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March 30, 2007

TT: The Joan Didion Show

Today's Wall Street Journal column is devoted in its entirety to my review of the new stage version of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. I hated it:

It surprised when Joan Didion published "The Year of Magical Thinking," for I identified her so completely with California in the '60s that I'd almost forgotten she was still alive. Of course she continued to publish--a fat volume of her collected essays came out last fall--but somehow I had come to see her as a figure from the distant past, a chronicler of strange days for which I felt no nostalgia whatsoever. Then her daughter got sick and her husband died of a heart attack and she wrote a best-seller about it, and all at once she was back....

I found it hard to shake off the disquieting sensation that Ms. Didion, for all the obvious sincerity of her grief, was nonetheless functioning partly as a grieving widow and partly as a celebrity journalist who had chosen to treat the death of John Gregory Dunne as yet another piece of grist for her literary mill. All the familiar features of her style, hardened into slick, self-regarding mannerism after years of constant use, were locked into place and running smoothly, and I felt as though I were watching a piece of performance art, or reading a cover story in People: Joan Didion on Grief....

Would that the stage version of "The Year of Magical Thinking" were an improvement on the book, but it isn't. In one way it's much worse, for it starts off with a speech that has all the subtlety of the proverbial blunt object: "This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won't when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That's what I'm here to tell you." Why on earth did David Hare, the stage-savvy director, let Ms. Didion get away with so crude and undramatic a gesture? If the rest of the play doesn't make that point, nothing will.

Nor did Mr. Hare insist that his debutante author (this is Ms. Didion's first play) ram a theatrical spine down the back of her fugitive reflections on death and dying. As a seasoned playwright, he should have known better. "The Year of Magical Thinking" doesn't go anywhere--it just goes and goes, inching from scene to scene, and when Ms. Didion finally gets around to telling us an hour and a half later what she learned from the loss of her husband and daughter, it turns out to be a string of portentously worded platitudes...

To read the rest, buy a copy of today's Journal or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my column, plus the rest of the paper's extensive arts coverage.

UPDATE: The Journal has just posted a free link to this review. To read it, go here.

Posted March 30, 12:11 PM

TT: Almanac

"Concerning Fitzgerald, there is a principle that can't be taught in a creative writing class and is hard enough to teach in the regular English faculty, but it's worth a try: his disaster robbed us of more books as wonderful as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, but we wouldn't have those if he hadn't been like that. Fitzgerald's prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when by his own later standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man."

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia

Posted March 30, 12:09 PM

TT: The uses of second-rate art

In this week's "Sightings" column, which appears in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, I report on a visit I paid to an exhibition of paintings by Vincent van Gogh and his contemporaries, some of whom were influenced by him to the point of outright imitation. What did I learn from the experience? That second-rate art, however derivative, can sometimes teach you as much as first-rate art about the nature of greatness.

To find out more, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal and turn to the "Pursuits" section.

Posted March 30, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Concerning Fitzgerald, there is a principle that can't be taught in a creative writing class and is hard enough to teach in the regular English faculty, but it's worth a try: his disaster robbed us of more books as wonderful as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, but we wouldn't have those if he hadn't been like that. Fitzgerald's prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when by his own later standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man."

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia

Posted March 30, 12:00 PM

March 29, 2007

TT: So you want to see a show?

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)
Salvage (The Coast of Utopia, part 3)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 13)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 12)
Talk Radio (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, 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)
Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes May 12)

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

CLOSING SUNDAY:
Translations* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here)

Posted March 29, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"There is no surer sign of a great writer than when whole books could be made out of his passing remarks."

Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg, Aphorismen (quoted in Clive James, Cultural Amnesia)

Posted March 29, 12:00 PM

March 28, 2007

TT: Still in the barrel

I continue to joust with increasingly urgent deadlines, and for now I feel the need to spend such free time as I have (and there isn't much of it) consuming art instead of writing about it. I will, however, pause to tell you about my recent reading and listening:

• C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which I reread after a very long interval in preparation for reviewing the new stage version of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I saw on Monday night. (Celebrity watch: Ethan Hawke was there.)

• Maurice Duruflé’s exquisite Requiem, to which I hadn’t listened for several years. I’d forgotten (but how?) that it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know. If you need consolation—whatever the reason—you’ll find it here.

Labyrinth and Watercolor, a lovely pair of jazz CDs by Kerry Politzer, my latest enthusiasm.

Blues Stay Away From Me 1931-1951, an imported two-CD anthology of country duets by the Delmore Brothers.

• Carolyn Brown’s important new memoir, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham. I’ll be writing about it at some point, so for now I’ll simply say that if you have any interest in the emergence of avant-garde art in New York after World War II, you need to read this book. Among countless other good things, it’s wonderfully well written.

• An advance copy of Bill Charlap’s new CD, which reminds me to remind you that he’s playing at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room this Friday and Saturday. (Go here for details.) I’ll be at the second set on Friday—look for me.

Now, back to work.

P.S. If you've written to me in the last few days and haven't heard back, try to be patient and forgiving!

Posted March 28, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Rather than reading a book in order to criticize it, I would rather criticize it because I have read it, thus paying attention to the subtle yet profound distinction Schopenhauer made between those who think in order to write and those who write because they have thought."

Miguel de Unamuno, Ensayos (quoted in Clive James, Cultural Amnesia)

Posted March 28, 12:00 PM

OGIC: Writing is hard

And that's why work is still keeping me from my blogging.

Making a film is hard too. But the rewards can be considerable:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Back soon!

Posted March 28, 9:27 AM

March 27, 2007

TT: Under the gun

Am experiencing severe deadline-related problems. Check back with me again tomorrow. Or maybe Wednesday.

Posted March 27, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"We shouldn't call a critic a murderer just because it is his duty to sign death certificates."

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Die Anwalte der Literatur (quoted in Clive James, Cultural Amnesia)

Posted March 27, 12:00 PM

March 26, 2007

TT: Ubiquity

You’ve heard Louis Kaufman play the violin, whether you know it or not—and you probably don't. He was the concertmaster of the studio orchestras that recorded the scores for a startlingly high percentage of the best Hollywood film scores of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. He also played with Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc, made the first recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, bought the first oil painting ever sold by Milton Avery, lived in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, and wrote a lovely autobiography called A Fiddler’s Tale.

Such a life deserves to be celebrated, and I did so in an essay published in Commentary three years ago:

Why, then, is Kaufman all but forgotten? Because he spent his peak years laboring anonymously in the Hollywood studios instead of performing in major American cities. As a result, he failed to win the critical acclaim that a violinist of his quality might reasonably have expected to receive. Virtually all of his commercial recordings (including his historic Four Seasons) were made for small independent labels and have long been out of print. And his adventurous musical tastes drew him away from the standard repertoire that is the bread and butter of every classical-music soloist who hopes to have an international concert career….

Yet if Kaufman was troubled by his failure to become famous, he gives no hint of it in his autobiography, whose charm and verve, like that of Nathan Milstein’s From Russia to the West, are clearly an outward sign of its author’s inner contentment. The epigraph to the fifth chapter of A Fiddler’s Tale comes from the Bhagavad-Gita: “He who really does what he should will obtain what he wants.” Those are the words of a man at ease in his own skin, as was the remark that Kaufman often made to his wife as they prepared for bed: “This was a great day and tomorrow will be fine too.”

The world would be infinitely poorer without such untroubled, unselfconscious craftsmen…

Kaufman died in 1994, but his wife Annette, a fine pianist who accompanied his recitals, is still alive (she sent a letter to Commentary thanking me for writing about her husband). You can hear her on a CD bound into A Fiddler’s Tale that contains recordings by Kaufman of pieces by Robert Russell Bennett, Copland, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Milhaud, Saint-Saëns, William Grant Still, and Vivaldi. In addition, a few of Kaufman’s commercial recordings have been reissued on CD since I wrote about him three years ago, including his splendidly vital, still-listenable 1947 performance of The Four Seasons.

What put Kaufman back into my head? I was reading a press release announcing the latest additions to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, a list of American recordings deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important,” and saw that his Four Seasons recording had been added in 2003:

Louis Kaufman was one of the most recorded violinists of the 20th century with a brilliant career performing both film music and classical music. His 1947 recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons with the Concert Hall Orchestra conducted by Henry Swoboda was the first LP recording of the work that would become one of the most often recorded in the classical repertoire. Kaufman's performance would also play a pivotal role in the revival of Baroque music and interest in performance practice of early music.

This inspired me to reread A Fiddler’s Tale, which I found every bit as delightful the second time around. One of the appendices is a partial list of films on whose soundtracks Kaufman played. Here are some of the highlights:

AARON COPLAND: Our Town, The Heiress, The Red Pony

ADOLPH DEUTSCH: High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon

HUGO FRIEDHOFER: The Best Years of Our Lives

LEIGH HARLINE: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio

BERNARD HERRMANN: The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Magnificent Ambersons, Jane Eyre, Vertigo, Psycho

ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, The Sea Wolf, Kings Row, Between Two Worlds

ALFRED NEWMAN: Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, Captain from Castile

ALEX NORTH: A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus

DAVID RAKSIN: Laura, Forever Amber

MIKLÓS RÓZSA: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Spellbound, Ben-Hur

MAX STEINER: The Informer, Top Hat, Gone With the Wind, Intermezzo, Now, Voyager, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

FRANZ WAXMAN: Rebecca, The Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard

All that and Vivaldi, too! What an admirable man.

Posted March 26, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

“The theater longs to represent the symbols of things, not the things themselves. All the lies it tells—the lie that that young lady is Caesar’s wife; the lie that people can go through life talking in blank verse; the lie that that man just killed that man—all those lies enhance the one truth that is there—the truth that dictated the story, the myth. The theater asks for as many conventions as possible. A convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, an accepted untruth. When the theater pretends to give the real thing in canvas and wood and metal it loses something of the realer thing which is its true business.”

Thornton Wilder, preface to Our Town

Posted March 26, 12:00 PM

March 23, 2007

TT: At low ebb

I reviewed four shows in this morning’s Wall Street Journal drama column: Curtains, Jack Goes Boating, and Propeller's all-male stagings of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. Here’s the rumpus:

I’ve never seen a musical that tried so hard to be likable as “Curtains,” or an audience that tried so hard to like it. Fred Ebb, who wrote most of the lyrics, died unexpectedly in 2004, leaving John Kander and Rupert Holmes to finish the show on their own. Mr. Kander and his longtime partner were one of Broadway’s most admired songwriting teams, and everybody wanted their last musical to be great. Me, too—but it isn’t, though the production and performances are so immaculately professional that you can almost fool yourself into thinking that “Curtains” is something more than an unrisen soufflé….

Propeller, Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare troupe, is back in Brooklyn for the third season in a row, this time performing “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Twelfth Night” in repertory at BAM Harvey. Both productions, played on the simplest of tour-friendly sets, are fast, fresh, funny and full of surprises. “The Taming of the Shrew” is thought-provoking, while “Twelfth Night” shimmers with magic. No matter how much Shakespeare you’ve seen lately, you’ll come home buzzing about the Bard as if you’d just discovered him….

Bob Glaudini’s “Jack Goes Boating” is an embarrassingly unfunny working-class romantic comedy in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays yet another shambling, depressed slacker type, this time a dope-smoking limo driver who’s never had a girlfriend. (No wonder.) Some seem to have found it amusing, but I couldn’t stop looking at my watch, not even when Daphne Rubin-Vega took off her clothes….

No free link. You know what to do, and if you’re smart, you’ll go here to do it. (If you’re already a subscriber to the Online Journal, my column is here.)

Posted March 23, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising."

Pauline Kael (quoted in Newsweek, Dec. 24, 1973)

Posted March 23, 12:00 PM

March 22, 2007

TT: So you want to see a show?

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)
Salvage (The Coast of Utopia, part 3)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 13)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 12)
Talk Radio (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, 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)
Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes May 12)

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

CLOSING SOON:
Translations* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)

CLOSING SUNDAY:
The Madras House (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here)
The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

Posted March 22, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"In Washington, the first thing people tell you is what their job is. In Los Angeles you learn their star sign. In Houston you’re told how rich they are. And in New York they tell you what their rent is."

Simon Hoggart, America: A User’s Guide

Posted March 22, 12:00 PM

March 21, 2007

TT: Disappearing act

I was supposed to go down to Washington today for the spring meeting of the National Council on the Arts, but I've been having trouble licking the bug that laid me low earlier this month, and decided to be sensible and cancel my trip. (If David Letterman can call in sick, so can I!)

Expect the usual theater-related postings and almanac entries, but otherwise I plan to stay out of sight for a few days. See you Monday, presumably.

Posted March 21, 12:00 PM

TT: An apple a day

I’ve written twice in the past few days about The Yale Book of Quotations, both in The Wall Street Journal (no free link) and in my weekly book-review column for Contentions. As you can see from the latter, I mostly like it very much. Yet I can’t help but think that for all the considerable virtues of this particular specimen of the genre, the old-fashioned dictionary of quotations may be an idea whose time has come and gone.

The problem, of course, is that in many ways—though not all—such books are far easier to use once they’re been digitized. I found this out a couple of years ago when I started using the quotation-search feature of bartleby.com, the online reference site that makes it possible to search simultaneously in The Columbia World of Quotations, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, and the 1919 edition of Bartlettt’s Familiar Quotations. None of these volumes is ideal, but taken together they constitute a formidable super-reference tool, especially when you can search them electronically. Were bartleby.com to add H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations to its quiver, it would border on the indispensable.

As I observed in the Journal on Saturday, The Yale Book of Quotations is itself a meta-tool whose compilers have used the Web shrewdly:

Fred R. Shapiro, the editor, has made use of what he refers to in his preface as “state-of-the-art research methods,” meaning the searchable online databases that are revolutionizing scholarly research. Mr. Shapiro and his associates have employed Eighteenth Century Collections Online, JSTOR, LexisNexis, Literature Online, newspaperarchive.com, ProQuest, Questia and the Times Digital Archive assiduously and well...I now know, for instance, that the phrase “shop till you drop” is a paraphrase of a line in Noël Coward’s 1938 play “Still Life,” while I was staggered to discover that George Orwell, of all people, appears to have coined Murphy’s Law in 1941: “If there is a wrong thing to do, it will be done, infallibly.”…

In 2002 I published a biography of H.L. Mencken on which I’d been working for a decade. I spent much of that time sifting through Mencken’s private papers, in which I found a wealth of invaluable information—but I wasn’t able to pin down the exact occasion on which he coined the phrase “Bible Belt.” Well, Mr. Shapiro and his trusty computer succeeded in doing what I couldn’t do: Mencken first used it in a column published in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 19, 1924.

