November 5, 2014

People are so in love with Richard, but he’s killed like 89 people!

—Terence Winter on Boardwalk Empire’s Richard Harrow

What’s haunting me this Halloween season is the singing of Jack Bruce (1943-2014), who died October 25, and the acting of Jack Huston as Richard Harrow in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-14), which ended its five-season run on October 26.

My first thought on hearing of Bruce’s death wasn’t for his bass playing and songwriting with the power trio Cream but the uniqueness of his voice and the mood he creates as he moves from raw, bluesy passion to a subtle, tensely hushed, almost ethereal place in the same song, his singing both soft and searing above Eric Clapton’s virtuoso guitar and Ginger Baker’s rolling and tumbling drums.

Once I got beyond the high-profile obits stressing Bruce’s skills as a bassist, I found responses that came closer to my Halloween-based impression of his singing: “the uniquely haunting falsetto,” the “ghostly falsetto,” “Jack’s haunting high voice,” his “haunting operatic style,” his “voice that we all remember, soaring hauntingly,” the voice that adds “a haunting element” (my italics).

DVD rev2Having long ago traded my original copy of Disraeli Gears (1967) to the Princeton Record Exchange, I had to go to YouTube for immediate access to the album that put Cream on the American map. Their debut, Fresh Cream was clearly a product of the British blues scene. Beginning with “Strange Brew,” and its “kill what’s inside of you” refrain, Disraeli Gears took the blues into a strange new neighborhood. On YouTube there it was in all its gaudy glory: one of the psychedelic era’s most evocative album covers. At the time, even if you didn’t know the music, you had to own that record, that fabulous image, and you soon found that not only did the music live up to the imagery, it delivered a fiery equivalent of the complex aesthetic excitement of the cover montage, the newness of it, the design of the time, like the work of some genius of graffiti before Banksy was a gleam in England’s eye. So much of the musical chemistry depended on the way Jack Bruce put those quirky, edgy, blues-haunted songs across. Later singers like Jon Anderson of Yes and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin might approach or exceed his intensity, but few could equal his nuanced command of a voice that was as formidable an instrument as his bandmates’ guitar and drums. No surprise when you learn that Bruce was classically trained, studying cello and composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, and so talented a singer that as a six-year-old he once sang for Paul Robeson.

Listen to songs like “Strange Brew,” “World of Pain,” “Dance the Night Away,” “We’re Going Wrong,” or “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and you hear Bruce exploring, discovering, and sustaining a fine emotional line that in his composition, “We’re Going Wrong,” actually seems to be entering some brave new world of rock between the art song and the blues.

Ghosts of the Boardwalk

“We’re Going Wrong” is one of several numbers from Disraeli Gears that could be played as a commentary on Boardwalk Empire’s fifth and final season. While the show’s most obvious claim to fame may be the visual brilliance of its depiction of the Prohibition era, every episode except the last one begins with a hard-rocking blues-inflected blast of sixties energy by a group that takes its name from a fallen rock star of the period Jack Bruce and Cream helped define. The music accompanying the opening credit sequence, which shows Atlantic City crime boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) lighting a cigarette as the froth of the incoming tide oozes over his elegantly photogenic shoes, is performed by the Brianjonestown Massacre; in fact, the title of the wordless track “Straight Up and Down,” prefigures Nucky’s fate.

Harrow’s Blues

You could say that Jack Huston’s scarred ex-army sharpshooter Richard Harrow sings a darkly poignant blues of his own in Boardwalk Empire, though his lament is effectively muted because of the mask molded to replicate the disfgured half of his face. In a skyatlantic interview, Huston describes how his speeches were typed in the script, the sentences “broken up with periods in very strange places” to show that the character “obviously didn’t speak in the right way.” That Huston calls the ellipses “full stops” lends a hint of musical notation to the mix (you can also hear it in the way Jack Bruce spaces the words of the title in “We’re Going Wrong”). Huston says he created the effect by putting cotton gauze in his mouth and speaking in low, halting, throaty tones, as if his voice-box had also been damaged. “It’s quite difficult and painful to speak with the mask,” he says, “but when I put that mask on I’m him.”

In almost every scene he shares with another person (not counting the ones he kills), Harrow has a special aura, an element of hushed, hesitant, emotionally charged poetry that haunts the moment. It’s there in his first scene with his eventual soulmate Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). The two combat-scarred soldiers (Darmody has shrapnel in his leg) exchange questions and answers about the books they’re reading as they wait in a Chicago hospital to be interviewed about their post-combat mental state. Richard’s book is one from the Tom Swift series, but what he says about it and the halting way he expresses the words goes deeper; it’s his theme, Richard’s blues: “It occurs to me … that the basis of fiction … is that people have some sort of … connection with each other … but they don’t.”

From Season Two of "Boardwalk Empire," that's Jack Huston as Richard Harrow on the right, with Nucky Thompson's brother Eli (Shea Whigham).

From Season Two of “Boardwalk Empire,” that’s Jack Huston as Richard Harrow on the right, with Nucky Thompson’s brother Eli (Shea Whigham).

Originally slated for only a handful of episodes, Harrow went straight to the heart of the audience — as Terence Winter says, viewers fell in love with this gentle, civilized  killing machine, until a few episodes became four seasons. There’s a fair chance that my wife and I are not the only ones who might have given up on  Boardwalk Empire if Terence Winter hadn’t dealt the wild card of Richard Harrow. What ultimately sets Boardwalk Empire apart and makes it not only worth watching but as much a credit to HBO as The Sopranos is the sense that the whole show is an elaborate high-stakes gamble taken by a daringly imaginative team led by Sopranos veterans Winter and Tim Van Patten, along with Howard Korder and Martin Scorsese.

Omar and Richard

In spite of the fact that the fifth and final season of Boardwalk Empire looked to be its weakest (Harrow was gone, for one thing), series creator Winter and his crew pulled it together in the closing episodes. In addition to the seasons with Harrow, what continued to hold us was the casting-against-type tour de force of Steve Buscemi’s performance as Nucky Thompson; the appeal of Kelly Macdonald as his second wife; the fascination of the Dostoevskian extremes encompassed by Gretchen Mol’s anti-heroine Gillian Darmody and of Michael Shannon’s no less morally twisted epic portrayal of fallen FBI agent Nelson VanAlden. Then there was Michael K. Williams as the stoic African American crime boss Chalky White. It was Williams’s name in the cast list that made us curious about the series in the first place. Like many other viewers, we’d been captivated by his portrayal of Omar in HBO’s The Wire, where his murderous actions, like Harrow’s, were somehow tempered if not redeemed by the heart and humanity Williams gave to the performance. Omar’s blues was only a tougher version of Richard’s.

Still, Richard Harrow had more to lament. With Omar, menace was always present. With Richard, humanity and the yearning for love and family and connection always underscored the menace. There he sits in more than one scene clipping images of families from magazines and newspapers and pasting them in a scrapbook that he puts together as quietly and methodically as he arranges his weaponry, a veritable showcase of artillery, before his biggest kill, the massacre of a brothel full of gangsters in the last episode of the third season.

Buscemi’s Coup

Surely Boardwalk Empire’s biggest gamble was choosing to center the series on Steve Buscemi, a character actor known and loved for playing losers in iconic films, like Shut-up-Donny to John Goodman’s Walter in The Big Lebowski; the thorny, nerdy Seymour in Ghost World; the hapless director in Living in Oblivion, the hapless hood in Fargo, and Charlie the hapless barber in Mystery Train. This is a funny-looking guy with a funny-sounding voice, his affect and accent just this side of Bugs Bunny, and he’s my favorite actor because he brings something special to every movie he’s in. Judging from some reviews and blogs, this piece of casting was perceived as so perverse, so flawed, that some people unfortunately either bowed out of the show or never gave it a chance. It’s the mother of all makeovers to turn the lovable loser into a crime boss up to his ears in money and women, mayhem and murder.

What a challenge for Buscemi. Five seasons with never a chance to revert to type (the closest he comes is when Nucky hits bottom in Season Five and gets silly drunk with and rolled by a couple of hookers). Not only does Buscemi nail the part of a lifetime, his triumph is ultimately equal to and symbolic of a triumphant series, in spite of moments early on when the final season seemed to be searching for itself, exposition in reverse. But the day was saved with the appearance of young Nucky (Marc Pickering) and young Gillian (Madeline Rose Yen), both played with eerie accuracy in speech and manner and movement in a ghostly evocation of the Original Sin that set everything in motion. As young and old appeared and disappeared, moving past into present and present into past, it brings up the word of the season for a show haunted by its past.

Meanwhile all it takes is a YouTube seance and you can conjure up Jack Huston and Boardwalk Empire and Jack Bruce and Cream.

Listen to Bruce singing “there’s a world of pain in the falling rain,” and “no time for pity,” and look at Richard wistfully gazing down at the images in his scrapbook. There’s a blues beyond singing, to be full of love for some abstract of humanity and know that your vocation is to kill people.


ANNUAL ART ALL DAY: ArtWorks third annual Art All Day event will take place at sites all over Trenton this Saturday, November 8. Last year’s event saw artist Steven Morris (above) painting at Gallery 219. This year’s event promises to be bigger and better than ever before. Activities begin and end at Artworks, located at 19 Everett Alley, Trenton, N.J. 08611 (off South Stockton Street, across from NJ Motor Vehicle Commission building). For more information, call (609) 394-9436, or visit: by Jeff

ANNUAL ART ALL DAY: ArtWorks third annual Art All Day event will take place at sites all over Trenton this Saturday, November 8. Last year’s event saw artist Steven Morris (above) painting at Gallery 219. This year’s event promises to be bigger and better than ever before. Activities begin and end at Artworks, located at 19 Everett Alley, Trenton, N.J. 08611 (off South Stockton Street, across from NJ Motor Vehicle Commission building). For more information, call (609) 394-9436, or visit: (Photo by Jeff

Trenton is reinventing itself through art as visitors can see for themselves this Saturday, November 8, when the city becomes a huge outdoor gallery courtesy of ArtWorks, the visual art center at 19 Everett Alley in Trenton, which hosts its third annual “Art All Day” (AAD), a companion to the ever popular 24-hour Art All Night event each year in June.

Aptly described as the Capital City’s own open studio tour and creative showcase, Art all Day transforms Trenton into a vibrant arts destination and if other ArtWorks-organized events are anything to go by, Art All Day will be well-attended. Over a thousand visitors are expected to enjoy free art, music, and entertainment at some 30 sites across the city.

To facilitate access to the many studio tours and performances around town there will be docent-led trolley, walking, and bicycling tours to the art studios and exhibition sites as well as numerous activities for art-lovers.

Three new art-oriented venues have been added this year. The Hive Community of Art & Design is among the city’s latest collective spaces for local artists. The New Trenton Store & Studio is a combination collectibles shop, photo studio, and gallery. Both join The College of New Jersey’s CommunityWorks Art Gallery and Art All Day’s existing roster of 27 other Trenton sites showcasing the work of more than 80 artists and craftspeople.

“What I love about Art All Day is that every year there is so much that is new to see and do,” said Art All Day Director Lauren Otis. “Trenton is just bursting with new ideas, new ventures, new art. It is a city with a lot of history, some of it not so great, so it is really gratifying to show people how Trenton is reinventing itself right now before their very eyes,” he said.

Visitors will find some of their favorite activities from last year with artists like Mel Leipzig painting for all to see at the New Jersey State Museum from noon until 4 p.m., and Trenton muralists doing their stuff around town. The city’s latest public murals will be featured on the Art All Day public art tour.

In addition, the S.A.G.E. Coalition’s Gandhi Garden and Gallery 219 will be open and members of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen’s A-Team artists will be showcasing their work.

Cast iron sculpture by members of the AbOminOg International Arts Collective will be on view at the Old Barracks Museum.

All of the activities are free with suggested donations for tours (see below). Don’t forget to pick up a free map showing all the sites around town where art will be on view throughout the day.

Tours and Activities

Events begin with a group exhibition from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the Artworks main gallery. From noon through 5 p.m. there will be open studios and pop-up galleries in unexpected places throughout Trenton.

Special trolley tours guided by Art all Day staff will leave from the ArtWorks parking lot at noon, 1:30 p.m., and 3 p.m. The tours operate on two separate loops (Northeast Loop and Southwest Loop). Each loop features three tours and each tour takes approximately one and one half hours. There is a suggested donation of $10 for one tour, $15 for two, and $20 for three.

For those who prefer to walk, there will be one hour docent-led tours of the downtown and central Trenton sites leaving at 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3:30 p.m., for which the suggested donation is $5.

And if bicycling is your preference, you can bring along your own bike and be guided by Wills Kinsley. These tours will operate continuously throughout the day from noon to 5 p.m., returning to the Artworks site to pick up new riders approximately every hour on the hour. A donation of $5 is also suggested for participants.

Throughout the afternoon from noon until 5 p.m, there will be live painting/demos at multiple AAD sites. Dean “Ras” Innocenzi and Jonathan “Lank” Connor will be at TerraCycle; Will Kasso will be at Gallery 219, Leon Rainbow will be at Zienowicz Signs, and Kenneth Lewis and Julia “Kito” Kirtley will be at the Conservatory Mansion.

Also from noon to 5 p.m., there will be a JuJu Crossing World Music & Art Fete with live drumming and dance featuring DanceSpora, Akoma House, and Ahmed Davis, at the Conservatory Mansion

At the New Jersey State Museum, Curator of Fine Art Margaret O’Reilly will lead a gallery tour of “American Perspectives: The Fine Art Collection,” at 2 p.m. on the museum’s third floor.

Classics Books will host poetry readings from 2 to 4 p.m. and a reception in celebration of the day, kicks off in the ArtWorks main gallery at 5 p.m.

The evening will conclude with a showcase of work by local filmmakers at the Mill Hill Playhouse from 7:30 until 9:30 p.m. when the Trenton Film Society in conjunction with Cinema Thursdays presents “Trenton Makes Movies.”

A comprehensive map showing all the sites can be viewed at:

Free parking all day will be available at Artworks, which will serve as Art All Day headquarters, where visitors can obtain information on sites and activities, view on-site studios, take in the “Artists of Art All Day” group show, sample from food trucks, and gather before embarking on trolley, bike, and walking tours.

Artworks is located at 19 Everett Alley, Trenton (off South Stockton Street, across from the N.J. Motor Vehicle Commission building). For more information, call call (609) 394-9436, or visit:

When studying in Bulgaria, Princeton Symphony Orchestra Music Director Rossen Milanov likely found Russian music and culture abundant. Judging from Sunday afternoon’s Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s concert at Richardson Auditorium featuring music of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, Mr. Milanov has clearly developed an affinity for the music of that part of the world. Another side of 21st-century Russia was presented in pianist Natasha Paremski, who was featured in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.

Ms. Paremski is part of a new generation of Russian performers who have combined the solid classical musical training for which Russia is known with the flair and elegance of contemporary fashion and style. From the opening piano chords of Tchaikovsky’s monumental concerto, Ms. Paremski played with supreme confidence, showing both astounding technique and consummate musicality. Following the very clean horn fanfare that opened the first movement, Ms. Paremski played the concerto as if she owned it (she recorded this work two years ago with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), perfectly timed with the orchestra and sensitive to musical dialogues with instrumental soloists.

