona, confessing that he’s guilty only of being a dwarf: “I’ve been on trial for that my whole life.”

Viewers who would like a sample of what Peter Dinklage and Game of Thrones are all about will find a strong selection on YouTube, which features several compilations of Tyrion’s Best Moments. The Station Agent, a feel-good classic, is available at the library, as are DVDs of previous seasons of Game of Thrones. Also on YouTube, you can see Dinklage addressing the graduating class at his alma mater, Bennington College, where he deliveres a free-form commencement address that has the class of 2012 cheering as lustily as the armies of King’s Landing when Tyrion rouses them to action.

 

June 4, 2014

Bliss. Feeling like a kid up past his bedtime, I’m stretched out on a cushioned window seat on the ninth floor of a century-old Beaux Arts hotel gazing at the Hotel Belleclaire, Broadway at Seventy-Seventh Street New Yorklights moving up and down after-midnight Broadway.

We checked into the Hotel Belleclaire after spending Saturday afternoon at the Morgan Library and Museum’s Gatsby to Garp exhibit of 20th century American literature rarities from the Carter Burden collection. Since one of the Belleclaire’s claims to fame is that Babe Ruth and Mark Twain once stayed there, the hotel offers suites named for the Sultan of Swat and the author of Huckleberry Finn. Asked about the Mark Twain Suite, the man at the desk says, “Somebody already lives there.” After I mention that I’m planning to write a column about our stay, he says the best he can do is an “upgrade.” He and his female co-worker are smiling as they send us up to Room 903, which turns out to be, ta-dum, the Mark Twain Suite, and here he is, large as life, white-maned and white-suited in three framed, hugely enlarged photographic reproductions — wearing a top hat in the entry hall; looking out a window with his pipe in his hand on the wall of the sitting room, along with framed sketches of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer; and seated as if waiting for us in the second room, which has a replica of a vintage bed with cast-iron curtained head board within easy reach of a replica of a Twain-era telephone.

A knock at the door and in comes a man bearing a bottle of Merlot and two wine glasses. A minute later he’s back with two bottles of water and some Dean & DeLucca snacks. On shelves beside the sofa are facsimile first editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and the lavishly illustrated volume that accompanied the Ken Burns American Lives documentary about Mark Twain.

At the Morgan

On days like this New York is in its glory. As we walk crosstown from Penn Station, everything’s falling into place, as if the whole city has achieved clarity, it’s all working, even the balance is balanced, and after sharing an upscale cheeseburger lunch at the Morgan’s courtyard cafe, we’re ready for the Burden exhibit. My wife indulged my craving for a burger and fries without my having to convince her that nothing else on the menu went as well with a visit to 20th century American literature. It’s true that the exhibit begins with Henry James, who most likely would have scorned such an unseemly delicacy (though he did partake of donuts and there’s a photo to prove it). In fact, James is treated as an outlier, an island unto himself in an anteroom, where he’s represented by an American first of Portrait of a Lady; the doomed play he made from his novel, The American; and a post card of a church. James is there because Burden’s collection had its “foundation” in the Master, “the only nineteenth century writer who being an American felt the method of the twentieth century,” according to Gertrude Stein.

Sorry, but if anyone “felt the method ahead of the century” it was New Jersey’s own Stephen Crane, not to mention our roommate Sam Clemens, neither of whom are on the premises. Ask Hemingway about his debt to Crane and he’ll be even more vocal on the subject of the man the Belleclaire named a suite for, witness his declaration in The Green Hills of Africa that “all American literature comes from one book … called Huckleberry Finn.”

No more carping, it’s a fascinating show, and one of the highlights is Hemingway’s expansive, playful, if not downright nutty inscription in The Sun Also Rises. Of course seeing the dust-jacketed first edition of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a thrill; no matter how often you may have seen the cover reproduced, it’s still the most charismatic image in American literature. Other highlights: Fitzgerald’s heavily annotated proof sheet for a Civil War story; the first editions of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, along with the shooting script for The Thin Man and Knopf’s publicity sheet (“In 1929, we gave you Hammett, in 1934 we gave you [James M.] Cain, in 1939 we give you Chandler and The Big Sleep”), not to mention Little Brown’s flyer for The Catcher in the Rye (“This book is going to click!”) and Salinger’s polite letter to a Little Brown copy editor about Franny and Zooey. Of all the letters, the most striking is the long, eloquent, typically selfless and apparently futile one Allen Ginsberg wrote to John Ciardi explaining the art of Jack Kerouac.

book revGorky Scandal

For several days I’ve been trying to find out when, why, or how Mark Twain, who had a home of his own on lower Fifth Avenue, ever resided at the Belleclaire. The one piece of evidence I’ve found concerns the Russian novelist, playwright, and revolutionary, Maxim Gorky, who stayed at the hotel in April 1906, presumably at Twain’s urging. The Belleclaire was only three years old at the time and still an architectural showpiece, the first “skyscraper” hotel (it was all of ten stories high).

Gorky’s arrival in America was front page news. A long story in the April 13 New York Times about his adventures in the city (he visited Grant’s Tomb, among other tourist sights), offers the clearest evidence of Twain’s presence at the hotel: “Mark Twain and W. D. Howells called upon Gorky at his apartments in the Hotel Belleclaire last evening. They remained with him for about half an hour discussing literature, and invited him to attend a literary dinner about a fortnight from now.”

The dinner never happened because it was discovered that the charming woman referred to in various news stories as Mrs. Gorky was an actress with whom the writer had been living ever since his separation from his wife a few years before. The press-fueled out-of-wedlock scandal was unacceptable to the Belleclaire’s owner, who evicted the couple and huffily told the Times, “My hotel is a family hotel, and in justice to my other guests I cannot possibly tolerate the presence of any persons whose characters are questioned in the slightest manner.”

After two other hotels turned them away, Gorky and his mistress left the city; he told reporters, “The publication of such a libel is a dishonor to the American press. I am surprised that in a country famed for its love of fair play and reverence for women, such a slander as this should have gained credence.” Only the day before, the Times story had quoted him saying, “This is a wonderful country, surely the Promised Land. I hope I shall live to see the day when things are this way in Russia.”

Later that same year, back in his homeland, Gorky wrote a nightmarish account of “the wonderful country” titled “The City of the Yellow Devil” where the buildings “tower gloomily and drearily,” there are “no flowers at the windows and no children to be seen,” and the city is “a vast jaw with uneven black teeth” breathing “clouds of black smoke into the sky.”

Never the Twain

I have no reason to doubt that Twain himself stayed at the Belleclaire, if only because it was “the thing to do” when the hotel was a unique addition to the city. But since I’ve been unable to pin down an exact time and place, I can only resort to Twain’s own rationale, stated in Eve’s Diary: “If there wasn’t anything to find out, it would be dull. Even trying to find out and not finding out is just as interesting as trying to find out and finding out; and I don’t know but more so.”
Remember this is the author who threatened to prosecute, banish, or shoot persons attempting to find a motive, a moral, or a plot in his most famous novel. As Huck himself says, “there was things” that the author “stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

It’s also true that “Gatsby to Garp: Modern Masterpieces from the Carter Burden Collection” will be at the Morgan Library and Museum through September 7.

 

May 28, 2014

bk revThere’s a rapping at my study door, a soft persistent tapping, with a hint of claw in the sound. The door is gently banging back and forth in the frame as I sort through ideas for a May 28 column. When the rapping intensifies, it inspires thoughts of a famous Raven at a famous chamber door. Even in the age of Rap the word “rapping” belongs to Poe.

Waiting on the other side is Nora, our glossy 11-year-old tuxedo cat who can’t abide closed doors. I put my thoughts on hold and clear a space for us amid the jumble of books piled on the chaise by the window. Stepping lightly over the rocky paperback-hardback terrain until she has a clear view of the street below, Nora casts a watchful eye on the commotion of a garbage truck making the Thursday pick-up. No birds or squirrels being in sight, she turns her attention to a battered paperback anthology of French poetry I found at the Cranbury Book Worm the other day, gives it a whiskery nuzzling, and then puts one white paw on Baudelaire: His Prose and Poetry, as if to say, “This is mine.” Then she curls up by my side and, as my maternal grandmother would say, commences purring.

With my free hand, I open the Baudelaire, a severely creased Boni & Liveright Modern Library edition from 1919, and start reading aloud from a prose poem about twilight madness and a man who would be sociable and indulgent during the day and “pitiless” in the evening, having once thrown at a waiter’s head “an excellent chicken, in which he imagined he had discovered some insulting hieroglyph.”

While I’m not suggesting that our Nora has a soft spot for Baudelaire, I can tell you that her ears perked up when I read the last part, she who in her wild youth performed feats equal to the throwing of chickens at waiters, if not the throwing of waiters at chickens. Remember that Baudelaire himself was partial to a “strong and gentle” cat, “the pride of the house,” beloved of “ardent lovers and austere scholars” and worthy of comparison to “the mighty sphinxes” with “particles of gold spangling their mystic eyes.”

In fact, it was “The Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth,” a poem by Robert Desnos, that took me to the Cranbury Book Worm and the paperback anthology of French poetry I’m reaching for when the “pride of the house” decides she’s had enough, slips off the chaise, and heads for the door.

The Book Worm

In its heyday, when it occupied the most imposing house on Main Street, the Book Worm had well over 100,000 volumes in stock, not to mention stacks of old Life magazines, LPs, CDs, DVDs, posters, paintings, and upstairs, along with more rooms of books, a substantial assortment of antiques — and fresh vegetables. Here, surely, was the only bookstore in the world that sold cucumbers and tomatoes grown in the mulch made from a compost heap of decaying books. Sadly, the Worm has been downsized to a shadow of its former self and installed in a cramped store front a block away, but as the Stones will tell you, while you may not always get what you want, if you try, sometimes you get what you need. I got Robert Desnos (pronounced Dez-nose) and Henri Rousseau.

Gateway to Rimbaud

Given the condition — spine cocked, page ends yellowed — Wallace Fowlie’s bilingual 1955 Grove Press paperback,  Mid-Century French Poets, should not be priced at $6. The catch is that it’s inscribed “Wishes to Marion and Francis for a blessed Xmas, love Wallace 1955.” Francis is Francis Fergusson, the author of Idea of the Theater (Princeton 1949), who taught at Rutgers, lived in Kingston, died at Princeton Hospital in 1986, and sublet our house in Bloomington one summer; on the subject of inscriptions, the Fergusson kids wrote their names in pencil on the wall of the closet in my room, and so did Leslie Fiedler’s kids when the author of Love and Death in the American Novel sublet the house for a year.