On the other hand, my guess is that I would use The Yale Book of Quotations far more frequently if I could load it into my iBook or access it online, and I suspect that most under-50 writers and scholars (a category to which I no longer belong!) are likely to feel the same way. Books are blessed objects, but I question whether there is anything special to be gained by looking up the source of a quotation or the meaning of a word by riffling through a fat stack of bound sheets of paper. The two-volume Shorter Oxford still rests proudly on my desk, but I sadly confess that I can’t remember the last time I cracked it. When I need to look up a word, I do it online.

It happens, however, that I read The Yale Book of Quotations from cover to cover. “Yeah, right,” my Wall Street Journal editor said when he ran across that claim in the first draft of my column, to which I replied firmly that I’d turned every damn page. Granted, I was sick as a dog that week and didn’t feel up to reading anything that required consecutive thought, but the fact remains that I did it, and in the process made any number of serendipitous discoveries, including the one about Mencken, that I almost certainly wouldn’t have made had I been “reading” The Yale Book of Quotations on a CD-ROM. Therein lies the one great advantage of old-fashioned books: they lend themselves to browsing in a way that computerized databases do not. If books on paper continue to be printed and published a half-century from now, that may be the main reason for their survival.

Longtime readers of this blog doubtless suspect that I’ve long nurtured the desire to compile my own dictionary of quotations. Ever since “About Last Night” went live in 2003, I’ve posted a quotation each weekday, none of which has been repeated intentionally. (I've slipped once or twice.) These almanac entries are the postmodern equivalent of a commonplace book, and taken together they say at least as much about me as Mencken’s New Dictionary says about him. That’s not coincidental. As I pointed out in my Mencken biography:

The only important author missing from its 1,347 pages is Mencken himself, who told Time that “I thought it would be unseemly to quote myself. I leave that to the intelligence of posterity.” Yet the New Dictionary bears the dark stamp of his skepticism on every page, and at least one critic, Morton Dauwen Zabel, was quick to grasp the fact: “The impression soon becomes inescapable that what Mencken has produced as a ‘Dictionary of Quotations’ is really a transcendent ‘Prejudices: Seventh Series,’ a ‘Notes on Humanity,’ or more expressly ‘Mencken’s Philosophical Dictionary, Written by Others.’”

I’m old-fashioned enough to wish that I could spin my almanac entries into a book, and new-fangled enough to know that I probably won’t get the chance. Commonplace books do get published on occasion, but only when they happen to have been kept by such famous folk as W.H. Auden or Alec Guinness. I have little doubt that it is the fate of my serial commonplace book to blush unseen, save by the readers of this blog and those Googlers who happen by chance to stumble across its contents. Yet I keep it anyway, and I’m glad I do, for choosing each day’s entry adds a discreet pinch of savor to my life. I hope it does the same for you.

Posted March 21, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, journal entry, May 1849

Posted March 21, 12:00 PM

TT and OGIC: Cathy Seipp, R.I.P.

We note with sorrow the death of Cathy Seipp, whose witty, wonderfully personal blog, Cathy’s World, drew readers from both sides of the ideological fence. Would that there were more such writers. She will be greatly missed.

Susan Estrich pays tribute to her here.

Posted March 21, 5:59 AM

March 20, 2007

TT: Jesse Simons, R.I.P.

Last night I went to a memorial service for Jesse Simons, one of the most delightful and fascinating men I’ve had the good luck to meet. Jesse, who died last year at the age of eighty-eight, was a Trotskyist turned labor arbitrator. He became sufficiently distinguished in the latter capacity to earn both a Wikipedia entry and a New York Times obituary, neither of which mentioned that he was also a bon vivant, a ladies’ man, and an unswervingly devoted balletomane.

Even in Manhattan, there aren’t all that many people interested in both George Balanchine and Leon Trotsky, so it was probably inevitable that Jesse and I should have gotten to know one another sooner or later. He reminded me of Eric Hoffer, another blue-collar man who turned himself into a intellectual by sheer force of will, though Jesse’s aesthetic streak was at least as pronounced as his interest in ideas. One of the speakers at his service mentioned his love of Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler, and his passion for Freud was a byword among all who knew him. Yet there was nothing pretentious about Jesse, who wore his learning lightly and was modest to a fault, though he had no earthly reason to be.

Among countless other intriguing things, Jesse was one of the founding directors of the New York Pro Musica Antiqua, the pioneering early-music group. Noah Greenberg, who started the Pro Musica, was another ex-Trotskyist, a labor organizer who subsequently turned his back on radical politics to immerse himself in the world of art. Late in life, Jesse was interviewed by James Gollin, Greenberg’s excellent biographer, to whom he made the following remark:

I knew dozens of the people who were around in those days. Politicals, labor people, intellectuals. We were all going to make the world a better place. But the only one who really left the world a better place than he found it was Noah, with his music.

I made a point of including those telling words in a piece about Greenberg that I wrote for Commentary in 2001, partly because I knew that Jesse was a faithful reader of the magazine and hoped the gesture might please him. It was the only time his name ever appeared in Commentary, and one of the few times it appeared in print during his lifetime. More’s the pity, for he could easily have written a classic autobiography. Instead his friends—of whom there were many—must rely on their memories. I know that mine will always stay bright and true.

Posted March 20, 12:00 PM

TT: Collectors' items

The art world is buzzing about this story from The Stranger, Seattle's alternative newspaper. (CultureGrrl wrote about it here.) It seems that Matthew Kangas, Seattle’s best-known art critic, has a good-sized collection consisting mainly of pieces given to him by local artists—at his request:

Last week, nine artists went on record with The Stranger saying that Kangas did ask directly for art or implied he should be given art before or after he wrote reviews of their work. In a phone interview, Kangas denied ever having done so. He does have a collection of art, he said, and artists have given him much of it….

After Kangas's 1995 review of Alice Wheeler's photography show at Vox Populi was published in Art in America, he called her, she said. "It was like, 'Okay, the review's out, when can I come over to pick out some art? We also need to go to lunch and we're going to Palomino and you're buying,'" she said. "I thought it was what I had to do." She gave him two pictures and spent $75 on lunch, she said. "My rent was $285 at the time, so it was a lot of money. I like Matthew; I just think that some of what he does is manipulative and BS."

It is, of course, well known that Clement Greenberg, on whom Kangas appears to have modeled himself, accepted gifts of art from many of the artists about whom he wrote, and that he later sold an unknown number of them to pay his bills. (Seven years after his death, his second wife sold the residue of his collection to the Portland Museum of Art, which reportedly paid $2,000,000 for it.) But I know of no evidence that Greenberg shook down any of the artists in question, or anything remotely like it.

No less interesting is the second half of the piece, which describes the conflict-of-interest policies that Art in America, Sculpture, the New York Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Seattle Times impose on their culture staffers:

Daily newspapers are far stricter than industry magazines when it comes to conflict-of-interest standards. At the Seattle Times, a portion of the ethics guidelines pertains to collecting but doesn't address it directly: "No staff member may cover, edit, package, or supervise regular coverage of an industry, company, venture, or person in which the staff member, spouse, or domestic partner has any investment, or immediate family members have significant investment, financial or business ties. Such ties pose the appearance of a conflict of interest and may harm the Times and staff member's reputations."…

The written rule at the New York Times includes a similar clause to one in the Seattle Times guidebook, with the added: "An arts writer or editor who owns art of exhibition quality (and thus has a financial stake in the reputation of the artist) may inspire questions about the impartiality of his or her critical judgments or editing decisions. Thus members of the culture staff who collect valuable objects in the visual arts (paintings, photographs, sculpture, crafts, and the like) must annually submit a list of their acquisitions and sales to the associate managing editor for news administration."

New York Times culture editor Sam Sifton said the rule is mostly for writers who come to their beats already owning objects; he said he would be uncomfortable with a critic assembling a collection. He compared the situation to a stock-market writer investing in securities. Gifts are a further problem, he said. The New York Times has a newsroom-wide injunction against gifts over $25 in value.

All this was of great personal interest to me. It's no secret that I collect art, but I only know two artists, neither of whom is represented in my collection, and I would never think of asking either one for a piece of art. The very idea shocks me—which may simply mean that I’m naïve.

It never occurred to me, for instance, that there was anything wrong with my mentioning Milton Avery in a "Sightings" column about art galleries that I published last year in The Wall Street Journal, especially since Avery is (A) dead and (B) an indisputably major artist whose reputation is unlikely to be affected by anything I might happen to write about him. After the column ran, though, one of my editors pointed out that my ownership of an Avery drypoint might be construed as a conflict of interest, and suggested that I henceforth make a point of not writing for the Journal about any artist whose work I own. The Teachout Museum is a small-time affair, monetarily speaking, but I took his point, and since then I’ve been careful to follow his advice.

Needless to say, I don’t write about the visual arts as a working critic, merely as a passionately interested observer of the art scene, the same way I now write about dance. (I used to be a working dance critic, but not any longer.) Theater is different: I’m the drama critic of a national newspaper, and I’m well aware of what it would mean if I were to review a close friend in its pages. On the other hand, I’m not a “theater person” in the common sense of the phrase, and I don’t have any close friends whose work I would ever have occasion to review in the Journal.

Is that a good thing? Not really. As I wrote last year, “A critic who holds himself at arm's length from the artistic community whose activities he covers is a eunuch in the harem.” Nor do I hold myself at arm’s length from the world of music, of which I have been a part my whole life long. If I write well about music, it’s partly because I am a musician, from which it naturally follows that I know other musicians. Not surprisingly, some of them are among my closest friends, and I sometimes write about them—though not as a critic. Reviewing your friends is a good way to lose them. I plug the work of friends on this blog when I like it. Otherwise I stand tactfully mute.

Would I be a better drama critic if I also had friends who were well-known actors, directors, or playwrights? Very possibly, but the fact remains that I don't, a deficiency which at least has the advantage of simplifying my professional relationship with The Wall Street Journal. Since I don’t move in theatrical circles or write profiles of people who do, I doubt I’ll be grappling with that problem any time soon. Should it come up in the future, I’ll do my best to behave appropriately.

All of which reminds me of the First Rule of Criticism, which I shared with my students at Rutgers/Newark back in the days when I was teaching a class in journalistic criticism: Never sleep with anybody you write about. I never have—but, then, I've never been asked.

Posted March 20, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

Dance there upon the shore;
What need have you to care
For wind or water’s roar?
And tumble out your hair
That the salt drops have wet;
Being young you have not known
The fool’s triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won,
Nor the best labourer dead
And all the sheaves to bind.
What need have you to dread
The monstrous crying of wind?

W.B. Yeats, “To a Child Dancing in the Wind” (courtesy of twang twang twang)

Posted March 20, 12:00 PM

March 19, 2007

TT: Effects of light

I’ve been busy. (What else is new?) Among other things, I took Sarah to Chris Thile’s Zankel Hall concert and saw Curtains, Jack Goes Boating, and Propeller’s all-male stagings of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. I also dined with two good friends, cranked out a fair amount of prose, and reread my favorite classical-music autobiography, Carl Flesch’s Memoirs, from which I’ve previously extracted a couple of almanac entries. This time I ran across the following pithy remark: “A teacher who is only interested in great talents is like a man who only seeks the company of rich people.”

Chris’ concert was an event of no small significance, and I'll be curious to see whether the reviews convey that fact. The Blind Leaving the Blind, the centerpiece of the program, is a forty-minute-long multi-movement work for voice and bluegrass quintet that is through-composed. A few theater composers, most notably Stephen Sondheim, Adam Guettel, and Michael John LaChiusa, have broken away from the repeating-chorus song-form model to forge large-scale musical structures rooted in the language of popular music, but I can’t think of very many pop musicians who’ve attempted anything as ambitious as The Blind Leaving the Blind. Some of the seams are joined a bit too loosely, but the piece still works, and the spectacularly fleet-fingered members of the Tensions Mountain Boys, Chris’ new band, are equal to the technical challenges he's flung at them.

The rest of the concert was devoted to songs from How to Grow a Woman From the Ground, the Tensions Mountain Boys’ debut album. It’s a winning piece of work that I commend to your attention, though what I really want to hear is a studio recording of The Blind Leaving the Blind. No piece as complex as this can be fully taken in at first hearing, and I’m eager to listen to it at my leisure.

In between these varied activities, I hung a new piece of art, a watercolor by Jane Wilson that I bought a month ago but couldn’t take home with me on the spot because it was part of a show at DC Moore Gallery. I’ve been a fan of Wilson’s work ever since I wrote about her for the Washington Post in 2003, and it gave me great pleasure to hang “Breaking Light” directly below Fairfield Porter’s Isle au Haut and Jane Freilicher’s Late Afternoon, Southampton.

This is the first piece of art I've bought from a Fifth Avenue gallery, and I was struck by how the staff treated me once I made it clear that I wasn't just browsing. "I'm wondering whether you have any other Wilson watercolors in inventory," I told the young woman at the front desk. All at once the boss materialized from out of nowhere, whisked me into a back room, and started hanging art on the wall. I couldn't help thinking of the scene from Pretty Woman in which Richard Gere informs the snobby manager of a clothing store on Rodeo Drive that he's planning to spend a really offensive amount of money on Julia Roberts. The fact that the watercolor in which I'd expressed interest was a modestly priced five-by-seven miniature made the experience even more satisfying. The only thing nicer than being treated as if you were rich is being treated that way when it's obvious that you're not.

It was snowing when I hung “Breaking Light” last Friday, and the light from my window was chilly and grey, so I warmed the air by putting on Aaron Copland’s Violin Sonata, a gentle, modest piece that I hadn’t heard for some time. Listening to Copland’s music in a room whose walls are covered with American art reminded me of a “Sightings” column I wrote for The Wall Street Journal late in 2005:

What do the music of Aaron Copland, the dances of Paul Taylor, the paintings of Stuart Davis and the novels of Willa Cather have in common? They’re all American—and all-American. You can’t listen to five bars of “Appalachian Spring,” or read a paragraph of “My Ántonia,” without catching the tangy scent of American modernism. It’s as familiar as the smell of wood smoke on a cold November evening. You can also hear it in the brassy bite of the trumpet cadenza that launches Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” just as you can see it in the last shot of John Ford’s “The Searchers,” that unutterably poignant moment when John Wayne turns from his reunited family and walks alone into the desert….

All this was on my own mind as I paid a visit to “Marks of Distinction: Two Hundred Years of American Drawings and Watercolors from the Hood Museum of Art,” a handsome little show on display through Dec. 31 at the National Academy Museum in New York. Put together by the museum of Dartmouth College, it consists of eighty exceedingly well-chosen works on paper by such noted artists as John James Audubon, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin, Romare Bearden and Lee Bontecou.

As this list suggests, “Marks of Distinction” offers a cross-section of American art so wide-ranging in style as to make a casual visitor wonder whether any generalizations about our art can possibly hold true. But as I walked through the galleries, I was struck anew by the web of common temperament that knits together the best of these works, different though they may look at first glance.

