TT: The middle of the journey

I return to business as usual in this week’s Wall Street Journal, reviewing the second part of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia and the Broadway transfer of Spring Awakening:

Here’s a how-de-do: “The Coast of Utopia,” Tom Stoppard’s triptych of heavyweight history plays about the 19th-century Russian revolutionaries who struck the match that set the modern world on fire, has become fashionable Manhattan’s must-see show. The second installment, “Shipwreck,” is now alternating in repertory with “Voyage” at Lincoln Center (“Salvage” opens Feb. 15). These plays are the inverse of light entertainment: they’re long, structurally complex and bristling with ideas. Yet the combined weekly box-office gross for “The Coast of Utopia” is right up there alongside “Jersey Boys” and “The Lion King.” As the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste–not even the good kind.


If anything I just said causes you to suspect that “The Coast of Utopia” is the theatrical equivalent of “A Brief History of Time,” that least read of best sellers, let me correct this misapprehension at once: “Voyage” and “Shipwreck” are pure theater, fueled by ideas but propelled by the combined force of high drama and resplendent language. Even if you know nothing of the historical figures on whom Mr. Stoppard’s characters are based, you’ll be pulled irresistibly into the maelstrom of their crowded lives–and riveted by the tale of how their idealism bore bitter fruit….


“Spring Awakening,” the trendiest show of the 2006-07 season, has transferred to Broadway from the Atlantic Theater, slightly revised but otherwise intact. Most of my critical colleagues shrieked with joy when it opened, but I didn’t agree with them in June and don’t after a second viewing: I still think this glammed-up rock ‘n’ roll version of Frank Wedekind’s once-shocking 1891 play about puberty in Wilhelmine Germany is all wrapping and no present….

No free link, so get thee to a newsstand and buy a copy of this morning’s paper, or go thee hence to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you then-and-there access to my review, plus the rest of the Journal‘s weekend arts report, which is (A) extensive and (B) not for rich people only. (If you’re already a subscriber, the column is here.)

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TT: Almanac

“Since certainty is unattainable, entertainment value is the only justification for conversation.”


Tom Stoppard, Undiscovered Country

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TT: Family album

One of my mother’s most treasured heirlooms is a copy of the second edition of Our Baby’s First Seven Years, the “baby book” in which she set down the particulars of my early childhood. I flipped through its yellowed pages yesterday, and as I set out on the longish three-leg trip (two hours by land, two at the airport in St. Louis, three in the sky) from Smalltown, U.S.A., back to New York City, it occurs to me that you might be amused by some of what I found there.


The book itself, which is still in print, is a period piece of no small cultural interest. Originally published in 1928 by the Mothers’ Aid of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital, it’s a sober-sided volume that has been drastically revised several times since the second edition of 1941, whose foreword contains the kind of language no longer spoken in polite company:

A baby’s book should contain a great deal more than a mere record of worldly events affecting the new candidate for citizenship. It should have all the delicate and lovely sentiments attached to the birth and beginnings of life of the new individual, but it should include more than this. It should be a record showing the gradual physical and spiritual development of the body and soul….


A record of all the phenomena which transpire during these years will have a value that grows with time, and increases greatly with the number of babies upon whom such observations are made. For example, a study of 1000 baby books such as this, carefully filled out, will give valuable information in every department of medicine, will guide the teacher, the physical culturists, the eugenist, and the statesman, in their broad efforts to improve the race, as well as the physician in the treatment of the individual case.

Fortunately, my mother never got around to turning her copy of Our Baby’s First Seven Years over to her friendly neighborhood eugenist. Instead, she kept it for me, having filled it to the brim with photographs, relics, and unscientific data inscribed in her neat, round hand.


The first item is a picture of me taken at ten-fifteen on the evening of February 6, 1956, thirty minutes after I was born. I weighed eight pounds and one-and-a-half ounces, and had the same broad nose and full lips that are my most prominent features a half-century later. My period of gestation was “uneventful,” my birth “normal,” my behavior “quiet.” A bill taped into the book reveals that Southeast Missouri Hospital of Cape Girardeau charged my parents $134.27 ($926.20 in today’s dollars) for the privilege of bringing me into the world.


“Beginning at nine months,” my mother wrote a few pages later, “he adores television commercials. Will not move or take his eyes from the screen.” At eleven months I could stand up, and on January 18, 1957, I took my first unaided steps. A year and three days after that I spoke my first complete sentence: “Give me some milk, please.” On the next page, my mother made the following note: “By two years old Terry could say anything.” Later on she recorded an anecdote reminiscent of a scene from Our Town:

Terry was saying his prayers in Nov. 1959. He said, “And God bless Terry Teachout, 308 Powers St., Smalltown, Mo.” I said, “Why do you say all that, Terry?” He said, “I just thought God ought to have my address, too.”