From the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, the soloist was accompanied by a variety of well-executed sonorities, including a smooth wind quartet of clarinets and bassoons in the first movement, clarinet and oboe duet in the second movement (played by Pascal Archer and Nicholas Masterson, respectively) and flutist Chelsea Knox playing graceful solos against fiendish passages from the piano. Mr. Milanov kept the three movements of the concerto moving along, adroitly traversing the abrupt changes in mood.

Mr. Milanov kept a Russian theme in the concert by pairing the Tchaikovsky concerto with a Stravinsky work which was more abstract but just as Russian in flavor and background. Stravinsky’s 1947 orchestral suite Petrushka was as intricate as the Tchaikovsky concerto was dramatic, with quirky solos and driving rhythms foreshadowing the more revolutionary later works of Stravinsky.

Petrushka is a set of four tableaux, originally composed as a ballet and later adapted by the composer as an orchestral suite. As one might expect from a Stravinsky work, there was a great deal of activity for the winds, with sonorities that were surely unique for the time. Clarinetist Pascal Archer was joined by bass clarinetist Rie Suzuki Huebner in octaves against pizzicato strings and light percussion, and throughout the suite, edgy solos from English hornist Nathan Mills provided an element of spookiness to the performance. Solo bassoon, played by Brad Balliett, added to the quirky musical palette, especially when combined with a well-played pair of muted trumpets from Jerry Bryant and Thomas Cook. Percussion played a significant role, with drum rolls bridging the tableaux. Timpanist Jeremy Levine and percussionist Phyllis Bitow (playing xylophone) were especially key in keeping rhythms precise.

Although the concert was titled “Classically Russian,” the subtheme was a tribute to the 18th-century commedia dell’arte tradition, and Mr. Milanov introduced this theme with a bit of musical détente — American composer William Bolcom’s Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra. Linked with a current Princeton Art Museum exhibit, this work suited the Princeton Symphony well with its unique orchestration. Mr. Milanov used the space of Richardson well, placing horns on either side of the stage and in the balcony to create an antiphonal effect. Bolcom’s music was as quirky as Stravinsky’s orchestral suite, but in a different way — passages of 18th-century refinement were contrasted with dissonance and percussive effects from the instruments. This work, combined with the Tchaikovsky concerto and Stravinsky suite, showed the Princeton Symphony Orchestra to be off to a good start with musical precision this season.


THIS ONE LOOKS LIKE IT COULD BE A WINNER: Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) gave up stealing stolen scrap metal and selling it to junkyard owners in favor of making videos of accidents or crime scenes that had grisly images of injured people. He realized that selling the videos to the local network news programs, besides being legal, was also much more lucrative.(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick)

THIS ONE LOOKS LIKE IT COULD BE A WINNER: Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) gave up stealing stolen scrap metal and selling it to junkyard owners in favor of making videos of accidents or crime scenes that had grisly images of injured people. He realized that selling the videos to the local network news programs, besides being legal, was also much more lucrative. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick)

Petty thief Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) was eking out a living selling stolen scrap metal to junkyards until the day he stumbled upon a legitimate line of work when he assisted a driver who was trapped in a fiery car crash. He was surprised to find that freelance journalists were flocking to the scene in hopes of shooting graphic video footage that they could sell to the network television stations.

He quietly observed them in action and then asked a reporter some probing questions about what the job entailed. After listening intently, Lou — a quick learner — visited a pawn shop and purchased a camcorder and police scanner; the only tools, besides the car he already had, that were essential to enter the business.

The next thing you know, he’s roaming the streets of Los Angeles and joining the cutthroat competition to be the first to arrive in the aftermath of a gruesome murder or highway pileup. Understanding the TV news credo, “If it bleeds, it leads,” he starts picking which emergency calls to pursue based on their potential for providing the sort of captivating pictures that would be popular with viewers.

After some early successes, he hires a homeless person (Rick Garcia) as his navigator. He also develops a mutually beneficial relationship with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the veteran news director at Channel 6, the local station that also has the lowest ratings. Lou’s uncanny ability to get grisly shots coincides with Nina and KWLA’s desperate need to attract a wider audience.

Thus unfolds Nightcrawler, a riveting thriller marking the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy. Jake Gyllenhaal is better than ever here in the title role, eclipsing both his outing last year in Prisoners as well as his Oscar nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain.

As the film unfolds, the plot thickens when Lou decides to make news rather than merely cover it. The potential financial rewards become so tempting that he begins to orchestrate events for the sake of the almighty dollar. Conveniently, Nina looks the other way even though there is mounting evidence that her star stringer is crossing an ethical line.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, profanity, and graphic images. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Open Road Films.


October 29, 2014

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

—Dylan Thomas

I was in the corridor, ten feet away.

—John Berryman, when asked about the death of Dylan Thomas

John Berryman and Dylan Thomas were born two days apart, 100 years ago this month, Berryman on October 25, Thomas on October 27.

In Dylan Thomas in America, after a harrowing account of the poet’s last days at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, John Malcolm Brinnin, who had brought Thomas to the U.S. for a series of readings from 1950 through 1953, describes the moment he received the news he’d been dreading: “As I stepped from the waiting room into the corridor, I saw John Berryman rushing toward me. ‘He’s dead! He’s dead! Where were you?’”

Berryman’s biographer John Haffenden excused the accusatory “Where were you?” as “a manifestation of shock,” but it must have galled Brinnin, who had been faithfully in attendance for four days while Berryman was out of town. There’s a melancholy “poetic justice” in the notion that Berryman, Thomas’s birth-week brother poet, would be there at the end, the first among those who knew him to witness and report the fact of his death. When he had word that Thomas might be dying, Berryman was at Bard College giving a lecture on Shakespeare. According to Haffenden’s 1982 biography, his reaction to the news was “notably dramatic and drunken.” After announcing “Poetry is dead with Dylan Thomas,” he continued “melodramatizing his concern” during a “country walk,” saying, “as he took long gulps of air, ‘I’m breathing for Dylan, if I breathe for him perhaps he will remain alive.’” Another biography, Paul Mariani’s Dream Song (1990) has Berryman drunkenly reciting Thomas’s most quoted poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Paul Muldoon cites “Do not go gentle” in his introduction to the 2010 reissue of the original edition of Collected Poems (New Directions $14.95), observing that it is “not only vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives” as a poem read “at two out of every three funerals.”

The notion of battling death, so forcefully sounded in the line, “Rage rage against the dying of the light,” is reflected in the move Thomas made at 2 a.m. at the Chelsea Hotel when, after telling the woman he was with that he wanted to die, he came out of a fitful sleep, “suddenly reared up with a fierce look in his eyes,” said he had to have a drink, and hurled himself into the New York night and the White Horse Tavern where he claimed to have downed 18 straight shots of whiskey; as legend has it, that’s what precipitated the fatal coma.

Berryman’s Passagebook rev1

Some 20 years later, Berryman made his own ungentle move, following the scenario he’d half-seriously outlined in a letter to his wife Eileen in fall 1953, days before Thomas’s death. As related in Dream Song, he imagined himself planning to jump off the George Washington Bridge “by climbing over the rail and staring down into the Hudson River until he became so dizzy he would finally let go.” If his body was recovered, he wanted it planted “as cheaply as possible in Princeton.” The facetious reference at the end gives an idea of his complicated attitude toward the town and university where he’d been living and teaching ever since R.P. Blackmur’s offer of a job in 1946 saved him from teaching Latin and English at a prep school in New Rochelle.

Berryman finally performed his vision of suicide on January 7, 1972, when, as related in Dream Song, he walked along the upper level of the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, climbed “onto the chest-high metal railing and balanced himself,” and while several students watched, “made a gesture as if waving …. Then he tilted out and let go.”

Princeton Hospital

My thoughts on these two October poets might have taken me somewhere more cheerful than St. Vincent’s had I not been preoccupied with the large building on Witherspoon Street currently being relieved of its outer layer prior to death by demolition. The process is hard to ignore, particularly when it’s taking place within view of my work place parking lot. For days now I’ve been watching the facade of the hospital being stripped of its “skin,” as it’s called, a suggestive term for a building so intimately associated with the human body. It’s likely that someone as familiar with hospitalization as Berryman (for exhaustion, epilepsy, and detoxification) had first-hand knowledge of that building during his turbulent, adulterous, hard-drinking, productive years in Princeton. The man who brought him here, the great poet-critic Blackmur, died in that building in 1965, one among numerous celebrated residents (like Albert Einstein in 1955 and 50 years later George Kennan) who breathed their last in the original structure that has been expanded vertically and horizontally over the years with the help of many fund-raising Fêtes.

Reading at Lake Carnegie

Princeton is where Berryman got to know Saul Bellow, a friendship that began with a walk around Lake Carnegie. After reading the manuscript of Bellow’s breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Berryman was inspired to write his own breakthrough work, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), which Edmund Wilson called “the most distinguished long poem by an American since The Waste Land.” Berryman lived only a few blocks away from the lake and viewed it as an inspirational focal point, going there to recite Mistress Bradstreet to a woman friend he associated with his poem’s heroine. In time Berryman’s struggles with the work led to troubles at home. “As he began to ‘kill off’ his mistress,” Mariani writes, “Berryman seemed to die himself.” From his wife’s perspective, he appeared “at last to be forcing an end to their marriage.”

Dylan Rides the Dinky book rev2

It goes without saying that all Princeton’s writers and their wives, friends, lovers, and editors, Bellow, Berryman, Wilson, Blackmur, not to mention William Faulkner, Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon, and John O’Hara, among many others, were familiar with the Dinky and its station. According to Dylan Thomas in America, the bard of Swansea rode to town on the little-train-that-could on two occasions in the early 1950s, first for a reading that led to “a night-long bull session with a congenial crowd of undergraduates,” and most memorably on March 5, 1952, when “a cavalcade of motor-cycled policemen … sirened Dylan to the lecture hall from his late train.”

A Vagrant Vision

Dylan Thomas came to Bloomington, Indiana, in May of 1950, and I have a vivid yet vagrant image of the sweating, red-faced poet declaiming from the balcony of a building near the Indiana University Union, the moated, battlemented castle of my childhood fantasies. My father’s closest friend on the English Department faculty had met Thomas at the Indianapolis airport and driven him the 52 miles to Bloomington, stopping at every bar or tavern along the way.

Listening to Thomas on YouTube reading “A Poem in October” on the birthday we share, it’s easy to believe that I did indeed see him that day intoning the words of a man in his “thirtieth year to heaven,” seeing “so clearly a child’s/Forgotten mornings,” walking through “the twice-told fields of infancy” to “the woods the river and sea/Where a boy/In the listening/Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy.” Listening, eyes closed, there again remembering how his sweating discomfort seemed at such a stark remove from the flow of his reading, “Oh may my heart’s truth/Still be sung/On this high hill in a year’s turning.”

Movies and Events

John Berryman’s centenary is barely on the map (you’d need to go to Minneapolis), although Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published The Heart Is Strange, a new selection of poems edited and introduced by Daniel Swift, along with reissues of Sonnets, 77 Dream Songs and the complete Dream Songs. On the other hand, Thomas, who helped ensure his claim to be the Poet of the Age by dint of those exhausting American tours, is the subject of two films, the BBC’s A Poet in New York and Set Fire to the Stars, which premiered earlier this year at the Edinburgh film festival. John Malcolm Brinnin is a character in both films; not so John Berryman. Perhaps someday someone will bring those two poets together to give the world a glimpse of the “heart’s truth” lived out by two “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight.”

Dylan Thomas festivals abound, in Swansea, London, and New York, where the Poetry Center has organized “Dylan Thomas in America: A Centennial Exhibition,” and a new production of his radio play Under Milk Wood directed by Michael Sheen. Known best for Frost/Nixon and Masters of Sex, Sheen and five other actors will take the stage in the Kaufmann Concert Hall, where Under Milk Wood had its debut in May 1953, half a year before Dylan Thomas was rushed from the Chelsea Hotel to St. Vincent’s “good night.”

In 1483 when Portuguese explorers first set foot in the Kingdom of the Kongo located in parts of today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, and Angola, they discovered a sophisticated society with a strong artistic and cultural life. The exchange between the Kongo and Europe continued as enslaved Kongolese, transported to the Americas through the Atlantic slave trade, left an imprint of their cultural heritage on the development of art and music in the Americas. Presenting masterpieces of Kongo and African-American art, Kongo across the Waters will trace a journey of ideas, artistic practices, and religious beliefs across 500 years and three continents.

On view at the Princeton University Art Museum through January 25, 2015, “Kongo across the Waters” will be the single most important project ever presented at Princeton University that addresses the issues of the slave trade and colonialism through the lens of the artistic traditions of Africa and the African diaspora.

“This exhibition presents some of the finest works of African art in the world, and reminds us of Kongo’s visual legacy throughout the Atlantic world — an idea of central importance, considering the fact that nearly one-fourth of first-generation African slaves in the United States were from the Kongo region,” said Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward. “In doing so, this represents the Museum’s most ambitious project to date involving African artistic production and culture.”

“Kongo across the Waters” features over 100 works, including numerous pieces never before exhibited in the United States. It is accompanied by a catalogue with entries by leading scholars in archaeology, history, religion, and African and African American art history. In addition to featuring rare archaeological finds, the exhibition includes sculpture, carved tusks, musical instruments, baskets, and textiles from Kongo and the Americas. Works attributed to the Kongo artist “The Master of Kasadi,” the American cane carver Henry Cudgell and the South Carolina basket weaver Elizabeth F. Kinlaw will be on view, along with contemporary art by Steve Bandoma (Democratic Republic of Congo), Edouard Duval-Carrié (Haiti and USA), José Bedia (Cuba), Renée Stout (USA) and Radcliffe Bailey (USA). A video produced for the exhibition reveals the notable influence of Kongolese music on the development of jazz.

“Kongo across the Waters” is a joint project organized by the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, and the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, and is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. At Princeton, supplementary interpretive content has been developed by the Princeton University Art Museum.

For information, visit:

As Princeton Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau wrote in his program notes to Sunday afternoon’s concert, his first two years with the ensemble deliberately excluded the lush choral music of German Romantic music. Dr. Brandau and the 100-voice Pro Musica Chamber Chorus took a trip through this repertory on Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium, showing the range of compositional style and musical emotion from the turn of the 19th century to the turn of the 20th.

Dr. Brandau warmed up the audience with a solo violinist and orchestra, as Owen Dalby played the Romance in G by Ludwig van Beethoven. Beginning with clean double-stops, Mr. Dalby made the intricate but lyrical melody sound easy, maintaining a graceful dialog with the orchestra. Dr. Brandau kept things within a Classical framework, conducting a well-balanced orchestral ensemble. With Mr. Dalby providing a rich lower register of his instrument and broad musical strokes from the orchestra, this Romance closed in a stately manner.

This season’s Pro Musica Chamber Chorus made their first appearance to sing excerpts from Johannes Brahms’ light and spirited Liebeslieder Walzer. The sound suffered a bit from the space differential; the chorus was at the back of the hall with Eric Plutz and James Sparks playing piano four-hands as Dr. Brandau conducted from the front of the hall. Dr. Brandau maintained the same Classical lilt begun in the Beethoven work, with nicely blended men beginning the first excerpt. The seven of the 18 Walzers performed were not sung too fast, and the men in particular showed precise singing in “Am Donaustrande.” Soprano Blythe Quelin was featured in one of the Walzer, singing with a self-assured rich sound, especially in the lower register. Conducting without a baton, Dr. Brandau elicited clean diction and precise cadences from the chorus.