One aspect of this temperament is an overarching sense of loneliness—rarely oppressive, certainly not neurotic, but omnipresent all the same. The landscapes in “Marks of Distinction” are usually unpeopled, the cityscapes anonymous, the portraits stoic to the occasional point of outright facelessness. Even in a festive scene like Charles Demuth’s “Beach Study No. 3, Provincetown,” the three brightly colored bathers are suspended in a cold white void, just as the ship in Lyonel Feininger’s “Seascape with Cloudy Sky” sails an empty sea. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to find in this quality a reflection of a land of illimitably vast expanses, a place where even the most crowded city offers its dwellers what E.B. White called “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”

Another thing I noticed time and again in “Marks of Distinction” was a certain brisk informality. We are a people in love with change, which may explain why our artists like nothing better than to catch images on the wing, recording them in explosive flurries of brushstrokes that suggest the dynamism of American life. Perhaps that’s why many of our finest modernists chose to cultivate the excitingly ambiguous middle ground that separates literal representation from pure abstraction. It’s a short step from the cubist turbulence of John Marin’s all-but-abstract “Sea Piece in Red” to the landscape-evoking expressionism of the profoundly mysterious untitled mixed-media sketch by Joan Mitchell that is my favorite piece in the show.

Above all, American artists are natural-born empiricists, passionate disbelievers in theory who seek truth through the immediate experience of the senses, then set it down on paper without excessive regard for whatever rules and regulations may happen to be in fashion at the moment. Ours is a nation of Gatsbys, homemade and self-created, and our best artists share something of the same determinedly unacademic individuality. That’s why the 80 works included in “Marks of Distinction” are at once so stylistically diverse and so recognizably American, two sides of a coin on which is stamped the motto that sums up our wonderful country without a wasted word: Out of many, one.

I'll stand by that.

Posted March 19, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"A beauty is not suddenly in a circle. It comes with rapture. A great deal of beauty is rapture. A circle is a necessity. Otherwise you would see no one. We each have our circle."

Gertrude Stein, "A Circular Play"

Posted March 19, 12:00 PM

March 16, 2007

TT: Words to the wise

Chris Thile, the mandolin-playing sparkplug of Nickel Creek, is now leading a group of his own, the Tensions Mountain Boys. They’re performing tomorrow night at Zankel Hall, and the program includes the premiere of a new multi-movement composition by Chris called The Blind Leaving the Blind. I wrote the program notes:

Chris Thile has spent the past two decades tirelessly pushing at the boundaries of bluegrass. Widely acclaimed as the outstanding mandolin virtuoso of his generation, he’s equally admired for his singing and songwriting. Now, in his first post-Nickel Creek project, he’s broken through to something completely different—yet no less deeply rooted in the timeless traditions from which his music springs.

The Blind Leaving the Blind is a 40-minute suite in four movements for voice, mandolin, violin, banjo, guitar, and bass. That’s the standard bluegrass lineup, of course, but The Blind Leaving the Blind doesn’t fit into that familiar pigeonhole, or any other. It’s not a medley-like string of songs, but a through-composed piece in which vocal passages and extended instrumental interludes are woven together into a tightly integrated whole that fuses the song-based structures of folk and pop with the large-scale, organically developed forms of classical music….

The concert starts at 8:30. For more information, or to read the rest of my notes, go here.

Posted March 16, 12:01 PM

TT: Lives of noisy desperation

I review two new revivals in today's Wall Street Journal drama column, Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio and August Wilson's King Hedley II:

Twenty years ago, Eric Bogosian was one of the hottest young guns in American theater, a performance artist whose blisteringly intense one-man shows were must-see events. Now he’s a regular on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” Was he really as good as he seemed back in the days when “Drinking in America” and “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” were the talk of the town? Second Stage’s wan revival of “subUrbia,” Mr. Bogosian’s 1994 play about life among the slackers, heightened my retrospective suspicion that he was more a magnetic performer than a convincing writer, and so I’ve been anxiously awaiting the Broadway revival of “Talk Radio,” whose original Public Theater production remains one of my most vivid theatergoing memories. Now that I’ve seen it, I can report that “Talk Radio” makes the same impression today that it did in 1987—which isn’t entirely good news....

August Wilson was a major playwright who went off the rails somewhere in between “Fences,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, and “Gem of the Ocean,” his next-to-last play, whose 2005 Broadway premiere was a high-minded snoozefest. Now that I’ve seen the Signature Theatre Company’s revival of “King Hedley II,” written in 2001, I understand more clearly what went wrong with Wilson’s “Pittsburgh cycle” of plays about the black experience in 20th-century America: He stopped showing and started telling....

No free link. You were expecting maybe a miracle? Go out and buy the paper, or get smart and go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will allow you to read all of the Journal’s Friday arts coverage, including my drama column, on the spot and forever after. (If you’re already a subscriber, the column is here.)

Posted March 16, 12:00 PM

TT: Mr. Shapiro, tracer of lost quotes

My “Sightings” column in Saturday's Wall Street Journal is the fruit of a couple of days I spent reading the new Yale Book of Quotations from cover to cover. Fred Shapiro, the editor, has used Web-based research tools to track down all sorts of hitherto-unknown original sources for famous and not-so-famous quotes, and some of the things that he and his colleagues have dredged up (including the very first time H.L. Mencken used the term "Bible Belt" in print) are pretty amazing.

To find out more, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.

Posted March 16, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"In his scores, by the way, Bartók sets down the timings to the split second, like this: '6 min., 22 seconds'; whereas Alban Berg in his Violin Concerto allows, apparently, a latitude of fully five minutes by noting on the flyleaf of the work: 'Duration 25-30 minutes.' This difference in outlook on the part of two contemporary masters, both trail-blazers, always puzzled me. I asked Bartók for the reason. 'It isn't as if I said: "This must take six minutes, twenty-two seconds,"' he answered; 'but I simply go on record that when I play it the duration is six minutes, twenty-two seconds.' An essential distinction, this."

Joseph Szigeti, With Strings Attached: Reminiscences and Reflections

Posted March 16, 12:00 PM

March 15, 2007

TT: So you want to see a show?

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)
Salvage (The Coast of Utopia, part 3)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 13)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 12)
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)
Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes May 12)

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

CLOSING SOON:
Translations* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK:
The Madras House (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)

Posted March 15, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Creeds must disagree: it is the whole fun of the thing. If I think the universe is triangular, and you think it is square, there cannot be room for two universes. We may argue politely, we may argue humanely, we may argue with great mutual benefit: but, obviously, we must argue. Modern toleration is really a tyranny. It is a tyranny because it is a silence. To say that I must not deny my opponent's faith is to say I must not discuss it."

G.K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, Oct. 10, 1908

Posted March 15, 12:00 PM

March 14, 2007

TT: Elsewhere

I haven’t been surfing the Web nearly enough in recent weeks, but I do have three things to share with you today.

• Ms. Kate’s Book Blog has bought herself a manual typewriter:

I don’t have the option of reclaiming all my time for writing but I thought that if I got a typewriter for my office at home, even just as a decorative object, it would be a way of symbolically reclaiming the space for writing. It would mark a rebalancing of my priorities….

What a lovely gesture! I’d like to do the same—I miss the wonderful old “acoustic typewriter” on which I wrote so many of my early articles—but I don’t have enough horizontal space in my tiny New York apartment to display such an objet d’art. So much the worse for me.

(While we're on the subject of typewriters, take a peek at the cover of Prog, the new Bad Plus CD.)

• Mr. Modern Art Notes recently paid a similarly lovely tribute to his mother, from whom he inherited his love of art:

Mom painted watercolors. My grandmother's house is full of them: colorful, twisted trees on the California coast and brushy abstractions of the cats next door, especially the fat one, Big Bertha. The paintings I like best are her Sierra Nevada landscapes.

Something occurs to me as I write this: I don't remember seeing Mom paint. That's not to say that she only painted in the absence of us kids, or when my father wasn't around. It's just that I remember the family experiences that surrounded her painting instead….

Read all about them here.

• Can critics and artists be friends? Alex Ross weighs in:

The irony underlying this discussion is that some of our strongest prejudices—favorable or unfavorable—are directed toward people we've never met. Lack of contact lets us idolize our heroes and demonize our foes. The advantage of meeting people within the profession is that you see them as they really are. The danger is that you may end up liking a lot of them, tolerating most of the others, and madly loving rather few. For myself, I want to preserve at least some of the fantasy of fandom….

Alex says that he “generally avoids” meeting the people he writes about. Should he? Watch this space for further details....

Posted March 14, 12:00 PM

TT: Straight from the source

Jonatha Brooke, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, has recorded a new album called Careful What You Wish For. She sent this message to her e-mailing list the other day:

I know you're barraged with email every day. BUT, it occurred to me late last night, gearing up for this pre-order release, that if every one of you reading this (you all did sign up at some point!) bought the new CD here, we'd be able to cover our costs for three months!! No small feat.

So, it's true, we're ready to start taking pre-orders for my new record, "Careful What You Wish For." We'll start sending them out next week, and of course, I will autograph every single one.

As I'm sure you know, the record business is as tough as it's ever been. Tower is gone, and most retail stores will only stock the top sellers. So whether you buy the record here, at Amazon or Borders or Barnes and Noble, every sale counts. Spreading the word to your friends and family is incredibly helpful too.

That’s just what I’m doing. To order Careful What You Wish For directly from jonathabrooke.com, go here—and tell her who sent you.

Posted March 14, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself."

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

Posted March 14, 12:00 PM

March 13, 2007

TT: Time capsules

A hundred years ago, Percy Grainger, an eccentric Australian pianist-composer temporarily resident in London, took an interest in English folk songs and decided to go out into the country and collect them. He went to North Lincolnshire in 1905 to attend a local music festival whose events included a folk-song competition. The fliers for the festival described the event as follows:

Class XII. Folk songs. Open to all. The prize in this class will be given to whoever can supply the best unpublished old Lincolnshire folk song or plough song. This song should be sung or whistled by the competitor, but marks will be allotted for the excellence rather of the song than of its actual performance. It is specially requested that the establishment of this class be brought to the notice of old people in the country who are most likely to remember this kind of song, and that they be urged to come in with the best old song they know.

The first prize went to a seventy-two-year-old man named Joseph Taylor who impressed Grainger hugely, not only with the song he sang but with the way he sang it. Grainger later wrote that “his flowing, ringing tenor voice was well nigh as fresh as that of his son…Nothing could be more refreshing than his hale countrified looks and the happy lilt of his cheery voice.”

On another occasion he recalled:

Mr. Joseph Taylor…was neither illiterate nor socially backward. And it must also be admitted that he was a member of the choir of his village (Saxby-All-Saints, Lincolnshire) for over 45 years—a thing unusual in a folksinger. Furthermore his relatives—keen musicians themselves—were extremely proud of his prowess as a folksinger. Mr. Taylor was bailiff on a big estate, where he formerly had been estate woodman and carpenter. He was the perfect type of an English yeoman: sturdy and robust, yet the soul of sweetness, gentleness, courteousness and geniality.

Grainger took down several songs in musical notation from Taylor and the other singers he met that April, and came back to Lincolnshire the following year with a portable phonograph that he used to record their voices. (“He’s learnt that quicker nor I,” one singer said as Grainger played back the song he’d just recorded.) He soon became fascinated to the point of obsession with the songs he collected and the idiosyncratic way in which the people he met sang them, and over the next few years he made dozens of instrumental and vocal arrangements of them.

By that time Grainger was already well known as a concert pianist who wrote music on the side, but these piquant arrangements, some of which became hugely popular, helped make him famous, as did the folk-inspired original compositions he started to produce around the same time. For the rest of his life he would be mainly known as the composer of such engaging miniatures as “Country Gardens,” “Molly on the Shore,” and “Irish Tune from County Derry” (better known as “Danny Boy”).

In 1908 Grainger persuaded the Gramophone Company to record Joseph Taylor in the studio. It was the first time that the voice of a "Genuine Peasant Folksinger" (as the label described Taylor in its promotional material) had ever been commercially recorded for posterity. Taylor didn’t much care for the process, claiming that singing into an acoustical horn was “lahk singin’ with a muzzle on,” but that didn’t stop him from doing his best. He cut a dozen songs, of which nine were released. The original 78s, not surprisingly, sold poorly and soon became rarities—only two complete sets of the seven discs are known to exist—and except for an obscure 1972 LP release known only to folksong specialists, they have long been hard to track down in any format.

Grainger himself had faded into semi-obscurity well before his death in 1961, but his folk-style pieces continued to be played, and a small but loyal band of influential musicians, among them Benjamin Britten and Frederick Fennell, made brilliant recordings of his music that brought it to the attention of a new generation of listeners and performers, myself among them. Thanks to these performances, as well as John Bird’s 1976 biography, Grainger has come to be widely regarded as a composer of significance, and virtually all of his music is now available on CD. Britten’s 1969 Grainger collection, for instance, was reissued a few years ago, as was Fennell’s legendary 1958 recording with the Eastman Wind Ensemble of Lincolnshire Posy, a six-movement suite for concert band based on some of the songs that Grainger collected in Lincolnshire.

But what about old Joseph Taylor? I’ve long been fascinated by Grainger and his music—the Max Beerbohm caricature I purchased a couple of years ago is a 1913 study of Grainger playing piano for a group of London ladies—and so it followed that I wanted very much to hear Taylor’s 78s. I couldn’t track any of them down until a year and a half ago, when I put out a plea in this space to which one of my trusty readers responded, informing me that Taylor’s version of “Brigg Fair” had been reissued on CD.

I bought it, ripped it, and wrote about it:

From the speakers…came a century-old sound: It was on the fifth of August, the weather fair and fine/Unto Brigg Fair I did repair, for love I was inclined. I listened with wonder to Joseph Taylor's throaty, ever-so-slightly creaky voice and the fluttering ornaments with which he gracefully decorated the long descending arch of melody.

That was the end of the story—until last week.

For some reason it occurred to me the other day to look up Joseph Taylor on iTunes and see what I might find. To my bemusement and delight, I found seven of the twelve songs Taylor recorded in London in 1908, including “Brigg Fair” and “Creeping Jane,” the very song with which he won the prize that had brought him to Grainger’s attention three years earlier.

You can download any or all of them if you’re curious, and I recommend that you do so, not only for their intrinsic musical value but because they fling wide a tightly shut door. The world in which people like Taylor lived vanished long ago—it was already disappearing fast in 1908—and you will never again be so close to it as during the sixteen and a half minutes it takes to listen to these seven 78 sides.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, another composer who was profoundly affected by his exposure to English folk singers, wrote about them in 1932:

I am telling you not of something clownish and boorish, not even something inchoate, not of the half-forgotten reminiscences of fashionable music mouthed by toothless old men and women, not of something archaic, not of mere “museum pieces,” but of an art which grows straight out of the needs of a people and for which a fitting and perfect form, albeit on a small scale, has been found by those people; an art which is indigenous and owes nothing to anything outside itself, and above all an art which to us today has something to say—a true art which has beauty and vitality now in the twentieth century….