I liked music, too: not only could I sing such simple ditties as “Camptown Races,” “Jesus Loves Me,” and “Jingle Bells,” but my parents had given me a small record player of my own. Then as now, I made the most of it:

Terry listens with concentration to all “serious” music, claps and laughs to gay music. Would listen to records for hours….Listens for an hour or so after nap every day at his insistence of “I’ll hear records, please.”

The printed word followed shortly thereafter. I taught myself to read at three, and within a year I could read “almost anything, all childrens’ books, signs, even newspapers with the exception of difficult proper names.” I was tested upon entering the first grade and was found to be “reading on sixth grade level.”


At this point the entries start to dry up, for my brother was born in 1960 and my parents would be increasingly preoccupied with him. The last handwritten entry in the book is a notation on the “Second Grade” page: “I think Terry did far better socially this year.”


That was the year when John Kennedy was assassinated and the Beatles came to the United States, the earliest events of which I have clear and extensive first-hand memories untainted by retrospective family anecdotage. Before then I can recall only isolated flashes and fragments. Starting in 1963, the veil of unknowing was lifted, and the task of preserving the story of my life passed from my mother to me.

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TT: Almanac

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.


Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.


BROADWAY:

- Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)

- A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

- Company* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter and situations, reviewed here)

- The Drowsy Chaperone (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)

- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)

- The Vertical Hour* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)

- Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, extended through May 12)


OFF BROADWAY:

- The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)

- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)

- Two Trains Running (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 28)

- The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Feb. 10)


CLOSING SOON:

- Slava’s Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Jan. 14)


CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:

- Antigone (play, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Saturday)

- The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Sunday)

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TT: Almanac

“Age is a very high price to pay for maturity.”


Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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TT: Shame, R.I.P.

I’ve been rereading my mother’s battered copy of Advise and Consent, Allen Drury’s 1959 novel about a Senate confirmation hearing and its aftermath. I regret to say that I was more than a little bit snarky about Drury in an essay about Washington novels that I wrote for the New York Times Book Review back in 1995. The occasion for the piece was his last novel, A Thing of State, which wasn’t very good:

Mr. Drury is still up to his familiar tricks: bad guys in the Middle East, bad guys in the White House, bad guys in the Washington press corps (the only thing Mr. Drury hates more than a wimpy politician is a liberal columnist), all simmering gently in a rich stew of adjectives.

That essay riled Drury so much that he sent me a sharply worded letter. It embarrasses me in retrospect, though not because I now believe Advise and Consent to be an unheralded masterpiece. It is, in fact, a quintessential example of the plot-heavy blockbuster novel, massively eventful and heavily laden with characters wearing primary-color hats. So far as I know, next to nobody under the age of fifty has even heard of the book, which has been out of print for years.


On the other hand, just about everyone older than that is likely either to have read Advise and Consent (it was on the best-seller lists for nearly two years) or seen Otto Preminger’s 1962 film version. As Peggy Noonan wrote in What I Saw at the Revolution, her 1990 memoir of the Reagan years, all the baby boomers in the Reagan White House “had read Advise and Consent and at least one other of Allen Drury’s wonderful old novels about Washington. We had read them in the Sixties, when we were young, and they were part of the reason we were here.”


I, too, read Advise and Consent when I was young, and find myself returning to it every few years, not because it’s a great novel, or even a good one, but because it is a hugely entertaining good-bad book that fills me with nostalgia. (Nor am I unique in this regard, as you can see by going here.) I looked up my old essay on Drury and the Washington novel the other day, and found in it an explanation of why this should be so:

Unlike his more recent predecessors, Allen Drury was not a novelist de metier: he started out as a Washington correspondent. And “Advise and Consent,” the story of a confirmation fight that leads to the suicide of a senator, the resignation of a majority leader and the death of a President, is very much a reporter’s novel, full of the inside skinny. Some of Mr. Drury’s senators drink too much and sleep around; some remain in loveless marriages to further their political careers; one, a promising young Mormon from Utah, has a homosexual past. (Tony Kushner, call your office.) Like all clubmen, they mostly like one another and mostly get along, and not infrequently strike private deals that have nothing to do with party politics.


If all this sounds old hat, bear in mind that Mr. Drury was writing long before Politics as Life Style became an obsession of American journalists. When he came along, nobody was covering Washington politicians as personalities, at least not with anything remotely approaching candor. C-Span and the Style section of The Washington Post were far in the future. Yet the appetite for personality journalism about politicians had already been created by radio and television: all that remained was to feed it. Mr. Drury did so with a vengeance, and thereby became rich, famous, and the proud owner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.


