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, closes Aug. 24, 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)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)

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

The Liar (verse comedy, PG-13, closes Aug. 31, reviewed here)
Othello-Iago-Depot-300x200Othello (Shakespearean tragedy, PG-13, closes Aug. 30, reviewed here)
Two Gentlemen of Verona (Shakespearean comedy, PG-13, closes Aug. 29, reviewed here)

Arms and the Man (comedy, G/PG-13, closes Oct. 18, reviewed here)
When We Are Married (comedy, PG-13, closes Oct. 26, reviewed here)

Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, closes Aug. 17, reviewed here)

When We Were Young and Unafraid (drama, PG-13, closes Aug. 10, reviewed here)

The Dance of Death (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Patrick O’Brian on the corrupting effect of colonialism

INK BOTTLE“A conquering race, in the place of that conquest, is rarely amiable; the conquerors pay less obviously than the conquered, but perhaps in time they pay even more heavily, in the loss of the humane qualities. Hard, arrogant, profit-seeking adventurers flock to the spoil, and the natives, though outwardly civil, contemplate them with a resentment mingled with contempt, while at the same time respecting the face of conquest—acknowledging their greater strength.”

Patrick O’Brian, The Mauritius Command

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Among the lighthouses

10505088_10152639044272193_6384750171473175718_oMrs. T and I recently spent two tranquil days in Gloucester, the Massachusetts harbor town where Edward Hopper spent a fair amount of time in the Twenties and several of whose houses he famously painted. We asked the obliging woman at the front desk of our pretty seaside inn if there were any Hopper paintings or tours to be seen or taken in Gloucester. She looked at us with endearing blankness, as if we’d inquired about Le Nozze di Figaro, or quantum theory.

This encounter reminded me yet again of how insignificant a role the fine arts play in the lives of most people, and how little that matters in the greater scheme of things. Having grown up in a small town in the middle of America, I ought to know better than to think otherwise, but a quarter-century of continuous residence in Manhattan has inevitably blunted my sense of what matters most to the average American. Hint: it isn’t art.

EH p25 f 29Alas, aesthetes also have a way of forgetting that taste and virtue are not the same thing. To be sure, the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller, whose “Ode to Joy” was set to music by Beethoven as the finale of his Ninth Symphony, believed that “taste develops in the mind a fitness for virtue, because it suppresses the inclinations which impede, and rouses those which are favorable to virtue.” But I don’t know that I agree with him. In fact, I think that in America, something not unlike the opposite holds true, if only because the fact that our artists and intellectuals tend not to get much respect (or make much money) has a way of breeding ressentiment, the nastiest and most self-destructive of all emotions.

As I observed in this space back in 2005, I live in

the genteel obscurity of a middle-to-highbrow critic who can count his network TV appearances on some of the fingers of one hand. I realized long ago that in America, there’s no such thing as a famous writer, only famous actors. My all-time favorite joke is about the, er, Polish starlet who, er, slept with the screenwriter. If I ever write a book about Hollywood, which isn’t likely, that’ll be the title: She Screwed the Writer. (Or something close to that, anyway.)

mansard-roofDo I wish I were rich and famous? Sometimes—though much less often than you’d think. But do I think I deserve to be rich and famous? Not even slightly. All things being equal, I do wish that everybody in America knew who Edward Hopper was, and that our public schools introduced their students to the greatest masterpieces of American art. But I don’t think it would necessarily make them better human beings to know who painted “The Mansard Roof,” or to be able to hum a few bars of the Copland Violin Sonata. At the risk of falling afoul of Godwin’s Law, I think it’s worth pointing out that the most vicious mass murderer of the twentieth century initially aspired to be a professional artist and took a serious and lasting interest in opera.

If I can be forgiven for quoting myself again, “Daily megadoses of beauty won’t make you a better person unless you were a good person to begin with.” Happier? Maybe. Better? No.

* * *

To hear Edward Hopper talking about “The Mansard Roof,” go here.

Louis Kaufman plays the first movement of Aaron Copland’s Violin Sonata, accompanied by the composer:

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Snapshot: A visit to Edward Hopper’s studio

TV CAMERAAn excerpt from a rare film documentary showing Edward Hopper at work in his New York studio in 1965. He died two years after the film was released:

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

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Come again some other day

inn-at-ocean-s-edgeMrs. T and I are staying at an inn that overlooks Maine’s Penobscot Bay. Our purpose in coming here was to relax, eat lobster, and find the perfect dinner table, and so far we’ve done well on all three counts. On Sunday, though, the skies turned forbiddingly gray, forcing us to retreat to our room to escape a fast-approaching shower. While Mrs. T took an afternoon nap, I sought other amusement, reveling in the chaud-froid sensation of sitting in an outdoor hot tub on a cool, drizzly day and paying a visit to the inn’s library.