The folk-song is I believe not dead, but the art of the folk-singer is. We cannot, and would not if we could, sing folk-songs in the same way and in the same circumstances in which they used to be sung.

Of course Vaughan Williams was right—which makes it all the more wonderful that you can now use your computer to download records made by a man born in 1832 of songs that he learned as a boy in Lincolnshire, long before anyone had dreamed of such everyday witchcraft.

As I wrote in this space last year:

How miraculous that such brief glimpses of the fast-receding past have survived into the unsure present—and how wonderful that the Web is now putting them at our fingertips.

If that’s not worth seven dollars, I don’t know what is.

Posted March 13, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Like so many aging college people, Pnin had long since ceased to notice the existence of students on the campus."

Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin

Posted March 13, 12:00 PM

OGIC: Brief, muffled cry

Positively crushed right now by heaps and heaps of work. Project full recovery and return in two weeks when critical deadline has passed. Until then.

Posted March 13, 11:45 AM

TT: Madly industrious

I've now changed all of the Top Five and "Out of the Past" picks and updated the "Teachout in Commentary" module, so if you haven't visited the right-hand column lately, do so.

Posted March 13, 7:07 AM

March 12, 2007

TT: Saddled up

It took longer than I expected for me to shake off whatever bug it was that laid me low two weeks ago. Nothing short of an ambulance ride is enough to shut me down completely, though, and I've been keeping fairly busy despite my intermittent absences from this space.

Among other things, I saw two plays, one of them in the company of Mr. My Stupid Dog, who was in New York for a few days and kindly consented to accompany me last Friday to the Signature Theatre Company’s off-Broadway revival of August Wilson’s King Hedley II. I also gave him a tour of the Teachout Museum, which I’m sure he’ll describe in due course on his own blog.

On Saturday afternoon I took in Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio, which impressed me so much when I saw it at the Public Theater in 1987 that I went back to see it again a few weeks later. Talk Radio was one of the very first plays I saw on stage after moving to New York, and my memories of Bogosian’s ferally intense performance as Barry Champlain remain clear and vivid to this day. (Liev Schreiber is playing the part in the new Broadway revival, which opened yesterday.)

For the most part, though, I stuck close to home, resting in between deadlines. I watched a couple of movies on TV, including Shane, which I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. It’s an old favorite, not least for its supporting cast, which includes the immortal Elisha Cook, Jr., though I do have certain lingering reservations that I would have tried to sum up here had Brian Garfield not beaten me to the punch in his insufficiently appreciated Western Films: A Complete Guide:

It calls attention to itself as self-conscious Myth: one can imagine producer-director [George] Stevens and novelist-screenwriter [A.B.] Guthrie (The Big Sky) sitting down together and saying something like, “Now we’re going to make the definitive Western.” There’s something too studied about the panoramic imagery; it’s always splendid but sometimes boastful—the calculated contrived perfection militates against its integrity: it lacks the easy grace of, say, the seemingly casual artistry of John Ford, whose camera seemed to just happen upon beautiful compositions….Shane strives too hard for its effects: the mannered deliberate dignity of pace; the grand epic photography with its seemingly painted, or at least hand-retouched, colors, and the patent symbolism of the lonely, gorgeous Grand Teton locations; the magnificent symphonic score by Victor Young; the measured editing of Tom McAdoo and William Hornbeck; the isolation of the rustic three-building town; the black costume worn by [Jack] Planace and its contrast with Shane’s golden hair and pale buckskins.

All true—but I love it anyway.

I also read the galleys of the American edition of Zachary Leader’s thousand-page Kingsley Amis biography, which Pantheon is publishing next month. I’ll be writing about it then, so I’ll withhold comment for now. Instead, let me direct you to a review of Paul Fussell’s The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters that I published in the New York Times Book Review in 1994. I’d forgotten about it until I read Leader’s book, and it happens to be available online, unlike "A Touch of Class," the essay about Amis that I wrote for The New Criterion back in 1988. I like that piece a lot, but I left it out of the Teachout Reader because that collection is restricted to essays about American artists. (You can find it, however, in an obscure 1998 volume called Critical Essays on Kingsley Amis.)

Finally, I made a purchase that I hope will make Our Girl the least little bit jealous: I bought a copy of The Lavender Leotard, Edward Gorey’s very rare 1973 book about New York City Ballet. (OGIC is a longtime Gorey collector.) The inside jokes in The Lavender Leotard are unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t know a fair amount about the history of NYCB and the ballets of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, but I’m pleased to say that I got all but a couple of them.

All this was more than enough to keep me busy, as well as to tire me out. Though I’m basically well again, the steam in my boiler is still low and I have a lot of work to do this week, so I’ll sign off for now. It’s nice to be back!

Posted March 12, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Only a mediocre writer is always at his best."

W. Somerset Maugham, introduction to The Portable Dorothy Parker

Posted March 12, 12:00 PM

TT: Further signs of recovery

I've just given the right-hand column an extensive updating. New items abound. Take a gander.

Posted March 12, 2:54 AM

March 9, 2007

TT: All better

I am now officially over the flu. Regular blogging resumes on Monday!

Posted March 09, 12:00 PM

TT: Laughing at Lear

I kept on seeing shows while I was sick, and I report on three of them in today’s Wall Street Journal drama column, King Lear, Patrick Marber’s Howard Katz, and Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss. As you’ll see, none of them made me feel any better:

Kevin Kline is smart, imaginative and unfailingly watchable—but can you really see him as King Lear? Evidently James Lapine does. Mr. Lapine, who is best known (and rightly so) for collaborating with Stephen Sondheim and staging “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” has directed the new production of “King Lear” in which Mr. Kline is currently starring at the Public Theater. Admiring both men as I do, I hoped against hope that their “Lear” would work. But it doesn’t, not at all, and though it’s not the worst one I’ve ever seen—that prize goes to Robert Falls’ comprehensively stupid production, presented last summer at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre—it’s pretty awful all the same….

Watching a play about a midlife crisis is like listening to a song cycle about prostate trouble, and Mr. Marber’s take on the old, old story is (A) stealthily sentimental and (B) far from fresh. In fact, it was around the time that Alfred Molina [the star of Howard Katz] tried unsuccessfully to go back to his wife (Jessica Hecht) that I recalled how Tony Shalhoub had been put through a not-dissimilar wringer just two months ago in Theresa Rebeck’s “The Scene.” It’s not that there’s nothing new to be said about such crises, but whatever it is, Mr. Marber hasn’t said it….

It isn’t hard to sit back and let yourself be entertained [by Prelude to a Kiss], but don’t expect more out of Mr. Lucas’ punchline-strewn fantasy about love and death, which longs to be profound but settles for sugary slickness. “How precious the time is…how little we realize till it’s almost gone,” [John] Mahoney assures us. Stop the presses—dog bites man!

No free link. Buy a copy of today’s Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal so that you can read all of the Journal’s Friday arts coverage, including my drama column. (If you’re already a subscriber, the column is here.)

Posted March 09, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"For each illness that doctors cure with medicine, they provoke ten in healthy people by inoculating them with the virus that is a thousand times more powerful than any microbe: the idea that one is ill."

Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way

Posted March 09, 12:00 PM

March 8, 2007

TT: Almanac

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen,
What old December’s bareness everywhere!

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 97

Posted March 08, 12:00 PM

TT: So you want to see a show?

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)
Salvage (The Coast of Utopia, part 3)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 13)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 12)
Translations* (drama, G, too complicated for children, 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)
Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes May 12)

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

CLOSING SOON:
The Madras House (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)

CLOSING SUNDAY:
The Last Word… (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
The Vertical Hour (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

Posted March 08, 6:56 AM

March 7, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Bach no more composed for us than he lived for us. His music comes from far away; it speaks a language that we understand yet in which we hear echoes of another language, outside our expressive range."

Martin Geck, Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work (trans. John Hargraves)

Posted March 07, 12:00 PM

March 6, 2007

TT: Inching back

A friend writes:

Terry, how are you doing? I just read yr blog. This "deep under the weather" sounds scary. How are you doing?

Not to worry. Longtime readers know that I suffer from what once was quaintly known as a weak chest, by which I don’t mean my ticker (which has its own weaknesses) but my pipes. Common colds invariably lay me low, especially when I’ve been too busy, and I think my recent trip to California qualifies. I spent a lot of time sitting in theaters and on airplanes, which is no doubt how I happened to inhale the virus that knocked me flat last week and has yet to turn me loose.

Alas, I had to hit a bunch of deadlines and see Howard Katz, King Lear, and Prelude to a Kiss in between sneezes, so my recovery has been incremental. For once I decided to be sensible and cut back sharply on my blogging, and I don’t expect to gear back up to anything like normal until next week. Kindly bear with me!

In the meantime, let me draw your attention to a few things:

• My most recent “Sightings” column, which appeared in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, was about the perils of connoisseurship. Here’s part of it:

Is it possible for a critic to know too much? Not a chance. The unhappy truth is that it’s far more common for us not to know nearly enough about the art forms we review. (If you doubt it, ask any artist.) But I’ve also discovered that the accumulation of knowledge can inhibit our ability to appreciate an artistic experience. I know middle-aged opera buffs who never seem to enjoy the performances they attend. Whenever they go to “La Traviata,” they always end up spending the whole intermission grousing about how the soprano wasn’t as good as some half-forgotten diva they heard in Milan 37 years ago. They’ve lost the knack of enjoying the performances they’re seeing—not to mention the piercing beauty of the music they’re hearing….

[T]he more you learn about an art form, the harder it becomes to enjoy it in a straightforward, uncomplicated way. The literary critic R.P. Blackmur had this phenomenon in mind when he observed that “knowledge itself is a fall from the paradise of undifferentiated sensation.” Go to “Swan Lake” for the first time and you’ll be blown away by the flood of gorgeous new sights and sounds that spills over you. Go 20 times and you’re more likely to notice that the orchestra played out of tune and the ballerina did 31 fouettés instead of 32.

That’s not snobbishness. It’s connoisseurship, and it’s a good thing—unless it gets between you and the immediate experience of art. Gratuitous pickiness is a soul-killing trap against which the critic must always be on guard….

This column inspired artblogger Edward Winkleman to respond in an interesting and sympathetic way, and to invite his own readers to comment no less interestingly. Take a look.

• Not long after I heard her at Joe’s Pub and blogged about it, Erin McKeown, the singer-songwriter who gets mentioned fairly frequently (and always enthusiastically) in this space, was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered. To listen, go here.

• Mark your calendar right now, for Jim Hall and Ron Carter are coming to the Blue Note for a six-night stand. Just the other day I was telling one of my young friends that Alone Together, their classic 1972 duet album, was on my Top Five list of great jazz-guitar recordings. I must have played it a couple of hundred times, but I’ve never heard the two of them live. The music starts on April 3. Be there—I will.

Now I’m going to see about getting a good night’s sleep, insofar as it’s possible. I’ve been taking antihistamines, which sometimes have strange effects on me, and last night I dreamed that a well-known New York drama critic was my college roommate (which he wasn’t) and told me that he wanted to undergo a sex-change operation (I don’t have any information about that). On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia….

Posted March 06, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Beware the politically obsessed. They are often bright and interesting, but they have something missing in their natures; there is a hole, an empty place, and they use politics to fill it up. It leaves them somehow misshapen."

Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution

Posted March 06, 12:00 PM

March 5, 2007

TT: The continuing crisis

I remain deep under the weather, but the clouds are lifting—slowly. Watch this space for details.

Posted March 05, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

“One must have distance from the work. One must not look into the music. One has to be optimistic about the world. That is all. That is all music can do.”

Henryk Górecki, interview with Norman Lebrecht (La Scena Musicale, Feb. 28, 2007)

Posted March 05, 12:00 PM

March 2, 2007

TT: In case you're wondering

I still feel lousy. I hate colds.

Posted March 02, 12:00 PM

TT: In the belly of the beast

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column, I review the four shows I saw in California last week, Speed-the-Plow at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, The Four of Us at the Old Globe in San Diego, Life Is a Dream at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, and Hedda Gabler at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco:

Going to Los Angeles to see David Mamet’s snarlingly comic snapshot of the movie business is like going to a sausage factory to make fun of the pigs, and this production pulls no punches. Greg Germann and Jon Tenney come on like buzzsaws as Charlie and Bobby, the up-and-coming studio execs who claim to be proud of their artistic whoredom, while Ms. Silverstone is just right as Karen, the (seemingly) innocent office girl who falls into their clutches….

Itamar Moses made a biggish splash two seasons ago with “Bach in Leipzig,” a historical fantasia in the manner of Tom Stoppard whose cocky virtuosity was all the more impressive in light of the fact that its author was just 28 years old. Now the Old Globe is putting on Mr. Moses’ latest play, “The Four of Us,” a two-man comedy about a pair of twentysomething writers, one of whom (Gideon Banner) is more successful than the other (Sean Dugan). “Nobody gives a damn about a writer and his problems except another writer,” Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker, famously declared. Mr. Moses has proved him wrong, for “The Four of Us” turns out to be a graceful little meditation on friendship and envy, smart and sweet and deftly pointed….

South Coast Repertory is a suburban theater (it’s 45 minutes from downtown Los Angeles when traffic is light, which it usually isn’t) known for having given the first performances of such successful plays as “The Clean House,” “Intimate Apparel,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Wit.” It’s also the West Coast home of Kate Whoriskey, one of America’s most creative young directors. Her latest show is a new translation by Nilo Cruz (“Anna in the Tropics”) of “Life Is a Dream,” Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1635 verse drama about a prince (Daniel Breaker) who doubts the reality of the world he sees around him….

Ms. Whoriskey is a hot name on the regional-theater circuit, but she hasn’t done anything in New York since the 2004 premiere of Lynn Nottage’s “Fabulation” at Playwrights Horizons. Don’t ask me why. Like all of her productions, this one is outrageously imaginative and unfailingly absorbing….

My last “Hedda Gabler” was the Sydney Theatre Company’s sped-up, semi-modernized adaptation, in which Cate Blanchett gave a flamboyant performance that reminded me of Bette Davis on a bumpy night. After seeing that wrong-headed but undeniably exciting production, I couldn’t help but feel that A.C.T.’s plain-Jane version was a bit too respectable for its own good….

No free link. Buy today’s Journal at your neighborhood newsstand, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal so that you can read all of the Journal’s Friday arts coverage, my drama column included. (If you’re already a subscriber, my column is here.)

Posted March 02, 12:00 PM

TT: The critic who knew too much

My “Sightings” column in Saturday's Wall Street Journal is a meditation on the dangers of specialization. Can a critic know so much about his chosen field that he becomes incapable of appreciating the art he experiences? Not usually—but sometimes connoisseurship can get in the way of pleasure. To find out how, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.

Posted March 02, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed; to kindness, to knowledge, we make promise only; pain we obey."