“Advise and Consent” also sold because, like all big-selling novels, it told its readers what they wanted to hear. In 1959, Americans were digging fallout shelters and watching Nikita Khrushchev cavort menacingly on TV. They saw the Soviet Union as a concrete threat to their continued existence, and wanted desperately to believe that American politicians, whatever their differences, were collectively up to the task of keeping the Russians on ice. The containment of the Soviet Union is the only ideological issue at stake in “Advise and Consent”: every character is defined by whether or not he is soft on Communism. And though there are villains in Mr. Drury’s Washington, never is it suggested for a moment that every politician is a liar and a thief. In fact, nearly all of his characters seek earnestly to do the right thing: “Just when things seem at their most cynical, something comes along that appeals to idealism and fair play, and the forces of deceit go down before it like tenpins.”


These sentiments were decidedly in vogue in 1959. Never was public faith in government’s capacity to do good as unswerving as in the ask-not-what era, in which the man who won World War II was succeeded by Mr. PT-109….

Ah, youth!


I should add, however, that something else has changed since 1959. Advise and Consent hinges on the suicide of a married senator whose wartime affair with a serviceman is about to be revealed by a political columnist. It isn’t generally known, but this plot element was loosely based on the real-life story of Lester C. Hunt, a Democratic senator from Wyoming who shot himself in his Capitol office in 1954.


Here’s what happened, according to Hunt’s Wikipedia entry:

Hunt was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, taking office on January 3, 1949. During his tenure in the Senate, Hunt became a bitter enemy of Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and his criticism of McCarthy’s anticommunist tactics marked him as a prime target in the 1954 election.


Leading up to the 1954 election, Republicans held a Senate majority of one vote, and pressured Hunt to resign from the Senate. Republican Senator Styles Bridges warned Hunt that unless he withdrew, Wyoming voters would find out about the arrest of Hunt’s twenty-year-old son for soliciting prostitution from a male undercover police officer in Lafayette Square in July 1953. After some vacillation, Hunt announced that he would not seek reelection on June 8, 1954. Eleven days later, he shot himself in his Senate office.

One significant detail is missing from this dry account: Hunt’s son was president of the student body of the Episcopal Theological School of Cambridge. That would have upped the humiliation ante considerably in 1954–but what about now? Can you seriously imagine a senator, or any other public figure, commiting suicide under similar circumstances today? In fact, let’s take it one step further: can you think of any secret so shameful that a contemporary public figure would rather die than face the consequences of its becoming known? I can’t.


Interestingly–if not incidentally–Allen Drury was both a staunch conservative and a lifelong bachelor. So far as I know, he never had anything to say for public consumption on the radical change in American mores that took place between the publication of Advise and Consent and his death in 1998 at the age of eighty. Given the fact that he portrayed Brigham Anderson, the senator who commits suicide in Advise and Consent, as a man of high integrity, I’d venture to guess that his views might have been worth hearing.


I offer in evidence a passage in which Senator Anderson reflects on his marital difficulties:

Searching his heart and mind with complete and unsparing honesty about it now, he knew with absolute certainty that the situation they were in could have happened, and indeed did happen, to many and many a marriage; it had nothing to do with ghosts from the past, though he never denied their importance to his life. He was a good father a good if temporarily troubled husband, a good servant, a good Senator, and a good man; and central to all this, in a way he understood thoroughly in his own nature, was the episode in Honolulu….


For all its pain, and for all that it was not exactly the sort of thing you would want to discuss in Salt Lake City, he did not regret that it had happened. There were things he had to find out about himself; the war, as it did for so many, furnished the crucible, and in it that episode had probably been the single most illuminating episode of all. He could not honestly say he was sorry; his only sorrow was that fate had ended it so hurtfully for them both instead of allowing the war to send them apart again as calmly and simply and inevitably as it had brought them together.

Again, I’m not going to try to tell you that Advise and Consent is any better than it is–but in how many best-selling American novels of the Fifties can you find a passage remotely like that? No doubt somebody will get around to writing a dissertation on it one of these days….

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TT: Almanac

“It’s no trick loving somebody at their best. Love is loving them at their worst.”


Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing

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TT: Crossroads

I lost my mother in Wal-Mart last Friday. This sounds less like a true-life event than the first line of the sort of song you might hear on the radio in Smalltown, U.S.A., but it really happened. I dropped her off at the entrance, and as she closed the car door she said, “I’ll meet you inside.” No sooner had I driven off to find a parking place than it struck me that she hadn’t said where she’d meet me. Since the Smalltown Wal-Mart is roughly the size of a football field or two, I realized that I had a problem on my hands.