Dr. Brandau has continued the Pro Musica tradition of presenting orchestral works on a choral program, but rather than a large orchestral piece contrasting with a choral/orchestral work, Dr. Brandau interspersed smaller works within the program. Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn both composed programmatic pieces based on Goethe’s poem “Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt” (“Calm Sea and Successful Voyage”) — Beethoven for chorus and orchestra and Mendelssohn for orchestra alone. The accompanying orchestra to Pro Musica presented Mendelssohn’s Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt with the calm of the sea evident from the start in the strings. Mendelssohn added winds sparingly, with four-note solos speaking well from the wind players. Dr. Brandau maintained an effective flow to the music, as the sea rose and fell with a finality of a clean trio of trumpets.

In contrast, the calm of the sea in Beethoven’s setting came from the full chorus of Pro Musica, immediately setting the mood as more reverent. The singers of Pro Musica brought out the imaginative setting of the text about the lack of wind on the sea, and came to life as the “waves part and the distance draws nearer.” This piece contained a great deal of drama and tension which was difficult to maintain, especially with the sopranos on a high “A” for an extended period of time.

Dr. Brandau journeyed to the end of the 19th century with Gustav Mahler’s solo song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” sung by guest mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft. Mahler wrote luxuriantly for mezzo-sopranos, and scored this song particularly sensitively with accompanying English horn, played by Nathan Mills. Mahler’s music often falls into the depths, and Ms. Craft rose well vocally out of the deep, singing reflectively yet without despair. The instrumental combination of Mr. Mills, harpist Andre Tarantiles, and bassoonist Seth Baer brought elegant sonorities to accompany the solo voice. Mahler was a master of orchestration, and the English horn was the perfect sonority to combine with Ms. Craft’s rich voice.

The full chorus of Pro Musica joined forces again to close the concert with Brahms’s orchestrally accompanied choral song Schicksalslied. The lushness of this piece was well suited for Pro Musica’s forces, and the choral sound unfolded well. Although the sopranos sounded a bit stretched in the upper registers, an a cappella cadence was well handled by the entire chorus toward the end of the piece.

This concert was somewhat unusual in that it was not totally about the whole of Pro Musica — the full chorus only sang two small pieces, with a third of the program given over to orchestral works. As this new season embarks, audiences can hopefully look forward to hearing Princeton Pro Musica at its fullest.


DON’T MAKE WAVES: Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) is not interested in furthering the cause of black students at Winchester University. She just wants to get along with everybody and also get a part in the reality TV show that is conducting auditions on campus.(© 2014 Roadside Attractions)

DON’T MAKE WAVES: Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) is not interested in furthering the cause of black students at Winchester University. She just wants to get along with everybody and also get a part in the reality TV show that is conducting auditions on campus. (© 2014 Roadside Attractions)

The academics are tough enough at Winchester University, a mythical Ivy League institution. It’s too bad that black students there also have to worry about making themselves comfortable socially.

That’s the predicament we find four African American undergrads facing in Dear White People, a social satire that is the directorial and scriptwriting debut of Justin Simien. Earlier this year, the thought provoking dramatic comedy won the Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the Sundance Film Festival.

The picture’s protagonists are as different from each other as night and day. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is gay and uncomfortable around his own people because blacks teased him the most about his sexuality back in high school. He lives in a predominately white dorm where he is still teased by his dorm mates.

Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) is a legacy admission to Winchester thanks to his  his father (Dennis Haysbert), who is an alumnus and the current dean of students. Troy is dating a white woman, Sofia Fletcher (Brittany Curran), who is the daughter of the school’s president (Peter Syvertsen).

Political activist Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is at the other extreme — she is a militant woman who lives in the all-black dorm that serves as a refuge for the “hopelessly Afro-centric.” She also hosts the talk show “Dear White People” on the college’s radio station, where she indicts Caucasians about everything from their racism to their sense of entitlement.

Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) wants to assimilate into mainstream American culture. She is more concerned with whether she might make the cut for the reality TV show that is conducting auditions on campus than she is with challenging the status quo.

It is clear that the four lead characters have little in common besides their skin color. However, the plot thickens when Pastiche, a student-run humor publication, decides to throw a Halloween party with an “unleash your inner-Negro” theme.

Now, at the party, the black students are stereotyped by their white classmates who are cavorting in blackface and are dressed as pimps and gangstas or as icons like Barack Obama and Aunt Jemima.

In the course of the story, director Simien pulls a couple of rabbits out of his hat to help the plot along, laces the dialogue with pithy lines (“Learn to modulate your blackness up or down depending on the crowd and what you want from them”), and touches on hot button issues ranging from affirmative action to Tyler Perry.

A delightful dissection of the Ivy League that stirs the pot in the way most folks mean when they a call for a national discussion of race.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, ethnic and sexual preference slurs, sexuality, and drug use. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Roadside Attractions.


October 22, 2014

Book Oct 1964In spite of Thursday night’s season-ending loss to the Giants in San Francisco, St. Louis Cardinal fans enjoyed their share of baseball ecstasy in the 2014 post-season. With the glorious exception of Game One’s comeback win against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, the manifestations of maximum ecstatic intensity happened at home, in Busch Stadium. At such times there’s nothing between you and almost 50,000 deliriously happy strangers but the television, and thanks to the HD flat screen, the sensation of being there is overwhelming — it’s you and your vastly extended Cardinal family, singles and couples, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and kids, all shapes and sizes. If you were really there, side by side cheering Redbird heroics, you’d be submerged in a delirious love-in, all high fives and hugs. But deep down you know that such cozy, familial thoughts are delusional, Missouri’s a red state and Busch a sea of red with the hometown crowd garbed in Cardinal colors. How many of these folks you’re jumping up and down with would stay friendly should the subject turn to something other than baseball, like for instance the shooting of a black youth by a white cop in a St. Louis suburb?

At first I had no reason to think the shooting of Michael Brown had anything to do with the team I’ve been following since I was a ten-year-old. The Cardinal heroes memorialized with images and statues in Busch Stadium include black players like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Ozzie Smith. Interracial chemistry has been a key component of the Cardinals from the 1964 World Champions on through the championship teams of the 1980s. By the time the Redbirds surged into first place on their way to winning the Central Division, the Michael Brown story was all over the news, the shadow of Ferguson spreading in the direction of Cardinal Nation until a group of protestors, most of them African Americans, actually showed up outside Busch during the National League Division Series with the Dodgers. A chaotic scene developed when Cardinal supporters began yelling at the demonstrators. While some fans simply resented the inopportune intrusion, like how dare they rain on the Cardinal parade, others shouted racist cliches that were tame by Tea Party standards while one man sported a Cardinal jersey with the policeman’s name, Darren Wilson, taped on the back. At times it sounded like little more than opposing crowds at a high-school football game trading chants, “Let’s go Mike Brown!” vs “Let’s Go Cardinals!”

The Cap on the Casket

I wonder how many Cardinal fans affronted by the intrusion of racial conflict on the hallowed ground of playoff baseball knew that Michael Brown’s family had placed a St. Louis Cardinal hat on top of his coffin. Clearly the team had some personal significance for the Browns. Michael was shown wearing the hat in one of the photographs displayed next to the coffin and his father was wearing one during an interview. Various news stories also pictured people in the Ferguson crowds casually attired in Cardinal regalia, and there are fans among the Ferguson cops who show up at Busch wearing Cardinal jackets and hats, as viscerally devoted to the emblem of the redbirds on the slanted bat as the citizens of Ferguson rallying for justice in the name of Michael Brown.

Team logos are not to be taken lightly. Emerson suggests as much when he celebrates “the power of national emblems” in “The Poet,” where “the schools of poets and philosophers are not more intoxicated with their symbols, than the populace with theirs.” He mentions “stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle,” and, why not, a pair of cardinals. In the ideal best-of-all-possible baseball worlds, the National Pastime prevails in a realm of its own, remote from the chaos outside the stadium. Of course there are skirmishes like the one in the first inning of the first game of the Division Series when Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright unintentionally hit Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers, the benches cleared, players roared and pushed at one another, and Wainwright escorted Puig to first base in friendly fashion, the two men briefly arm in arm, as if in respect of that pastoral world of highs and lows, wins and losses, where people who on the outside might blunder into deadly conflict cheer and cry together, are wounded and healed, brought down and uplifted, know joy and know sorrow, all within the precincts of the game.


Fifty years ago, on the last day of the 1964 season, the Cardinals completed one of the wildest runs in baseball history to win the pennant and the chance to face Mickey Mantle’s Yankees in the World Series. That feat seems all the more special and unlikely after my rereading of David Halberstam’s October 1964 (Villard 1994), which offers a fascinating back story for both teams. One of the elements that attracted Halberstam was the importance of the interracial makeup of the Cardinals in a year that had been charged with events more cathartic than the shooting of Michael Brown. In fact, the people in the New York office of W.W. Norton, the publisher I was working for, gave serious thought to the potential risk of driving a company car with New York plates in the Deep South only months after the murder of the three Civil Rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. There was even some discussion about whether or not they could get me Mississippi plates. Halberstam, however, had no need to dwell on the climate of the times. Most readers, including baseball fans, knew what had been going on in the country during those explosive years.

“Where Are Our Black Players?”

In the course of showing how “more than most teams, the Cardinal players came to deal with race with a degree of maturity and honesty rarely seen in baseball at that time,” Halberstam writes about the onetime owner, beer baron August “Gussie” Busch, who was acutely aware that Budweiser sold more beer to blacks than any other brewery in the country. One day in the 1950s he asked his manager and coaches, “Where are our black players?” The all-too-obvious answer was, “We don’t have any,” to which Busch said, “How can it be the great American game if blacks can’t play?” And then: “Hell, we sell beer to everyone.” This burst of interracial enthusiasm roused the Cardinal scouts to action and by spring training 1964, a racially balanced championship team had been put together and harmoniously integrated. In the face of segregated living facilities, and Florida law, a wealthy friend of Busch’s bought a motel and rented space in an adjoining one, so that the entire team and their families could stay together. According to Halberstam, “a major highway ran right by the motel, and there, in an otherwise segregated Florida, locals and tourists alike could see the rarest of sights: white and black children swimming in the motel pool together, and white and black players, with their wives, at desegregated cookouts.”

Cardinal Serendipity

In the late summer of 1964 when I was in Norton’s New York office working out the itinerary for my tour of colleges from the Deep South to the Upper Midwest, I scheduled an October 15 visit to Creighton University in Omaha. I didn’t know at the time that Creighton was Bob Gibson’s alma mater. Nor did I have any reason to believe the Cardinals were going to catch up to and pass the fading Phillies in the pennant race. As long as I’d been rooting for the Cardinals, they’d never made it to the main event. I followed the Series as best I could, on motel TVs or on the car radio driving down through the Dakotas. On October 15 I landed on the Creighton campus where all anyone could talk about was Bob Gibson, Class of 1957, pitching the seventh game of the World Series (that’s him in action on the cover of October 1964). It had to be some kind of Cardinal serendipity, that on the day Gibson turned in one of gutsiest pitching performances in World Series history to win the deciding game of the 1964 Series, I was watching it on TV, cheering along with a crowd of cheering Creighton students. Somehow I found myself in the right place at the right time, a white guy in a suit feeling at home in baseball, sharing the ecstasy.


LUCKY GIRL: That’s the title of this oil-on-panel painting by renowned Bucks County artist Robert Beck, who will be exhibiting his latest works at the Gallery of Robert Beck, 204 North Union Street, Lambertville from October 25 through November 23. A free public reception for the opening will take place on Saturday, October 25, from 5 to 8 p.m.; a second reception will take place on Sunday, October 26, from 1 to 4 p.m. The artist’s work can be seen at For more information contact (609) 397-5679 or by Jeffrey Apoian)

LUCKY GIRL: That’s the title of this oil-on-panel painting by renowned Bucks County artist Robert Beck, who will be exhibiting his latest works at the Gallery of Robert Beck, 204 North Union Street, Lambertville from October 25 through November 23. A free public reception for the opening will take place on Saturday, October 25, from 5 to 8 p.m.; a second reception will take place on Sunday, October 26, from 1 to 4 p.m. The artist’s work can be seen at For more information contact (609) 397-5679 or (Photo by Jeffrey Apoian)

Bucks County artist Robert Beck, whose works are popular among local art collectors, was one of three internationally acclaimed artists to be honored by The Philadelphia Sketch Club at its 154th Anniversary Gala last week. Together with Elizabeth Osborne and Moe Brooker, Mr. Beck received the the Sketch Club Medal. The medal will join no less than 28 other major awards the artist has received over the years; past recipients include Jamie Wyeth and Robert Venturi.

Visitors to Mr. Beck’s gallery, at 204 North Union Street, Lambertville, will have an opportunity to see his recent paintings in an exhibition appropriately titled, “Open Road,” opening with a public reception on Saturday, October 25, from 5 to 8 p.m. A second reception will take place on Sunday, October 26, from 1 to 4 p.m. The exhibition will continue through November 23.

Described as “a Renaissance man,” Mr. Beck is not only an accomplished painter, he has taught other artists, curated art exhibits, and sat on numerous arts organization boards. He’s also hosted a radio show and is a columnist for ICON magazine. He’s known for representational paintings unrestricted by subject matter or genre, and for painting live events in unusual or difficult environments.

Over the years, Mr. Beck, who attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, has built a portfolio of images that speak to the American experience. His subjects show people at work and at play. They depict, he once explained, “who we as Americans are by painting what we do, where we do it, and by giving our everyday world a second look.”

“Open Road” comprises 39 oil-on-panel paintings and one sketch for Lucky Girl, shown here. Visitors will discover plein air paintings and larger studio works of subjects ranging from Maine, New York, and Vienna, as well as local images.

The paintings depict scenes of people at work, in coffee shops and bars, gathered around a table for storytelling, or playing music together as in Jam Session.

“Regardless of genre, I want my paintings to strike a chord in the viewer that gives association to something in memory,” said the artist. “I don’t want to tell you it is a lunch counter; I want you to feel what you felt when you ate at one. I want you to hear the plates.”

“Open Road” includes scenes that will resonate with New Jersey and Bucks County residents such as Stockton Inn, and Behind Phillips Mill, as well as scenes of Manhattan. Especially evocative are Mr. Beck’s snowscapes and night scenes like Night Snow, Manhattan and Broadway, above Columbus, all of which can be viewed on the artist’s website (

According to his artist’s statement, Mr. Beck has “always been fascinated by what makes things happen” and he uses painting in order to “investigate events that combine to make life’s parade.”

“I really enjoy working under the difficult and distracting circumstances that come with being in the middle of a crowded event, faced with the multiple challenges of motion, unusual lighting, limited time, and interaction with the public. Painting from life adds substance a camera can’t record. Your wet feet make you consider the puddles, and the wind on your face draws attention to the swirl of the leaves and sway of the branches. The experience is included in the artwork and felt by the viewer. I spend hours in one spot taking a good look and, in a form, creating an iconic image of what I see. Over time I observe rhythms that add to the identity of the scene, absorbing a great deal of sensory information.”

Mr. Beck has had dozens of solo shows; his representational style has won awards at the Phillips’ Mill Annual Juried Exhibition, the Woodmere Art Museum Annual Juried Exhibition, the Lambertville Historical Society Annual Juried Exhibition, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Fellowship Exhibition.

