April 27, 2022

In Shakespeare’s Month: Picturing Emily Mann and Mourning a Friend

By Stuart Mitchner

“….nothing can be lost of the self, of a lifetime of bringing forth selves …”

—C.K. Williams (1937-2015)

April and poetry have been lovers since William Shakespeare accomplished the birth-death rhyme of the ages by entering and leaving the world on the 23rd day of the “cruelest” month. Another poet of the theater born in Shakespeare’s month is the subject of Alexis Greene’s biography Emily Mann: Rebel Artist of the American Theater (Applause $29.95). 

There’s no turning away from the face on the cover of this book. Emily Mann is looking right at you, eye to eye, as if saying, “Get up on the stage. Show me what you’ve got. Transcend yourself. Give me a poem in 10 words. Amaze me! Bring me to tears. Make me laugh. Delight me. Do the impossible, the goal Faulkner set for writers: “Put the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin!”

C.K.’s Warbler

All I can do is offer a touch of the poet who introduced me to Emily Mann in 2007 and whose April 2016 memorial service was the occasion of a more meaningful meeting. In C.K. Williams’s poem “Garden,” which is posted for the world to read in a shady spot on the D&R Greenway’s Poetry Trail, something alights on the poet’s hand and, startled, he instinctively, inadvertently flinches it off only to see “a warbler, gray, black, yellow, in flight already away. / It stopped near me in a shrub, though, and waited, as though unstartled, as though unafraid, / as though to tell me my reflex of fear was no failure, that if I believed I had lost something, / I was wrong, because nothing can be lost, of the self, of a lifetime of bringing forth selves.”

Mothers and Fathers

I began writing this column on April 20, my mother’s 110th birthday. Emily Mann celebrated her 70th birthday this past April 12 and her mother Sylvia’s 100th on April 16. Sylvia died in January 2019, my mother Ann, a two-pack-a-day smoker and heavy drinker, died at 67 a week before Christmas 1978. Both Ann and Sylvia were faculty wives, which means Emily and I were, as she has said of herself, “faculty brats.” Emily’s father Arthur was a history professor who taught at the University of Chicago and died in February 1993; my father Robert was an English professor at Indiana University who died on April 14, 1986.

The Mitchners were WASPs, the Manns were Jews, which led a Catholic girl at a sixth-grade slumber party to tell Emily she’d “burn in hell,” the same thing the Catholic girl across the street told me, age  6, when I disrespected the statue of the Virgin Mary in her front yard. Many years later, in a column on Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, I wrote about the lesson learned when I took the Jewish girl I was in love with to see The Diary of Anne Frank, which brought me an email from Emily Mann saying, “Bless you for this one.” As I pointed out to Emily the other day, “Bless you” was one of my mother’s favorite expressions, penned in big letters on the first piece of writing I ever showed her. 

Pictures of Emily

I warmed up for this piece by listening to “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which strays a bit too close to Faulkner’s Gothic story but works nicely enough with a slight change in the lyric (“There’s loving everywhere and all for you”); “See Emily Play” a psychedelic romp by Pink Floyd, where Emily is “often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow”; and “Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” by Simon and Garfunkel, which is over-the-top-precious lyrically but musically irresistible.

Even so, I found no music equal to three views of Emily in Rebel Artist. The first, a full page photo captioned “Emily Mann on the sidewalks of New York, 1979” is a song in itself, a show stopper. She’s 27, she’s landed in the city, a capital A “here I am, world” arrival, she’s having fun, a director playing at acting as she simultaneously parodies and celebrates the art of the pose, stylish and silly, like a sly toreador stepping smiling out of the path of an imaginary bull. It’s the East Village, Tompkins Square Park, in the days when “punk-rock musicians, visual artists, and theater folk owned the streets.”

The Director in Action

Now flip ahead a hundred pages for a view of the director at work during a 1991 McCarter rehearsal for Betsey Brown, the play she wrote with Ntozake Shange. She’s leaning fiercely forward like a coach hollering commands from the bench, ready to spring into action. She’s only just boarded McCarter’s sinking ship, a pioneer with a mission, the first of her sex, she who was once told by a male adviser that although she was “quite talented” she’d be better off “going into children’s theater.”