I started pushing my way through the hordes of shoppers, searching for a septuagenarian with a shopping cart. I ran into three people who knew me, but none of them had seen my mother. After spending ten minutes vainly wandering up and down the aisles, I gave up, went to the service desk, and had her paged. “EVELYN TEACHOUT, PLEASE MEET YOUR SON AT THE FITTING ROOMS,” the pretty young woman at the counter said into a microphone, her soft voice electronically inflated into a Paul Bunyan-like bellow.

My mother showed up a few minutes later, pushing a cart full of presents and wondering what all the fuss was about. I reminded her of the last time I’d had her paged. It was during a childhood trip to the SEMO District Fair in Cape Girardeau, where I somehow managed to slip away from my parents and strike out on my own. Within minutes I knew I’d made a big mistake, and a sympathetic passer-by escorted me to the security desk, where I identified myself and asked for help. That was more than forty years ago, but my mother still tells the tale with the utmost relish at family gatherings. Now I’ve got one to tell on her.

After I collected my wandering parent, we headed over to the grocery department to pick up a few staples. Suddenly I heard my cell phone ringing. It was my agent, calling from New York to inquire about the progress of our current project.

“Do you know where I am?” I asked him. “I’m standing with my mother in the mayonnaise section of the Smalltown Wal-Mart.”

“Uh, that’s nice,” he replied warily.

I rarely have occasion to take long-distance calls while shopping in Smalltown, and this one reminded me of the feeling of disorientation that comes over me whenever I uproot myself from my hectic life in New York to spend a few days visiting my family. I felt much the same way on Christmas morning as I read this e-mail from a Manhattan friend:

new york is 1963 quiet. traffic is very light, sidewalks walkable and restaurants have a certain solitude. their muffled sound reminded me of the automats of the 1960s, when eating spaces were filled only with the low buzz of conversation and clinking plates rather than blaring iPod mixes and the crush of bellowing suburban laughter. no wonder people could think back then. new york just feels less bombarded by everything this past week, the pace cut in half. stood at a red light and watched a woman across the street buy a christmas tree at about 10 p.m. and wondered why and how presents could get under there in time. or perhaps it was a jaded soul who finally broke down after hearing bing, dino or ella in barnes & noble. it was a relatively small one, slightly larger than she was, and she had to put it down once mid broadway while crossing to re-adjust the weight. almost as if the tree was giving her a hard time for her delay.

I’ve lived in New York for twenty years, but I’ve only spent a single Christmas there. One year when I was working at the Daily News, I drew the short straw and had to put out the Christmas and New Year’s Day editorial pages, meaning that I couldn’t make it home for the holidays. (I went to New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker instead.) Otherwise, I’ve always gone home to Smalltown, and been glad to do so.

Alas, the boisterous Christmas-eve parties of my mother’s extended family are no more, for three of her five siblings have died and most of my cousins moved away from this part of the country long ago. Now my brother, his wife, their daughter, and her boyfriend come to my mother’s house on Christmas morning to eat brunch and open presents. It’s not nearly so noisy a celebration, but it’s still a good one.

I haven’t been keeping up with events in the outside world, but I do know that James Brown
and Daniel Pinkham died. I can’t claim to have been saddened by Brown’s passing–he was never a favorite of mine–though it didn’t escape my notice that he died of congestive heart failure, the same disease that struck me down last year. Pinkham’s music, on the other hand, has always given me great pleasure, especially the Christmas Cantata he composed in 1957. I sang in a performance of that elegant little piece back when I was in college, half a lifetime ago, and I’m listening to it as I write these words on Christmas night, seated at a rickety card table set up in the bedroom in which I slept as a boy.

I sat in this same room a year ago and reflected on the illness that days before had come close to taking my life:

I already knew one thing that was at least as important: whatever the verdict, I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. I have music to hear, plays to review, paintings to see, etchings to buy and treasure, a book to finish writing, a blog to keep, dozens of friends who claim quite convincingly to love me, and many, many memories, a few dark and desperate, far more full of light.

I lived instead of dying, and now I’m back home again, remembering Christmases past and giving humble thanks for the myriad blessings whose sum is my existence. Some are as deceptively small as a ten-minute cantata, others as unimaginably vast as the Missouri sky, but all are subsumed in the haunting words of Alexander Herzen that I quoted
the other day: “Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have.” If Herzen was right, then I am the richest of men.

UPDATE: Here’s a sweet little tribute to Daniel Pinkham from a bass trombonist who has played his Christmas Cantata dozens of times and has yet to grow tired of it.

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TT: Almanac

“The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is.”


Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

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TT: Almanac

“There are many things I know which are not verifiable but nobody can tell me I don’t know them.”


Tom Stoppard, Jumpers

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