As for Fowlie, he was nothing less than the gateway to Rimbaud for Jim Morrison and Patti Smith. His translation of the Works is on my desk even now. He also wrote a book about Rimbaud and Jim Morrison called The Rebel as Poet, and his friendship with Henry Miller resulted in the publication of their correspondence.

With inscriptions and associations like that, and a nice selection of Desnos inside, how could I not buy this book?

Rousseau’s Dream

My other purchase at the Book Worm was a Museum of Modern Art monograph from 1946 about Rousseau (1844-1910), who was born on May 21 and might have been the subject of last week’s column if he hadn’t been competing with Fats Waller.

The reproductions in the Rousseau book are all in black and white, like Nora, and when she shows up again, nuzzling the leg of my desk, it happens that I’m gazing at a full-page detail of two wild felines prowling the dense forest in Rousseau’s The Dream, painted the year he died. As the title suggests, these creatures are moving wide-eyed and bewildered through the dreaming mind of the naked damsel on the couch. In the poem he attached to the painting, the painter imagines her listening to a snakecharmer’s flute. He’s given her face a stern touch of attitude, thinking perhaps of Léonie, the fiftyish widow with whom he was hopelessly in love at the time. Léonie worked behind the counter in a Paris department store Rousseau faithfully visited only to be unceremoniously rebuffed by her. Day after day, he would return home to paint himself deeper into The Dream. Same old story, he does it all for Léonie, leaves her paintings in his will, and she can’t be bothered to go to his funeral.

The Cat

Robert Desnos wrote “The Cat Like Nothing Else on Earth” for artists and dreamers everywhere, including of course,  Le Douanier, the former toll collector eating his heart out over a department store sales clerk. Desnos’s phenomenal cat goes to a doctor who listens to his heart and tells him it “isn’t doing well/It’s like nothing else on earth.” Then he goes to see “his lady, who examines his brain,” and tells him, “Your brain’s not doing well/It’s like nothing else on earth.” As if that isn’t enough, she adds, “It’s unlike anything in the whole world.” The poem ends with a sigh: “And that’s why the cat like nothing else on earth/Is sad today and doesn’t feel so well.”

Of all the photographs of 20th century painters I’ve ever seen, none come as close to capturing the spirit of “The Cat Like Nothing Else” as the one of Rousseau taken in his studio on December 14, 1908. The aging painter sits facing the camera, his elbow on a table, his chin propped on his hand, looking as if he’s just shuffled home after another slap in the face from Léonie, the muse from hell. Home is one room with a large window. There’s a violin on the table, a broom in the corner, lots of pictures on the wall, and somewhere out of camera range, the artist’s paintings, his easel and the usual accoutrements of his true profession. When someone asks him isn’t it uncomfortable to sleep in a studio, he says, “When I wake up I can smile at my canvases.”

At least he’s got company. On the floor near the broom there’s a bowl of milk.

Desnos Cheats Death

When Robert Desnos died on June 8, 1945, at the concentration camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, it was from typhus. Some time before he fell ill, he and a group of other internees were being marched to the gas chamber, so the story goes, when Desnos suddenly began reading the palms of the condemned, predicting a long full life for everyone. His manner was so convincing, so dismissive of all earthly doubt, that the victims began to believe him, and the guards became confused, lost touch with their mission, and ordered the people back into the truck, which took them back to the barracks.

If this anecdote sounds far-fetched, there are indications throughout Wallace Fowlie’s biographical sketch that if anyone could have performed such a feat, it was Desnos, who grew up believing in the existence of the marvellous and the exotic. In the 1920s he hung out with the surrealists, the only one “who could speak surrealistically at will,” according to André Breton; he “read in himself as in an open book,” practiced automatic writing, and seemed to “live within poetry.” During the sleep seances the others engaged in, Desnos proved to be the only genuine medium. As soon as he was asleep, “his power of speech was released and flowed abundantly.” He had discovered a way of translating himself into poetry without the help of books, without the need of writing, “in a state of constant inspiration.”

During the occupation of Paris, Desnos joined the Resistance and helped direct the underground publications of Les editions de Minuit, until he was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally Terezin.

———

There’s that tapping at the study door. It’s after 2 a.m. and the Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth is waiting to be let in.

I have a friend from days on the road to thank for introducing me to Desnos and “The Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth.” This morning he sent me a poem he just finished, “The Shade of Robert Desnos,” which can be read on rogeryates.blogspot.com, at the top of a monthly roster of poetry very much worth scrolling through. 

 

May 21, 2014

wallerAware that this issue will be appearing on Fats Waller’s 110th birthday, I’m listening to “Honeysuckle Rose,” the first track on If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It, a 3-disc CD set from RCA. The music is coming from the speakers of my Honda CRV as we pay our biennial visit to the Inspection Station near Dayton on Route 130. As the song plays, there’s no appreciable change in the performance of my 14-year-old alter ego, which seems to be off its game, almost as if it felt failure looming. But once Fats hits his stride-piano stride, we’re in business. The damage he’s doing with the left hand that Rudi Blesh compared to “heat thunder on a summer day” seems to rouse a bell-clear burst of cheering from the right hand, and when the big man’s gutsy, give-no-quarter vocal comes in, it’s a walking talking opera and we’re driving like a dream. At the DMV there’s only one car ahead of us, and ten minutes later we’re flying south on 130, me and my forest green millennial music machine with its good-till-2016 sticker shining like a medal on the windshield, yes, yes, we’re stridin’ high.

Playing the God-Box

In Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins calls him “a state of mind …. He was also bigger than life, Rabelaisian in intake, energy, and output. His greatest joy was playing Bach on the organ, but he buttered his bread as a clown, complete with a mask” that “consisted of a rakishly tilted derby, one size too small, an Edwardian mustache that fringed his upper lip, eyebrows as thick as paint and pliable as curtains, flirtatious eyes, a mouth alternately pursed or widened in a dimpled smile, and immense girth, draped in the expensive suits and ties of a dandy.”

Further insights on Thomas “Fats” Waller as “the clown who wants to play Hamlet” are offered by New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson, a longtime resident of Basin Street in Princeton, down by the D&R Canal. After mentioning Waller’s “consuming desire to bring to the public his love of classical music and of the organ” and the depth of the “hurt” he felt when audiences rejected this side of him, Wilson describes the moment in Paris in 1932 when Fats “climbed up into the organ loft of the Cathedral of Notre Dame with Marcel Dupré, the cathedral’s organist.” Fats is quoted saying, “First Mr. Dupréplayed the God-box and then I played the God-box.” There seems to be some debate about whether Waller played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue or his own “Honeysuckle Rose.” Both, I would think, though RCA Victor declined to release any of his Bach performances, including the two fugues he recorded at Victor’s Camden studio in 1927. He also once recorded on the organ in the same Abbey Studio where history was made three decades later by the Beatles, who regularly performed their version of Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” at Hamburg’s Star Club.

The Life of the Party

Standing an inch short of six feet, weighing 285 pounds, and turned out in the style nicely nailed in Gary Giddins’s sketch, Waller “lit the place up like Luna Park” when he walked into a room, according to his son and biographer, Maurice. As much as he loved Bach (said to be third on his list of the greatest men in history, behind Lincoln and FDR), he also loved being the quintessential Life of the Party. It would be twisting reality to spin his story as that of a misunderstood giant whose inner church organist wept whenever he sat down to play something serious only to hear the audience, even at Carnegie Hall, losing patience and soon shouting for the dispenser of joy to do his thing.

Fats Waller didn’t die half a year before his 40th birthday from the stress of stifling his serious side. The life force loved to party, and his prodigious capacity for food and drink and late hours is well-documented. According again to his son, people would drop into the Waller home in St. Albans Queens at all hours of the night to hang out with Fats and hear him play. He never turned them away. Who could? These were people like Legs Diamond, Joe Louis, Humphrey Bogart.

One of the best-known Fats Waller stories, included in Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes from the archives of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers, has Fats playing at Chicago’s Hotel Sherman circa 1925 when he was ordered into a car at gun-point and driven to a saloon in East Cicero to play at a surprise birthday party for Al Capone. After experiencing certain initial concerns for his well-being, Fats settled down and so totally charmed the partygoers that Capone kept him there three days, “shoving hundred dollar bills into his pocket with each request” before returning him to Chicago “several thousand dollars richer.”

Playing for Movies

In a minute and a half clip from a September 23, 1943, interview with Hugh Conover on WABC in New York, Waller jokes about being dragged “kicking and screaming” into the world, and then shows his kneejerk sensitivity to language when asked when he made his first professional appearance. “I was approximately 14 years old — that’s a good word approximately. I like that.” According to Murray Schumach’s New York Times interview from July 1943, which can also be accessed at handfulofkeys.com, Fats says that after dropping out school (“I hated algebra”) he found work playing organ accompaniment for silent movies in a Harlem theatre called the Lincoln, where he got in trouble for the sort of waggish improvising that would become his trademark. Like the time the silent movie cowboy, William S. Hart was on the screen: “He’s just been plugged and looks like he’s a cold mackerel. Pretty sad stuff. Next thing I know I’m playing ‘St. Louis Blues.’”

The Last Ride

The circumstances of Fats Waller’s death at 39 are worthy of a place in the national narrative if you can imagine a collaboration between, say, Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, and Ralph Ellison: the stricken hero passing his last hours on the Santa Fe Chief, eastbound from the Zanzibar Club in L.A., after being laid up for weeks with a virus. You know that if people partying around the grand piano in the Club Car knew Fats was aboard, he’d have been summoned to perform, so it’s possible he didn’t get to his berth until he’d sweated out a set surrounded by the revellers while the train braved a blizzard, the winter winds of the plains howling outside. As the Chief pounded into Kansas City’s Union Station on the morning of December 15, 1943, Waller’s manager, Ed Kirkeby, found the big man in his berth, unconscious and unresponsive. The coroner’s statement reports that “Acute left influenzal bronchopneumonia” was “the immediate cause of death.” The place of death was given as Union Station.

To die in Kansas City’s Union Station? As Fats was known to say, “One never knows, do one?”

In his book, Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats (University Press of Mississippi 2002), Dr. Frederick J. Spencer describes bronchopneumonia as “a patchy infection of the bronchi and bronchioles — the air passages that carry air into and out of the lungs.” Sounds very like the “intake and output” mentioned by Gary Giddins, whose account of that snow-blown endgame train ride features a jazz-flavored double entendre Fats would have appreciated even more than the notion of dying in your berth. When Waller spoke of the bitter winter wind to Ed Kirkeby (“yeah, hawkins is sure blowin out there tonight”), he was using a term for a cold wind “common among black midwesterners” and presumably unrelated to the blowing of the great tenor man who was born just up the Missouri River in St. Joseph. As things happen (“one never knows”), Kirkeby’s account of Fats’s last words in his biography Ain’t Misbehavin’ “created the widely repeated legend that Fats went out contemplating Coleman Hawkins.”