I always enjoy looking over the unwanted books that end up on the shelves of hotels and (once in a while) restaurants. Like most such collections, this one is a random assemblage of more than usually miscellaneous volumes, presumably purchased by the foot, in which moldering bestsellers by Jackie Collins, Garrison Keillor, and Kathleen Norris are shelved alongside musty works of nonfiction that were surely forgotten within minutes of their publication. But I did run across a mystery novel by a friend of mine—the first time I’ve ever found a book in a hotel library that was written by a person I know—and, even more surprisingly, a paperback copy of Selected Poems of Robert Lowell.

robertlowellI wonder who reads Robert Lowell nowadays. He used to be a very big name in the very small world of modern poetry, and for all I know he still is, but it’s not my impression that he gets taught or talked about all that much anymore. I can only quote one sentence of his from memory, the opening of “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid,” which I know because it was reprinted in one of Oscar Williams’ now-forgotten anthologies of American verse: The sun is blue and scarlet on my page, /And yuck-a, yuck-a, yuck-a, yuck-a, rage/The yellowhammers mating. Not much of a monument, that.

It happens that I did think of Lowell briefly a few months ago, but that was only because I had occasion to make passing mention of him in an essay about Norman Mailer, another American writer whose reputation isn’t exactly what it used to be:

Mailer understood that his journalistic career was at best a lucrative sidetrack. In The Armies of the Night he reports a conversation in which the poet Robert Lowell told him that he was “the best journalist in America,” to which Mailer retorted that “there are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America.” Taking the point, Lowell added, “Oh, Norman, oh, certainly, I didn’t mean to imply, heavens no, it’s just that I have such respect for journalism.” And once again Mailer—at least by his own account—topped Lowell, replying, “Well, I don’t know that I do.”

Note, by the way, that I took care to refer to him as “the poet Robert Lowell.” I wouldn’t have felt the need to identify him twenty-five years ago. The mere mention of his name would have sufficed. Now he belongs to the ages, and the ages, it appears, have relegated him to the shelf of a seaside hotel library. If there’s a bleaker tribute to the vanity of human wishes, I’d be hard pressed to think of it. Were I a poet, I might consider writing an “Ode to a Book Found in a Hotel Library,” except that Dr. Johnson, in a manner of speaking, did it for me.

Enoch-soames-maxAnd if it is the fate of the likes of Lowell and Mailer to be forgotten, then what of me? About that I have no doubt at all: I’ll be lucky, like Max Beerbohm’s Enoch Soames, to make it into a footnote. Nor does that prospect upset me in the least. No sooner did I put Selected Poems of Robert Lowell back on its shelf than I took Mrs. T out to dinner, where we had the best restaurant meal that either of us has ever eaten. As we drove home afterward, our bellies full and our hearts light, I reminded myself that there is nothing more fleeting than the art of a great chef, and remembered that no less a creative giant than George Balanchine compared his ballets to butterflies: “A breath, a memory, then gone.”

If the greatest choreographer of all time could say such a thing—and mean it—about his masterpieces, then who am I to expect more from posterity? Perhaps a copy of Pops or Duke or The Skeptic will eventually find its way to the shelf of a hotel library on the coast of Maine, there to gather dust, and perhaps a guest will pick it up someday and say, “You know, this is a pretty good book. I wonder who that Teachout fellow was? Now, where shall we go for dinner?” I can think of far worse fates.

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Lookback: Marlon Brando’s “genius”

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

A few film actors—Bogart, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, possibly Robert Mitchum, certainly John Wayne—have succeeded in constructing personas so magnetic as to float permanently free from their actual bodies of on-screen work. Brando wasn’t that kind of larger-than-life artist, though it’s conceivable that he could have been if he’d worked harder at it. Instead, like lesser mortals, he will be remembered as much for the quality of the films in which he appeared as for the quality of the performances he gave. Judged by that standard, my guess is that his memory will fade quickly…

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: C.S. Lewis on inverted gluttony

INK BOTTLE“She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile ‘Oh please, please…all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.’ You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance. In a crowded restaurant she gives a little scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says, ‘Oh, that’s far, far too much! Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it.’ If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

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The sound of friendship

foremastToday Mrs. T and I are vacationing on the coast of Maine. We’re also in the pleasant and singularly appropriate process of jointly rereading Patrick O’Brian’s twenty Aubrey-Maturin novels, which tell the fictional tale of how Jack Aubrey, a Royal Navy captain, and Stephen Maturin, his ship’s doctor and best friend, fought alongside one another in the Napoleonic Wars.