Marcel Proust, Cities of the Plain

Posted March 02, 12:00 PM

March 1, 2007

TT: So you want to see a show?

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)
Salvage (The Coast of Utopia, part 3)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 13)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 12)
Translations* (drama, G, too complicated for children, 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)
Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes May 12)

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

CLOSING SOON:
The Madras House (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK:
The Last Word… (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 11)
The Vertical Hour (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 11)

Posted March 01, 12:00 PM

TT: Almanac

"All my life I’ve been harassed by questions: Why is something this way and not another? How do you account for that? This rage to understand, to fill in the blanks, only makes life more banal. If we could only find the courage to leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence."

Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh

Posted March 01, 12:00 PM

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March 2007 Archives

March 1, 2007

TT: Almanac

"All my life I’ve been harassed by questions: Why is something this way and not another? How do you account for that? This rage to understand, to fill in the blanks, only makes life more banal. If we could only find the courage to leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence."

Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh

TT: So you want to see a show?

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)
Salvage (The Coast of Utopia, part 3)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 13)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 12)
Translations* (drama, G, too complicated for children, 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)
Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes May 12)

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

CLOSING SOON:
The Madras House (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK:
The Last Word… (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 11)
The Vertical Hour (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 11)

March 2, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed; to kindness, to knowledge, we make promise only; pain we obey."

Marcel Proust, Cities of the Plain

TT: The critic who knew too much

My “Sightings” column in Saturday's Wall Street Journal is a meditation on the dangers of specialization. Can a critic know so much about his chosen field that he becomes incapable of appreciating the art he experiences? Not usually—but sometimes connoisseurship can get in the way of pleasure. To find out how, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.

TT: In the belly of the beast

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column, I review the four shows I saw in California last week, Speed-the-Plow at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, The Four of Us at the Old Globe in San Diego, Life Is a Dream at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, and Hedda Gabler at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco:

Going to Los Angeles to see David Mamet’s snarlingly comic snapshot of the movie business is like going to a sausage factory to make fun of the pigs, and this production pulls no punches. Greg Germann and Jon Tenney come on like buzzsaws as Charlie and Bobby, the up-and-coming studio execs who claim to be proud of their artistic whoredom, while Ms. Silverstone is just right as Karen, the (seemingly) innocent office girl who falls into their clutches….

Itamar Moses made a biggish splash two seasons ago with “Bach in Leipzig,” a historical fantasia in the manner of Tom Stoppard whose cocky virtuosity was all the more impressive in light of the fact that its author was just 28 years old. Now the Old Globe is putting on Mr. Moses’ latest play, “The Four of Us,” a two-man comedy about a pair of twentysomething writers, one of whom (Gideon Banner) is more successful than the other (Sean Dugan). “Nobody gives a damn about a writer and his problems except another writer,” Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker, famously declared. Mr. Moses has proved him wrong, for “The Four of Us” turns out to be a graceful little meditation on friendship and envy, smart and sweet and deftly pointed….

South Coast Repertory is a suburban theater (it’s 45 minutes from downtown Los Angeles when traffic is light, which it usually isn’t) known for having given the first performances of such successful plays as “The Clean House,” “Intimate Apparel,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Wit.” It’s also the West Coast home of Kate Whoriskey, one of America’s most creative young directors. Her latest show is a new translation by Nilo Cruz (“Anna in the Tropics”) of “Life Is a Dream,” Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1635 verse drama about a prince (Daniel Breaker) who doubts the reality of the world he sees around him….

Ms. Whoriskey is a hot name on the regional-theater circuit, but she hasn’t done anything in New York since the 2004 premiere of Lynn Nottage’s “Fabulation” at Playwrights Horizons. Don’t ask me why. Like all of her productions, this one is outrageously imaginative and unfailingly absorbing….

My last “Hedda Gabler” was the Sydney Theatre Company’s sped-up, semi-modernized adaptation, in which Cate Blanchett gave a flamboyant performance that reminded me of Bette Davis on a bumpy night. After seeing that wrong-headed but undeniably exciting production, I couldn’t help but feel that A.C.T.’s plain-Jane version was a bit too respectable for its own good….

No free link. Buy today’s Journal at your neighborhood newsstand, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal so that you can read all of the Journal’s Friday arts coverage, my drama column included. (If you’re already a subscriber, my column is here.)

TT: In case you're wondering

I still feel lousy. I hate colds.

March 5, 2007

TT: Almanac

“One must have distance from the work. One must not look into the music. One has to be optimistic about the world. That is all. That is all music can do.”

Henryk Górecki, interview with Norman Lebrecht (La Scena Musicale, Feb. 28, 2007)

TT: The continuing crisis

I remain deep under the weather, but the clouds are lifting—slowly. Watch this space for details.

March 6, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Beware the politically obsessed. They are often bright and interesting, but they have something missing in their natures; there is a hole, an empty place, and they use politics to fill it up. It leaves them somehow misshapen."

Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution

TT: Inching back

A friend writes:

Terry, how are you doing? I just read yr blog. This "deep under the weather" sounds scary. How are you doing?

Not to worry. Longtime readers know that I suffer from what once was quaintly known as a weak chest, by which I don’t mean my ticker (which has its own weaknesses) but my pipes. Common colds invariably lay me low, especially when I’ve been too busy, and I think my recent trip to California qualifies. I spent a lot of time sitting in theaters and on airplanes, which is no doubt how I happened to inhale the virus that knocked me flat last week and has yet to turn me loose.

Alas, I had to hit a bunch of deadlines and see Howard Katz, King Lear, and Prelude to a Kiss in between sneezes, so my recovery has been incremental. For once I decided to be sensible and cut back sharply on my blogging, and I don’t expect to gear back up to anything like normal until next week. Kindly bear with me!

In the meantime, let me draw your attention to a few things:

• My most recent “Sightings” column, which appeared in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, was about the perils of connoisseurship. Here’s part of it:

Is it possible for a critic to know too much? Not a chance. The unhappy truth is that it’s far more common for us not to know nearly enough about the art forms we review. (If you doubt it, ask any artist.) But I’ve also discovered that the accumulation of knowledge can inhibit our ability to appreciate an artistic experience. I know middle-aged opera buffs who never seem to enjoy the performances they attend. Whenever they go to “La Traviata,” they always end up spending the whole intermission grousing about how the soprano wasn’t as good as some half-forgotten diva they heard in Milan 37 years ago. They’ve lost the knack of enjoying the performances they’re seeing—not to mention the piercing beauty of the music they’re hearing….

[T]he more you learn about an art form, the harder it becomes to enjoy it in a straightforward, uncomplicated way. The literary critic R.P. Blackmur had this phenomenon in mind when he observed that “knowledge itself is a fall from the paradise of undifferentiated sensation.” Go to “Swan Lake” for the first time and you’ll be blown away by the flood of gorgeous new sights and sounds that spills over you. Go 20 times and you’re more likely to notice that the orchestra played out of tune and the ballerina did 31 fouettés instead of 32.

That’s not snobbishness. It’s connoisseurship, and it’s a good thing—unless it gets between you and the immediate experience of art. Gratuitous pickiness is a soul-killing trap against which the critic must always be on guard….

This column inspired artblogger Edward Winkleman to respond in an interesting and sympathetic way, and to invite his own readers to comment no less interestingly. Take a look.

• Not long after I heard her at Joe’s Pub and blogged about it, Erin McKeown, the singer-songwriter who gets mentioned fairly frequently (and always enthusiastically) in this space, was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered. To listen, go here.

• Mark your calendar right now, for Jim Hall and Ron Carter are coming to the Blue Note for a six-night stand. Just the other day I was telling one of my young friends that Alone Together, their classic 1972 duet album, was on my Top Five list of great jazz-guitar recordings. I must have played it a couple of hundred times, but I’ve never heard the two of them live. The music starts on April 3. Be there—I will.

Now I’m going to see about getting a good night’s sleep, insofar as it’s possible. I’ve been taking antihistamines, which sometimes have strange effects on me, and last night I dreamed that a well-known New York drama critic was my college roommate (which he wasn’t) and told me that he wanted to undergo a sex-change operation (I don’t have any information about that). On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia….

March 7, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Bach no more composed for us than he lived for us. His music comes from far away; it speaks a language that we understand yet in which we hear echoes of another language, outside our expressive range."

Martin Geck, Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work (trans. John Hargraves)

March 8, 2007

TT: So you want to see a show?

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)
Salvage (The Coast of Utopia, part 3)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 13)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 12)
Translations* (drama, G, too complicated for children, 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)
Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes May 12)

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

CLOSING SOON:
The Madras House (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)

CLOSING SUNDAY:
The Last Word… (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
The Vertical Hour (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

TT: Almanac

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen,
What old December’s bareness everywhere!

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 97

March 9, 2007

TT: Almanac

"For each illness that doctors cure with medicine, they provoke ten in healthy people by inoculating them with the virus that is a thousand times more powerful than any microbe: the idea that one is ill."

Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way

TT: Laughing at Lear

I kept on seeing shows while I was sick, and I report on three of them in today’s Wall Street Journal drama column, King Lear, Patrick Marber’s Howard Katz, and Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss. As you’ll see, none of them made me feel any better:

Kevin Kline is smart, imaginative and unfailingly watchable—but can you really see him as King Lear? Evidently James Lapine does. Mr. Lapine, who is best known (and rightly so) for collaborating with Stephen Sondheim and staging “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” has directed the new production of “King Lear” in which Mr. Kline is currently starring at the Public Theater. Admiring both men as I do, I hoped against hope that their “Lear” would work. But it doesn’t, not at all, and though it’s not the worst one I’ve ever seen—that prize goes to Robert Falls’ comprehensively stupid production, presented last summer at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre—it’s pretty awful all the same….

Watching a play about a midlife crisis is like listening to a song cycle about prostate trouble, and Mr. Marber’s take on the old, old story is (A) stealthily sentimental and (B) far from fresh. In fact, it was around the time that Alfred Molina [the star of Howard Katz] tried unsuccessfully to go back to his wife (Jessica Hecht) that I recalled how Tony Shalhoub had been put through a not-dissimilar wringer just two months ago in Theresa Rebeck’s “The Scene.” It’s not that there’s nothing new to be said about such crises, but whatever it is, Mr. Marber hasn’t said it….

It isn’t hard to sit back and let yourself be entertained [by Prelude to a Kiss], but don’t expect more out of Mr. Lucas’ punchline-strewn fantasy about love and death, which longs to be profound but settles for sugary slickness. “How precious the time is…how little we realize till it’s almost gone,” [John] Mahoney assures us. Stop the presses—dog bites man!

No free link. Buy a copy of today’s Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal so that you can read all of the Journal’s Friday arts coverage, including my drama column. (If you’re already a subscriber, the column is here.)

TT: All better

I am now officially over the flu. Regular blogging resumes on Monday!

March 12, 2007

TT: Further signs of recovery

I've just given the right-hand column an extensive updating. New items abound. Take a gander.

TT: Almanac

"Only a mediocre writer is always at his best."

W. Somerset Maugham, introduction to The Portable Dorothy Parker

TT: Saddled up

It took longer than I expected for me to shake off whatever bug it was that laid me low two weeks ago. Nothing short of an ambulance ride is enough to shut me down completely, though, and I've been keeping fairly busy despite my intermittent absences from this space.

Among other things, I saw two plays, one of them in the company of Mr. My Stupid Dog, who was in New York for a few days and kindly consented to accompany me last Friday to the Signature Theatre Company’s off-Broadway revival of August Wilson’s King Hedley II. I also gave him a tour of the Teachout Museum, which I’m sure he’ll describe in due course on his own blog.

On Saturday afternoon I took in Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio, which impressed me so much when I saw it at the Public Theater in 1987 that I went back to see it again a few weeks later. Talk Radio was one of the very first plays I saw on stage after moving to New York, and my memories of Bogosian’s ferally intense performance as Barry Champlain remain clear and vivid to this day. (Liev Schreiber is playing the part in the new Broadway revival, which opened yesterday.)

For the most part, though, I stuck close to home, resting in between deadlines. I watched a couple of movies on TV, including Shane, which I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. It’s an old favorite, not least for its supporting cast, which includes the immortal Elisha Cook, Jr., though I do have certain lingering reservations that I would have tried to sum up here had Brian Garfield not beaten me to the punch in his insufficiently appreciated Western Films: A Complete Guide:

It calls attention to itself as self-conscious Myth: one can imagine producer-director [George] Stevens and novelist-screenwriter [A.B.] Guthrie (The Big Sky) sitting down together and saying something like, “Now we’re going to make the definitive Western.” There’s something too studied about the panoramic imagery; it’s always splendid but sometimes boastful—the calculated contrived perfection militates against its integrity: it lacks the easy grace of, say, the seemingly casual artistry of John Ford, whose camera seemed to just happen upon beautiful compositions….Shane strives too hard for its effects: the mannered deliberate dignity of pace; the grand epic photography with its seemingly painted, or at least hand-retouched, colors, and the patent symbolism of the lonely, gorgeous Grand Teton locations; the magnificent symphonic score by Victor Young; the measured editing of Tom McAdoo and William Hornbeck; the isolation of the rustic three-building town; the black costume worn by [Jack] Planace and its contrast with Shane’s golden hair and pale buckskins.

All true—but I love it anyway.

I also read the galleys of the American edition of Zachary Leader’s thousand-page Kingsley Amis biography, which Pantheon is publishing next month. I’ll be writing about it then, so I’ll withhold comment for now. Instead, let me direct you to a review of Paul Fussell’s The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters that I published in the New York Times Book Review in 1994. I’d forgotten about it until I read Leader’s book, and it happens to be available online, unlike "A Touch of Class," the essay about Amis that I wrote for The New Criterion back in 1988. I like that piece a lot, but I left it out of the Teachout Reader because that collection is restricted to essays about American artists. (You can find it, however, in an obscure 1998 volume called Critical Essays on Kingsley Amis.)

Finally, I made a purchase that I hope will make Our Girl the least little bit jealous: I bought a copy of The Lavender Leotard, Edward Gorey’s very rare 1973 book about New York City Ballet. (OGIC is a longtime Gorey collector.) The inside jokes in The Lavender Leotard are unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t know a fair amount about the history of NYCB and the ballets of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, but I’m pleased to say that I got all but a couple of them.

All this was more than enough to keep me busy, as well as to tire me out. Though I’m basically well again, the steam in my boiler is still low and I have a lot of work to do this week, so I’ll sign off for now. It’s nice to be back!

March 13, 2007

TT: Madly industrious

I've now changed all of the Top Five and "Out of the Past" picks and updated the "Teachout in Commentary" module, so if you haven't visited the right-hand column lately, do so.

OGIC: Brief, muffled cry

Positively crushed right now by heaps and heaps of work. Project full recovery and return in two weeks when critical deadline has passed. Until then.

TT: Almanac

"Like so many aging college people, Pnin had long since ceased to notice the existence of students on the campus."

Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin

TT: Time capsules

A hundred years ago, Percy Grainger, an eccentric Australian pianist-composer temporarily resident in London, took an interest in English folk songs and decided to go out into the country and collect them. He went to North Lincolnshire in 1905 to attend a local music festival whose events included a folk-song competition. The fliers for the festival described the event as follows:

Class XII. Folk songs. Open to all. The prize in this class will be given to whoever can supply the best unpublished old Lincolnshire folk song or plough song. This song should be sung or whistled by the competitor, but marks will be allotted for the excellence rather of the song than of its actual performance. It is specially requested that the establishment of this class be brought to the notice of old people in the country who are most likely to remember this kind of song, and that they be urged to come in with the best old song they know.

The first prize went to a seventy-two-year-old man named Joseph Taylor who impressed Grainger hugely, not only with the song he sang but with the way he sang it. Grainger later wrote that “his flowing, ringing tenor voice was well nigh as fresh as that of his son…Nothing could be more refreshing than his hale countrified looks and the happy lilt of his cheery voice.”

On another occasion he recalled:

Mr. Joseph Taylor…was neither illiterate nor socially backward. And it must also be admitted that he was a member of the choir of his village (Saxby-All-Saints, Lincolnshire) for over 45 years—a thing unusual in a folksinger. Furthermore his relatives—keen musicians themselves—were extremely proud of his prowess as a folksinger. Mr. Taylor was bailiff on a big estate, where he formerly had been estate woodman and carpenter. He was the perfect type of an English yeoman: sturdy and robust, yet the soul of sweetness, gentleness, courteousness and geniality.

Grainger took down several songs in musical notation from Taylor and the other singers he met that April, and came back to Lincolnshire the following year with a portable phonograph that he used to record their voices. (“He’s learnt that quicker nor I,” one singer said as Grainger played back the song he’d just recorded.) He soon became fascinated to the point of obsession with the songs he collected and the idiosyncratic way in which the people he met sang them, and over the next few years he made dozens of instrumental and vocal arrangements of them.

By that time Grainger was already well known as a concert pianist who wrote music on the side, but these piquant arrangements, some of which became hugely popular, helped make him famous, as did the folk-inspired original compositions he started to produce around the same time. For the rest of his life he would be mainly known as the composer of such engaging miniatures as “Country Gardens,” “Molly on the Shore,” and “Irish Tune from County Derry” (better known as “Danny Boy”).

In 1908 Grainger persuaded the Gramophone Company to record Joseph Taylor in the studio. It was the first time that the voice of a "Genuine Peasant Folksinger" (as the label described Taylor in its promotional material) had ever been commercially recorded for posterity. Taylor didn’t much care for the process, claiming that singing into an acoustical horn was “lahk singin’ with a muzzle on,” but that didn’t stop him from doing his best. He cut a dozen songs, of which nine were released. The original 78s, not surprisingly, sold poorly and soon became rarities—only two complete sets of the seven discs are known to exist—and except for an obscure 1972 LP release known only to folksong specialists, they have long been hard to track down in any format.

Grainger himself had faded into semi-obscurity well before his death in 1961, but his folk-style pieces continued to be played, and a small but loyal band of influential musicians, among them Benjamin Britten and Frederick Fennell, made brilliant recordings of his music that brought it to the attention of a new generation of listeners and performers, myself among them. Thanks to these performances, as well as John Bird’s 1976 biography, Grainger has come to be widely regarded as a composer of significance, and virtually all of his music is now available on CD. Britten’s 1969 Grainger collection, for instance, was reissued a few years ago, as was Fennell’s legendary 1958 recording with the Eastman Wind Ensemble of Lincolnshire Posy, a six-movement suite for concert band based on some of the songs that Grainger collected in Lincolnshire.

But what about old Joseph Taylor? I’ve long been fascinated by Grainger and his music—the Max Beerbohm caricature I purchased a couple of years ago is a 1913 study of Grainger playing piano for a group of London ladies—and so it followed that I wanted very much to hear Taylor’s 78s. I couldn’t track any of them down until a year and a half ago, when I put out a plea in this space to which one of my trusty readers responded, informing me that Taylor’s version of “Brigg Fair” had been reissued on CD.

I bought it, ripped it, and wrote about it:

From the speakers…came a century-old sound: It was on the fifth of August, the weather fair and fine/Unto Brigg Fair I did repair, for love I was inclined. I listened with wonder to Joseph Taylor's throaty, ever-so-slightly creaky voice and the fluttering ornaments with which he gracefully decorated the long descending arch of melody.

That was the end of the story—until last week.

For some reason it occurred to me the other day to look up Joseph Taylor on iTunes and see what I might find. To my bemusement and delight, I found seven of the twelve songs Taylor recorded in London in 1908, including “Brigg Fair” and “Creeping Jane,” the very song with which he won the prize that had brought him to Grainger’s attention three years earlier.

You can download any or all of them if you’re curious, and I recommend that you do so, not only for their intrinsic musical value but because they fling wide a tightly shut door. The world in which people like Taylor lived vanished long ago—it was already disappearing fast in 1908—and you will never again be so close to it as during the sixteen and a half minutes it takes to listen to these seven 78 sides.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, another composer who was profoundly affected by his exposure to English folk singers, wrote about them in 1932:

I am telling you not of something clownish and boorish, not even something inchoate, not of the half-forgotten reminiscences of fashionable music mouthed by toothless old men and women, not of something archaic, not of mere “museum pieces,” but of an art which grows straight out of the needs of a people and for which a fitting and perfect form, albeit on a small scale, has been found by those people; an art which is indigenous and owes nothing to anything outside itself, and above all an art which to us today has something to say—a true art which has beauty and vitality now in the twentieth century….

The folk-song is I believe not dead, but the art of the folk-singer is. We cannot, and would not if we could, sing folk-songs in the same way and in the same circumstances in which they used to be sung.

Of course Vaughan Williams was right—which makes it all the more wonderful that you can now use your computer to download records made by a man born in 1832 of songs that he learned as a boy in Lincolnshire, long before anyone had dreamed of such everyday witchcraft.

As I wrote in this space last year:

How miraculous that such brief glimpses of the fast-receding past have survived into the unsure present—and how wonderful that the Web is now putting them at our fingertips.

If that’s not worth seven dollars, I don’t know what is.

March 14, 2007

TT: Almanac

"There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself."

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

TT: Straight from the source

Jonatha Brooke, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, has recorded a new album called Careful What You Wish For. She sent this message to her e-mailing list the other day:

I know you're barraged with email every day. BUT, it occurred to me late last night, gearing up for this pre-order release, that if every one of you reading this (you all did sign up at some point!) bought the new CD here, we'd be able to cover our costs for three months!! No small feat.

So, it's true, we're ready to start taking pre-orders for my new record, "Careful What You Wish For." We'll start sending them out next week, and of course, I will autograph every single one.

As I'm sure you know, the record business is as tough as it's ever been. Tower is gone, and most retail stores will only stock the top sellers. So whether you buy the record here, at Amazon or Borders or Barnes and Noble, every sale counts. Spreading the word to your friends and family is incredibly helpful too.

That’s just what I’m doing. To order Careful What You Wish For directly from jonathabrooke.com, go here—and tell her who sent you.

TT: Elsewhere

I haven’t been surfing the Web nearly enough in recent weeks, but I do have three things to share with you today.

• Ms. Kate’s Book Blog has bought herself a manual typewriter:

I don’t have the option of reclaiming all my time for writing but I thought that if I got a typewriter for my office at home, even just as a decorative object, it would be a way of symbolically reclaiming the space for writing. It would mark a rebalancing of my priorities….

What a lovely gesture! I’d like to do the same—I miss the wonderful old “acoustic typewriter” on which I wrote so many of my early articles—but I don’t have enough horizontal space in my tiny New York apartment to display such an objet d’art. So much the worse for me.

(While we're on the subject of typewriters, take a peek at the cover of Prog, the new Bad Plus CD.)

• Mr. Modern Art Notes recently paid a similarly lovely tribute to his mother, from whom he inherited his love of art:

Mom painted watercolors. My grandmother's house is full of them: colorful, twisted trees on the California coast and brushy abstractions of the cats next door, especially the fat one, Big Bertha. The paintings I like best are her Sierra Nevada landscapes.

Something occurs to me as I write this: I don't remember seeing Mom paint. That's not to say that she only painted in the absence of us kids, or when my father wasn't around. It's just that I remember the family experiences that surrounded her painting instead….

Read all about them here.

• Can critics and artists be friends? Alex Ross weighs in:

The irony underlying this discussion is that some of our strongest prejudices—favorable or unfavorable—are directed toward people we've never met. Lack of contact lets us idolize our heroes and demonize our foes. The advantage of meeting people within the profession is that you see them as they really are. The danger is that you may end up liking a lot of them, tolerating most of the others, and madly loving rather few. For myself, I want to preserve at least some of the fantasy of fandom….

Alex says that he “generally avoids” meeting the people he writes about. Should he? Watch this space for further details....

March 15, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Creeds must disagree: it is the whole fun of the thing. If I think the universe is triangular, and you think it is square, there cannot be room for two universes. We may argue politely, we may argue humanely, we may argue with great mutual benefit: but, obviously, we must argue. Modern toleration is really a tyranny. It is a tyranny because it is a silence. To say that I must not deny my opponent's faith is to say I must not discuss it."

G.K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, Oct. 10, 1908

TT: So you want to see a show?

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)
Salvage (The Coast of Utopia, part 3)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 13)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 12)
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)
Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes May 12)

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

CLOSING SOON:
Translations* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK:
The Madras House (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)
The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Mar. 25)

March 16, 2007

TT: Almanac

"In his scores, by the way, Bartók sets down the timings to the split second, like this: '6 min., 22 seconds'; whereas Alban Berg in his Violin Concerto allows, apparently, a latitude of fully five minutes by noting on the flyleaf of the work: 'Duration 25-30 minutes.' This difference in outlook on the part of two contemporary masters, both trail-blazers, always puzzled me. I asked Bartók for the reason. 'It isn't as if I said: "This must take six minutes, twenty-two seconds,"' he answered; 'but I simply go on record that when I play it the duration is six minutes, twenty-two seconds.' An essential distinction, this."

Joseph Szigeti, With Strings Attached: Reminiscences and Reflections

TT: Mr. Shapiro, tracer of lost quotes

My “Sightings” column in Saturday's Wall Street Journal is the fruit of a couple of days I spent reading the new Yale Book of Quotations from cover to cover. Fred Shapiro, the editor, has used Web-based research tools to track down all sorts of hitherto-unknown original sources for famous and not-so-famous quotes, and some of the things that he and his colleagues have dredged up (including the very first time H.L. Mencken used the term "Bible Belt" in print) are pretty amazing.

To find out more, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.

TT: Lives of noisy desperation

I review two new revivals in today's Wall Street Journal drama column, Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio and August Wilson's King Hedley II:

Twenty years ago, Eric Bogosian was one of the hottest young guns in American theater, a performance artist whose blisteringly intense one-man shows were must-see events. Now he’s a regular on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” Was he really as good as he seemed back in the days when “Drinking in America” and “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” were the talk of the town? Second Stage’s wan revival of “subUrbia,” Mr. Bogosian’s 1994 play about life among the slackers, heightened my retrospective suspicion that he was more a magnetic performer than a convincing writer, and so I’ve been anxiously awaiting the Broadway revival of “Talk Radio,” whose original Public Theater production remains one of my most vivid theatergoing memories. Now that I’ve seen it, I can report that “Talk Radio” makes the same impression today that it did in 1987—which isn’t entirely good news....

August Wilson was a major playwright who went off the rails somewhere in between “Fences,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, and “Gem of the Ocean,” his next-to-last play, whose 2005 Broadway premiere was a high-minded snoozefest. Now that I’ve seen the Signature Theatre Company’s revival of “King Hedley II,” written in 2001, I understand more clearly what went wrong with Wilson’s “Pittsburgh cycle” of plays about the black experience in 20th-century America: He stopped showing and started telling....

No free link. You were expecting maybe a miracle? Go out and buy the paper, or get smart and go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will allow you to read all of the Journal’s Friday arts coverage, including my drama column, on the spot and forever after. (If you’re already a subscriber, the column is here.)

TT: Words to the wise

Chris Thile, the mandolin-playing sparkplug of Nickel Creek, is now leading a group of his own, the Tensions Mountain Boys. They’re performing tomorrow night at Zankel Hall, and the program includes the premiere of a new multi-movement composition by Chris called The Blind Leaving the Blind. I wrote the program notes:

Chris Thile has spent the past two decades tirelessly pushing at the boundaries of bluegrass. Widely acclaimed as the outstanding mandolin virtuoso of his generation, he’s equally admired for his singing and songwriting. Now, in his first post-Nickel Creek project, he’s broken through to something completely different—yet no less deeply rooted in the timeless traditions from which his music springs.

The Blind Leaving the Blind is a 40-minute suite in four movements for voice, mandolin, violin, banjo, guitar, and bass. That’s the standard bluegrass lineup, of course, but The Blind Leaving the Blind doesn’t fit into that familiar pigeonhole, or any other. It’s not a medley-like string of songs, but a through-composed piece in which vocal passages and extended instrumental interludes are woven together into a tightly integrated whole that fuses the song-based structures of folk and pop with the large-scale, organically developed forms of classical music….

The concert starts at 8:30. For more information, or to read the rest of my notes, go here.

March 19, 2007

TT: Almanac

"A beauty is not suddenly in a circle. It comes with rapture. A great deal of beauty is rapture. A circle is a necessity. Otherwise you would see no one. We each have our circle."

Gertrude Stein, "A Circular Play"

TT: Effects of light

I’ve been busy. (What else is new?) Among other things, I took Sarah to Chris Thile’s Zankel Hall concert and saw Curtains, Jack Goes Boating, and Propeller’s all-male stagings of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. I also dined with two good friends, cranked out a fair amount of prose, and reread my favorite classical-music autobiography, Carl Flesch’s Memoirs, from which I’ve previously extracted a couple of almanac entries. This time I ran across the following pithy remark: “A teacher who is only interested in great talents is like a man who only seeks the company of rich people.”

Chris’ concert was an event of no small significance, and I'll be curious to see whether the reviews convey that fact. The Blind Leaving the Blind, the centerpiece of the program, is a forty-minute-long multi-movement work for voice and bluegrass quintet that is through-composed. A few theater composers, most notably Stephen Sondheim, Adam Guettel, and Michael John LaChiusa, have broken away from the repeating-chorus song-form model to forge large-scale musical structures rooted in the language of popular music, but I can’t think of very many pop musicians who’ve attempted anything as ambitious as The Blind Leaving the Blind. Some of the seams are joined a bit too loosely, but the piece still works, and the spectacularly fleet-fingered members of the Tensions Mountain Boys, Chris’ new band, are equal to the technical challenges he's flung at them.