Another jazz-flavored touch is that when the Chief carrying Fats arrived at Union Station it coincided with the arrival of a train carrying Louis Armstrong.

Fats Waller would have turned 40 on May 21, 1944.

Waller’s Rose

I haven’t got the time, patience, or genealogical resources to prove it, but it’s not unlikely that Fats Waller is descended from Edmund Waller, the 17th-century poet and Member of Parliament (1606-1687). There are interesting possibilities online at houseofnames.com. Like Jo Waller,  age 17, who arrived in Barbados in 1635. Or Nicholas Waller, 41, who landed in Philadelphia in 1738. An Alfred Waller showed up in New York in 1845. The reason Edmund Waller is worth a closing mention in a column that begins with “Honeysuckle Rose” is “Go, lovely Rose,” the four stanza lyric for which he’s best known and which ends with a reference to the “common fate of all things rare …. How small a part of time they share/That are so wondrous sweet and fair.”

The Princeton Public Library provided the CD set mentioned at the top, though of course you can see and hear Fats Waller on YouTube, where I found the documentary from which the quotes by Maurice Waller were taken.

 

May 14, 2014

book revIf you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

—George Harrison, from “Any Road”

First off, I didn’t know that last week’s trip to the Shady Dog Record Shop would lead to the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t legend of roadside Americana celebrated in The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate (Norton $39.95). It wasn’t until the day after the trip that I found a perfect match for this column in Michael Wallis and Michael S. Williams’s book, where the introduction, “Mister Lincoln’s Highway,” stresses the “curving and bent, even sometimes warped” nature of the subject by quoting from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Improvement makes straight roads: but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.”

Road Music

Though I’m not looking forward to a drive to Berwyn in the northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia, there’s a certain warped, crooked appeal in a destination called the Shady Dog. As usual, my son has brought along some CDs to listen to on the way, and since this trip to a never-before-explored second-hand record store is the coda to a never-ending birthday present, I’m okay with whatever the vinyl warrior wants to hear as we head out of town on 206. Without any apparent intention of playfully linking it to the name of our objective, he suggests The Dog That Bit People, a 1971 album by a group from Birmingham (U.K.). At the moment the only copy of the actual Parlophone original on the market is going for the tidy sum of $2,000. Besides being a reminder of James Thurber’s popularity in England (witness John Lennon’s In His Own Write), The Dog is a nice, solid, melodic, progressive album with a country flavor, it’s indeed easy to drive to, and it’s not worth $2,000.

On the Turnpike

The first time my parents and I drove to New York from Indiana, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened the way east for us like a dream unimpeded by stoplights and cross roads and frustrations like the pre-bypass endlessness of getting through Columbus Ohio on U.S. 40. Whenever I flash on turnpike moments, it’s night and we’re entering one of those tunnels that to adolescent readers of Ray Bradbury always had a smooth surreal quality closer to sci-fi or the twilight zone than the publicist’s “Magic Carpet Through the Alleghenies.”

But that was then. Today’s 25-mile stretch of turnpike is strictly functional, the best thing about it the poetry of place names like King of Prussia and Valley Forge and Tredyffrin.

Roadside Surprises

The shades-wearing mutt on the Shady Dog sign is just the sort of roadside novelty that used to make traveling fun in the days before turnpikes, interstates, and strip malls. There are other glimmers of roadside America along U.S. 30, which doubles as Lancaster Avenue, but for me the star attraction is the Anthony Wayne, an Art Deco dream of a movie theatre named after the fiery Revolutionary War general who was was born nearby. At first it’s so unlikely an edifice, so eerily out of time, that you can’t quite trust your eyes. Rush-hour gridlock gives me time to take it in. Atop the marquee two sand-colored pillars stand on either side of an elaborately shaped proscenium arch with a scalloped top. Wonder of wonders, it’s not a RiteAid or a CVS, it’s still in use, with five screens. According to cinematreasures.org, when the Anthony Wayne opened its doors as a movie house in 1928, the first feature was a silent, In Old San Francisco. Built and operated by one Harry Fried, the theatre was known for a time as “Fried’s Folly” because “such a grand movie palace” was located “on the edge of the suburbs.” (A sketch of the planned facade design was signed by a young Philadelphia architect named Louis Kahn.) 

While another after-the-fact search online tells you all you need to know about Mad Anthony’s tempestuous military career, I’m more interested to learn that the general’s last name inspired Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne; that he turns up in Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night as an ancestor of Dick Diver; and that in the opening chapter of The Catcher in the Rye, “old Spencer,” Holden’s history teacher at Pencey Prep, lives on Anthony Wayne Avenue. The great man’s greatest gift to American popular culture, however, involved the ultimate, the one and only iconic Wayne of all Waynes, who in 1930 was still known as Marion Morrison (imagine The Alamo or Red River starring Marion Morrison) when Raoul Walsh, his director on The Big Trail, pulled Anthony Wayne out of his hat, wisely dumping “Anthony” for “John,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

Last Picture Shows

That Deco movie palace in Wayne sends my thoughts back again to the days before interstates and multiplexes when every little town had its own movie theater. On hot summer childhood drives through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and up and down in Kansas on the flattest and dullest of highways, the great treat for me was to check out the local cinema. Like all red-blooded American kids, I would beg the grown-ups to stop for a Coke and nag them with the eternal “how much longer till we get to so-and-so” mantra, but when it came to movie theaters, I had no shame. It wasn’t enough to simply drive by and look at the marquee and the name of the current attraction. I wanted to stop the car so I could feast my eyes on the posters and lobby cards. I found sustenance for another long hot stretch of road in titles like Johnny O’Clock and actors like Robert Mitchum, whose name in smalltown theater ads was sometimes misspelled as my father’s, Robert Mitchner in Where Danger Lives (there’s a clipping of that one somewhere in the family archives). Now and then you might get fortunate combinations like the Chisholm Trail Theatre in Newton, Kansas showing Fort Apache with, yes, John Wayne.

Looking for the Lincoln

As a college traveler for Norton, the publisher of The Lincoln Highway, I once drove from college town to college town across 11 states from Mississippi to North Dakota earning money for a trip to India. My last night on the American salesman road was spent sleeping in the company car in a Howard Johnson parking lot on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Though nine months of living in motels left me with a sadder but wiser sense of “The Great American Road Trip” spelled out on the cover of The Lincoln Highway, the images of roadside nostalgia depicted there and the red line of the route still rouse all the old feeling. The charming graphics also suggest a benign variation on the earthy art of R. Crumb, who contributed a childhood memory to the book. As a kid in the 1950s, he lived in Ames, Iowa, in “a big old house right on the Lincoln highway … at that time still just a two-lane thoroughfare that went straight through the heart of town. My brothers and I used to sit on the front step of our house and watch the trucks go by. We each had our favorite trucking line and would point and shout its name as it went barreling by.”

Music to my ears. I know what Crumb’s talking about. It all goes back to summers with my maternal grandparents who lived in a house facing on U.S. 69 in Overland Park, Kansas. Some things never change. These days we live close enough to 206 that we can see the cars and trucks going past from our back windows. My wife rolls her eyes when I tell her how much I love the sound of the big rigs that can make conversation on the deck a challenge.

Lincoln’s Among Us

Princeton has a place in the book, by the way. The same Lincoln Highway that begins on Times Square runs right through the heart of town disguised as our own Nassau/Stockton Street and Routes 27 and 206. How odd, that it took a big lavishly illustrated tome to remind me that we can claim not only Nassau Hall and the Battlefield, but the great national road. All these years driving between Princeton and New Brunswick on Route 27, all those nighttime bus rides back from the city, and I never once thought to myself, “Hey, I’m on the Lincoln Highway.” And we were on it again and didn’t know it Thursday driving south on 206 and again, oddly enough, on U.S. 30 in Berwyn and Wayne. Yes, the Anthony Lane and the Shady Dog are on the Lincoln Highway. You may rightly wonder how that can be when U.S. 30 begins its run in Atlantic City before cutting through Camden and Philadelphia to the Main Line suburbs. All I know is after a day that began with us heading south on Lincoln’s route, we landed on U.S. 30 heading west, in the right place at the right time in the national road’s strange slapdash relay race to the Golden Gate.

It works fine if you let it, the idea of a shape-shifting phantom highway named for a martyred president who loved Shakespeare making its mysterious way relentlessly westward, absorbing numbered identities with a Lincolnesque laugh at mandated designations.

If you want evidence of just how devious Lincoln’s road appears to the Philistines, google “Route of the Lincoln Highway” and consider Wiki’s boxed notice declaring “This article or section is written in the wrong direction. U.S. road articles are generally written in a south-to-north and west to east direction in order to follow the order of their mileposts. Please help by rewriting the article in the right direction.”

Do you believe it? East to West the wrong direction? And North to South? Time to listen to George Harrison’s joyous song “Any Road,” which opens his posthumous album Brainwashed telling us “we pay the price/with the spin of the wheel, with the roll of the dice.” We may not know where we came from, may not know who we are, may not “have even wondered” how we “got this far” but here comes the chorus, all join in, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

 

May 7, 2014

DVD revI started out just as a regular person, growing up in the Northwest ….

—David Lynch

Once upon a time during the reign of George I, on April 9, 1990, to be exact, TIME announced the debut of a television program “like nothing you’ve seen in prime time — or on God’s earth. It may be the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV.”

Never mind the “may be.” The New York Times called Twin Peaks “event television given a memorably wicked spin. Nothing like it has ever been seen on network prime time.”

A review in the Los Angeles Times (“TV You’ve Never Seen Before”) began with two questions. “Can this be happening?” and “Can this be happening on television?”

Considering how much genius-level, groundbreaking programming has been produced at HBO and elsewhere since the turn of the new century, it’s a tribute to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 30-episode ABC series that Twin Peaks remains as “hauntingly original” and “memorably wicked” when revisited in 2014 as it did in 1990 when it lured a network television audience into the dark forever-ominously-rustling north woods where “the owls are not what they seem” and FBI agents with second sight thrive on cherry pie while keeping a line open to other worlds.

Heralding the Golden Age

Last month during an interview with David Lynch at the International Music Summit in Los Angeles, the recording artist Moby suggested that Twin Peaks, the “first truly compelling idiosyncratic” TV show “heralded what we’ll call the weird, quasi golden age of television.” Moby made the statement in the course of asking the Twin Peaks mastermind if he’d ever been tempted to write or develop a new show.