He is represented in galleries in New York, Philadelphia and extensively through the region, including the National Arts Club, and in numerous collections, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania, and the James A. Michener Art Museum, which selected 37 of his paintings for exhibition in 1999. More recently, the City of Trenton Museum at Ellarslie presented a retrospective of his work in 2007.

The artist’s philosophy is expressed in this remark: “Art is the sum of our collective experience and imagination, and the most powerful way to present ideas that we have. It’s not an answer, it’s a proposition. It keeps the human conversation from going circular.”

Of his most recent work, the artist said: “This has been a year of probing boundaries for me. I’m always trying to identify a basic truth about that first moment when you engage a subject — that thing that gives it identity — and I’m still discovering new ways to describe the world around me.”

The Gallery of Robert Beck is open Saturdays and Sundays, from noon to 4 p.m., and by appointment. For more information, call (215) 982-0074, or visit:


REHEARSAL WOES: Harry (Adam Green), in the title role, is surprised to find that his jilted ex-fiancee Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad) is the stage manager, running the understudy rehearsal - and that's just one of many mishaps that ensue in McCarter Theatre's production of Theresa Rebeck's "The Understudy," playing at McCarter's Matthews Theatre through November 2.

REHEARSAL WOES: Harry (Adam Green), in the title role, is surprised to find that his jilted ex-fiancee Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad) is the stage manager, running the understudy rehearsal – and that’s just one of many mishaps that ensue in McCarter Theatre’s production of Theresa Rebeck’s “The Understudy,” playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 2.

Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy (2008) is a comical, 90-minute, one-act depiction of life in the theater. The setting is a theater during a special rehearsal to help prepare the new understudy for a Broadway premiere of a recently discovered work by Franz Kafka. On the big stage at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 2, The Understudy presents a humorous and affectionate representation of two actors and their stage manager — all under unusual personal and occupational stresses.

From the opening sound of a gunshot until the final curtain, high tension and multiple mishaps, both human and technical, proliferate. It’s a funny play, with some razor sharp wit, clever dialogue, and rich comical situations evolving as rehearsal and personal relationships progress. Ms. Rebeck is also delivering an indictment of the American Theater’s obsession with celebrity and the debilitating, dehumanizing effects of that obsession on the dedicated artists who continue the work they love as actors, stage managers, and other theater artists. The fact that the play-within-the-play is a lost work by Franz Kafka helps to ensure that the comedy served here will at times be dark and satirical.

This production, under the resourceful direction of Adam Immerwahr, in his first time directing on a McCarter main stage, merges a dynamically interesting, energetic, and talented cast of three with an extravagantly engaging set design and dazzling production values. What the script may lack in depth or development of plot and characters, this vibrant trio of experienced young actors, along with Eugene Lee’s fascinating, frequently moving set as a fourth character, provide to successfully capture the audience’s attention and interest.

The central metaphor here compares these anxious, isolated actors to characters from Kafka’s stories, particularly The Trial and The Castle — placed in mysterious, surreal situations, controlled by irrational forces in a dark, absurd world where there is no choice but to forge ahead. In The Understudy those tyrannical, invisible, offstage forces include not just the Hollywood-driven financial powers of the acting hierarchy and the whims of the businessmen producers, but also the erratic behavior of a stoned light board operator with her abundant supply of wheeling and flying scenery and special effects. Roxanne, the stage manager character, and her two actors, Harry and Jake, are, of course, also subject to the vicissitudes of human behavior in the tangles of a romantic triangle of sorts.

As the McCarter program points out, however, “everything you need to know about Kafka to enjoy The Understudy is “nothing at all …” Despite Kafka’s brooding black and white visage and a greatly enlarged page from an edited manuscript hanging over the stage, profundity, character exploration, and plot development are not priorities here. Comedy and a fascinating, quirky glimpse at the creative process of theater are the order of the day for this show, and the opening-night audience responded with abundant laughter from start to finish.

In the role of Harry the understudy, Adam Green establishes a winning rapport with the audience in his brilliantly funny, satiric, psychologically-revealing opening monologue. He continues to navigate skillfully the difficulties of the journeyman actor confronting first Jake (JD Taylor), his rival “Hollywood” scene counterpart, then Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad), his stage manager/boss, who also happens to be the woman he jilted just two weeks before their scheduled wedding. Mr. Green, who played Figaro in last spring’s acclaimed McCarter productions of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, is charming and sympathetic in his frustrations (“I mean it’s not — and it’s not that I’m bitter. People look at you; they say oh he’s an actor who’s not liked so he must be kind of bitter, and I am, I am bitter, but that doesn’t mean that movies don’t suck …”) — an ideal guide to lead us into the crazy backstage world of actors and the rehearsal process.

Mr. Taylor’s Jake, a screen star known for his roles in action movies, commands $2 million for his film roles, yet remains at the mercy of bigger Hollywood names and ruthless producers. His conventional good looks and dashing presence have gone a long way for Jake, who knows how to draw a gun with panache and apparently reached the apex of his career with his recent movie line: “Get on the truck!” Mr. Taylor persuasively embodies both the much mocked matinee idol/action movie star and also a more sympathetic actor coming to terms with a challenging stage role, two psychologically complex colleagues and the realities of life in the theater.

Ms. Skraastad’s Roxanne is commanding and larger than life as stage manager and woman scorned. She battles valiantly against the forces of fate and theatrical mischance to try to keep the rehearsal and her life moving forward. Harry explains that “the stage manager is the one person in the theater you’re supposed to be able to count on to keep her head. That’s the job description: to always have six kinds of duct tape, a pencil sharpener, Band-Aids, and a cool head” — but under the circumstances the cool head is too much to expect. Roxanne is understandably, comically flummoxed in her struggles with the intoxicated light board operator, the actors and the producers on the phone — not to mention the unexpected appearance of her ex-fiancé. With her air of authority, barely covering fierce anger and hysteria, she is funny and admirably convincing.

Mr. Lee’s set uses the immense Matthews stage and many of its accessories to full advantage, representing, and at the same time exaggerating and satirizing, the excesses of the big-budget Broadway show. With dozens of lighting instruments on all sides, a giant wind machine, melodramatic music and sound effects, picturesque onstage precipitation, a ghost light at center stage, a vast “Broadway-style” proscenium arch complete with golden-harp motif, along with a variety of set pieces wheeling on and off, and huge backdrops of a study, a tavern, and a dungeon — this animated set creates a comedy of its own. And of course there’s the face and manuscript of Kafka hanging at center stage above this Kafka-esque world. A large, well-equipped stage manager’s table in the front section amidst the orchestra seats provides Roxanne with a command post from which she vainly attempts to rein in the chaos of this rehearsal. The much acclaimed Mr. Lee, designer of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and at Saturday Night Live since 1974, has designed many Broadway shows, including the current long-running musical Wicked.

Kafka, who, supposedly, actually wrote a play that no longer exists and whose aura does pervade The Understudy and the play-within-the-play, once stated: “There is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope in the universe — but not for us.” In the end, however, Ms. Rebeck’s indomitable characters and her comedic perspective on the underbelly of the theater world, succeed in transcending the hopelessness and leaving us with a joyful affirmation of life and theater.

With a sea of musicians on the Richardson Auditorium stage, the Princeton University Orchestra launched its new season this past weekend with a concert of lush and Romantic music featuring two exceptional soloists. By the end of Friday night’s concert (the performance was repeated Saturday night), conductor Michael Pratt was understandably proud of how the students rose to the challenge of this year’s opening night.

The works on the program were linked by their use of indigenous music as well as concerto structure. The piano concerto of Edvard Grieg and bass clarinet concerto of Jonathan Russell were clear in the role of the solo instruments, but more veiled was the structure of George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture as a concerto for the unique percussion instruments Gershwin encountered in his travels to the Caribbean nation. Collectively, the members of the orchestra clearly had a good time as the musical school year got off to a joyous start.

Sophomore Marc Fishman was a winner of last year’s Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition, saving his prize-winning performance for this season. With its opening chords and flowing arpeggios, Edvard Grieg’s 1868 Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 is recognizable, and challenging for a performer of any age. From the start, Mr. Fishman took his time on the decisive chords and sinuous solo passages, maintaining a thoughtful and exacting approach to the music. Grieg was inspired by Schumann in the composition of this three-movement work, and the music well reflects the luxurious orchestral writing and keyboard virtuosity of the late Romantics of northern Europe and Russia. Mr. Fishman executed light playing of the opening passages and found the playfulness of the second theme, with both drama and delicacy in the cadenza which closed the first movement.

Mr. Pratt wisely allowed the piano soloist to dictate some of the pacing of the concerto, and built the accompanying orchestral swells effectively. The University Orchestra showed itself in strong form throughout the concerto, from a lyrical sectional cello melody in the first movement to the majestic and lush third movement. Within the orchestra, elegant instrumental solos were provided by flutist Marcelo Rochabrun and hornist Bryan Jacobowitz.

A different kind of concerto style was heard from Jonathan Russell’s Concerto for Bass Clarinet, performed by the orchestra in a world premiere. Mr. Russell, currently a PhD candidate in composition at Princeton, has composed a work which seeks to show a “virtuostically wide range of colors and approaches to the instrument.” In composing this work, Mr. Russell emphasized all the bass clarinet’s unique musical effects, including the instrument’s “altissimo” passages and the use of “throat harmonics,” a technique he describes as “changes in throat position to create buzzy overtones of the fundamental pitch in the manner of a throat singer.”

Mr. Russell began the solo line of his concerto with a single held note, played with minimal vibrato, hauntingly accompanied by strings. The concerto proved to be an appealing work to hear, often with a melancholy reminiscence of Samuel Barber’s orchestral works. Mr. Russell moved easily through all the registers of the instrument, incorporating funk and jazz styles in long melodic lines. The orchestra played a solid rhythmic ostinato, broken by occasional instrumental solos. With an extended cadenza that was more of a meditation than a standard 19th-century cadenza, this work succeeded in introducing the audience to the full capabilities of a unique instrument.

Bracketing these two concerti were sprightly works by Antonin Dvorak and George Gershwin. In the opening work of the program, the University Orchestra brought out well Dvorak’s gift for melody in Carnival Overture, Op. 90, and the augmented percussion section seemed to have the best time in Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. After three lush works, Gershwin’s one-movement Overture was as fun as it should have been, with maracas, bongos, a gourd, and claves spicing up the rhythm. This piece seemed to be a concerto for Cuban instruments, and Mr. Pratt and the players took a sufficiently saucy approach to close the concert in high spirits.

MAYBE WE WERE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER: Former high school sweethearts, Dawson Cole (James Marsden, right) and Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan) find themselves attracted to each other again when they reunite at an old friends funeral in their hometown. Will Dawson and Amanda get together as adults, or is this attraction for each other only a passing fancy. To find out, see the movie.(Photo by Peter Iovino - © 2014 Best of Me Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved)

MAYBE WE WERE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER: Former high school sweethearts, Dawson Cole (James Marsden, right) and Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan) find themselves attracted to each other again when they reunite at an old friends funeral in their hometown. Will Dawson and Amanda get together as adults, or is this attraction for each other only a passing fancy. To find out, see the movie. (Photo by Peter Iovino – © 2014 Best of Me Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved)

The true test of a good tearjerker movie is whether or not it moves you to tears. And this movie managed to make me cry in spite of myself.

As this film unfolded, I found myself criticizing its considerable structural flaws; the questionable casting, the farfetched storyline, and one humdinger of a reveal. Nevertheless, as the closing credits rolled, I found myself wiping my eyes, a sure sign that this melodrama had achieved its goal.

Directed by Michael Hoffman (The Last Station), the picture is loosely based on the Nicholas Sparks best seller of the same name published in 2011. Sparks is the author of 18 romance novels, and half of them have been adapted to the big screen, most notably Message in a Bottle and The Notebook, with more in the works.

Set in Oriental, North Carolina, The Best of Me stars James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan as Dawson Cole and Amanda Collier, former high school sweethearts who haven’t seen each other in a couple decades. Strangely, the teenage versions of the same characters are played in a series of flashbacks by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, who don’t look at all like their older versions.

The point of departure is the present, where we learn that Dawson, who never married or attended college, is employed on an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana. He barely survives a deepwater explosion that blows him off a hundred-foot high platform and turns the Gulf of Mexico into a sea of fire. Meanwhile Amanda, who is unhappily married, is living in Baton Rouge where she has stuck it out for 18 years with her abusive alcoholic husband (Sebastian Arcelus) for the sake of their son (Ian Nelson).

Fate brings the two back to their tiny hometown for the funeral of Tuck (Gerald McRaney), a mutual friend who had a posthumous agenda. He named them both in his will with the hope of arranging a reunion of the high school lovers — whom he thought were meant for each other. Sure enough, sparks fly, but will they share more than a brief dalliance?

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, brief profanity, and some drug use. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.


October 15, 2014

book FrannyzooeyHere are two thoughts about the power outage that occurred around 11 p.m. Monday night as I was writing about Princeton’s role in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, a first edition of which is among the featured volumes in the upcoming Friends of the Library Book Sale.

First, it gave me an excuse to get out my little booklight and dive at random into Shakespeare, the same refuge I found when Sandy hit. As the power came on I was reading aloud, with requisite angst, the last lines of Shylock’s Act III rant in The Merchant of Venice: “… loss upon loss! the thief gone with so much, and so much to find the thief; and no satisfaction, no revenge: nor no ill luck stirring but what lights on my shoulders; no sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding.”

Second thought: it could have been worse, if, say, the television had gone dark during the previous night’s NLCS Game 2 after the Giants came back to tie the Cardinals on a wild pitch in the top of the ninth. The outage would have deprived Cardinal fans like myself of the brief stunned transition between dejection and joy as the uncanny Kolten Wong lofts a mighty walk-off home run on the second pitch thrown by Sergio Romo, who looks like he could have been a captain of the guard in Shylock’s Venice.

Baseball, beautiful baseball — it’s October and once again the Cardinals find some magic. What a sight, music to the eyes, the way the crowd in the right field stands seems to rise en masse with the arc of the ball soaring toward them, as if Busch Stadium had turned into a giant concertina being squeezed by a blind street singer with his head in the stars. Then the sight of Kolten Wong hopping and skipping in lunatic glee around the bases to be mobbed by his teammates, who tear off the top of his uniform as if he were a rock star thrown on the mercy of the mosh pit.

Day-to-day following a team with which you feel a lifelong visceral connection, every win gives your spirits a lift and every loss leaves you shaking your head and telling yourself “life goes on.”

Ted Williams in Princeton?

Speaking of baseball, another featured volume at this year’s Book Sale is a first edition of My Turn At Bat, the autobiography of the great Ted Williams, who only played in one World Series. On the unlikely chance that the Splendid Splinter might have found some reason to visit our town with the other celebrities who rode the Dinky to the terminus on University Place, I took a look online and found “Ted Williams connected to Princeton forever …. Called by some the best hitter ever in baseball, he visited Princeton on a regular basis and ended up marrying a Princeton woman.”

I thought the genies of the Net were kidding. Could it be? No, it’s the Princeton in Minnesota, where if you happened to drop in at the Kallas Cafe on the corner of Rum River Drive and First Street in the 1940s, your chances of seeing The Kid were pretty good. Just don’t ask for his autograph.