The rest of the concert was devoted to songs from How to Grow a Woman From the Ground, the Tensions Mountain Boys’ debut album. It’s a winning piece of work that I commend to your attention, though what I really want to hear is a studio recording of The Blind Leaving the Blind. No piece as complex as this can be fully taken in at first hearing, and I’m eager to listen to it at my leisure.

In between these varied activities, I hung a new piece of art, a watercolor by Jane Wilson that I bought a month ago but couldn’t take home with me on the spot because it was part of a show at DC Moore Gallery. I’ve been a fan of Wilson’s work ever since I wrote about her for the Washington Post in 2003, and it gave me great pleasure to hang “Breaking Light” directly below Fairfield Porter’s Isle au Haut and Jane Freilicher’s Late Afternoon, Southampton.

This is the first piece of art I've bought from a Fifth Avenue gallery, and I was struck by how the staff treated me once I made it clear that I wasn't just browsing. "I'm wondering whether you have any other Wilson watercolors in inventory," I told the young woman at the front desk. All at once the boss materialized from out of nowhere, whisked me into a back room, and started hanging art on the wall. I couldn't help thinking of the scene from Pretty Woman in which Richard Gere informs the snobby manager of a clothing store on Rodeo Drive that he's planning to spend a really offensive amount of money on Julia Roberts. The fact that the watercolor in which I'd expressed interest was a modestly priced five-by-seven miniature made the experience even more satisfying. The only thing nicer than being treated as if you were rich is being treated that way when it's obvious that you're not.

It was snowing when I hung “Breaking Light” last Friday, and the light from my window was chilly and grey, so I warmed the air by putting on Aaron Copland’s Violin Sonata, a gentle, modest piece that I hadn’t heard for some time. Listening to Copland’s music in a room whose walls are covered with American art reminded me of a “Sightings” column I wrote for The Wall Street Journal late in 2005:

What do the music of Aaron Copland, the dances of Paul Taylor, the paintings of Stuart Davis and the novels of Willa Cather have in common? They’re all American—and all-American. You can’t listen to five bars of “Appalachian Spring,” or read a paragraph of “My Ántonia,” without catching the tangy scent of American modernism. It’s as familiar as the smell of wood smoke on a cold November evening. You can also hear it in the brassy bite of the trumpet cadenza that launches Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” just as you can see it in the last shot of John Ford’s “The Searchers,” that unutterably poignant moment when John Wayne turns from his reunited family and walks alone into the desert….

All this was on my own mind as I paid a visit to “Marks of Distinction: Two Hundred Years of American Drawings and Watercolors from the Hood Museum of Art,” a handsome little show on display through Dec. 31 at the National Academy Museum in New York. Put together by the museum of Dartmouth College, it consists of eighty exceedingly well-chosen works on paper by such noted artists as John James Audubon, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin, Romare Bearden and Lee Bontecou.

As this list suggests, “Marks of Distinction” offers a cross-section of American art so wide-ranging in style as to make a casual visitor wonder whether any generalizations about our art can possibly hold true. But as I walked through the galleries, I was struck anew by the web of common temperament that knits together the best of these works, different though they may look at first glance.

One aspect of this temperament is an overarching sense of loneliness—rarely oppressive, certainly not neurotic, but omnipresent all the same. The landscapes in “Marks of Distinction” are usually unpeopled, the cityscapes anonymous, the portraits stoic to the occasional point of outright facelessness. Even in a festive scene like Charles Demuth’s “Beach Study No. 3, Provincetown,” the three brightly colored bathers are suspended in a cold white void, just as the ship in Lyonel Feininger’s “Seascape with Cloudy Sky” sails an empty sea. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to find in this quality a reflection of a land of illimitably vast expanses, a place where even the most crowded city offers its dwellers what E.B. White called “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”

Another thing I noticed time and again in “Marks of Distinction” was a certain brisk informality. We are a people in love with change, which may explain why our artists like nothing better than to catch images on the wing, recording them in explosive flurries of brushstrokes that suggest the dynamism of American life. Perhaps that’s why many of our finest modernists chose to cultivate the excitingly ambiguous middle ground that separates literal representation from pure abstraction. It’s a short step from the cubist turbulence of John Marin’s all-but-abstract “Sea Piece in Red” to the landscape-evoking expressionism of the profoundly mysterious untitled mixed-media sketch by Joan Mitchell that is my favorite piece in the show.

Above all, American artists are natural-born empiricists, passionate disbelievers in theory who seek truth through the immediate experience of the senses, then set it down on paper without excessive regard for whatever rules and regulations may happen to be in fashion at the moment. Ours is a nation of Gatsbys, homemade and self-created, and our best artists share something of the same determinedly unacademic individuality. That’s why the 80 works included in “Marks of Distinction” are at once so stylistically diverse and so recognizably American, two sides of a coin on which is stamped the motto that sums up our wonderful country without a wasted word: Out of many, one.

I'll stand by that.

March 20, 2007

TT: Almanac

Dance there upon the shore;
What need have you to care
For wind or water’s roar?
And tumble out your hair
That the salt drops have wet;
Being young you have not known
The fool’s triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won,
Nor the best labourer dead
And all the sheaves to bind.
What need have you to dread
The monstrous crying of wind?

W.B. Yeats, “To a Child Dancing in the Wind” (courtesy of twang twang twang)

TT: Collectors' items

The art world is buzzing about this story from The Stranger, Seattle's alternative newspaper. (CultureGrrl wrote about it here.) It seems that Matthew Kangas, Seattle’s best-known art critic, has a good-sized collection consisting mainly of pieces given to him by local artists—at his request:

Last week, nine artists went on record with The Stranger saying that Kangas did ask directly for art or implied he should be given art before or after he wrote reviews of their work. In a phone interview, Kangas denied ever having done so. He does have a collection of art, he said, and artists have given him much of it….

After Kangas's 1995 review of Alice Wheeler's photography show at Vox Populi was published in Art in America, he called her, she said. "It was like, 'Okay, the review's out, when can I come over to pick out some art? We also need to go to lunch and we're going to Palomino and you're buying,'" she said. "I thought it was what I had to do." She gave him two pictures and spent $75 on lunch, she said. "My rent was $285 at the time, so it was a lot of money. I like Matthew; I just think that some of what he does is manipulative and BS."

It is, of course, well known that Clement Greenberg, on whom Kangas appears to have modeled himself, accepted gifts of art from many of the artists about whom he wrote, and that he later sold an unknown number of them to pay his bills. (Seven years after his death, his second wife sold the residue of his collection to the Portland Museum of Art, which reportedly paid $2,000,000 for it.) But I know of no evidence that Greenberg shook down any of the artists in question, or anything remotely like it.

No less interesting is the second half of the piece, which describes the conflict-of-interest policies that Art in America, Sculpture, the New York Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Seattle Times impose on their culture staffers:

Daily newspapers are far stricter than industry magazines when it comes to conflict-of-interest standards. At the Seattle Times, a portion of the ethics guidelines pertains to collecting but doesn't address it directly: "No staff member may cover, edit, package, or supervise regular coverage of an industry, company, venture, or person in which the staff member, spouse, or domestic partner has any investment, or immediate family members have significant investment, financial or business ties. Such ties pose the appearance of a conflict of interest and may harm the Times and staff member's reputations."…

The written rule at the New York Times includes a similar clause to one in the Seattle Times guidebook, with the added: "An arts writer or editor who owns art of exhibition quality (and thus has a financial stake in the reputation of the artist) may inspire questions about the impartiality of his or her critical judgments or editing decisions. Thus members of the culture staff who collect valuable objects in the visual arts (paintings, photographs, sculpture, crafts, and the like) must annually submit a list of their acquisitions and sales to the associate managing editor for news administration."

New York Times culture editor Sam Sifton said the rule is mostly for writers who come to their beats already owning objects; he said he would be uncomfortable with a critic assembling a collection. He compared the situation to a stock-market writer investing in securities. Gifts are a further problem, he said. The New York Times has a newsroom-wide injunction against gifts over $25 in value.

All this was of great personal interest to me. It's no secret that I collect art, but I only know two artists, neither of whom is represented in my collection, and I would never think of asking either one for a piece of art. The very idea shocks me—which may simply mean that I’m naïve.

It never occurred to me, for instance, that there was anything wrong with my mentioning Milton Avery in a "Sightings" column about art galleries that I published last year in The Wall Street Journal, especially since Avery is (A) dead and (B) an indisputably major artist whose reputation is unlikely to be affected by anything I might happen to write about him. After the column ran, though, one of my editors pointed out that my ownership of an Avery drypoint might be construed as a conflict of interest, and suggested that I henceforth make a point of not writing for the Journal about any artist whose work I own. The Teachout Museum is a small-time affair, monetarily speaking, but I took his point, and since then I’ve been careful to follow his advice.

Needless to say, I don’t write about the visual arts as a working critic, merely as a passionately interested observer of the art scene, the same way I now write about dance. (I used to be a working dance critic, but not any longer.) Theater is different: I’m the drama critic of a national newspaper, and I’m well aware of what it would mean if I were to review a close friend in its pages. On the other hand, I’m not a “theater person” in the common sense of the phrase, and I don’t have any close friends whose work I would ever have occasion to review in the Journal.

Is that a good thing? Not really. As I wrote last year, “A critic who holds himself at arm's length from the artistic community whose activities he covers is a eunuch in the harem.” Nor do I hold myself at arm’s length from the world of music, of which I have been a part my whole life long. If I write well about music, it’s partly because I am a musician, from which it naturally follows that I know other musicians. Not surprisingly, some of them are among my closest friends, and I sometimes write about them—though not as a critic. Reviewing your friends is a good way to lose them. I plug the work of friends on this blog when I like it. Otherwise I stand tactfully mute.

Would I be a better drama critic if I also had friends who were well-known actors, directors, or playwrights? Very possibly, but the fact remains that I don't, a deficiency which at least has the advantage of simplifying my professional relationship with The Wall Street Journal. Since I don’t move in theatrical circles or write profiles of people who do, I doubt I’ll be grappling with that problem any time soon. Should it come up in the future, I’ll do my best to behave appropriately.

All of which reminds me of the First Rule of Criticism, which I shared with my students at Rutgers/Newark back in the days when I was teaching a class in journalistic criticism: Never sleep with anybody you write about. I never have—but, then, I've never been asked.

TT: Jesse Simons, R.I.P.

Last night I went to a memorial service for Jesse Simons, one of the most delightful and fascinating men I’ve had the good luck to meet. Jesse, who died last year at the age of eighty-eight, was a Trotskyist turned labor arbitrator. He became sufficiently distinguished in the latter capacity to earn both a Wikipedia entry and a New York Times obituary, neither of which mentioned that he was also a bon vivant, a ladies’ man, and an unswervingly devoted balletomane.

Even in Manhattan, there aren’t all that many people interested in both George Balanchine and Leon Trotsky, so it was probably inevitable that Jesse and I should have gotten to know one another sooner or later. He reminded me of Eric Hoffer, another blue-collar man who turned himself into a intellectual by sheer force of will, though Jesse’s aesthetic streak was at least as pronounced as his interest in ideas. One of the speakers at his service mentioned his love of Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler, and his passion for Freud was a byword among all who knew him. Yet there was nothing pretentious about Jesse, who wore his learning lightly and was modest to a fault, though he had no earthly reason to be.

Among countless other intriguing things, Jesse was one of the founding directors of the New York Pro Musica Antiqua, the pioneering early-music group. Noah Greenberg, who started the Pro Musica, was another ex-Trotskyist, a labor organizer who subsequently turned his back on radical politics to immerse himself in the world of art. Late in life, Jesse was interviewed by James Gollin, Greenberg’s excellent biographer, to whom he made the following remark:

I knew dozens of the people who were around in those days. Politicals, labor people, intellectuals. We were all going to make the world a better place. But the only one who really left the world a better place than he found it was Noah, with his music.

I made a point of including those telling words in a piece about Greenberg that I wrote for Commentary in 2001, partly because I knew that Jesse was a faithful reader of the magazine and hoped the gesture might please him. It was the only time his name ever appeared in Commentary, and one of the few times it appeared in print during his lifetime. More’s the pity, for he could easily have written a classic autobiography. Instead his friends—of whom there were many—must rely on their memories. I know that mine will always stay bright and true.

March 21, 2007

TT and OGIC: Cathy Seipp, R.I.P.

We note with sorrow the death of Cathy Seipp, whose witty, wonderfully personal blog, Cathy’s World, drew readers from both sides of the ideological fence. Would that there were more such writers. She will be greatly missed.

Susan Estrich pays tribute to her here.

TT: Almanac

"I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, journal entry, May 1849

TT: An apple a day

I’ve written twice in the past few days about The Yale Book of Quotations, both in The Wall Street Journal (no free link) and in my weekly book-review column for Contentions. As you can see from the latter, I mostly like it very much. Yet I can’t help but think that for all the considerable virtues of this particular specimen of the genre, the old-fashioned dictionary of quotations may be an idea whose time has come and gone.

The problem, of course, is that in many ways—though not all—such books are far easier to use once they’re been digitized. I found this out a couple of years ago when I started using the quotation-search feature of bartleby.com, the online reference site that makes it possible to search simultaneously in The Columbia World of Quotations, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, and the 1919 edition of Bartlettt’s Familiar Quotations. None of these volumes is ideal, but taken together they constitute a formidable super-reference tool, especially when you can search them electronically. Were bartleby.com to add H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations to its quiver, it would border on the indispensable.

As I observed in the Journal on Saturday, The Yale Book of Quotations is itself a meta-tool whose compilers have used the Web shrewdly:

Fred R. Shapiro, the editor, has made use of what he refers to in his preface as “state-of-the-art research methods,” meaning the searchable online databases that are revolutionizing scholarly research. Mr. Shapiro and his associates have employed Eighteenth Century Collections Online, JSTOR, LexisNexis, Literature Online, newspaperarchive.com, ProQuest, Questia and the Times Digital Archive assiduously and well...I now know, for instance, that the phrase “shop till you drop” is a paraphrase of a line in Noël Coward’s 1938 play “Still Life,” while I was staggered to discover that George Orwell, of all people, appears to have coined Murphy’s Law in 1941: “If there is a wrong thing to do, it will be done, infallibly.”…

In 2002 I published a biography of H.L. Mencken on which I’d been working for a decade. I spent much of that time sifting through Mencken’s private papers, in which I found a wealth of invaluable information—but I wasn’t able to pin down the exact occasion on which he coined the phrase “Bible Belt.” Well, Mr. Shapiro and his trusty computer succeeded in doing what I couldn’t do: Mencken first used it in a column published in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 19, 1924.

On the other hand, my guess is that I would use The Yale Book of Quotations far more frequently if I could load it into my iBook or access it online, and I suspect that most under-50 writers and scholars (a category to which I no longer belong!) are likely to feel the same way. Books are blessed objects, but I question whether there is anything special to be gained by looking up the source of a quotation or the meaning of a word by riffling through a fat stack of bound sheets of paper. The two-volume Shorter Oxford still rests proudly on my desk, but I sadly confess that I can’t remember the last time I cracked it. When I need to look up a word, I do it online.

