A new face in the canon

20130831_OBP001_0I wrote a Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column earlier this year about how “serious” critics increasingly overvalue popular culture at the expense of high art. My central example was Elmore Leonard:

When Elmore Leonard died in August, the papers were full of obituaries that described him as “a novelist who made crime an art.” So, at any rate, declared a headline writer for the New York Times. A year earlier, the National Book Foundation had presented Mr. Leonard with its annual medal for “distinguished contribution to American letters,” calling him a “great American author,” and the Library of America announced that it would be bringing out a three-volume edition of his work in 2014. I didn’t want to rain on his cortege, so I didn’t say what I thought, which was that he was one of the most overpraised writers of our time. A very good one, mind you—I’m a passionate fan of Mr. Leonard’s brisk, funny crime novels—but overpraised all the same.

What’s wrong with them? For one thing, they’re repetitious to a fault. I can’t count the number of Mr. Leonard’s novels that revolve around a divorced man of a certain age who falls hard for a wised-up younger woman. On the other hand, a cheeseburger is a cheeseburger. No matter how many you’ve eaten, you can usually make room for another one if it’s good, and Mr. Leonard wrote a lot of good books, “LaBrava,” “Maximum Bob” and “Tishomingo Blues” in particular.

So why grump about his obituaries? Because they exemplify a trend that has gotten out of hand. It used to be that we didn’t take popular culture seriously, but now we don’t take anything else seriously….

The problem is not that pop culture doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. It’s that a culture totally dominated by popular art is by definition limited. Let’s go back to Elmore Leonard’s novels for a moment. Sure, they’re superbly crafted, but they’re all pure melodramas whose subject is crime, with a little romance thrown in for seasoning. So, almost without exception, are the TV series that have come of late to be widely regarded as the best that America’s storytellers have to offer. From “Hill Street Blues” to “The Sopranos” to “Breaking Bad,” these series are all thrillers of one kind or another. To be sure, they use the time-honored conventions of genre fiction to explore many other aspects of American life—but in the end, somebody always gets shot, just as a pop song, no matter how good it may be, is almost always three minutes long.

Now the Library of America has just brought out the first installment in its promised three-volume series of Leonard’s novels, which was, according to the flap copy, “prepared in consultation with the author shortly before his death.” I’ve had a fair amount to say about the Library of America over the years, most of it admiring, but I readily confess to being somewhat skeptical about the pop-culture turn that it’s been taking of late.

250px-Library_of_AmericaAllow me, if I may, to draw your attention to the mission statement that also appears on the dust jacket of Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s: “The Library of America helps to preserve our nation’s literary heritage by publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing.” To that end, it has brought out “authoritative editions” of the selected works of a remarkably wide-ranging variety of American writers, among them James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, Abraham Lincoln, William Maxwell, Herman Melville, H.L. Mencken, Flannery O’Connor, Eugene O’Neill, Dawn Powell, Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mark Twain, John Updike, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Edmund Wilson, and Richard Wright.

At the same time, though, the LOA has long made room for writers who were once thought “popular” (as Fitzgerald was, once upon a time) and are now regarded as canonical, including Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, George S. Kaufman, A.J. Liebling, and James Thurber. More recently it has brought out volumes devoted to such authors as Louisa May Alcott, Philip K. Dick, David Goodis, Jack Kerouac, H.P. Lovecraft, Barbara Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Their publication, not surprisingly, inspired a number of online parodies, of which this one is the naughtiest.

cache_sw_605_476_0_0_100_now-what.gifWhat do I make of all this? I confess to not being altogether sure, though I should say at once that I am, in the main, an unabashed admirer of the Library of America and its high-minded mission. I have no doubt, however, that it keeps one eye firmly fixed on the bloody shirt of literary politics—and I also suspect that the growing “inclusiveness” of its list is also a function of the well-known fact that institutions, like bureaucracies, exist to perpetuate themselves. Once you’ve published the canon, what do you do next? The LOA, after all, isn’t a well-endowed art museum that can just sit there and do nothing. It’s a business, one whose editors, like everybody else in publishing, are intensely conscious of the bottom line. While their decision to admit Elmore Leonard to the canon may well be a pure act of practical criticism, I suspect there’s a teeny bit more to it than that.