Lynch preferred not to answer, dismissing the question as “awkward,” perhaps because he’s weary of denying rumors that he’s shooting new episodes when the only news of note is that a BluRay edition will soon be released. My quibble with Moby’s “golden age” reference concerns his use of the qualifier “quasi” in regard to an era that has witnessed giants of television art like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, among others, including the ongoing fourth season of Game of Thrones, which made the front page of Saturday’s New York Times (“Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role”).

To state the obvious, sexual violence has been endemic to the entertainment industry for generations and has been exploited not only in the media (i.e. the Times story) but in countless productions vastly inferior to Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks.

Loving Laura

In any case, sexual violence was not what addicted people to Twin Peaks. Rape and murder may have given the show its “Who killed Laura Palmer?” hook, but what made it a sensation was the way the question was augmented and amplified through the dynamics of visual style, unique characters, wildly imaginative writing, and, perhaps most impressively of all, the music of Angelo Badalamenti. From the first note, the mood created is warm, mellow, musing, inviting, dreamily beautiful. Right away you know that no matter what horrors are in store, the realm in which this film exists has a primal beauty, sad, mysterious, and infinitely suggestive. The mood is sustained as Badalamenti’s achingly poignant music follows the flow of feeling between a couple falling in love through their shared love of the murdered girl, as happens when James, the last of Laura’s boy friends and lovers, and Donna, her best friend and soulmate, confide in one another. The music is above all about loving Laura, so that you know that however sordid her secret life or the circumstances of her murder, she was adored, a darling of the community, its most beautiful child. The emotional chemistry of Twin Peaks is voiced by Donna the moment she and James are falling in love when she says “It’s like I’m having the most beautiful dream and the most terrible nightmare all at once.”

More pervasive than the love theme is the subtle undercurrent of menace Badalamenti creates, an ebb and flow of dread that intensifies whenever the scene shifts to the interior of Laura’s home. Without that sinister undercurrent, the focus on an ordinary stairway with an ordinary ceiling fan slowly turning overhead might suggest something vaguely, uneasily off center; with the music it’s as if a demon’s hand were guiding the blades of the fan: something terrible happened here and is going to happen again, as it does at the end of the 14th episode when Laura’s lookalike cousin is brutally murdered in the adjoining room. The effect would be purely sensational except that the slaughter takes place as Badalamenti’s wrenchingly eloquent music fills the road house where James and Donna and other friends of Laura are watching Julee Cruise sing the song of love and death that sealed their relationship.

Who Killed Twin Peaks?

Somehow it made sense that a show “half in love with easeful death” should bring about its own demise. One problem had to do with the burden of the mystery; all the exotic possibilities put in play promised more than any denouement could conceivably deliver. The real killer, however, was ABC’s insistence that the iconic question be answered.

“The mystery was never supposed to be solved,” says David Lynch, still passionate on the subject 15 years later in the featurette accompanying the DVD. “That mystery was sacred. It held all the others. It was the tree and the others were the branches.”

Even without the network’s fatal interference, Twin Peaks would have had to survive Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the media blitz of the first Gulf War, which was underway as the show stumbled toward its conclusion.

The TP Effect

Just for fun, imagine something called, for lack of a better term, the Twin Peaks (TP) Effect, with the understanding that the single character who most thoroughly embodies it is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. Cheerful, upright, moral, supremely sane, and yet formidably quirky, he’s the unconventionally conventional presence wherein the magically real splendor of the show unfolds, from the basics of “damn fine coffee” to the Red Room and the dancing dwarf, extrasensory communication, and parallel universes.

The TP effect is alive and well in the Golden Age. It goes without saying that the Sopranos version of coffee and cherry pie is gabagool and Carmela’s ziti, and though Tony Soprano may seem miles to the dark side of Dale Cooper, what about the big guy going to pieces when a family of ducks abandons his swimming pool, and what about his dream at death’s door in which he envisions himself as a dorky traveling salesman?  And what else but the TP effect puts the Pine Barrens episode at or near the top of every fan’s list, the misadventures of Paulie and Christopher shivering, bitching, and hapless in the wilds of New Jersey? Welcome to Twin Peaks, Paulie Walnuts. And welcome to Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Imagine the season of TP you’d have if he were teaching science at Twin Peaks High. Then there’s the silver-tongued flamethrower from Justified, Boyd Crowder. Imagine this lethally charming character coming on to the waitresses at the double R diner. And think of the season you could build around a gay holdup-man like Omar from The Wire. Another variation of the TP Effect, found in the avuncular, elegantly spoken person of David Lynch’s star-gazing Major Briggs, anticipates the rhetoric of Deadwood’s Al Swearengen and the Dickensian hotelier E.B. Farnum.

And what about the ad man with the secret past? If this TP effect caper seems a bit, well, capricious, there’s a recognition of it online in the extensive Twin Peaks site, where Don Draper from Mad Men is shown checking into the Great Northern and flirting with the TP siren, Audrey Horne. Remember, Jon Hamm’s Draper comes from La-La Land, where his best friend was the wife of the man whose identity he stole. Finally, consider the aura of Twin Peaks in the parallel universes of Game of Thrones and its wittiest character, Tyrion Lannister. Who needs the dancing dwarf of the Red Room when you can have Peter Dinklage hunkering down in a booth with Dale Cooper at the Double R and digging into a big piece of cherry pie?

This fantasia could go on for a dozen seasons, but this is David Lynch’s show and so should end in Bob’s Big Boy in L.A. where, according to his book, Catching the Big Fish, he “used to go … just about every day” to “have a milkshake and sit and think: There’s safety in thinking in a diner. You can have your coffee or your milkshake, and you can go off into strange dark areas, and always come back to the safety of the diner.”

For the David Lynch-Moby interview and all kinds of Twin Peaks material, visit http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/lynch/moby-david-lynch-interview.

 

April 30, 2014

book dream palaceWhere was the place after all …. Was it ‘on’ Third Avenue, on Second, on fabulous unattempted First? Nothing would induce me to cut down the romance of it, in remembrance, to a mere address, least of all to an awful New York one.

—Henry James

James’s musings on the mundane nature of numbered streets close out his conflicted appreciation of “Remarkable, unspeakable New York!” in The American Scene (1907). Driving back and forth across Manhattan on two of those numbered streets — from Hudson Street to Avenue A on 12th and to an art gallery near the Chelsea Piers on 23rd — I’m picking up the pieces of a column as they flash into view along the way.

St. Vincent’s

The notion of focusing on my associations with a particular street comes to mind as soon as I decide to take 12th the whole way east to Academy Records, just off First Avenue. The cobblestone stretch between Hudson and Greenwich gives the crossing a time-frame, like a 19th-century soundline rumbling under the wheels until I make a sharp right across Greenwich and 7th Avenue South past the site of the grand old hospital that gave Edna St. Vincent Millay her middle name, the building where Dylan Thomas breathed his last, and where in May 1981 I said goodbye to my surrogate father, the painter whose mural The Story of the Word fills the great rotunda of the main branch of the N.Y. Public Library.

The Dumbwaiter

Shortly after crossing Fifth Avenue I pass the niche once occupied by a small hotel called the St. George, where the elevator in use was (I swear) an over-sized dumbwaiter and where the saddest man I ever knew lived out his days. I was 18, Nick must have been 50 the summer we worked together at a waterfront hiring hall in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. On the long subway rides back to Manhattan, in between daily jeremiads about the bullies in the office who tormented him, he told me the story of his childhood in Denmark, how he saw the king once, and was happy for the only time in his life. He had a strawberry-colored birthmark on his chin that his antagonists never stopped teasing him about; and so it was that this most harassed of men came home from hell five days a week to pull himself to his room in a dumbwaiter.

The Albert Hotel

Crossing University Place I’m looking a block south toward the ghost of the Albert Hotel, where Thomas Wolfe lived when he first came to the city and was teaching at N.Y.U. That’s why I stayed there when I came to New York after college. One day I asked the desk clerk if he knew who was practicing on the alto sax down the hall from my room.  “Some guy named Coleman.” he said. Ornette Coleman, it turned out. Once upon a time if you looked in the Albert’s direction from 12th you’d have seen tables set up for the outdoor cafe of the hotel’s French restauarant, which was frequented by people like Andy Warhol, Anaïs Nin, and Rocky Graziano. “The Mothers of Invention stayed there,” says my son, the reason I’m bound for a record store. “So did the Mamas and Papas, and the Lovin’ Spoonful wrote ‘Do You Believe in Magic’ there.”

The Last Vestige

At Broadway, memories of a city where books once held sway haunt the sale tables lining 12th Street outside the Strand, the last vestige of the legendary Book Row that used to be around the corner on Fourth Avenue. When the Strand opened on Fourth in 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, there were 48 secondhand bookstores on Book Row. The first book I ever bought from one of those shops, at age 10, was a Hardy Boys mystery called A Figure in Hiding, along with a 1932 Baseball Yearbook. Today even tiny rental spaces for bookstores on the Upper West Side cost $40,000 a month, as one book dealer reports in a recent New York Times story about how the situation is “threatening the city’s sense of itself as the center of the literary universe.”

The First New Yorker

After dropping my son off at Academy Records, another dying breed in a city where not long ago you could visit a dozen secondhand vinyl outlets below 14th Street, I take a left on Avenue A and head over to James’s “fabulous unattempted First” and from there up to 23rd, for me the most storied of crosstown thoroughfares, including 34th and even 42nd, two “mere addresses” that turn up in the titles of classic Hollywood films. The first true New Yorker I ever met was the daughter of a renowned abstract expressionist who lived on East 23rd between First and Second. Until I met this 16-year-old girl at a party in Indiana one summer, New York was the domain of my elders, like the man who died at St. Vincent’s after living and working in the city since 1920. Here was someone a year younger than I was who could talk about poetry, art, literature, and jazz, and who clearly knew considerably more about those things than I did. It was a happy day when she sent me a letter in response to my carefully worded (ten drafts) overture of undying friendship (I had written pages upon pages of unsent poetry about what she meant to me); better yet, she enclosed a snapshot someone took of her smiling as she put the envelope into a 23rd Street mailbox. I still have the photo. When I compare it to the one online of a handsome gray-haired woman, an artist herself now, the smiling girl is clearly there. How special is she? She changed my life. She’s why I wanted to be a writer.

Kenmore Hall

A few blocks down the street between Third and Lexington (finally a street name, no number) is the Kenmore Hall Hotel, where I stayed because my father liked it and it was near Gramercy Park and O’Henry’s neighborhood, one of my favorite parts of the city. I didn’t know at the time that Nathaniel West, the author of Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, had once worked at the front desk and given free room and board to writer friends like Edmund Wilson, Erskine Caldwell, and Dashiell Hammett, who allegedly finished The Maltese Falcon at the Kenmore. The hotel came to an unhappy end in the 1990s when criminal activity involving prostitution and narcotics led to its seizure by the U.S. Marshal Service.