It happens, however, that I read The Yale Book of Quotations from cover to cover. “Yeah, right,” my Wall Street Journal editor said when he ran across that claim in the first draft of my column, to which I replied firmly that I’d turned every damn page. Granted, I was sick as a dog that week and didn’t feel up to reading anything that required consecutive thought, but the fact remains that I did it, and in the process made any number of serendipitous discoveries, including the one about Mencken, that I almost certainly wouldn’t have made had I been “reading” The Yale Book of Quotations on a CD-ROM. Therein lies the one great advantage of old-fashioned books: they lend themselves to browsing in a way that computerized databases do not. If books on paper continue to be printed and published a half-century from now, that may be the main reason for their survival.

Longtime readers of this blog doubtless suspect that I’ve long nurtured the desire to compile my own dictionary of quotations. Ever since “About Last Night” went live in 2003, I’ve posted a quotation each weekday, none of which has been repeated intentionally. (I've slipped once or twice.) These almanac entries are the postmodern equivalent of a commonplace book, and taken together they say at least as much about me as Mencken’s New Dictionary says about him. That’s not coincidental. As I pointed out in my Mencken biography:

The only important author missing from its 1,347 pages is Mencken himself, who told Time that “I thought it would be unseemly to quote myself. I leave that to the intelligence of posterity.” Yet the New Dictionary bears the dark stamp of his skepticism on every page, and at least one critic, Morton Dauwen Zabel, was quick to grasp the fact: “The impression soon becomes inescapable that what Mencken has produced as a ‘Dictionary of Quotations’ is really a transcendent ‘Prejudices: Seventh Series,’ a ‘Notes on Humanity,’ or more expressly ‘Mencken’s Philosophical Dictionary, Written by Others.’”

I’m old-fashioned enough to wish that I could spin my almanac entries into a book, and new-fangled enough to know that I probably won’t get the chance. Commonplace books do get published on occasion, but only when they happen to have been kept by such famous folk as W.H. Auden or Alec Guinness. I have little doubt that it is the fate of my serial commonplace book to blush unseen, save by the readers of this blog and those Googlers who happen by chance to stumble across its contents. Yet I keep it anyway, and I’m glad I do, for choosing each day’s entry adds a discreet pinch of savor to my life. I hope it does the same for you.

TT: Disappearing act

I was supposed to go down to Washington today for the spring meeting of the National Council on the Arts, but I've been having trouble licking the bug that laid me low earlier this month, and decided to be sensible and cancel my trip. (If David Letterman can call in sick, so can I!)

Expect the usual theater-related postings and almanac entries, but otherwise I plan to stay out of sight for a few days. See you Monday, presumably.

March 22, 2007

TT: Almanac

"In Washington, the first thing people tell you is what their job is. In Los Angeles you learn their star sign. In Houston you’re told how rich they are. And in New York they tell you what their rent is."

Simon Hoggart, America: A User’s Guide

TT: So you want to see a show?

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)
Salvage (The Coast of Utopia, part 3)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 13)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 12)
Talk Radio (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, 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)
Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes May 12)

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

CLOSING SOON:
Translations* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)

CLOSING SUNDAY:
The Madras House (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
Room Service (comedy, G, reasonably family-friendly but a bit complicated for youngsters, reviewed here)
The Voysey Inheritance (drama, G, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

March 23, 2007

TT: Almanac

"In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising."

Pauline Kael (quoted in Newsweek, Dec. 24, 1973)

TT: At low ebb

I reviewed four shows in this morning’s Wall Street Journal drama column: Curtains, Jack Goes Boating, and Propeller's all-male stagings of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. Here’s the rumpus:

I’ve never seen a musical that tried so hard to be likable as “Curtains,” or an audience that tried so hard to like it. Fred Ebb, who wrote most of the lyrics, died unexpectedly in 2004, leaving John Kander and Rupert Holmes to finish the show on their own. Mr. Kander and his longtime partner were one of Broadway’s most admired songwriting teams, and everybody wanted their last musical to be great. Me, too—but it isn’t, though the production and performances are so immaculately professional that you can almost fool yourself into thinking that “Curtains” is something more than an unrisen soufflé….

Propeller, Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare troupe, is back in Brooklyn for the third season in a row, this time performing “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Twelfth Night” in repertory at BAM Harvey. Both productions, played on the simplest of tour-friendly sets, are fast, fresh, funny and full of surprises. “The Taming of the Shrew” is thought-provoking, while “Twelfth Night” shimmers with magic. No matter how much Shakespeare you’ve seen lately, you’ll come home buzzing about the Bard as if you’d just discovered him….

Bob Glaudini’s “Jack Goes Boating” is an embarrassingly unfunny working-class romantic comedy in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays yet another shambling, depressed slacker type, this time a dope-smoking limo driver who’s never had a girlfriend. (No wonder.) Some seem to have found it amusing, but I couldn’t stop looking at my watch, not even when Daphne Rubin-Vega took off her clothes….

No free link. You know what to do, and if you’re smart, you’ll go here to do it. (If you’re already a subscriber to the Online Journal, my column is here.)

March 26, 2007

TT: Almanac

“The theater longs to represent the symbols of things, not the things themselves. All the lies it tells—the lie that that young lady is Caesar’s wife; the lie that people can go through life talking in blank verse; the lie that that man just killed that man—all those lies enhance the one truth that is there—the truth that dictated the story, the myth. The theater asks for as many conventions as possible. A convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, an accepted untruth. When the theater pretends to give the real thing in canvas and wood and metal it loses something of the realer thing which is its true business.”

Thornton Wilder, preface to Our Town

TT: Ubiquity

You’ve heard Louis Kaufman play the violin, whether you know it or not—and you probably don't. He was the concertmaster of the studio orchestras that recorded the scores for a startlingly high percentage of the best Hollywood film scores of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. He also played with Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc, made the first recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, bought the first oil painting ever sold by Milton Avery, lived in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, and wrote a lovely autobiography called A Fiddler’s Tale.

Such a life deserves to be celebrated, and I did so in an essay published in Commentary three years ago:

Why, then, is Kaufman all but forgotten? Because he spent his peak years laboring anonymously in the Hollywood studios instead of performing in major American cities. As a result, he failed to win the critical acclaim that a violinist of his quality might reasonably have expected to receive. Virtually all of his commercial recordings (including his historic Four Seasons) were made for small independent labels and have long been out of print. And his adventurous musical tastes drew him away from the standard repertoire that is the bread and butter of every classical-music soloist who hopes to have an international concert career….

Yet if Kaufman was troubled by his failure to become famous, he gives no hint of it in his autobiography, whose charm and verve, like that of Nathan Milstein’s From Russia to the West, are clearly an outward sign of its author’s inner contentment. The epigraph to the fifth chapter of A Fiddler’s Tale comes from the Bhagavad-Gita: “He who really does what he should will obtain what he wants.” Those are the words of a man at ease in his own skin, as was the remark that Kaufman often made to his wife as they prepared for bed: “This was a great day and tomorrow will be fine too.”

The world would be infinitely poorer without such untroubled, unselfconscious craftsmen…

Kaufman died in 1994, but his wife Annette, a fine pianist who accompanied his recitals, is still alive (she sent a letter to Commentary thanking me for writing about her husband). You can hear her on a CD bound into A Fiddler’s Tale that contains recordings by Kaufman of pieces by Robert Russell Bennett, Copland, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Milhaud, Saint-Saëns, William Grant Still, and Vivaldi. In addition, a few of Kaufman’s commercial recordings have been reissued on CD since I wrote about him three years ago, including his splendidly vital, still-listenable 1947 performance of The Four Seasons.

What put Kaufman back into my head? I was reading a press release announcing the latest additions to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, a list of American recordings deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important,” and saw that his Four Seasons recording had been added in 2003:

Louis Kaufman was one of the most recorded violinists of the 20th century with a brilliant career performing both film music and classical music. His 1947 recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons with the Concert Hall Orchestra conducted by Henry Swoboda was the first LP recording of the work that would become one of the most often recorded in the classical repertoire. Kaufman's performance would also play a pivotal role in the revival of Baroque music and interest in performance practice of early music.

This inspired me to reread A Fiddler’s Tale, which I found every bit as delightful the second time around. One of the appendices is a partial list of films on whose soundtracks Kaufman played. Here are some of the highlights:

AARON COPLAND: Our Town, The Heiress, The Red Pony

ADOLPH DEUTSCH: High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon

HUGO FRIEDHOFER: The Best Years of Our Lives

LEIGH HARLINE: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio

BERNARD HERRMANN: The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Magnificent Ambersons, Jane Eyre, Vertigo, Psycho

ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, The Sea Wolf, Kings Row, Between Two Worlds

ALFRED NEWMAN: Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, Captain from Castile

ALEX NORTH: A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus

DAVID RAKSIN: Laura, Forever Amber

MIKLÓS RÓZSA: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Spellbound, Ben-Hur

MAX STEINER: The Informer, Top Hat, Gone With the Wind, Intermezzo, Now, Voyager, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

FRANZ WAXMAN: Rebecca, The Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard

All that and Vivaldi, too! What an admirable man.

March 27, 2007

TT: Almanac

"We shouldn't call a critic a murderer just because it is his duty to sign death certificates."

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Die Anwalte der Literatur (quoted in Clive James, Cultural Amnesia)

TT: Under the gun

Am experiencing severe deadline-related problems. Check back with me again tomorrow. Or maybe Wednesday.

March 28, 2007

OGIC: Writing is hard

And that's why work is still keeping me from my blogging.

Making a film is hard too. But the rewards can be considerable:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Back soon!

TT: Almanac

"Rather than reading a book in order to criticize it, I would rather criticize it because I have read it, thus paying attention to the subtle yet profound distinction Schopenhauer made between those who think in order to write and those who write because they have thought."

Miguel de Unamuno, Ensayos (quoted in Clive James, Cultural Amnesia)

TT: Still in the barrel

I continue to joust with increasingly urgent deadlines, and for now I feel the need to spend such free time as I have (and there isn't much of it) consuming art instead of writing about it. I will, however, pause to tell you about my recent reading and listening:

• C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which I reread after a very long interval in preparation for reviewing the new stage version of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I saw on Monday night. (Celebrity watch: Ethan Hawke was there.)

• Maurice Duruflé’s exquisite Requiem, to which I hadn’t listened for several years. I’d forgotten (but how?) that it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know. If you need consolation—whatever the reason—you’ll find it here.

Labyrinth and Watercolor, a lovely pair of jazz CDs by Kerry Politzer, my latest enthusiasm.

Blues Stay Away From Me 1931-1951, an imported two-CD anthology of country duets by the Delmore Brothers.

• Carolyn Brown’s important new memoir, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham. I’ll be writing about it at some point, so for now I’ll simply say that if you have any interest in the emergence of avant-garde art in New York after World War II, you need to read this book. Among countless other good things, it’s wonderfully well written.

• An advance copy of Bill Charlap’s new CD, which reminds me to remind you that he’s playing at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room this Friday and Saturday. (Go here for details.) I’ll be at the second set on Friday—look for me.

Now, back to work.

P.S. If you've written to me in the last few days and haven't heard back, try to be patient and forgiving!

March 29, 2007

TT: Almanac

"There is no surer sign of a great writer than when whole books could be made out of his passing remarks."

Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg, Aphorismen (quoted in Clive James, Cultural Amnesia)

TT: So you want to see a show?

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)
Salvage (The Coast of Utopia, part 3)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 13)
Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 12)
Talk Radio (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, 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)
Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes May 12)

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

CLOSING SUNDAY:
Translations* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here)

March 30, 2007

TT: Almanac

"Concerning Fitzgerald, there is a principle that can't be taught in a creative writing class and is hard enough to teach in the regular English faculty, but it's worth a try: his disaster robbed us of more books as wonderful as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, but we wouldn't have those if he hadn't been like that. Fitzgerald's prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when by his own later standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man."

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia

TT: The uses of second-rate art

In this week's "Sightings" column, which appears in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, I report on a visit I paid to an exhibition of paintings by Vincent van Gogh and his contemporaries, some of whom were influenced by him to the point of outright imitation. What did I learn from the experience? That second-rate art, however derivative, can sometimes teach you as much as first-rate art about the nature of greatness.

To find out more, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal and turn to the "Pursuits" section.

TT: Almanac

"Concerning Fitzgerald, there is a principle that can't be taught in a creative writing class and is hard enough to teach in the regular English faculty, but it's worth a try: his disaster robbed us of more books as wonderful as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, but we wouldn't have those if he hadn't been like that. Fitzgerald's prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when by his own later standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man."

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia

TT: The Joan Didion Show

Today's Wall Street Journal column is devoted in its entirety to my review of the new stage version of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. I hated it:

It surprised when Joan Didion published "The Year of Magical Thinking," for I identified her so completely with California in the '60s that I'd almost forgotten she was still alive. Of course she continued to publish--a fat volume of her collected essays came out last fall--but somehow I had come to see her as a figure from the distant past, a chronicler of strange days for which I felt no nostalgia whatsoever. Then her daughter got sick and her husband died of a heart attack and she wrote a best-seller about it, and all at once she was back....

I found it hard to shake off the disquieting sensation that Ms. Didion, for all the obvious sincerity of her grief, was nonetheless functioning partly as a grieving widow and partly as a celebrity journalist who had chosen to treat the death of John Gregory Dunne as yet another piece of grist for her literary mill. All the familiar features of her style, hardened into slick, self-regarding mannerism after years of constant use, were locked into place and running smoothly, and I felt as though I were watching a piece of performance art, or reading a cover story in People: Joan Didion on Grief....

Would that the stage version of "The Year of Magical Thinking" were an improvement on the book, but it isn't. In one way it's much worse, for it starts off with a speech that has all the subtlety of the proverbial blunt object: "This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won't when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That's what I'm here to tell you." Why on earth did David Hare, the stage-savvy director, let Ms. Didion get away with so crude and undramatic a gesture? If the rest of the play doesn't make that point, nothing will.

Nor did Mr. Hare insist that his debutante author (this is Ms. Didion's first play) ram a theatrical spine down the back of her fugitive reflections on death and dying. As a seasoned playwright, he should have known better. "The Year of Magical Thinking" doesn't go anywhere--it just goes and goes, inching from scene to scene, and when Ms. Didion finally gets around to telling us an hour and a half later what she learned from the loss of her husband and daughter, it turns out to be a string of portentously worded platitudes...

To read the rest, buy a copy of today's Journal or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my column, plus the rest of the paper's extensive arts coverage.

UPDATE: The Journal has just posted a free link to this review. To read it, go here.

About March 2007

This page contains all entries posted to About Last Night in March 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

February 2007 is the previous archive.

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