I paid tribute to these marvelous books when I reviewed The Yellow Admiral, the eighteenth title in the series, for the New York Times Book Review in 1996:

O’Brian’s present popularity is to some extent a fad, but it is also justified. To say that his books are a cut above the average historical novel is to miss the point: Aubrey and Maturin are to Capt. Horatio Hornblower what Philip Marlowe is to Perry Mason. Nor is his superiority merely a function of his ability to tell good stories in stylish prose. Having read the entire cycle more than once, I continue to be astonished by the breadth of O’Brian’s cultural awareness—among many other things, he writes about music with the knowledge and gusto of a highly cultivated amateur—and while he wears his learning lightly, it is central to the effect these wonderfully civilized books make. In The Letter of Marque (1990), for instance, Stephen Maturin and his wayward wife, Diana, reconcile in a scene modeled on the finale of The Marriage of Figaro, and the reference is not gratuitous: rather, it adds immeasurably to the richness of the novel’s emotional texture.

In the end, what makes the Aubrey-Maturin novels memorable is their moral gravity: rarely does one encounter in nominally popular fiction so Trollopian an understanding—and acceptance—of the divided nature of men’s souls. O’Brian does not deal in cardboard heroes, which is why the acts of heroism he describes make so powerful an impression. We read him for his plots; we reread him for his philosophy.

(By the way, I wonder to this day whether reading the last part of this review might possibly have inspired O’Brian to kill off Diana in The Hundred Days, the next installment in the series. Perhaps some future biographer will enlighten me!)

As I mentioned above, one of the aspects of the Aubrey-Maturin novels that I find especially diverting is the intelligence and sympathy with which O’Brian portrays the amateur musicianship of Jack and Stephen, whose intimacy is rooted in part in their passion for playing the violin and cello together during their long ocean cruises. It also figures prominently in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a 2003 film that is based on several of O’Brian’s novels, and adds much to that film’s excellence.

Most of the pieces that Jack and Stephen play in the novels are identified only by the composer’s name and, occasionally, their key signature, as in the case of their “often-played yet ever-fresh Corelli in C major.” In The Ionian Mission, though, O’Brian tells how Jack discovered a sheaf of forgotten manuscripts by Johann Sebastian Bach, among them the great D Minor Partita for unaccompanied violin, whose towering finale he describes with a penetration worthy of a first-class music critic.

I posted this passage as an almanac entry last year, but it’s worth repeating here:

Now when the fiddle sang at all it sang alone: but since Stephen’s departure he had rarely been in a mood for music and in any case the partita that he was now engaged upon, one of the manuscript works that he had bought in London, grew more and more strange the deeper he went into it. The opening movements were full of technical difficulties and he doubted he would ever be able to do them anything like justice, but it was the great chaconne which followed that really disturbed him. On the face of it the statements made in the beginning were clear enough: their closely argued variations, though complex, could certainly be followed with full acceptation, and they were not particularly hard to play; yet at one point, after a curiously insistent repetition of the second theme, the rhythm changed and with it the whole logic of the discourse. There was something dangerous about what followed, something not unlike the edge of madness or at least of a nightmare; and although Jack recognized that the whole sonata and particularly the chaconne was a most impressive composition he felt that if he were to go on playing it with all his heart it might lead him to very strange regions indeed.

6a01348660b2b3970c0133f34e2d39970b-800wiIn addition, Jack and Stephen play a “D Minor double sonata” which is quite obviously a transcription for violin and cello of the Two-Violin Concerto, and once again O’Brian describes its finale so perceptively that those who know the piece will instantly recognize the passage he has in mind:

After a particularly difficult, severe and abstract passage the last movement ended with a triumphant summing-up and resolution that they could both play at first sight and that they repeated again and again; and the grave happiness of the music was still with Captain Aubrey when he walked on to his quarterdeck in the bright morning.

It happens that George Balanchine and Paul Taylor, the two greatest choreographers of the twentieth century, both made dances that were set to this movement, Balanchine in Concerto Barocco and Taylor in Esplanade. What’s more, Taylor is an O’Brian fan (he was, in fact, the “famous choreographer” to whom I referred in the first paragaph of my review of The Yellow Admiral).

I wish I’d thought to ask Taylor about this sentence from The Ionian Mission on one of the various occasions in the past when I interviewed him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’d found the phrase “grave happiness” to be perfectly suited to much of Bach’s music, the finale of the Two-Violin Concerto most definitely included. I know I do.

* * *

The finale of Paul Taylor’s Esplanade, set to the third movement of Bach’s Two-Violin Concerto and performed on PBS’ Dance in America by the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1977. The passage described by Patrick O’Brian in The Ionian Mission starts at 3:40:

A scene from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The piece “played” by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany is an excerpt from the finale of Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto, K. 215:

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Just because: Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Mozart

TV CAMERASir Thomas Beecham leads the Montreal Symphony in a 1956 performance of the finale of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony:

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

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