Heading west on 23rd, I have Charlie Parker on the stereo playing “Now’s the Time,” and as always the city seems to know this music, and here we go, past Madison Square, past the Flatiron Building, except the real surprise is a jolt of Renaissance Revival beauty in the white palace that once housed the Stern Brothers Department Store and is now the only Home Depot where you enter under the head of a roaring lion.

Chelsea Dreaming

If you think of the Albert and Kenmore Hall as the overture, the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd near Eighth Avenue with its wrought-iron balconies, Gothic aura, and clientele of artists and writers is the full opera. According to Sherill Tippins’s Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel (Houghton Mifflin $30), Leonard Cohen wrote “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” after a one-night stand there with Janis Joplin. Another famous Chelsea tryst involved strange bedfellows Gore Vidal and Jack Kerouac.

If no other work of art was composed there, Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” would be enough to lend the place rock and roll immortality. The night I spent in room 118 in February 1996, I didn’t hear Dylan’s “heat pipes just cough,” I heard the radiator knocking and hissing, dogs barking in the hall, a whirling sound like a theramin coming and going, a swing door that kept opening and closing with a sound like a gunshot followed by a screech, then a whine, then a crash. When a series of heavy thuds sounded just outside the door I blocked it with the room’s only chair. The black and white TV got only one channel, which came in crazed with interference, and when I finally went to sleep I dreamed of eating toasted cheese sandwiches with Madonna, who once stayed at the Chelsea, though I doubt it was in room 118.

Anne Elliott’s Eruption

My reason for driving way west is to visit “Fire and Ice,” my friend and former Town Topics colleague Anne Elliott’s exhibit at Soho20/Chelsea. Friday was the show’s last full day, which is a shame because the art is spectacular and deserves more than this brief mention. “Over the years,” the artist says, “I have returned again and again to volcanoes and glaciers, nature’s most extreme instruments for shaping the Earth.” As she “continues to explore these subjects,” she hopes that “this time” she will “get it right, catch it whole.” And she does. Keep in mind that she doesn’t go to books to see glaciers, caves, and volcanoes; she goes in person, gets close, and comes home to construct elaborate immensities like the giclee print, Volcanic Field, the wall relief Mauna Loa, and above all, the vast, elaborate aluminum mesh formation Caldera, with its subtle nuances of color and light, a great work, at once sprawling and shapely that turns an ordinary wall into a cyclotron.

So it goes in this “remarkable, unspeakable” city, where you can find a perfect storm of art on the third floor of a building at the “awful New York address,” 547 West 27th.

 

April 23, 2014

books ShakespeareI think Americans will be fascinated to learn of our deep and early connection to the Bard, how he inspired presidents and incited mobs, and how vivid the legacy of one Englishman’s imagination still sits within the consciousness of our country.

—Meryl Streep

Funny, I was looking through Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (Library of America $29.95), hoping to find just the right epigraph for this birthday column, and there was Meryl Streep’s on the back of the dust jacket, along with quotes from less celebrated members of the profession mentioning how P.T. Barnum loved Shakespeare so much “he tried to buy the Bard’s playhouse and bring it to America” and how Shakespeare has been “a battleground” where we have “fought about race, anti-Semitism, and gender equality.”

Right, and let’s not forget card games, board games, and movies. Just now I looked through an ancient deck of Authors, the game I grew up playing, where a full book  of four Shakespeares was particularly coveted (wouldn’t you know, the only missing card in the deck is Hamlet), and I can’t tell you how many hours my wife and son and I spent playing the board game Shakespeare, rolling the dice and moving the chess-like pieces around in a race to get to the Globe. And the surest route there was to learn the language of the plays.

As for movies …

Hamlet in Tombstone

Garbed in black with the requisite medallion around his neck, Hamlet stands astride a tabletop stage in a Tombstone saloon declaiming the most famous soliloquy in all Shakespeare. The melancholy Dane is being played by a washed-up actor named Granville Thorndyke. As he comes to the line about “shuffling off this mortal coil,” he’s interrupted by a shout of “Enough” from a bearded critter at the foot of the stage who draws his gun and suggests it’s time to stop talking and start dancing. At this, the feared gunfighter Doc Holliday calls out “Leave him alone” and politely tells Mr. Thorndyke to go on. When the actor falters and forgets the lines, Doc Holliday, who has TB, helps him out and takes the speech thoughtfully, movingly, toward “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns” until a coughing fit sends him lunging out the door.

Although the scene described took place on a Hollywood soundstage during the filming of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine with Alan Mowbray as the actor and Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, real-life equivalents have been documented among the touring companies of players performing Shakespeare when the West was still wild. President Bill Clinton’s foreword to Shakespeare in America quotes Alexis de Tocqueville on the Bard’s popularity in the American wilderness, where “there is hardly a pioneer hut in which the odd volume of Shakespeare cannot be found.”

“Hallowed to the World”

Today is William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. A century and a half ago on April 23, 1864, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once observed that beings on other planets probably call the Earth Shakespeare, hosted a Tercentennial Celebration at the Revere House in Boston. The poem Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the occasion, which is reprinted in Shakespeare in America, speaks of turning away from “War-wasted … strife” of the Civil War to “Live o’er in dreams the Poet’s faded life.”

Three decades later and 1500 miles to the west, Shakespeare’s 330th birthday was celebrated by a University of Nebraska senior writing in a local newspaper to the effect that April 23 had come and gone again, “just as it has done … since it was made hallowed to the world.” After wondering “how many people know or care,” Willa Cather, then not yet 21, narrowed the number down to a few Shakespearean scholars, “a great many professional people, and perhaps the stars that mete out human fate, and the angels, if there are any.”

Also included in Shakespeare in America, Cather’s review of a local production of Antony and Cleopatra takes reverence for the Bard to the limit: “If I were asked for the answer of the riddle of things, I would as lief say ‘Shakespeare’ as anything. For him alone it was worth while that a planet should be called out of Chaos and a race formed out of nothingness. He justified all history before him, sanctified all history after him.”

Another American writer who expressed his passion for Shakespeare in cosmic terms grew up in a small town in Ohio in the 1850s where “printers in oldtime offices” could be heard “spouting Shakespeare.” At the age of 16, William Dean Howells thought that “the creation of Shakespeare was as great as the creation of a planet.” Looking back four decades later, the novelist, editor, and man of letters seems to be chiding “the ardent youth … falling slavishly before a great author and accepting him at all points as infallible,” but in the end he’s drawn back to his early sense of “intimate companionship” with the poet who “in his great heart … had room for a boy willing absolutely to lose himself in him, and be as one of his creations.”

Pumping Up the Sentiment

Among the anecdotal gems in James Shapiro’s introduction to Shakespeare in America is one concerning Ulysses S. Grant, the eventual commander of the Union forces and future president, looking “very like a girl dressed up” in the role of Desdemona for a U.S. Army production of Othello in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1846. We’ll never know how this extraordinary staging of the play was received, since a professional actress had to be called in when the soldier playing Othello complained of being unable to “pump up any sentiment” with Grant for his Desdemona.

Othello’s wife surfaces as the subject of an essay by another U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, who finds her “unnatural passion” for the Moor to be “a salutary admonition against all ill-assorted, clandestine, and unnatural marriages.”

The short piece by Edgar Allan Poe that follows hard upon the sixth president’s exhortation puts things back in perspective by pointing out “the radical error” of “attempting to expound Shakespeare’s characters … as if they had been actual existences upon earth.” Speaking of Hamlet, Poe brands as “the purest absurdity” the critical urge to reconcile the character’s “inconsistencies” as if he were a living man when in fact “the whims and vacillations … conflicting energies and indolences” are those of the poet.

Nights at the Players

William Winter’s essay, “The Art of Edwin Booth: Hamlet,” includes a letter from the actor in response to someone asking about the “mystery” of Hamlet’s madness, a question Booth says he runs into “nearly three-hundred and sixty-five times a year.”  His response is that Hamlet is not mad, which, he writes, “may be of little value, but ‘tis the result of many weary walks with him, for hours together.” 

There’s something of Poe’s resistance to “the radical error” in the idea of the actor and the character walking for hours together sorting out “the conflicting energies and indolences” of the poet.

And there’s something of Poe in the 14 days and nights I spent among Edwin Booth’s costumes, props, posters, playbills, and portraits, sometimes imagining I could hear him and his most famous character pacing about on the top floor of The Players Club, which he co-founded in 1888. Lodged there at the behest of my publisher, I was working in a room that was barely large enough for a bed, a desk, a typewriter, a ream of paper, and the godsend of the air-conditioner occupying the bottom half of a window looking out on Gramercy Park and the Metropolitan Tower. 

The Players seemed as much Shakespeare’s domain as it was Booth’s, though I was only 20 at the time, too young yet to have bonded with the Bard. Nor was I particularly thrilled to be surrounded by the personal effects of the brother of the man who had killed the most Shakespeare-centric American president, Abraham Lincoln. One of the items I passed every day was a display case containing the letter of apology Edwin Booth had written to the American people after the assassination. I also passed by mannequins dressed in the very costumes Booth had worn when playing Hamlet and Richard the Third. It was not that hard to imagine  the “melancholy Dane” haunting the place, or, worse yet, that murderous, child-slaying Richard, who was in my thoughts whenever I passed by a case showing off the bejeweled sword Booth had employed in that role. There were arrays of swords, daggers, crowns, and tiaras flanked by walls crowded with portraits (and the occasional death mask) of actors, writers, financiers, and men about town who had been denizens of the club over time. I could feel those painted eyes staring disapprovingly at me whenever I climbed the carpeted stairway to my room, and none more sternly than the piercing eyes of Edwin Booth himself in the immense John Singer Sargent portrait above the fireplace.

With one happy exception, I never met anyone else on the top floor, thus my uneasy awareness of someone pacing in the hall outside my door when I was sure no one was there. One evening near the end of my stay, I heard a knock that sounded as momentous to me as the porter’s knocking at the gate in Macbeth. Who could it be? Booth or Hamlet or both? Or maybe Richard? Or Booth’s assassin brother who cited Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to justify his act? When I got up the nerve to open the door, I found a jovial, older man on the other side holding out his hand and introducing himself as Edward Everett Horton. Though the name sounded faintly familiar, I had no idea that I was shaking hands with one of the most beloved character actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “I hope I didn’t startle you,” Mr. Horton said, clearly aware that he had done just that. It may have been the old actor’s genial, welcoming manner, but after this encounter I felt more at home in the Players, no longer prone to imagine I could hear Edwin Booth and his most famous character making “weary walks … for hours together” outside my door.