The Dinky Connection

Writing about Franny and Zooey on the front page of the Sept. 17, 1961 New York Times Book Review, John Updike begins his recap of “Franny” like this: “In the first story, she arrives by train from a Smith-like college to spend the week-end of the Yale game at what must be Princeton.”

There’s no “must be” about it. Though the evidence may be circumstantial, it can be shown beyond the shadow of a dinky doubt that Salinger had Princeton’s station and its platform in mind when he wrote the opening paragraphs of “Franny,” which first appeared in the Jan. 29, 1955 New Yorker and created a sensation, attracting more mail than any work of fiction in the magazine’s history.

Dinky lovers still smarting from the violation of the terminus have good reason to feel a wistful fondness for the opening pages of Franny and Zooey. Salinger prevails and endures among American writers of the last half of the 20th century because of his ability to make everything he touches matter, illuminating a scene or a moment so that it stands for all such scenes and moments. It’s the same way with Salinger in Central Park. He owns it for the ages. It’s his as soon as Holden Caulfield asks the cab driver about the ducks or watches kids ride the carousel, and when Salinger’s readers go there, they’re in his and Holden’s world, just as they’re in his and Franny’s when they get off the Dinky and alight on the platform — except the platform’s not there any more. Never mind, it will always be there in literature because Salinger will always be read.

His readers are, as they say, legion. Like The Catcher in the Rye (1951) ten years before it, Franny and Zooey went right to the top of the New York Times Best-Seller list and held on for 25 weeks. Readers smitten with Holden Caulfield gravitated to anything new by his creator, and whether you read of her in The New Yorker or in the book, Franny was a charmingly vulnerable, perceptive, and wary-of-phonies incarnation of Holden.

The Princeton Connection

Salinger’s stated admiration for Scott Fitzgerald underscores the Princeton connection in “Franny.” Besides more than once acknowledging Fitzgerald as an influence and an inspiration, Salinger suggests as much in his work when Holden admits he was “crazy about The Great Gatsby. Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me.”

There’s a prototype for Salinger’s Dinky opening in the episode in Fitzgerald’s Princeton novel This Side of Paradise, where a precursor to Franny, the “blithesome Phyllis,” steps “gayly from the train” only to see her boyfriend and a fellow Princeton student on the platform “arrayed to the last dot like the lurid figures on college posters. They had bought flaring suits with huge peg-top trousers and gigantic padded shoulders. On their heads were rakish college hats, pinned up in front and sporting bright orange-and-black bands, while from their celluloid collars blossomed flaming orange ties. They wore black arm-bands with orange ‘P’s,’ and carried canes flying Princeton pennants, the effect completed by socks and peeping handkerchiefs in the same color motifs.”

In Salinger’s version, the platform is the setting for a no less collegiate opening as Princeton students await the arrival of girlfriends or dates. Franny’s English major boyfriend, Lane, is outside the waiting room rereading her latest letter, after which he endures a brief exchange with a classmate who wants to know “what this bastard Rilke was all about,” a reminder that you’re in the domain of the author of one of the most famous first sentences in American literature, with its reference to “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”

The style takes a clear turn in Fitzgerald’s direction when the boys, who have been keeping warm in the waiting room, come out to meet the train, “most of them giving the impression of having at least three lighted cigarettes in each hand.” You don’t have to read far in Gatsby or in Fitzgerald’s best stories or the notebook entries in The Crack-Up to find similarly clever word-pictures. A touch that evokes Fitzgerald’s way of expressing the poetry of Gatsby’s devotion to Daisy Buchanan is in Lane’s intimate relationship with Franny’s “sheared raccoon coat,” the sight of which rouses the thought that he’s the only one on the platform “who really knew Franny’s coat” and could remember “that once, in a borrowed car, after kissing Franny for a half hour or so, he had kissed her coat lapel, as though it were a perfectly desirable, organic extension of the person herself.”

A Station-Platform Kiss

Then there’s the moment when Franny and Lane embrace: “She threw her arms around him and kissed him. It was a station-platform kiss — spontaneous enough to begin with, but rather uninhibited in the follow-through, and with somewhat of a forehead-bumping aspect.”

I have no idea how many station-platform kisses have been described in stories and novels through the ages, but this is the one, the exemplar, the common denominator, the ultimate station-platform kiss that puts the Dinky on the literary map, there for all time as part of the Complete Chronicle of the Glass Family that will reportedly see the light between 2015 and 2020.

The Cool Lima Bean

Three decades ago, in the days when libraries still attached cards with the borrowers’ names to the inside back pages of books, I was looking at a book in the stacks of Firestone Library and did a double take: the name written on the card was Matthew Salinger. Like numerous other readers of Franny and Zooey I’d first seen that name on the dedication page with its reference to “Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean.” It was Salinger’s characteristically playful way of dedicating “this pretty skimpy-looking book” to that “lover of the long shot,” his editor at The New Yorker, William Shawn. Twenty years later Matthew Salinger was a Princeton student. I suppose it could be mere coincidence that his son would end up at the school in the story. Though Matthew didn’t graduate (he transferred to Columbia, earning a degree in art history and drama), you don’t have to be “a lover of the long shot” to figure that he spent plenty of time departing and arriving at the station his father captured for posterity, and isn’t it possible that he’d have been there to meet him on the Dinky at least once?

Finally, in the context of posterity and Salinger and Princeton, the Salinger Mecca for biographers and fans is the archive of manuscripts in the Rare Book and Special Collection department of Firestone Library.


CIRCUMSTANCES SOMETIMES BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER AGAIN: Judge Robert Palmer (Robert Duvall, right) is being defended by his estranged son Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is a successful criminal defense attorney in Chicago. The judge has been arrested for allegedly being involved in a hit and run killing and Hank, who left home several years ago after managing to alienate himself from his father and brother, agrees to defend his father.(© 2014 - Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures)

CIRCUMSTANCES SOMETIMES BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER AGAIN: Judge Robert Palmer (Robert Duvall, right) is being defended by his estranged son Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is a successful criminal defense attorney in Chicago. The judge has been arrested for allegedly being involved in a hit and run killing and Hank, who left home several years ago after managing to alienate himself from his father and brother, agrees to defend his father. (© 2014 – Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures)

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a successful criminal defense attorney with a good reason to hide his humble roots. It seems he was a rebellious child who frequently landed in trouble with the law while growing up in Carlinville, Indiana.

His juvenile delinquency alienated him from his father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), who happened to be the town’s only judge. In addition, Hank managed to permanently estrange himself from his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio). Unfortunately, their other sibling, Dale (Jeremy Palmer), was mentally handicapped, As a result, Hank hadn’t been back home in ages until he received word that his mother (Catherine Cummings) had died.

He had planned to make a perfunctory appearance at the funeral and quickly return to Chicago where he had his hands full. In addition to his busy law practice, he was involved in a custody battle with his estranged wife (Sarah Lancaster) over their young daughter (Emma Tremblay). However, everything changed for Hank when his father, Judge Palmer, was arrested in the hit-and-run killing of a convict (Mark Kiely) whom he had publicly castigated in court before releasing him from police custody.

This shocking development forces Hank to represent his father, and simultaneously allows him to mend a few fences at home. In addition, Hank seduces a woman he meets in a bar (Leighton Meester), who turns out to be the daughter of his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga), and who might be his own love child.

Thus unfolds The Judge, a drama which is half whodunit, half soap opera that pulls a rabbit out of the hat every five minutes or so. Thanks to Robert Duvall, who plays the Palmer family patriarch with a sobering, stone cold gravitas, the film remains rather well grounded.

Also, Robert Downey, Jr. and Billy Bob Thornton turn in inspired performances as the opposing attorneys matching wits in a classic courtroom showdown. Excellent (***½). Rated R for profanity and sexual references. Running time: 141 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

October 8, 2014

rec rev albumThey were rather war-weary during Beatles for Sale. One must remember that they’d been battered like mad throughout ’64, and much of ’63. Success is a wonderful thing, but it is very, very tiring.”

—George Martin

You can see the fatigue on the cover of Beatles for Sale. They look older and wiser. Instead of the Fab Four sitting on top of the world, these guys seem to be feeling the weight of it, as if global adulation were a burden. Put those four somber faces together with that title and the message is more cynical than playful. As the hottest property in the universe, with rigid recording deadlines to meet and exhausting tours to endure, the group is being packaged and sold to the nth degree. Still, they look great. There’s a Bohemian charisma about the cover image. You can imagine they have it in them to surprise the world, but surely not to amaze and even change it, which is what they would accomplish before the decade was over.

Fifty years ago they were in the EMI’s Abbey Road studios recording the album featuring the cover image of four “war-weary” musicians. Perhaps that’s one reason Beatles for Sale was never released in America, at least not until a 1987 CD. A butchered version (minus six songs) was packaged as Beatles ‘65, with a more conventional cover showing the group in various meant-to-be-cute-and-amusing poses. It didn’t matter to me one way or the other since I had them at my fingertips on the radio of the company car I was driving as a college traveler for W.W. Norton. I loved the music, singing along with it as I drove from campus to campus showing off the new Norton Anthologies in a ten-state swath from Alabama to North Dakota. I first heard “Eight Days a Week,” in downtown Memphis, “I Feel Fine,” on the car radio outside Little Rock, “She’s a Woman,” on a jukebox in Kansas City, and “Ticket to Ride” driving through the Badlands, windows down, spring blowing through.

I’d thought that traveling for a publisher would be a profitable way to satisfy my yen for the road, like commissioned vagabondage, but by the end of the first semester I was grinding through a miasma of motels and roadkill, nothing eventful happening until the day I arrived at the Chattanooga Tennessee Holiday Inn. Waiting for me, forwarded by the New York office, was a diseased-looking Indian airletter postmarked Udaipur that seemed to pulse and hum in my hand as I read the message inside, written on a leaky ballpoint by a British friend with a vivid prose style. He was describing a fascinatingly chaotic night journey on Indian Railways and urging me to join him. He concluded with this advisory: “Go with 10 pounds of luggage, 15,000 pounds peace of mind and the balance (say at least 100,000 tons) pure and indifferent love of humanity (a half ounce of tolerance will do here). Otherwise India will bring nothing but misery to you.”

Up to that moment I hadn’t been serious about going to India. I only knew that thanks to an expense account and the fact that each installment of my salary was being directly deposited, come summer I’d have saved enough to live for a year or more on the road. Due in great part to that letter, I turned down a job in the front office and got a ticket on the Queen Elizabeth, where I bunked with a guy from Liverpool who looked like John Lennon and had been exploiting the cult of the British invasion. One word from him in his Liverpool accent and American girls were swooning at his feet.

In Istanbul, after watching A Hard Day’s Night for the sixth time in a moviehouse near Taksim Square, I took an evening ferry across the Bosporus to Asia, caught a ride in a big truck and was on my way.

India Everywhere

There are times when memory blends so fluidly with experience that it becomes possible to imagine India beginning with the Beatles and continuing across Turkey to Tehran, to Kabul, to New Delhi with the Beatles singing “Every Little Thing” and “I’ll Follow the Sun” in a record store listening booth on the great Wheel of the Available called Connaught Circus.

Those two songs from Beatles for Sale rarely show up on lists of favorite Beatles tracks, but they’re in my top 20, if only because they blossomed in India. Paul was 16 when he wrote “I’ll Follow the Sun,” a perfect road song (“One day you’ll look to see I’ve gone, but tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun”) with as sweet a middle eight as anyone this side of Schubert could have composed. McCartney also wrote “Every Little Thing,” which may seem like just another “silly love song,” until you’re hearing John Lennon sing it in India.

Out of Reach

The other day I was thinking how different that year and a half on the other side of the world would have been if today’s communication devices had been available. At the heart of the whole experience was knowing that I was out of reach of my parents and everything to do with the routine reality of home or work life in the States. Looking back, I know a cell phone or iPad would have been good to have during the nine days I spent in a Katmandu fleabag reading The Sound and the Fury and experiencing Dostoevskian fevers as I fought off a mysterious virus. I could have texted my parents, thereby putting them in a panic with phone calls to the embassy for the immediate assistance of a trustworthy, preferably American doctor.

Fate Finds Me

Since my schedule was all over the place, the only way I could get mail was at Poste Restante in one city or another among the rough outline of my route I’d given my parents and friends (and agent). It was in Goa that the long arm of the homeland reached out and, most fatefully, found me. I was about to board an overnight train to Madras when a frantic postal clerk came running after me with a letter from my father in Indiana. I’d just checked for mail at Poste Restante in Panjim one last time and had been informed by this same clerk that nothing was there for Mr Stuart, no letters, it was impossible that anything had come. One of the unreal realities of the Indian experience lived in the gulf between the Possible and the Impossible. Now here was the postal clerk defying the impossible as he chased me down to personally deliver a message he assumed must be of supreme importance.

And he was right. Inside the envelope instead of the expected letter from my father was one to me at my home address from a girl I’d met in California some years before. My father’s note said “I enclose a letter from What’s-her-name in San Francisco.” That forwarded letter began the lively correspondence that led to a meeting the following summer in Venice, which led to an October 8 marriage to Miss “What’s-her-name.”

rec rev bookNarayan Meets the Beatles

This past week, besides listening numerous times to “Every Little Thing,” “I’ll Follow the Sun,” and the other Lennon-McCartney songs on Beatles for Sale, I’ve been reading stories by the Indian writer R.K. Narayan, who creates characters not unlike the noble postal clerk in Goa who went out of his way for me that day. Reading Narayan and listening to the Beatles is like drinking good strong Indian chai in earthenware cups and eating scones with jam and clotted cream. Which is to say they are not mutually exclusive activities. Like the music of the Beatles, Narayan’s stories make you smile, lift your spirits, engage your sense of wonder, enrich your life, and infect you with a touch of the wanderlust.

The love-is-tough and life-is-hard songs on Beatles for Sale — such as “I’m a Loser,” “No Reply,” “Baby’s In Black,” “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” “What You’re Doing” — have equivalents in the stories of Narayan. One way or the other, every one of those songs is about thwarted love and embattled relationships, whether you’re a loser (“Of all the love I have won or have lost/There is one love I should never have crossed”) or your girl friend is cheating on you in “No Reply” (“I saw the lie, I saw the lie”), or if she’s left the party with someone else (“I wonder what went wrong, I’ve waited far too long, I think I’ll take a walk and look for her”).

Versions of these possibilities are in play in Narayan’s “The Shelter,” which begins with a man taking cover from a sudden heavy rain by ducking under a banyan tree. Soon he becomes aware of another person, oops, it’s his estranged wife. There they are, stuck together while the rain pours as only rain can in south India. The man tries to make conversation. He’s feeling awkward and she’s giving him nothing. As he natters on about rain and umbrellas and the coincidence of their meeting, she ignores him.

Married couples, especially those celebrating four decades or more together, will nod knowingly to read that Narayan’s couple “had had several crises in their years of married life. Every other hour they expressed differing views on everything under the sun …. Anything led to a breach between the partners for a number of days, to be followed by a reconciliation and an excessive friendliness.” Now that “the good rain” has “brought them together,” the man makes courtly overtures, and expects her to “be touched by his solicitude,” but she’s having none of it. He says he’s sorry, claims to be a changed man, tries to find out where she’s living, and finally says of the rain, “We have got to face it together,” to which she says “Not necessarily” and dashes off, disappearing into the downpour. Narayan’s hapless husband calls out to her, but it’s no use. Will he chase after her? Probably not. Of course if you’re sufficiently lucky or resilient or devoted, you’ll stay under the banyan tree, facing the rain together.