Like I said, I haven’t yet made up my mind about Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s. It’s an evasion to quip, as I did on Twitter, that since the Library of America has published three volumes of Philip K. Dick, Leonard deserves at least as many. I’d much rather see the LOA take note of such underappreciated American novelists as (say) James Gould Cozzens, Peter DeVries, or John P. Marquand—and perhaps they will someday. But given the way in which its editors now go about their business, it makes perfect sense that they should have given pride of place to the creator of Raylan Givens. That horse left the stable a long time ago.

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Plush velvet sometimes

The off-Broadway transfer of Satchmo at the Waldorf closed yesterday afternoon at the Westside Theatre. Today I feel proud and wistful—a strange sensation. My heart is still too full to say anything more than that John Douglas Thompson, my beloved friend and colleague, outdid himself. From his opening line to his final exit, he was on fire.

This last performance, coming as it did on the heels of my receiving a Bradley Prize, has inspired me to draw up a list of other memorable “public” moments in my life to date (excluding such purely personal occasions as my wedding to Mrs. T). Perhaps not surprisingly, all but one of them have to do with art and artists:

tindependence12• I performed the Berlioz Requiem with Maurice Peress and the now-defunct Kansas City Philharmonic at Independence’s 5,800-seat RLDS Auditorium in 1975. The orchestra was augmented for the occasion by a couple of dozen college students, and I was the youngest and lowliest of the lot. Accordingly, I sat in the last chair of the bass section, at once thrilled and half-petrified. Never before or since have I heard such all-enveloping sounds.

• The most spectacular performance of my short, happy life as a jazz musician was when Cat Anderson, Duke Ellington’s legendary high-note trumpeter, appeared as guest soloist with the William Jewell College Jazz Band, of which I was the regular bassist and sometime pianist. He went out with the boys in the band after the show to eat pizza and chat about life on the road. (If only I’d thought to take notes!) The rhythm section had accompanied him earlier that day on a noontime TV show. It was a live broadcast, I was playing piano, and I doubt I’ve ever been so scared as when Cat turned to me and told me to take a solo. I know my hands were shaking.

• On my first extended trip to Washington, D.C., I took a private after-hours tour of the White House (it was 1984, and an acquaintance of mine worked there). I stood behind the red velvet rope that is stretched across the door to the Oval Office when no one is home, leaning as far into the room as I dared and gaping like a schoolboy, thinking about how astonished my parents would be when I called to tell them where I’d been.

More than anything else, I remember how struck I was by the sheer unfanciness of the décor—it seemed almost homey. For all the obvious architectural elegance of the room, it reminded me more than anything else of a small-town law office writ large.

concertobarocco-slideshow-thmb• My first New York City Ballet performance took place in 1987. I described this life-transforming event in the opening chapter of All in the Dances, my 2004 biography of George Balanchine. You can read what I wrote here.

• I heard Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in recital at Carnegie Hall in 1988, and wrote in The Wall Street Journal about those concerts, his last public appearances in America, when he died two years ago:

He sang songs by Gustav Mahler, Schumann and Wolf, and I confess to recalling nothing specific about the performances themselves. What I do remember—indelibly—was his physical appearance. He seemed at least eight feet tall, and he strode about the stage with the energy of a very young man, all but thrusting himself at the audience. It was as if he had cast off his inhibitions and plunged into the music like a madman leaping headlong into a volcano.

610_bernstein_intro• Speaking of volcanoes, I only saw Leonard Bernstein in concert once, also at Carnegie Hall in 1988 (a very good year!). It was the forty-fifth anniversary of his debut with the New York Philharmonic, and he was conducting three of his own pieces, the Age of Anxiety Symphony, Chichester Psalms, and the Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. I was sitting in a box on the extreme right-hand side of the auditorium that was positioned in such a way as to give me a crystal-clear view of Bernstein standing in the wings, kissing the cufflinks that Serge Koussevitzky, his mentor, had given him (it was his customary pre-concert ritual) before coming out on stage.

What I remember most clearly about the performance itself is that Bernstein’s gestures were much more physically restrained than usual, as was often the case when he performed his own music.