Celebrating the 450th

As you might expect, Shakespeare’s homeland is going all out to celebrate his birthday. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s festivities will include a firework display from the rooftop of its theatre, which will follow Wednesday evening’s performance of Henry IV Part I. The display, which is being co-ordinated by leading pyrotechnic experts, will also include “an epic eight-metre-high fire drawing depicting Shakespeare’s face.”

And in New York? Why ask? The theatres of New York, on and off and off-off Broadway represent an on-going celebration of “one Englishman’s imagination.” Speaking of New York, the mob Meryl Streep refers to created a catastrophe in which 25 people died and hundreds were injured. The Astor Place Riots were set off by a dispute between the fans of the American actor Edwin Forrest and English tragedian William Charles Macready. The event is fully documented in Shakespeare in America.

 

April 16, 2014

The reading of this play is like wandering in a grove by moonlight ….

—William Hazlitt (1817)

Hazlitt ends his short essay on A Midsummer Night’s Dream by suggesting that “Fancy cannot be embodied” on the stage “any more than a simile can be painted ….The boards of a theatre and the regions of fancy are not the same thing.”  In other words, the act of reading allows imagination full play while a staged performance turns “an airy shape, a dream, a passing thought” into “an unmanageable reality.” Hazlitt compares the stage “to a picture without perspective” where “everything there is in the foreground.”

Some 34 years into the 20th century, an Austrian theatrical director named Max Reinhardt brought Shakespeare’s “regions of fancy” to life on a Warner Bros. soundstage in Burbank, California. While there’s no knowing what Hazlitt would have made of a cinematic spectacle that sweeps foreground and perspective into luminously fluid new configurations, he’d have most likely been both appalled and amazed. Perhaps once he’d adjusted to the boundless new medium, he would have calmed down enough to appreciate James Cagney’s ecstatic Bottom, a character he called “the most romantic of mechanics” and one “that has not had justice done him.” As for Mickey Rooney’s Puck, “a mad-cap sprite,” as the essay has it, “full of wantoness and mischief,” Hazlitt would see that fancy could indeed be embodied much as he’d described it, “borne along … like the light and glittering gossamer before the breeze.”

MBDMISU EC007Mickey Rooney (1920-2014)

When I heard the news of Mickey Rooney’s death, my first thought was not of Andy Hardy or Boy’s Town or his M-G-M soulmate Judy Garland, but of his performance as Puck. By all rights, Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, co-directed with William Dieterle, should be a Hollywood milestone, universally acknowledged, admired, and discussed, like The Wizard of Oz, which was made five years later at M-G-M and has as its source a book for children written by L. Frank Baum, and with music by Frank Loesser. Dream comes from Shakespeare, with music by Felix Mendelssohn, an unbeatable combination, you might think. In fact the stigma of those names scared off audiences and alienated reviewers who considered themselves protectors of Art, dismissing Warners’ Shakespearean adventure as overblown airy-fairy folderol. According to one of the most intelligent reviewers of the day, Otis Ferguson in the New Republic (16 October 1935), any film that runs “well over two hours,” costs “more than a million,” and was “press-agented for months ahead” is doomed to be discussed by “culture clubs” and critics who “will put on their Sunday adjectives,” and as for “American husbands,” as soon as they “get one load of the elves and pixies,” they’ll go back to the “sports page.”

Ferguson singles out Rooney’s Puck as being “too ill instructed and raucous to be given such prominence.” This is a 14-year-old half-naked youth in the grip of his demon, a creature David Thomson calls “truly inhuman, one of the cinema’s most arresting pieces of magic.” Rooney does have some raucous moments in the roles that made him the most popular male star of the late thirties, but if you revisit any of his M-G-M films, you’ll see how thoroughly his lively genius has been contained and “instructed” within the regimen of that studio’s polished production values. At Warners, whatever the genre, the actors  are given more space, especially when navigating a work of word-drunk virtuosity, whether Shakespeare’s lines are chortled by Rooney or roared by Cagney. It’s fun to see two such in-your-face personalities mining the raw essence of their actor egos, giddy with glee, Cagney a fountain of laughter, Rooney’s “What fools these mortals be” guffaw bubbling up through him with each fantastical prank.

650,000 Candles

Because lighting on the sound stage was a challenge (it’s said that 600,000 yards of cellophane and 650,000 candles were used), cinematographer Hal Mohr sprayed the “67 tons of trees” in Shakespeare’s forest with aluminum paint and covered them with cobwebs and tiny metal particles to reflect the light. In spite of its failure at the box office, the films’s wondrous visuals created enough word-of-mouth excitement that A Midsummer Nights Dream became the first (and last) write-in winner of an Academy Award, for cinematography. It was also nominated for Best Picture.

Olivia’s DebutDVD Rev 2

Shakespeare aficionados who might wince at the cavorting of Cagney and Rooney should have no problem with Olivia deHavilland, now 97 and one of the few surviving members of the 1935 cast. Dream was her debut and though she’s best known for Melanie in Gone With the Wind and as Errol Flynn’s perennial love interest at Warners, she makes a definitive Hermia. Her plan had been to teach English (she had a scholarship to Mills College) when Max Reinhardt saw her playing Puck in a community theatre production of Dream and cast her as an understudy to Hermia in the version he was staging at the Hollywood Bowl. In true storybook fashion, the other actress dropped out, Olivia got the part, and played it through the entire engagement and a four-week tour, one reason she does full justice to her role.

Shakespeare in the Park

With Shakespeare’s 450th birthday looming a week from today, I’ve been reading in the new Library of America anthology, Shakespeare in America, which includes an excerpt from Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place that offsets Hazlitt’s claim that fancy can’t be embodied on the stage. Something wonderful happens when a weary, embattled single mother named Cora Lee takes her children to see a neighborhood production of A Midsummer Nights Dream directed and performed by African Americans. Based on Naylor’s childhood visit to a Shakespeare in the Park staging of the play, Cora’s experience has an affecting simplicity. At first she “couldn’t understand what the actors were saying,” never having heard “black people use such fine-sounding words” (“and they really seemed to know what they were talking about”). Then, as has happened through the centuries, the setting of the forest scenes (“huge papier-mache flora hung in varying shades of green splendor among sequin-dusted branches and rocks”) casts a spell (“the Lucite crowns worn on stage split the floodlights into a multitude of dancing, elogated diamonds”) that anyone with a sense of wonder would be responsive to: for Cora, it’s “simply beautiful,” even her restless son is “awed.”

Naylor’s account of the action through Cora’s eyes gets down to the basics: “The fairy man had done something to the eyes of these people and everyone seemed to be chasing everyone else. First, that girl in brown liked that man and Cora laughed naturally as he hit and kicked her to keep her from following him because he was after the girl in white who was in love with someone else again. But after the fairy man messed with their eyes, the whole thing turned upside down and no one knew what was going on — not even the people in the play.”

Cora is struck and saddened by the fairy queen’s resemblance to her daughter, who may never go on to college. Worse, Cora and her children are so shabbily dressed that she has to hold them back when the audience is invited onstage to join the cast, “not wanting their clothes to be seen under the bright lights.” As Puck (“the little fairy man”) delivers the closing lines, Cora applauds “until her hands tingled,” feeling “a strange sense of emptiness” now that it’s over.

On the way home, the kids try to “imitate some of the antics they had seen,” one wonders if Shakespeare’s black, and Cora remembers that “she had beaten him for writing rhymes on her bathroom walls.” At home the bedtime ritual goes more smoothly than usual, for “this had been a night of wonders.” In the last sentence, Naylor allows herself a Shakespearean flourish as Cora “turned and firmly folded her evening like gold and lavendar gauze deep within the creases of her dreams.”

And so Shakespeare, as Emerson expresses it, “delights in the world, in man, in woman, for the lovely light that sparkles from them,” and “Beauty, the spirit of joy and hilarity” is shed “over the universe.” 

 

If you’re a determined YouTube searcher, you can find scenes from the Max Reinhardt film online, if not the whole thing. You can also see the Beatles doing their version of the Pyramus and Thisbe play within the play. A long TCM interview with Mickey Rooney in which Puck is never mentioned can be found by Googling watch-mickey-rooney-career-spanning-interview with Robert Osborne. The quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson is from his essay, “Shakespeare, Or the Poet,” included in The Library of America’s Shakespeare in America, which is edited by James Shapiro; the quotes by William Hazlitt are from the Everyman edition of Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays; David Thomson’s is from his Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994 edition).

Saved by the Record Exchange

I found the DVD of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the ever-amazing stock of the Princeton Record Exchange, which can almost always be counted on to come up with CDs, DVDs, and LPs that can be found nowhere else. Record Store Day is coming to Prex this weekend. For details see the story on page 23. 

 

April 9, 2014

Book RevIn his introduction to Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (Library of America $29.95), James Shapiro writes of the “steady stream of American tourists” visiting the Bard’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon, among them “a pair of future presidents,” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. According to Abigail Adams, Jefferson “fell upon the ground and kissed it” while her husband cut “a relic” from a chair said to have belonged to the poet himself.

Although legions of tour busses may never be a fact of life the way they are in Shakespeare’s home town, Princeton is something of an American Stratford for people coming to pay their respects to Albert Einstein, who lived the last half of his life here, and Paul Robeson, who was born here on this day, April 9, in 1898, and spent the first nine years of his life in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Jackson having been at one time the street now known as Paul Robeson Place.

A Realm Unto Himself

The many facets of Paul Robeson’s genius — as a speaker, athlete, singer, actor, and world figure like his friend Einstein — led the PBS series, American Masters, to refer to him as “the epitome of the 20th-century Renaissance man.” Shakespeare, who wrote the signature role of Robeson’s acting life. is beyond terminology. There’s no end to him, or to it, if you believe that no single human being could have created what he created, a vast, complexly intelligible realm that will always be there to be discovered, explored, inhabited. “Reading Shakespeare continues to bless us, long past the first encounter,” says another former president, Bill Clinton, in his foreword to Shakespeare in America. Clinton entered the realm when an English teacher in Hot Springs, Arkansas had him memorize a hundred lines from Macbeth (“I was not overjoyed”) from which he learned an early lesson about “the perils of blind ambition and the emptiness of power.”

Paul Robeson was introduced to Shakespeare in 1915 by an English teacher at nearby Somerville High School. According to Martin Duberman’s 1988 biography, the 17-year-old senior, one of 12 African American students, played the Moor in a burlesque version of Othello. His teacher “later recalled her hesitation in asking him to take on the parodic role of Othello as a hotel waiter, since the performance was designed to raise money for a class outing to Washington, D.C.,” which Paul could not have attended “because no hotel in the capital would accept a black guest.” Even so, he played the part and “proved a huge hit with the audience.”