“LOW TIDE, VINALHAVEN:” This 28 x 23 inch acrylic painting by local artist Charles McVicker will be on display at the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) alongside work by members of the Princeton Artists Alliance, the group which Mr. McVicker founded with several other local artists 25 years ago. The ACP show features 21 artists and opens Saturday October 11, with an public reception from 3 to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 924-8777, or visit:

“LOW TIDE, VINALHAVEN:” This 28 x 23 inch acrylic painting by local artist Charles McVicker will be on display at the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) alongside work by members of the Princeton Artists Alliance, the group which Mr. McVicker founded with several other local artists 25 years ago. The ACP show features 21 artists and opens Saturday October 11, with an public reception from 3 to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 924-8777, or visit:

It’s been 25 years since the accomplished local painter Charles McVicker reached out to fellow Princeton artists to form The Princeton Artists Alliance (PAA). An exhibition in celebration of the group opens at the Arts Council of Princeton with a reception this Saturday, October 11, from 3 to 5 p.m.

Inspired by Impressionist painters who had met in Parisian cafes and legendary discussions by Abstract Expressionists at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village, Mr. McVicker got together with Margaret Kennard Johnson, Marie Sturken, Jane Eccles, and Joanne Scott. They each made a list of artists they thought might form an interesting salon; 20 was thought to be about right number, and the artists invited to join were charmed by the idea. The aim was to enrich the Princeton art community with talks, open studios, demonstrations, and exhibitions. To this day, the group has maintained its manageable size and its goal of enriching Princeton’s art scene.

Today, as 25 years ago, its members are painters, sculptors, printmakers, and photographers; some recognized nationally, some internationally.

Recalling the group’s beginnings, Mr. McVicker remembers monthly meetings and exhibits wherever an empty space could be found, in empty stores, model homes, and corporate galleries. “Each artist showed their best work, and the art was diverse,” he said in a statement of PAA history. “At some point it was suggested that we have a ‘theme’ for our next show. Robert Fagles of Princeton University, had just released his highly-regarded translation of Homer’s Odyssey and we liked the idea of using this story as a basis for an exhibition.”

Not surprisingly, the exhibition was recommended viewing for a number of college literature classes. After being shown in a corporate gallery, it went on to the Newark Museum, two college galleries, and a cultural foundation in New York City. After such initial success, PAA produced more themed exhibitions, including several focused on the New Jersey landscape and the need to protect it. PAA members have produced work on the Trenton Marsh and the Pine Barrens, a show which ran at The Noyes Museum. Recently, they have presented work that draws attention to the havoc of Superstorm Sandy and global warming at the D&R Greenway Land Trust. Several years ago, they collaborated with poets for a show at the State Museum in Trenton. And this fall, they will feature in another, “America Through Artists’ Eyes,” curated by Margaret O’Reilly.

Over the years, the group has renewed itself as members have left and been replaced. “But,” said Mr. McVicker, “the dedication of the Alliance to high quality shows and the enrichment of the Princeton art community and beyond has never waned. Like the Impressionists, life-long friendships have been made and the cross-pollination of ideas holds the group together, and benefits the community as well.”

“Little did I realize that joining PAA in 2000 would become a turning point in my work,” said Shellie Jacobson, an award-winning ceramicist, book-maker and teacher. “Not only have I grown more confident as an artist, but over time my focus became stronger and my work more mature as we offer each other suggestions and lend support through our common struggles and accomplishments as artists.” Ms. Jacobson’s artists’ books are part of the permanent collection of the Newark Museum and the Ben Shahn Gallery and she has exhibited in Korea, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Greece. For more of her work, visit:

Alongside such newer members, Mr. McVicker, Ms. Kennard Johnson and others of the original 20-member group, including Marie Sturken, Joanne Augustine, Anita Benarde, and Lucy Graves McVicker, continue as vital members of PAA. Ms. Eccles and Ms. Scott have since moved from Princeton.

Mr. McVicker (, former president of the Garden State Watercolor Society and the Society of Illustrators, is a retired professor of art at The College of New Jersey. His work has garnered many top awards at regional and national juried shows and has been featured in The Artist’s Magazine and International Artist Magazine. His paintings are in the permanent collections of the U.S. Capitol, Princeton University, Dupont and Johnson & Johnson, among others.

Margaret Kennard Johnson ( studied with Joseph Albers and taught studio art at the Museum of Modern Art for23 years. Her work is in the collections of the British Museum, The U.S. Library of Congress, and the Tochigi Museum in Japan. The art of Japan, where she lived for eight years, remains a primary influence on her work.

Paper- and print-maker Marie Sturken ( works out of the Dieu Donne Paper Mill in New York City, where she enjoys the “low-tech aspect of making paper by hand, of natural fibers.” Her primary focus of late is to embed a wide variety of materials into the pulp: fabric, yarn, and printed words. Her work is included in public and corporate collections including the New Jersey State Museum, Johnson and Johnson, and the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro.

Joanne Augustine ( has a passion for “flowers and beautiful weeds,” and tries to capture their essence in her work. “I find them a spiritual resource, putting me in touch with my own intuition and reverence for nature,” she has said. “As a metaphor for our own lives, they challenge us to remember that we, too, exist on borrowed time.”

Mixed media artist Anita Benarde ( is also a paper- and print-maker. She has published illustrated books for children, including The Pumpkin Smasher, which is part of the Children’s Rare Book Collection at Princeton University’s Firestone Library.

Work by Lucy Graves McVicker ( has been shown in national and state-wide exhibitions and competitions and has received numerous awards, including a Gold Medal from the Audubon National juried show in New York. It has featured in exhibitions at Rider University, Lambertville’s Coryell Gallery, and Kean University, and included in private and public collections like Johnson and Johnson, DuPont Corporation, Capital Health System, Princeton University, AtlantiCare, the University Medical Center at Princeton, and the New Jersey State Council of the Arts.

Arts Council Show

The Arts Council of Princeton will showcase the work of 21 PAA artists. In addition to the above mentioned, the show features works by the late Nancy Lee Kern, combining the artist’s love of nature and color. The other artists are: Hetty Baiz, (, whose large-scale mixed-media images of animals were the centerpiece of last year’s Woodrow Wilson School exhibition “NonHuman Animals: Eat, Test, Love;” painter, mixed media artist, and poet, Joy Barth (; the English-born Zenna Broomer (, currently exploring printmaking to visualize abstraction in the urban landscape, and incorporating steel, copper and metal shavings into her work; Jennifer Cadoff (, a signature member of the Philadelphia Watercolor Society; Rajie Cook (, who creates three-dimensional sculptural assemblages; photographers Clem Fiori ( and Thomas Francisco (www.thomasfranciscopho; landscape painter Carol Hanson; Harry I. Naar (, director of the art gallery at Rider University; sculptors James Perry ( and Richard Sanders (; Madelaine Shellaby (; and watercolorist Barbara Watts.

The Arts Council of Princeton will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Princeton Artists Alliance with an exhibition of work from Saturday, October 11 through Wednesday, November 26. Related events include gallery talks on Saturdays, October 25, November 8, and November 22, from 2 to 3 p.m.; and a panel discussion, Saturday, November 1, from 2 to 3 p.m.

The Arts Council of Princeton is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 924-8777, or visit:


DOTTING THE T’S AND CROSSING THE I’S: Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) carefully checks his facts during the course of gathering information to be used in his inflammatory esposé of the Central Intelligence Agency’s dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras. Webb’s story “Dark Alliance” was published in the San Jose Mercury News, in a series of articles in 1996. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, © 2013, Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved)

DOTTING THE T’S AND CROSSING THE I’S: Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) carefully checks his facts during the course of gathering information to be used in his inflammatory esposé of the Central Intelligence Agency’s dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras. Webb’s story “Dark Alliance” was published in the San Jose Mercury News, in a series of articles in 1996.
(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, © 2013, Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved)

In August of 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published an exposé detailing how the Central Intelligence Agency had orchestrated the importation of crack cocaine from Nicaragua and its distribution in the black community of South Central Los Angeles. Entitled “Dark Alliance,” the series of stories were written by Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), an investigative journalist who had risked life and limb to obtain and release the incendiary information.

For example, while conducting his research, he had been asked by a CIA operative who was trying to intimidate him “Do you have a family?” The spy agency was determined to suppress any facts that might shed light on its covert dealings with the Contras, the rebels who were attempting to topple the government of Nicaragua.

But Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, would not be intimidated and he completed the piece. And even though he had supported his allegations with declassified documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, the CIA secretly enlisted the assistance of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times to discredit him.

These prominent papers discredited the notion that the CIA was behind the dissemination of crack in the inner-city. Nevertheless, Dark Alliance became the biggest story of the year, especially among African-Americans, many of whom surfed the internet in order to read the damning report.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (Dem-Calif.) took to the House floor warning that “Somebody’s going to have to pay for what they have done to my people.” Yet, the revelations seemed to take the greatest toll on Gary Webb, who lost his good name, his job, his career, his home, and even his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt).

This shameful chapter in American history is the subject of Kill the Messenger, a sobering biopic directed by Michael Cuesta and starring Jeremy Renner. The film features a cast that includes Ray Liotta, Barry Pepper, Tim Blake Nelson, Andy Garcia, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Robert Patrick, and Paz Vega.

However, this riveting thriller is Renner’s movie, and the two time Academy Award-nominee (The Hurt Locker and The Town) delivers another Oscar-quality performance as a family man and respected writer who slowly becomes a paranoid soul haunted by demons and hunted by Machiavellian mercenaries.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and drug use. Running time: 112 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.


October 1, 2014

book stevensI thought on the train how utterly we have forsaken the Earth, in the sense of excluding it from our thoughts. There are but few who consider its physical hugeness, its rough enormity. It is still a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes & barrens & wilds. It still dwarfs & terrifies & crushes. The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter. Man is an affair of cities. His gardens & orchards & fields are mere scrapings. Somehow, however, he has managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows. But the giant is there, nevertheless.

Wallace Stevens, April 18, 1904

The poet, who turned 25 on October 2 of the same year, had these thoughts on his way back to New York City after a 42-mile walk from Manhattan to Fort Montgomery, “just failing of West Point.” He walked from seven in the morning until half-past six at night “without stopping longer than a minute or two at a time,” noting “How clean & precise the lines of the world are early in the morning! The light is perfect — absolute — one sees the bark of the trees high up on the hills, the seams of rocks, the color & compass of things.” After observing that “seven is the hour for birds, as well as for dogs and the sun,” he writes, “God! What a thing blue is! It is one of the few things left that bring tears to my eyes (or almost). It pulls at the heart with an irresistible sadness.”

That Stevens’s birthday is this Thursday coincides well with a column written in the wake of the Climate March and the Climate Summit at the U.N. One way to set the crowd cheering at a rally about global warming would be for a charismatic reader to celebrate “the color & compass of things” expressed in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

Given his fascinating, perverse, and outré world of verse, where “man is the intelligence of his soil,/The sovereign ghost … the Socrates/Of snails, musician of pears,” Stevens never seemed the companionable sort of poet you could put in your pocket and wander in the country with the way you might with, say, Keats and Coleridge. You could see him as E.M. Forster did C.P. Cavafy, standing “at a slight angle to the universe,” but if you read the notebook entries recording epic treks over the Palisades and the Poconos in his mid-20s, you find yourself following someone who strides through the universe in seven-league boots and is still going strong at 63, “like a man/In the body of a violent beast.” The poem, “Poetry Is a Destructive Force,” from Parts of a World (1942), ends as “The lion sleeps in the sun./Its nose is on its paws./It can kill a man.” In “A Weak Mind in the Mountains,” the poet imagines: “Yet there was a man within me/Could have risen to the clouds,/Could have touched these winds,/Bent and broken them down,/Could have stood up sharply in the sky.”

The Old Clothes Man

The hulking 24-year-old who wrote of the earth that “dwarfs & terrifies & crushes” is someone you’d definitely make way for if you were in his path. Here he is February 1906, on his way “to Morristown and back” (meaning he walked from Manhattan and back, about 26 miles): “Yesterday I was in my element — alone on an up-and-downish road, in old clothes, quick with the wind and the cold …. Old clothes men are indescribable impostors and boors — yet I am one of them! … My brain was like so much cold pudding. First, I loathed every man that I met, and wanted to get away, as if I were some wild beast.” What does he find to admire? “A bird on a telephone wire that seemed to enjoy the raking. Good old fellow! … What I did enjoy was the tear on my body — the beat of the blood all over me.”

Later in the same entry, he admits, “I can’t make head or tail of Life. Love is a fine thing. Art is a fine thing. Nature is a fine thing, but the average human mind and spirit are confusing beyond measure …. What a bore to have to think all these things over, like a German student, or a French poet, or an English socialist! It would be much nicer to have things definite — both human and divine. One wants to be decent and to know the reason why. I think I’d enjoy being an executioner, or a Russian policeman.”

He closes that dizzying soliloquy by wondering: “May it be that I am only a New Jersey Epicurean?”

Out of the old clothes man’s mind — Stevens in a nut-shell, like Hamlet: “O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell and count myself king of infinite space” — come works like “The Poems of Our Climate,” “The Comedian as the Letter C,” “Of Hartford in a Purple Light,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” where “The trees around are for you,/The whole of the wideness of night is for you,/A self that touches all edges,” a “self that fills the four corners of night.”

Stevens in the Barracks

A case for a companionable Stevens is made by Anatole Broyard in the Sunday, September 12, 1982, New York Times, where he recalls being “a rookie soldier” in an Army camp, “a barren and featureless place filled with strangers.” At times when “the world was too little with me …. I would go to my footlocker for the poems of Stevens.” While other men in the barracks had brought with them something from civilian life to prove “to the others, or to themselves, who they were or had been,” Broyard brought four volumes of Stevens’s poems: “He had a line for everything that was happening to me. When I looked at the sky, it ‘cried out a literate despair.’ The life I led in the Army was ‘a revolution of things colliding.’ I had no doubt that ‘these days of disinheritance, we feast on human heads.’ I saw myself caught ‘in the glares of this present, this science, this unrecognized, this outpost, this douce, this dumb, this dead.’ We were not allowed off the post during basic training, and Stevens was my favorite means of escape.”

Quoting Frank Kermode on “The Comedian as the Letter C’’ (“a sustained nightmare of unexpected diction”), Broyard says “Nothing could have suited me better, because the talk in my barracks was a sustained nightmare of expected diction.”

Boxing With Hemingway 

One odd example of “unexpected diction” in the Holly Stevens’s edition of her father’s letters (Knopf 1966) is his reply in July 1941 to a friend on the Princeton faculty who was looking for someone to lead a lecture series on “actuality.” After discussing several more conventional possibilities, Stevens recommends Ernest Hemingway. “Most people don’t think of Hemingway as a poet,” he explains, “but obviously he is a poet and I should say, offhand, the most significant of living poets so far as the subject of EXTRAORDINARY ACTUALITY is concerned.” Stevens, who more than once puts the words in capital letters, goes on to speculate on the fee Hemingway might require. “My guess is that … if he understood that Princeton was merely a place to speak on the subject and that his audience was to be merely a group of young men exactly like himself, interested in the same thing, he would come for, say, $500.”