• I saw the first preview of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway from the front row of New York’s Imperial Theatre in 1989. Not only was I a relative newcomer to dance, but I’d never seen a live performance of a Robbins-staged musical. This is how deep an impression it made on me: I went back four times, paying full price for my seat each time.

bill-monroe-march• I once saw Bill Monroe, the inventor of bluegrass, perform at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and met him backstage after the show. Here’s how I described the experience in a review of a biography of Monroe:

He stood six feet tall and looked at least seven, and his expressionless face might have been carved from a stump of petrified wood. He wore a white Stetson hat and a sky-blue suit with a pin in each lapel—one was an enamel American flag, the other an evangelical Christian emblem—and everyone in earshot called him “Mister Monroe.” Never were italics more audible.

• I was present at my friend Nancy LaMott’s last public performance in 1995. I wrote about it nine years later in the Journal:

She was wearing a wig, having lost her bottle-blonde hair to chemotherapy. Seven weeks later, she was dead. Yet her sweetly husky mezzo-soprano voice had somehow remained untouched by the terrible disease that would soon take her away from all the things for which she’d longed, and she sang as if she knew she’d never have another chance. When she was done, the Chestnut Room of New York’s Tavern on the Green exploded in rapturous applause.

The show was recorded and subsequently released on CD.

• The great Paul Cézanne retrospective came to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, its only American venue, in 1996. The Garden at Les Lauves, which normally hangs in Washington’s Phillips Collection, was the last painting in the show. Not only had I never seen it before, but I was then still largely ignorant of the visual arts. Coming upon that painting without warning, like seeing my first Balanchine ballet, changed my life forevermore in a single overwhelming stroke of perception. Seven years later, I bought my first lithograph.

fallingwater house design 02• I paid my first visit to Fallingwater in 2003 (and blogged about it here). So began an increasingly passionate preoccupation with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, whom I now believe to be the greatest architect of the twentieth century, leaky ceilings notwithstanding.

Since then I’ve slept in four of his houses, an experience that I wrote about in this 2005 Wall Street Journal piece:

To turn the key of a Wright house is to step into a parallel universe. The huge windows, the open, uncluttered floor plans, the straightforward use of such simple materials as wood, brick, concrete and rough-textured masonry: all create the illusion of a vast interior space in close harmony with its natural surroundings. Instead of walls, subtly varied ceiling heights denote the different living areas surrounding the massive fireplace that is the linchpin of every Wright house.

• I saw Alvin Epstein’s King Lear, directed by Patrick Swanson for the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, in Boston in 2005 and again in New York the following year. I’ve never seen a better performance of anything.

1384837999• I also saw the eighty-six-year-old James Whitmore play the role of the Stage Manager in Our Town in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the town where Thornton Wilder’s play was written and which it is thought to depict. Mrs. T and I visited Willa Cather’s grave that same afternoon and went to Peterborough’s East Hill Cemetery the next day, an experience about which I blogged here.

• If I had to pick a single night of my life as a writer and artist to stand for all the rest, it would be the opening night of the Santa Fe Opera’s production of The Letter, my first operatic collaboration with Paul Moravec, about which I blogged here.

• During my 2012 stay at Peterborough’s MacDowell Colony, about which I blogged here, here, and here, I wrote a large chunk of my Duke Ellington biography, revised Satchmo at the Waldorf, made two lasting friends, and was blissfully happy from the day I came to the day I left.

• Of Satchmo’s five opening nights to date, that one hit me hardest was the New England premiere in Lenox, Massachusetts, perhaps because the audience response was so explosive, not just at evening’s end but throughout the show. It had never before occurred to me that I might be capable of writing a play that excited people.

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Excerpts from Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, shown on the 1989 Tony Awards telecast and introduced by Angela Lansbury:

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Just because: Bill Frisell plays Gershwin

TV CAMERABill Frisell plays an unaccompanied solo guitar version of George Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now,” from Porgy and Bess:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Nikos Kazantzakis on happiness

INK BOTTLE“Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize—sometimes with astonishment—how happy we had been.”

Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek (trans. Carl Wildman)

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More than a sermon

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review a new play, Sarah Treem’s When We Were Young and Unafraid, and a revival, Barrington Stage’s Kiss Me, Kate. Here’s an excerpt.