Although he seems to have been popular with his white classmates, Robeson was aware of a more subtle version of prejudice in high school society that, as Duberman points out, “allowed him through practice and forewarning, to keep his temper under wraps.” A teacher who called him “the most remarkable boy I have ever taught, a perfect prince” still “can’t forget that he is a Negro.” It was Robeson’s understanding of the social reality, of always knowing his “place,” that sustained his popularity. The situation suggests a microcosm of his later career. Even when turning in superior performances, whether as speaker, athlete, singer, or actor, he had to “exhibit maximum affability and minimal arrogance.” Whenever whites were “surpassed” by him, his attitude could “never smack of triumph.” Duberman quotes Robeson repeating “a litany drummed into him by his father, ‘do nothing to give them cause to fear you.’”

Consider how it must have been for a man conditioned to downplay his power finding himself in a realm of language as rich as Othello, peering into the mirror Shakespeare held up to him as he assumes the character of a black general, a leader of men. Othello’s first great speech (Act 1, scene iii) is one that Robeson must have been thrilled to perform, the way it brings the actor and the character together as Othello discourses on his success as a performer disarming Desdemona with stories like those he dazzled her father with, moving her to tears “when I did speak of some distressful stroke/That my youth suffer’d,” recalling how she “gave me for my pains a world of sighs:/She swore, in faith, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange;/’Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful.” Describing how Desdemona “wish’d/That heaven had made her such a man,” and if the Moor could but teach a friend how to tell his tale, it “would woo her,” he shows that the “witchcraft” he used to seduce her was simply a matter of stepping forth as the hero of his own story: “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d/And I loved her that she did pity them.”

The speech about the wooing of Desdemona also gave Robeson the ammunition he needed to woo and win audiences at the play’s start, creating a bond that assured his power over them even through the climactic moment. It was there that Margaret Webster, the director of the triumphant 1943 New York production, felt that he fell short, unable to convincingly summon up the full measure of rage that would have shaken the theatre and filled Desdemona with mortal terror — Robeson being, remember, the man who grew up repeating the survivor’s mantra “Do nothing to make them fear you.”

Webster, who also played Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s confidante in the same production, had hoped that Robeson would be able to bring “his anger over racism onto the stage with him,” but “he could not recapture it.” In the turbulent final scenes he “never matched at all the frenzy and passion the role called for.” Robeson himself “acknowledged that he had trouble unearthing his rage on demand,” because “he had been brought up, as a survival tactic, to keep it carefully interred”

Triumph and Tragedy

Robeson has a chapter to himself in Shakespeare in America titled “Paul Robeson’s Othello,” which consists of an ecstatic, topically resonant, politically driven notice in the Leftist journal, The New Masses, by Samuel Sillen, “a prominent figure in the Communist literary movement of the 1930s and 1940s.” It’s clear that though he’s sounding the party line, Sillen is genuinely moved by Robeson’s “indescribably magnificent” performance; nevertheless, his rhetoric reveals where he’s coming from when he calls Robeson “the greatest people’s artist of America” and the performance “an epochal event in the history of our culture.”

Given what would befall Robeson in the decade ahead, the reference to the “people’s artist” is galling, as is the partisan drumbeat that ends the “review” (by now you definitely feel the need to put that word in quotes): “We treasure the event. We mark it as a birthdate. We carry on from here, lifted by Paul Robeson to a height from which new and vast horizons of a creative people’s culture endlessly unfold.”

Robeson followed that drumbeat to his fate, which Sillens inadvertently forecasts in his reference to Othello as “a play primarily of a vast human injustice” where “Othello’s injustice to Desdemona is only a part of the great injustice that has been done to him and in which he himself has unwittingly collaborated.”

Always a Challenge

Trying to follow the last 25 years of Robeson’s life (he died on January 23, 1976) is disheartening, what with all the well-meaning, self-confounding moves he made, the exploitations and the betrayals, the black-listers and witchhunters smearing his name in the consciousness of the American public and contributing to the state of mind that led to a breakdown and a suicide attempt. Duberman’s biography concludes by observing that when he died, the white press “after decades of harrassing Robeson now tipped its hat to a ‘great American’” while discounting “the racist component central to his persecution” and ignoring “the continuing inability of white America to tolerate a black maverick who refused to bend.” Meanwhile, the black American press provided editorials depicting a “Gulliver among the Lilliputians” and a life “that would always be a challenge and a reproach to white and black America.”

Home to Stratford

In 1959, when Robeson was 62 years old, he returned to Shakespeare’s roots in Stratford to play Othello in Tony Richardson’s gimmicky production of the play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. His Desdemona, 26-year-old Mary Ure, was told to play Othello’s wife “as if she were acting in an Arnold Wesker kitchen-sink drama.” According to Duberman, Richardson filled the stage “with splashy special effects that called maximum attention to his own lively powers of invention” and that were clearly at odds with Robeson’s “gravity and reserve.”

In the end, Robeson carried the day, as the “critical majority succumbed to the authority of his stage presence.” Othello sold out its seven-month run immediately, and on opening night, the audience gave Princeton’s native son 15 curtain calls.

Last month Princeton celebrated Einstein’s birthday with a community event full of fun and fondness for an adopted local icon. This past Sunday Paul Robeson’s birthday was celebrated in the building named for him with a screening of Show Boat. Our Stratford honors two of the giants of the previous century, mythic figures both, but of the two, the largest, most tragic, and most truly Shakespearean is Paul Robeson. 

The Princeton Public Library has a large Robeson component in its collection, which includes Martin Duberman’s Paul Robeson (Knopf 1988) and Paul Robeson Jr.’s The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939 (Wiley 2001). 

The painting of Paul Robeson as Othello in the 1943 production, still the longest running Shakespeare play in Broadway history, is by Betsy Graves Reynau (1888-1964).

 

April 2, 2014

julianI watched him work in the back house where his study was located, his silver hair framed by the window and I wished I had something interesting to tell him.

—Molly Moynahan

It’s been said that if you throw a stone in Princeton you’ll hit a writer. Molly Moynahan’s picture of her father at work would make a good cover image for a book on the subject: the writer daughter peering wistfully at her writer father in the lighted study window. 

Last Tuesday I was checking over the page proofs at Town Topics and there in the middle of the obituaries was a photo of Julian Moynahan. It was a proof to read, a fact of working life, but the room felt different, as if all the air had been sucked out of it. He was 88 and I hadn’t seen or spoken with him for years. In that moment at the window, his daughter wishes she had something interesting to tell him. I’m thinking about what he can tell me in a book I’ve been meaning to read for the better part of 20 years. The only issue was whether or not I still had my copy of his novel from 1963, Pairing Off. As soon as I got home, I hurried down to the unsorted no-man’s land of books in the basement, my former study, where, to my great relief, I found it, and a good thing, too, because the Princeton Public Library no longer has a single one of his four novels, nor his study of D.H. Lawrence, nor his Princeton University Press book on Anglo-Irish literary culture.

The last time I remember talking with Julian was in that “back house” mentioned by his daughter Molly. I’d been there to pick up several bags of donations to the Friends of the Princeton Library Book Sale. Since most were review copies from his days writing for the New York Times, the Observer and numerous other newspapers and journals, his scribbled notes could be found tucked between the covers and sometimes penciled in the margins. Now here I am scribbling notes and marking up the margins in my copy of Pairing Off.

Visions of Julian

Led by Richard Poirier, the English Department at Rutgers was an exciting place to be in the late 1960s. Arguably the best-looking man in the department, Julian was the one who made you think of terms like “dashing,” “breezy,” “witty,” and “roguish.” He was, in other words, refreshingly counter to the remote, buttoned-up academic, which is why I wasn’t the only grad student who felt comfortable calling him by his first name, a liberty we were less likely to have taken with his colleagues. Julian has always been Julian, never Mr. Moynahan, never Professor Moynahan, and, perish the thought, never Dr. Moynahan.

The first time I had a real conversation with him was at a cocktail party where he was, as they say, in his cups, three sheets to the Irish wind, feeling no pain, etc. etc., while serving up juicy slices of literary gossip. In time I would see a more subdued Julian the evening he hosted and fed the members of his D.H. Lawrence seminar at his home on the Princeton-Lawrenceville road near Squibb, the model for the corporate monolith in his third novel, Garden State. His wife Elizabeth and daughters Catherine, Bridget, and of course Molly, must have been visible on the fringes, but all I remember is Julian holding forth near the hearth and the blazing fire like an inn keeper conversant with all things Lawrentian. The daughters turned up again a few years later in the Rutgers suite at the New York Hilton, where he was calmly, even heroically, counseling semi-hysterical job seekers in the high energy environment of the Modern Language Association convention. The girls must have been in their teens, coming and going, red-cheeked and giddy with the afterglow of Christmas in the city. The interaction of father and daughters in that otherwise feverish, monomaniacal atmosphere was refreshing, a breath of fresh air in the MLA hothouse.

The Christmas snapshot of the daughters leads to the saddest image of Julian, the one I will never forget. A decade or more after that particular MLA, my wife and I ran into him while walking on the path along the lake between Kingston and Princeton. Usually we’d have stopped to talk, for it was unusual to see him simply out walking by himself; instead, after saying hello and exchanging knowing glances, we moved on. There was nothing to say. We had only just learned that his eldest daughter, Catherine, had been killed by a hit and run driver while crossing a street in Hoboken.

Dealing With It

I’m still in the dark about the origins of my copy of Pairing Off. The Rutgers University Library sticker inside the front cover states that it was “Presented by Julian Moynahan,” which would suggest that it came to me with the books Julian donated to our library. In effect, I’ve been reading an ex-library copy of a novel that begins in a Boston library, with a librarian protagonist, presented by the author to not one but two libraries. It’s also hard to ignore a certain gallows humor that the author himself might have appreciated, given the fact that he had to die before I finally got around to a book that had been languishing unread for decades in the basement. Most important of all under the circumstances is that death is what Pairing Off is essentially dealing with, at once sensibly, humanely, wittily, touchingly, and undepressingly. The dying of Milly Rogers, friend and lover of the rare books librarian Myles McCormick, is the heart and soul of a novel that ends, happily and improbably, in an Irish cemetery. Being by profession a nurse devoted to terminal patients, Milly herself is an authority on the subject and knows she’s dying more than a year before her clueless, self-involved lover figures it out.

One of the book’s charms is that for all the style, verve, intelligence, and metaphorical fancy the author employs on his behalf, Myles has a tendency to trip himself up, most painfully while courting Eithne Gallager, the other major female character, who also knows a thing or two about death, having lost her husband in a gruesome dockside accident.