It feels like entering a Stevens poem simply to imagine Hemingway, who as far as I know never gave a lecture in his life, presenting one on the subject of “extraordinary actuality” to a Princeton University audience, never mind the fee. The elephant in the room of the Hemingway-Stevens story, such as it is, concerns the incident five years earlier when the two men fought it out on a street in Key West. Stevens broke his hand on Hemingway’s jaw after which Hemingway knocked him down, more than once. The insurance executive was 20 years older, and, one would assume, less fit than the sportsman/novelist. Hemingway boasted about it, even giving his opponent’s dimensions, 6’2, 220 pounds, as if Stevens were a lion he’d brought down in the wild. The way Hemingway tells it in a letter, Stevens had said unpleasant things about him to his sister and had come looking for a fight at the same moment Hemingway was on his way to start one. The most curious detail is that Hemingway was wearing glasses and Stevens did not make his move until Hemingway took them off. Perhaps Stevens, like his younger, “old-clothes-man” self, was in a “loathing every man” mind-set when Hemingway walked into his path.


It seems likely that Stevens’s inclination for the unexpected was nurtured during those compulsive perambulations of his youth. In a New York Times interview with Lewis Nichols the year before he died, Stevens says, “I just write poetry when I feel like it. I write best when I can concentrate, and do that best while walking. Any number of poems have been written on the way from the house to the office.” But with a force as stately and surreal as Stevens, a mere house and office are not worthy. “Setting out on Stevens for the first time,” Randall Jarrell wrote, “would be like setting out to be an explorer of Earth.”

In his essay, “Imagination as Value,” Stevens observes that while the world may be “lost to the poet … it is not lost to the imagination … because, for one thing, the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written.”

I found the notebook accounts of Stevens’s rambles in Souvenirs and Prophecies, The Young Wallace Stevens, edited, again, by Holly, whose nature-rooted name will come as no surprise if you read in and about her father.

INSIGHT FOR SORE EYES: Offering a strange if grotesque beauty, the above ground power and telephone lines at the intersection of Lover’s Lane and Mercer Street in Princeton are a sight that most of us take for granted. Photographer Alan Chimacoff hopes to change that and prompt those who view his work on display at the Princeton Public Library into a discussion that would see all such wires moved underground by the year 2020. Mr. Chimacoff will discuss his view at the library Thursday evening at 7 p.m. in the Community Room.(Image courtesy of the artist)

INSIGHT FOR SORE EYES: Offering a strange if grotesque beauty, the above ground power and telephone lines at the intersection of Lover’s Lane and Mercer Street in Princeton are a sight that most of us take for granted. Photographer Alan Chimacoff hopes to change that and prompt those who view his work on display at the Princeton Public Library into a discussion that would see all such wires moved underground by the year 2020. Mr. Chimacoff will discuss his view at the library Thursday evening at 7 p.m. in the Community Room. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Who hasn’t looked with sadness, even horror, at some roadside tree misshapen by utility companies into a v-shaped caricature of its former self. Perhaps you might have wondered about the purpose and value of such prunings and whether they really do the job of protecting power and telephone lines from storms that are sure to come. Ridgeview Road resident Alan Chimacoff certainly has. One such sight spurred to action the photographer/architect who came to Princeton in 1973 to teach in the School of Architecture. A series of his photographs are currently on display on the second floor of the Princeton Public Library.

Mr. Chimacoff will put his argument for putting utility wires underground before a Princeton audience on Thursday, October 2, at 7 p.m. when he speaks in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library (PPL).

The photographer makes his case with visual eloquence in the exhibition of 25 images that comprise “Princeton Underground 2020,” which will be on display through January 4, 2015.

His eye-catching images of complex systems of wires and pockmarked wood utility poles against sky and tangled tree limbs manifest his belief that Princeton “needs to put utility wiring underground in order to avoid continual power outages.” He’d like to see an end to telephone poles overloaded with wires, cables, splice boxes, light fixtures, cell booster boxes, and the rest.

Mr. Chimacoff’s one-man crusade against above-ground wires began several years ago in response to what he saw as “the wanton destruction and removal of trees” and days without power during storms. His work shows the absurd manner in which problems are “fixed” that simply exacerbate the situation. After taking numerous photographs, he approached PPL Director Leslie Burger and the current exhibition, curated by the Arts Council of Princeton’s Maria Evans, is the result.

The display highlights what most people drive past each day, without remark, having become used to the “mess” that results from the decisions of engineers who are “totally unregulated and totally uneducated about the way things ought to look,” said Mr. Chimacoff, who has received much comment in response to the exhibition. “It’s been gratifying to know that people look at these and see great photographs, and that is most meaningful to me since my photographs are generally neither topical nor political but rather have high artistic aspirations.” If the artist has his way, however, the subject of his art might disappear.

The exhibition’s title conveys not only conveys Mr. Chimacoff’s call for change to be accomplished by the year 2020, “it’s also a play on the numbers used to describe perfect vision, in this case hindsight and foresight,” he said, in an email interview Monday.

With one or two exceptions showing scenes in neighboring towns such as Lawrenceville and Hopewell, all of the photographs were taken in Princeton.

According to the photographer, it is inevitable that “storms with big winds, big rains and big snows will snap and uproot trees, knock down power lines and power poles, and leave us in the dark unless you happen to be in the center of Princeton or on the Princeton University campus, where the utilities are underground.”

“In the late 19th century, the telegraph and telephone revolutionized communication,” he explained. “Single wires strung between series’ of wooden poles enabled the most technologically advanced communication and stood as signs of progress. Today, 150 years later, the same poles are overloaded with literally tons of wires, cables, splice boxes, light fixtures, cell booster boxes, and myriad additional devices.

“Overloaded so heavily and asymmetrically, the poles bend and can break, even without a storm. Many are held upright with steel guy wires to keep them from overturning under their burden. Broken poles often are not replaced but reinforced with a second pole lashed to the first with yellow plastic rope — a caricature of a broken clipper ship mast (also of the 19th century) repaired in a storm at sea,” he said.

Putting all of the wiring underground would eliminate regular power outages as well as the cost of importing tech crews and tree crews from around the country, and the costs of restoration and repairs that continue year after year. While acknowledging that such change would be costly, Mr. Chimacoff questions whether we can afford not to do it. “Can everyone afford the cost of auxiliary power generators for their homes?”

The images on display at the library are a small fraction of the thousands of similar grotesqueries that can be seen in and around Princeton, said the photographer/architect who has taught at Princeton University as well as at Cornell University, Syracuse University, and the University of Maryland. In 1986, he joined Hillier Architecture as director of design. He left the Princeton faculty 1988 and is now principal of his own firm ikon.5 architects.

His previous solo exhibitions include JAMuse at Cornell University Johnson Art Museum, in Ithaca, N.Y., last year and and the Architects Gallery in Los Angeles, also last year. He’s shown at Princeton’s Art Times Two Gallery and at the Gensler New York, Architects Gallery, and is featured in the permanent collections at Cornell University Johnson Museum of Art, Princeton University, and in the homes of numerous private collectors.

His extensive list of accomplishments includes state and national design awards; national and international publications of buildings and writing; and a number of winning design competitions. He lectures broadly across the country.

For more on Mr. Chimacoff’s work, visit:

MASTER CLASS: Mark Rothko (John Fairchild, on left) uses his assistant Dan (Ryan Gedrich) as student, sounding board, and lackey, as the two clash frequently while creating Rothko’s massive paintings, in Theatre Intime’s production of John Logan’s “Red” (2009) at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 4.

MASTER CLASS: Mark Rothko (John Fairchild, on left) uses his assistant Dan (Ryan Gedrich) as student, sounding board, and lackey, as the two clash frequently while creating Rothko’s massive paintings, in Theatre Intime’s production of John Logan’s “Red” (2009) at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 4.

In 1958, Mark Rothko, in his mid-50s, vastly successful and in the final years of transition towards abstraction in his painting, undertook one of the most prestigious and lucrative commissions ever offered to an artist. At the behest of architects Phillip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, Rothko began work on his Seagram Murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Rothko created these massive, magnificent canvases, rectangular fields of reds and black, in his old gymnasium studio in the Bowery, New York City.

Intensely serious, brilliant, arrogant, fiercely opinionated, and obsessive, Rothko painted at least 30 of these murals, though only seven were required, but he eventually repudiated the commission, and returned the advance money. The famous Seagram Murals today hang in the Tate Museum in London, the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Japan.

John Logan’s two-character drama Red (2009), originally produced at the Donmar Warehouse in London with Alfred Molina in the role of Rothko, then brought to Broadway the following year, and now through October 4 at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, portrays the artist in his studio over a period of a few months in 1958-59. The play, winner of six Tony Awards, including Best Play, is about the relationship between the artist and his work, and also about the growing, conflict-ridden connection between Rothko and his young assistant. Rothko’s work and increasingly dark aesthetic focused on engaging with and enveloping the viewer, and Mr. Logan’s play also attempts to embrace the audience and explore the relationship between the artistic work and the spectator.

Felicitously scheduled to coincide with an exhibit of abstract expressionist works, including a painting by Rothko, at the Princeton University Art Museum, this production of Red provides, in five scenes without intermission, a rich theoretical discussion of modern art, a master class of sorts, and a glimpse into the world of Rothko’s atelier. Red is also an intriguing human drama and a compelling story of a young artist coming of age through his struggles with the overpowering shadow of his controlling mentor/father figure.

Mr. Logan’s dramatic device here of presenting Rothko and his work through his interactions and dialogue with his young assistant Ken is a rewarding stratagem that both reveals the man and his art and tells a dramatically engaging story — occasionally contrived and not quite historically accurate, but mostly convincing and full of striking truths.

The Theatre Intime Princeton University undergraduate company, under the direction here of junior Oge Ude, has taken on this serious, challenging script, with focus, thoughtful intelligence, creativity and commitment that befit the subject matter and the artist they are portraying.

John Fairchild, as Rothko, making the stretch to portray this domineering icon more than twice his own age, does, unsurprisingly, lack the gravitas of this fearsome artist. The moments when Rothko should be roaring are somewhat toned down here, but Mr. Fairchild succeeds in bringing to life the profound seriousness and passion of the character. Lightly bearded with shaved head and glasses, short-tempered, nervous and full of pent-up energy, he makes this character, in his anger, despair and transcendent intensity, both credible and thoroughly absorbing.

As the new assistant Ken, Ryan Gedrich provides a strong counterpart to the powerful Rothko. From the opening line, Rothko’s “What do you see?” followed by his first diatribe/sermon, Ken listens and, throughout the play, increasingly finds his own voice, develops his own independent character and identity as an artist, despite the overweening dominance of his dogmatic mentor. Mr. Gedrich’s depiction of this young man coming of age, who, as it turns out, has a dark secret of his own, is dynamically interesting and sympathetic, deftly providing the audience with an illuminating perspective on Rothko the man, Rothko the artist and his realm of abstract expressionism. “This is the first time you’ve existed,” Rothko tells Ken after his protégé, for the first time in their mounting Oedipal conflict, challenges Rothko, fights back, and asserts himself. Besides being a counterbalance to the monumental Rothko, Ken also speaks for the new generation of artists — Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and others — whom Rothko sees as threats to his supremacy.

Becoming an integral part of this production between scenes, sometimes on stage and sometimes in the aisles, is a six-person modern dance troupe: Peter Deffeback, Selah Hampton, Kamber Hart, Casey Ivanovich, Tess Marchant and Glenna Yu. Contributing to the abstract expressionism of the style, theme, and subject matter of the rest of the production, the dancers also interact with the paint, and in paint-splattered t-shirts and fiery red light they reflect the tension and movement in the paintings and in the psychological struggles of the drama. Less skilled dancers or a less subtle, sensitive, sophisticated director could make this choreographic addition to the play an intrusion or distraction, but here the dance interludes are both riveting and appropriately complementary to the human drama at center stage.

Original, mostly atonal music by Sam Kaseta is also highly effective in establishing the dark, unsettling tone and mood of the piece. Marissa Applegate’s unit set design, with scenic design by David White and lighting by Alana Jaskir, is realistic, detailed, and believable in creating Rothko’s cluttered gymnasium studio with vivid, specific details: paint cans, brushes, bottles of Scotch, a phonograph and records, stovetop, phone, and, most importantly, large representations of three of Rothko’s canvases in red with black lines. The lighting appropriately remains dim throughout most of the play, as Rothko himself demanded dim lighting in attempting to control the environment in which his work would be seen.

Rothko orders his assistant Ken to read Freud, Jung, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. (The battle in the work of art and in life is always the battle of Greek tragedy, the battle between the order and reason of Apollo and the irrational passion and energy of Dionysus.) The references here to artists, writers, and thinkers are abundant. The 90-minute play, among other things, is certainly a sort of master class for the audience. Rothko’s question, “What do you see?” at both the beginning and end of the play, as he looks at the imaginary fourth-wall painting hanging in front of the audience, is a crucial question for Ken and for us. We too are the work. It is our class, and we too must accept the invitation to become immersed and enlightened in our encounters with the artist’s creation.

Theatre Intime’s production of John Logan’s “Red” will run for one more weekend with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, October 2 and 3, and at 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 4, in the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. For tickets and information call (609) 258-1742 or visit

A 30-year history is an accomplishment, whether in a job, residence, or membership in a club. In the case of The Princeton Singers, a 30-year history has meant growth from a British-focused volunteer chorus to a fully professional vocal ensemble well known in choral circles. With only two conductors in its esteemed history, The Princeton Singers had a lot to celebrate this past weekend.

“The Dream Concert,” the ensemble’s 30th anniversary celebration, musically summarized the programming dreams of the chorus, both past and present. Reaching back to the Edwardian British and Renaissance with which John Bertalot launched the Singers, and looking ahead to the 21st century through music composed by current conductor Steven Sametz, the concert Saturday night at Trinity Church showed that throughout these past 30 years, the emphasis on vocal tuning and precise musicianship has never wavered.

As Mr. Sametz expressed in his opening remarks, conductor John Bertalot dreamed The Princeton Singers into reality, largely through exploring the multi-century English choral tradition. The Singers paid tribute to these origins in their opening selections, C.V. Stanford’s double chorus Coelos Ascendit Hodie, followed by a two 16th and 17th-century works. The augmented chorus of The Princeton Singers, including all alumni who were in attendance, demonstrated a full and rich choral sound in what was a joyful way to start a concert. Monteverdi’s Si ch’io vorrei morire, sung by the Singers alone, presented a sharp and crisp sound as the chorus stood at the foot of Trinity’s chancel. The typically Monteverdian tuning quirks and suspensions came through well, and the women’s sections were especially well tuned, as Mr. Sametz built the tension well toward the end of the jubilant text. The poignant text of Philippe Verdelot’s patriotic Italia mia was performed with smooth homophony, as this mid-16th century piece proved as passionately nationalistic as the more well-known 19th-century works of Verdi.

Mr. Sametz selected several contemporary works for this performance, including one of the classic “dream” choral works — Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine. Musically depicting the little known legend that Da Vinci envisioned flying machines even in the late 15th century, Whitacre wrote a piece in which the singers tell the story through complex harmonies and a clever text well set for voices. Sound effects become part of the fabric, and The Princeton Singers had no trouble shifting gears from Renaissance polyphony to the sharp and decisive tone required by this piece.