Around the time the photograph was taken, Mann was told that she had MS. At first she thought her life was over. When she went to McCarter’s board president and offered to resign, her offer was graciously refused. Not long after she received this vote of confidence, McCarter won the 1994 Tony for Best Regional Theater.

In a March 2019 interview with the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Mann said of the occasion, “I was not having a good day and couldn’t walk, so Jeff Woodward and Liz Fillo said, ‘We will go out with you. We will hold you on either side, your board president and managing director, and support you as you walk.’ Nobody knew. I didn’t even tell my mother. We carried it off. And we started a new tradition! Every year since then, the artistic director comes out with her board president and managing director.”

In Remission

In the third view, Emily’s a newlywed in “a strapless, gold-tinged ball gown,” arm in arm with Gary Mailman at their Princeton wedding, June 4, 2000 (“I danced at my wedding!”). According to a Shakespeare’s birthday email, she’s been in remission for almost 20 years. As she said in the PAW interview, “For six or seven years — before we found which drugs worked in the right combination — I was in and out of a wheelchair. But I never missed a rehearsal. I never missed a day of work.”

Now she’s preparing for a New York workshop on The Pianist, which she’s adapted from Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir on a Broadway commission. She’s also directing it: “I will be in a rehearsal studio for the first time since the pandemic struck, the longest gap since I began in the theater some 50 years ago.”

Greene’s biography ends with an epilogue about The Pianist in which Mann recalls asking herself in the summer of 2017, “Does anyone want to hear about the Holocaust again?” Then came Charlottesville and the neo-Nazi flags. “And I thought, ‘Yeah I should be doing this.’ “ Then came October 2018 and the deadly invasion of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

At The Writer’s House

At the April 11, 2016 memorial for C.K. Williams at The Writer’s House on the Penn campus, the concluding stanza from “Wait,” a poem he addressed to time, was reproduced on a placard handed out at the door. The stanza begins with the poet saying, “Wait, though, wait: I should tell you, too, how happy I am,” this after imagining time as a butcher and realizing that “When I ran / as though for my life, wasn’t I fleeing from you, or for you?” Now time is his beloved: “Please know I love especially you, how every morning you turn over / the languorous earth, for how would she know otherwise to do dawn, / to do dusk, when all she hears from her speech-creatures is ‘Wait!’?”

After 15 readers finish reading 15 Williams poems, there’s a brief silence, followed by the sound of his recorded voice musing on “forgiveness and repair” and “the garments of the mind” in his poem, “Invisible Mending.” By now it’s dark outside, people are standing, mingling, talking, and I can’t find the couple who gave me a ride from Princeton. Just when I’m in danger of feeling sorry for myself, someone calls out my name, and a vaguely familiar woman emerges from the departing crowd. She’s looking right at me, she looks really happy, and she’s looking at me. She says she reads me every week, she says, “Can I hug you?” And suddenly, wonderfully, I’m a writer in the Writer’s House hugging someone saying incredibly nice things, then it all goes by in a whirl, she’s out the door, and someone tells me the someone was Emily Mann.

“Nothing Can Be Lost”

Saturday before last, a week before Shakespeare’s birthday, I lost an old friend (but then “nothing can be lost, of the self, of a lifetime of bringing forth selves”), a poet, a musician, and a wayfarer I met on Myconos in late April 1963. He and I had been corresponding ever since or until the advent of email when we became the equivalent of transatlantic roommates in 2013. So, although he lived in Bristol, U.K., he was there for me in the middle of the night with some music or a thought and I was there for him. Some of our last messages were about Chekhov and the proximity of his birthplace to the ravaged city of Mariupol, which was also the subject of the last poem my friend ever wrote.

In 2004, the first time C.K. Williams and I had coffee at Small World, we talked about his “Elegy for an Artist,” from the 2003 collection, The Singing, I said I found it the most moving poem in the book, he said readers had told him it “helped them mourn.” Now here I am, mourning a friend, and every line of that poem rings so true that I hardly know where to begin. I hope C.K. will forgive me for running his uncharacteristically short lines together: “Surely I know by now that each death demands its own procedures of mourning, but I can’t find those I need even to begin mourning you: so much affectionate accord there was with you, that to imagine being without you is impossibly diminishing.”