* * *

Sarah Treem is the very model of a modern millennial playwright. She makes her living as a TV scriptwriter and showrunner (“House of Cards,” “In Treatment”) and salves her soul after hours by writing plays that, in her phrase, “put ideas on stage.” Sure enough, her latest effort, “When We Were Young and Unafraid,” a play about a shelter for battered women, is nothing if not idea-driven, and the familiar ideas are all straight out of the feminist playbook. That way lies predictability, which is the death of drama. On the other hand, her characters are—with one exception—fully recognizable human beings capable of saying and doing the unexpected, and the cast, led by Zoe Kazan and Cherry Jones and directed by Pam MacKinnon, performs “When We Were Young” with gratifying skill. The resulting tension makes for a show that is sometimes predictable but never dull….

BqazUG1IMAAbXmQMs. Kazan, the most gifted stage actor of her generation, gives another of the richly involving performances that we’ve come to take for granted from her, playing a pitifully awkward girl-woman who knows no other way to relate to men than to have sex with them…

“Kiss Me, Kate” belongs close to the top of any short list of great Broadway musicals, yet it doesn’t get performed nearly as often as it should. Fortunately, it’s now being done extremely well by Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage Company, whose 2013 revival of “On the Town” is Broadway-bound. That fact speaks well for the company’s ability to mount a full-scale musical-comedy production. So does this “Kiss Me, Kate,” directed by Joe Calarco, which is as good as any revival of the show that I’ve seen in the past decade….

* * *

To read my review of When We Were Young and Unafraid, go here.

To read my review of Kiss Me, Kate, go here.

The trailer for Kiss Me, Kate:

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All over but the shouting

tn-500_satchmocurtwm20147556You only have four more chances to see the off-Broadway production of Satchmo at the Waldorf, my one-person-three-character play about Louis Armstrong, Joe Glaser, and Miles Davis, in which John Douglas Thompson is giving what pretty much everybody seems to agree is the performance of a lifetime (though maybe I should say performances, since it’s a triple role!).

John will be on stage at the Westside Theatre tonight at eight, Saturday at two-thirty and eight, and Sunday at three. I’m returning to New York from the road specifically to see John’s last show on Sunday afternoon.

To order tickets or for more information, go here. Don’t dally—we expect one or more of the final performances to sell out.

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Almanac: John P. Marquand on the critic who creates

INK BOTTLE“He was thinking that he was caught there in a sort of justice of his own contriving. He was thinking that he knew too much. There was no way of stilling the analytical sense which he had developed from examining other people’s work, and now that part of his mind was examining his own work remorselessly. It was an exquisite sort of retribution. He could see exactly what that other part of him, the submerged creative side of him, had been trying to do. The self-revelation of it was painful, but he had to face it. It was not that it was bad—he found himself wishing that it might have been frankly bad. Instead there was a veneer of accomplishment about it, a perfunctory sort of smartness, which made it worse. There was a veneer over the dialogue, a certain specious cleverness, but there was no conviction or emotion. The play he was reading had the plausibility and the coldness of a mechanical toy pirouetting on the sidewalk at Christmas time.”

John P. Marquand, So Little Time

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So you want to see a show?

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

Bullets Over Broadway (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, nearly all performances sold out last week, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
MatildaMain_0Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Of Mice and Men (drama, PG-13, nearly all performances sold out last week, closes July 27, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

Juno (musical, PG-13, closes July 27, reviewed here)

The Dance of Death (drama, PG-13, closes Aug. 3, reviewed here)
Days Like Today (musical, PG-13, closes July 27, reviewed here)

The Cripple of Inishmaan (serious comedy, PG-13, closes July 20, reviewed here)

Ayckbourn Ensemble (three serious comedies playing in rotating repertory, PG-13, reviewed here)

Casa Valentina (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

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Almanac: John P. Marquand on living with a writer

INK BOTTLE“He did not like to think that he was different from other people when he was writing. He did not want to ask for special consideration, he only wanted to explain why he was more vague at such times than he was ordinarily and why he was less patient with detail and why he seemed oblivious to the ordinary facts of life. You were living in two worlds when you were writing. You were trying, very unsuccessfully, to be omnipotent in the region of the imagination. You had delusions not so very unlike those of some man in an asylum who thought he was Napoleon Bonaparte. The main difference was that you never possessed the inmate’s sublime conviction. If you had any modesty at all—a very bad thing for a writer—you lived in a little hell of your own uncertainty.”

John P. Marquand, So Little Time

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Snapshot: an interview with Edith Sitwell

TV CAMERADame Edith Sitwell is interviewed on the BBC’s Face to Face in 1959. The host is John Freeman:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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