At one point Pairing Off pictures a fate for Myles wherein he becomes a “kind father … to rosy-faced and elfin-limbed children, the doting husband of a clever, passionate, beautiful woman as yet unmet but not undreamed of, who would take him not for what he was, but for what he had in him to become” (he finds his dream in  the closing chapter). Almost in the same breath, Myles improvises a playfully morbid bit of business about “Milly and Myles Mumblecrust, barkeep and barmaid in the Last Chance Saloon …. Only she had slumped suddenly behind the stained and bulletmarked counter, and he could do nothing for her now but carry her on the last ride to Boot Hill.” Indeed, Myles does everything for Milly, holds a wake, attends to her dying wishes, and carries her ashes on the last ride from Boston across the Atlantic to the Irish cemetery.

The closest Pairing Off comes to taking sentimental advantage of the situation actually provides one of its finest moments, when Myles buries Milly, the dust of death’s truth in his hand, and is “swamped by a feeling of wild, desolating tenderness” for her, wishing “that he had held onto her, gotten in bed with her to warm her … as her life lapsed, been with her then like a husband, or at least a lover, or even a brother.” It’s at the moment of this admission that the author blindsides the guardians of probability with the help of a Greek fairy godfather who produces Myles’s dreamed-of woman as if to reward him for that seizure of “desolating tenderness.”

Although the denouement of the novel is prefaced by an italicized meditation on its title — “Pairing off is the fate of mankind” — the darker truth behind the phrase is suggested earlier in the narrative after Milly dies: “He wondered how he would die, whether he would die alone, and knew there was no other way of dying.”

Father and Daughter

In the passage about watching her father at work, Molly Moynahan also refers to his first novel, Sisters and Brothers (1960), “a stunning account of the experience of a young boy who spends a year in a terrible orphanage while his mother struggles to support the family after his alcoholic father has disappeared.” She finds the novel “painful to read, but even more painful” when she learns from her mother “that his book was close to an autobiography. He had never told us anything about all that, and whatever he did to be a full scholarship student to Harvard remained unspoken, as well.”

The idea of revelations untold or unspoken brings to mind the daughter’s wish that she had “something interesting” to tell her father. One way to tell him would be to write three novels. Perhaps that’s what makes her recall the time her third book had been published and she was to give “a hometown reading in Princeton” at which Julian would introduce her. She was nervous because “most of the crowd” had known her “forever.” Father and daughter were sitting in the car together, parked across the street from where she’d been born. When she admits she’s scared, he tells her not to worry, that it’s a good book: “You worked hard …. I’m very proud of you.”

The quotes from Molly Moynahan were found in an article on Neworldreview.com. She also writes for the Huffington Post and at Mollymoynahanblogspot.com.

 

March 26, 2014

books robert frost181Every time I pull into a parking lot, regardless of the season, I notice people just sitting in their cars, probably texting, or surfing the net, or talking on cell phones, or listening to music, or just being alone for a quiet moment. This is on the way to admitting that I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon parked outside a strip mall near Woodbridge reading the poetry of Robert Frost, whose 120th birthday is today. 

I was reading out loud. Aware that passers-by might think it odd, I tried to read invisibly, barely moving my lips, like someone practicing to be a ventriloquist. Maybe that’s what made me feel closer to the poetry than I ever have before, except Frost was the ventriloquist and I was the dummy. And who else but a dummy would sit for hours outside a place called Vintage Vinyl reading poetry while his vinyl-addict son wanders through the vastness of the largest secondhand record and CD outlet this side of the Princeton Record Exchange.

But it’s fine, being Frost’s dummy, staying under the radar, so that the words and thoughts you’re voicing become intimate, clandestine excursions to the far side of the everyday. Aware of the traffic sounds a stone’s throw behind me on Route One, I’m reciting an early poem called “The Demiurge’s Laugh” and getting carried away with lines like “I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail” and “It was just as the light was beginning to fail/That I suddenly heard — all I needed to hear.” And what laughter, sleepy but mocking, “As of one who utterly couldn’t care.” If only YouTube had a clip of Jim Cox reading Frost. Born in Independence, Virginia, where he died in 2012, Cox was the most exciting teacher I ever had. Intoning the lines in his compelling Virginia accent, he could make words like “fail” or “utterly” sound fated and final, a broadcast direct from the den of the demiurge. Simply to hear Cox recite the title would be worth the small fortune my son was spending in Vintage Vinyl.

A squad car just pulled into the lot. Oh-oh, is there a misdemeanor for reading aloud in a parked car? Will I be busted for possession of an uncontrolled literary substance?

When the Demon laughs, the lines start making coincidental sense: “I felt as a fool to have been so caught.” So while the cops cruise by, I pretend to be musing innocently on some sort of inspirational guidebook to inner peace. In the poem, the speaker pretends it was only “something in the leaves” he’s seeking before he gives up and cools his heels: “Thereafter I sat me against a tree.”

Taking the Plunge

I came to the “Demiurge” after a plunge at random into Robert Faggen’s edition of Frost’s Notebooks (Harvard 2006) in which, according to a recent article in the New York Times, Frost scholars found “thousands of transcription errors that turned the poet into a dyslexic and deranged speller.”

Since the same could be said of James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake or e.e. cummings, or George W. Bush, why not take a holiday from the prescribed formality of stanzas and iambics and flow free with Frost on a stream of consciousness, for instance, “Progress is escape civilization is sublimation emerging in terrified flight from someone emerging in terrified flight from someone emerging in terrified flight from God.” Based on what I’ve been reading by and about Frost over the past few days, this delirious  entry makes refreshing, fascinating sense. Better yet, it was Faggen’s footnote to thrice “terrified flight” that send me to “The Demiurge’s Laugh” in the first place.

All About Performance

Frost was 86 in April 1961 when Richard Poirier interviewed him for The Paris Review. Six years after the appearance of Poirier’s landmark study of literature and popular culture, The Performing Self (1971), he published Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (Oxford 1977), which he introduces with a seminal statement made by Frost during the interview: “The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about these things?”

Frost had already used similar terms when speaking of the poet “as a man of prowess, just like an athlete. He’s a performer …. Every poem is like that, some sort of achievement in performance.” In the later exchange, Frost rephrases the thought: “Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score … in all the realms — theology, politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you.” When asked how he approaches “a new poem” that might be sent to him, Frost rings the same bell while echoing another much-stressed word (“what a feat it is,” “what a feat it was”): “This thing of performance and prowess and feats of association — that’s where it all lies …. That is in the realm of performance, that’s the deadly test with me.”

Poirier continues to press the theme, using it to frame his last question, regarding Dylan Thomas, who “put all the rhymes down first and then backed into them. That’s clearly not what you mean by performance, is it?”

After vehemently dismissing the idea of backing into rhymes (“that’s very dreadful”), Frost says “It ought to be that you’re thinking forward, with the feeling of strength that you’re getting them good all the way …. You see somebody coming down the street that you’re accustomed to abuse, and you feel it rising in you, something to say as you pass each other …. It’s him coming toward you that gives you the animus, you know. When they want to know about inspiration, I tell them it’s mostly animus.”

At this end-point in the interview, readers who think of Frost as a great stone face on the Mt. Rushmore of American verse may be wondering who they’ve been reading about over the years. In fact, Frost’s reference to those “who want to know about inspiration” is likely meant for the commentators who have popularized the poet of homey odes to plowing fields, chopping wood, and mending walls.

The Dark Side

The stress on abuse, animus, strength, prowess, feats of association, and the notion of performance as “the deadly test” would seem relevant to the dark side of Frost discussed in the aforementioned New York Times article about Volume One of the new Harvard edition of the Letters (“The Road Back: Frost’s Letters Could Soften a Battered Image”). The “cruel, jealous egomaniac” portrayed by Frost’s “handpicked” biographer Lawrance Thompson is an additional violation of the image of the beloved white-haired elderly American poet Poirier has been undermining, as when he refers to the dinner celebrating Frost’s 85th birthday, where, with the poet seated next to him, Lionel Trilling spoke of Frost’s “representation of the terrible actualities of life” in “a terrifying universe.” After admitting being taken by surprise (“I thought at first he was attacking me”), Frost puts his animus in gear: “He made the mistake himself. He was admitting he made it himself, wasn’t he? He was telling what trouble he’d had to get at me.” The poet then slyly wonders why Trilling “hadn’t seen it sooner: that there’s plenty to be dark about, you know. It’s full of darkness.”

Getting to Know Him

So here I sit faced with shelves teeming with the letters, notebooks, and marginalia of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all too aware that I parted company with a single volume of Frost’s letters years ago. The only Frost I own at the moment is Poirier’s Work of Knowing and an edition of the Complete Poems with a woodcut on the cover showing a man plowing a field behind a team of horses, an image that binds Frost to the dull, workaday stereotype. What makes my situation all the more improbable is the fact that Dick Poirier, who died in 2009, was my best teacher in graduate school, and that Jim Cox, who has written brilliantly on Frost as well as editing a collection of critical essays about him, was my best undergraduate teacher.

Even with Cox and Poirier, however, you sense more admiration for the work than affection for the poet. Not that people who try to “get at” Frost or “get to know him” turn against him the way his biographer did. But imagine associating “animus” with Keats or demonizing Coleridge. And imagine even Frost’s most devoted follower saying of him what Elizabeth Bishop said of Coleridge after sitting up all night reading the letters “of that adorable man”: “His intestines are my intestines, his toothaches are my toothaches.”

So instead of rushing out to buy the first volume of the new edition of Frost’s correspondence, I go down the street to the library, only to discover that they, too, no longer have the earlier edition of the letters, the one edited by Lawrance Thompson. But they do have the Notebooks that led me to the “terrified” quote and they have Mark Richardson’s edition of The Collected Prose (Harvard 2007), where I found, searching at random, “Some Definitions by Robert Frost (1923).” After admitting that he sometimes has “doubts of words altogether,” the then-49-year-old poet says that words “are worse than nothing unless they do something: unless they amount to deeds, as in ultimatums or battle cries. They must be flat and final like the show-down in poker, from which there is no appeal.” This may not be a particularly appealing admission, but it’s perfectly consistent with a poet who has made so much of prowess and performance and feats of association.

But now consider the warmer, more human turn Frost takes in the last of the four short paragraphs: “A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a home-sickness or a love-sickness.” It might not be “adorable,” but it’s hard not to like and hard not to smile to see that the poem Frost equated to a show-down in poker has become “a reaching-out toward expression: an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.”

And where the words found me was in that strip mall parking lot.