The versatility of The Singers was demonstrated multiple times throughout the concert, including in Mr. Sametz’s two compositions programmed for the evening. Three Mystical Choruses set three different texts in three different languages, and The Singers presented each well from three different locations within the chancel. As a composer, Mr. Sametz clearly knows the chorus well, finding especially silky harmonies in the setting of the Shabbat blessing “En kelohenu.” The setting of Kabir’s “Mein to tere paas me” showed a much more sparse vocal color, and the chorus had no trouble with the off-rhythms in the piece. The other work of Mr. Sametz performed, Dante’s Dream, set an extensive passage of Dante Alighieri’s text in a chant-like manner and a vocal effect which was pointillist and full of light. Especially impressive was mezzo-soprano Sage Lutton, who sang a lyrical solo in “Niño de Rosas,” the first of Sametz’s Three Mystical Choruses.

The Princeton Singers has made a reputation presenting multicultural contemporary works, and one of its trademark pieces is Stephen Leek’s Knowee, the story of an Aboriginal figure. In Aboriginal folklore, Knowee wanders the skies looking for her son, and the women of the Singers proved they were all independently strong singers as they wandered through the aisles of Trinity Church, each musically looking for her mythical son. In the same multicultural and complex vein, the arrangement of the Iroquois Peyote Song featured soprano Victoria Jueds in an appealing piece reminiscent of the Eastern European choral style of the 1990s.

It may have been fairly easy to start a choral ensemble in the 1980s, but as the myriad of folded arts organizations in this country will tell, it certainly has not been easy to maintain a performing organization, particularly in these economic times. Thanks to consistently high performance standards and seemingly avoiding the temptation to over-expand, The Princeton Singers has a solid hold on its position in the choral arena as the ensemble enjoys its next decades.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Mild mannered, seemingly innocuous Robert McCall (left) is intrigued by the prostitute Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) whom he comes to know during his late night visits to the diner whenever he has bouts of insomnia. Teri frequents the diner during breaks between her clients, and McCall befriends her. When Teri comes in one night with a black eye, McCall, who is a retired spy, takes it upon himself to punish the person who beat up Teri.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Mild mannered, seemingly innocuous Robert McCall (left) is intrigued by the prostitute Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) whom he comes to know during his late night visits to the diner whenever he has bouts of insomnia. Teri frequents the diner during breaks between her clients, and McCall befriends her. When Teri comes in one night with a black eye, McCall, who is a retired spy, takes it upon himself to punish the person who beat up Teri.

On the surface, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is a pleasant hail fellow well met person. By day, the affable widower works as a sales associate at a hardware superstore where he jokes with co-workers who call him “Pops.” Evenings, he retires to a modest apartment in a working class Boston community, although bouts of insomnia often have him going to a nearby diner to read a book into the wee hours of the morning.

The dingy joint looks a lot like the diner depicted by Edward Hopper in the classic painting Nighthawks. Among the seedy haunt’s habitués is Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teen age prostitute who hangs out there between clients.

Robert takes a personal interest in the troubled teen who is a recent immigrant whose real name is Alina. He soon learns that she’d rather be pursuing a musical career than sleeping with stranger after stranger. Trouble is she’s under the thumb of Slavi (David Meunier), a sadistic pimp who’ll stop at nothing to keep her in check.

A critical moment arrives the night she arrives in the restaurant and hands Robert her new demo tape while trying to hide a black-eye. But he becomes less interested in the CD than in the whereabouts of the person who gave her the shiner.

What neither Teri, nor anybody else knows, is that Robert is a retired spy who has a set of deadly skills that he learned as part of his past job. At this juncture, the mild mannered retiree reluctantly morphs into an anonymous vigilante who doles out street justice on behalf of Teri and other vulnerable crime victims who have no other recourse for justice.

Thus unfolds The Equalizer, a riveting, gruesome adaptation of the popular 1980s TV series. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, this version is actually more reminiscent of Death Wish (1974), because the film’s protagonist behaves more like the brutal avenging angel portrayed on the big screen by Charles Bronson than the television show’s British gentleman.

Considerable credit goes to Oscar winner Mauro Fiore’s (Avatar) captivating cinematography that shows Boston in a way which is somehow both stylish and haunting. Nevertheless, the panoramas only serve as a backdrop for Denzel who is even better here than in his Oscar winning collaboration with Fuqua in Training Day.

Excellent (****). Rated R for graphic violence, sexual references, and pervasive profanity. In English and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 131 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.


September 24, 2014

Book revAmong American writers, my mother favored Scott Fitzgerald, who was born on September 24, 1896, and died December 21, 1940. A hundred years ago this month he was starting his sophomore year at Princeton.

My mother had a small study adjoining my father’s big study, with just room enough for a desk, a chair, and some bookshelves. There were always books around, mostly paperbacks, but the only novel of Fitzgerald’s I remember seeing there was Tender Is the Night, which Scribners first published 80 years ago this spring. The cover of the Bantam paperback caught my adolescent attention because of the woman with the towel draped around everything but her back and legs; the sentence under the title said: “The famous novel of a strong, strange love — and a man who risked destruction.” The man on the cover was looking sideways at the woman, as if he were bored. Outside the window was a painted view meant to be the French Riviera.

“Some day you’ll be old enough to read this,” my mother told me. I figured she meant old enough to comprehend what “strong, strange love” was all about and how a man in such intimate proximity to a half-naked woman could look so bored.

In the Shadow of “Gatsby”

I’ve never really liked Tender Is the Night. Both before and after I was “old enough to read it” I found it scattered, wordy, and full of expendable dialogue, its characters off-putting, as if after all that work, the author himself finally couldn’t find it in his heart to care about them. Reading The Great Gatsby, you know Fitzgerald loves his characters and his creation. My reaction to the later, much longer, more ambitious novel has been somewhat complicated by the fact that there are two versions. In the original 1934 edition, which I first read in the paperback with the sexy cover, the narrative begins on the Riviera in 1925 with a young movie starlet named Rosemary Hoyt. A great deal happens before the novel flashes back to Zurich in 1917 and its true protagonist, Dr. Richard Diver. Pondering the book’s disappointing reception, Fitzgerald began to think that the true beginning was with “the young psychiatrist in Switzerland,” and in 1951, a decade after his death, Scribners published the chronological version of Tender Is the Night “with the author’s revisions” in a single volume with The Great Gatsby and the unfinished Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon. The critic Malcolm Cowley, who introduced and edited the revision, ends by making a case for the superiority of the chronological version.

All this month I’ve been rereading Tender Is the Night and comparing the chronological revision with the original. I also revisited Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” which provided the title, and read around in The Crack-Up, a posthumous collection of Fitzgerald’s essays, correspondence, and notebooks put together by his friend and Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson. Either way, I find a brave, driven, sprawling, fascinatingly flawed work that anyone who loves Fitzgerald and Gatsby should value the same way readers who love Melville and Moby Dick cherish Pierre, both books written in the shadow of their great predecessors. To begin to fathom what Fitzgerald was up against in the nine years it took him to pull together Tender Is the Night, imagine sitting down to write another novel after producing one that T.S. Eliot called “the first step American fiction has taken since Henry James.”

Then there was the timing. The Great Gatsby arrived at the heart of the era it evoked. Tender Is the Night, with its wealthy, neurotic characters partying and sunning themselves in European settings, was not a good fit for 1934. Fitzgerald had become so much the dated emblem of the roaring twenties, the Depression had no place for him. Not that any of it mattered to mainstream reviewers who had been no less clueless about Gatsby, or to a reading public whose response to that “first step” since Henry James was registered in hugely disappointing sales compared to those of Fitzgerald’s Princeton novel, This Side of Paradise (1920).

Clinical vs. Lyrical

In his appendix to the 1951 revision, after describing the various drafts of Tender Is the Night “kept in six big blue cartons” in the Princeton University Library’s Manuscript Room, Malcolm Cowley finds that they “reveal how an author who was not a born novelist, but rather a romantic poet with a gift for social observation, a highly developed critical sense, and a capacity for taking infinite pains, went about the long task of putting his world into a book.”

Chances are that had the novel achieved acclaim and sales worthy of his expectations, Fitzgerald would have resisted tampering with a narrative form resembling the one he employed in Gatsby, where the romantic poet and socially aware novelist sustain a brilliant balance. The opening paragraph of the revision, with “Doctor Richard Diver arriving in Zurich at 26 (“a fine age for a man, indeed the very acme of bachelorhood”), is flatly expository. In the original version, the misbegotten poet is there from the beginning, with the first paragraph’s image of “the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines.” In the second paragraph, poetry and prose coalesce in a sentence worthy of Gatsby: “The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one.” The poet and novelist connect less smoothly in the description of Rosemary, “who had magic in her pink palms and her cheeks lit to a lovely flame, like the thrilling flush of children after their cold baths in the evening. Her fine forehead sloped gently up to where her hair, bordering it like an armorial shield, burst into lovelocks and waves and curlicues of ash blonde and gold. Her eyes were bright, big, clear, wet, and shining, the color of her cheeks was real, breaking close to the surface from the strong young pump of her heart. Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood — she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.”

Though the poet is clearly present in that passage, the stress on “children after their cold baths” and the “strong young pump of her heart” seems more clinical than lyrical. While it could be interpreted as a suggestion of the doctor’s point of view, the description feels like a formal offering, as if the author were a chef spreading a full course of imagery before the reader.

It gets more complicated if you look at Fitzgerald’s presentation of Dick’s beautiful schizophrenic wife Nicole, who is modeled on Scott’s Zelda. In the original version, you see her first from Rosemary’s point of view, “Her face was hard and lovely and pitiful,” a sentence that reads less like the observation of an 18-year-old starlet than a salute to Hemingway. A few chapters later, a touch of Keats enters the cadence of Rosemary’s impression of Nicole’s beauty: “Her face, the face of a saint, a viking Madonna, shone through the faint motes that snowed across the candlelight, drew down its flush from the wine-colored lanterns in the pine. She was still as still.”

“Verduous Glooms”

One of the few reasons to prefer the revised, chronological beginning is that the moment in the novel where poet and novelist seem truly in harmony comes in the fifth chapter of Book I, rather than many pages later in the fifth chapter of Book 2. Given the almost total absence of poetry in the narrative detailing Dick Diver’s descent into ruin and obscurity, however, it might have been more powerful and poignant for the reader to see Nicole at that point not through the eyes of Rosemary but as Dick does in the ecstasy of falling in love, when her “moving childish smile … was like all the lost youth in the world.”

In view of the novel’s long, ugly, aggressively anti-lyrical denouement, where the “strong, strange love” does indeed destroy the man who “risked destruction,” the lyrical summit of Tender Is the Night, its “Ode to a Nightingale” moment where aura and atmosphere take on the glow of Keat’s “high romance,” is in the scene where Dick and Nicole listen to songs together, “as if this were the exact moment when she was coming from a wood into clear moonlight. The unknown yielded her up; Dick wished she had no background, that she was just a girl lost with no address save the night from which she had come.”

When Nicole sings to Dick, “The thin tunes, holding lost times and future hopes in liaison, twisted upon the Valais night. In the lulls of the phonograph a cricket held the scene together with a single note.” After her song, she smiles at him, “making sure that the smile gathered up everything inside her and directed it toward him, making him a profound promise of herself for so little, for the beat of a response, the assurance of a complimentary vibration in him. Minute by minute the sweetness drained down into her out of the willow trees, out of the dark world.”

Fitzgerald’s shading of the scene evokes the mood of the lines from “Ode to a Nightingale” he uses for an epigraph, “Already with thee! tender is the night …. But here there is no light,/Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown/Through verduous glooms and winding mossy ways.”

Fitzgerald Reading

There’s a posting on YouTube of Fitzgerald reading a portion of “Ode to a Nightingale,” which must have been from memory because there are errors and omissions in nearly every line. So deeply felt is the recitation, however, no one hearing it would quibble. From all accounts, Keats’s poetry was already one of Fitzgerald’s guiding lights when he came to Princeton as a freshman in 1913.

Long ago, around the time I was gawking at the lady on the cover of the paperback, my parents and I drove through nighttime Princeton on the last leg of a two-day drive to New York. As we passed the campus gates, my mother said, “This is where Scott Fitzgerald went to school.” When we walked by the Plaza Hotel a few days later, she told me about Scott and Zelda’s notorious drunken swim in the fountain. A serious drinker herself, she thought of Fitzgerald as a compadre, but it wasn’t the darling of the Jazz Age she felt true kinship with, it was the handsome, greying “has been” who died at 44 in Hollywood making notes on next year’s Princeton football team in his copy of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.


The quote about Fitzgerald’s death is based on the account in Andrew Turnbull’s biography.

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: Inspired by the Underground Railroad, this mural can be found behind the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center, where it was completed by artists Will “Kasso” Condry and James “Luv 1” Kelewae on Sunday, September 14. Both artists are members of the S.A.G.E. Coalition. For more information, call (609) 924 8777, or visit

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: Inspired by the Underground Railroad, this mural can be found behind the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center, where it was completed by artists Will “Kasso” Condry and James “Luv 1” Kelewae on Sunday, September 14. Both artists are members of the S.A.G.E. Coalition. For more information, call (609) 924 8777, or visit

It’s not visible from Witherspoon Street, so you’ll have to look behind the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center building to discover the brightly-colored mural that was painted there on Sunday, September 14.

The mural’s clandestine positioning speaks directly to the subject that inspired the artwork. Titled Underground Railroad, the mural commemorates the historic web of routes and safe houses that escaped slaves from the south followed and found refuge in on their harrowing journeys to freedom.

The routes covered thousands of miles and ran through New Jersey. Sections were known as “stations,” and Station A ran through Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. The mural thus serves as a reminder of Princeton’s historical involvement in the Underground Railroad.

“Those viewers who choose to wander in and explore the ‘hidden’ wall will experience the clandestine nature of the Underground Railroad as well as that of contemporary urban art,” said local curator, writer, teacher and photographer Ricardo Barros who conceived of the work.

Completed in one day by Will “Kasso” Condry and James “Luv 1” Kelewae of Trenton’s S.A.G.E. Coalition, the mural also pays homage to the tradition of quilt-making. According to a press release following the event, “the alternating diamond patterns and geometric shapes that can be seen throughout the mural are directly inspired by African-American quilt patterns, bringing to mind their importance in telling the story of the Underground Railroad.”

As members of the S.A.G.E. nonprofit organization formed in 2012 to initiate, plan, and execute inner-city beautification projects, both artists are used to being watched by the public as they work, in this case to the music of OLD SOL, a Trenton-based funk, hip-hop, and soul band. The arts coalition is a diverse group of visual artists, engineers, fabricators, musicians, and teachers who create everything from murals to 3-D models. Kasso and Luv 1 have already created a series of public art projects in Trenton, including a depiction of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Barack Obama. The Gandhi mural generated a strong, positive, public response, and led to the transformation of an abandoned lot into a public urban garden, known as Gandhi’s Garden.

The ACP abstract mural, which took 10 hours to complete, interweaves symbolic images such as lantern, sailboat, sun, moon, and star. The project brings together the art communities of Princeton and Trenton, which is exactly what Mr. Barros, a resident of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood and ACP Exhibition Committee member, had in mind.

“This day will go down in history. Not because of what we painted, but because of the connections that were made and the new bridges that were built,” said Kasso in a recent blog post on the ACP website, where comments and perspectives on the mural can be viewed.

For more on the S.A.G.E. Coalition, visit For more information, visit or call (609) 924-8777.