About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, April 14, 2006
TT: Happy tidings
I finished writing the rough draft of "It's Got to Be Art," the fifth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, yesterday afternoon. It takes Armstrong up through the end of 1928. (That's five chapters out of ten.) I'm going to polish it today, then put the book aside for a couple of weeks.
Time once again for the regular Friday-morning Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser, in which I have mixed tidings to report. I liked some parts of Stuff Happens, but no part of Festen:
Like so many British artists, David Hare is drunk on politics, and believes the world is waiting to know how he thinks it should be run. At the same time he is, or can be, a talented playwright, acutely sensitive to the demands of the stage. These two impulses are at odds in “Stuff Happens,” which had its New York premiere last night at the Public Theater. In fact, “Stuff Happens” is two plays in one. The first is a Shakespeare-style history play in which Mr. Hare tries to imagine how George W. Bush and his advisers might have decided to go to war with Iraq. It’s pretty good—at times quite good—and on occasion almost convincing. The second is a documentary play about the Bush administration’s conduct of the war. It’s a flop, full of coarse caricatures and stiff with smugness.
The star of Play No. 1 is Colin Powell (Peter Francis James), whom Mr. Hare portrays as a “tragic hero” (his phrase) who knows the war is a mistake but lacks the courage of his convictions and so crumbles into tight-lipped pusillanimity when put to the test by President Bush (Jay O. Sanders). This is a dramatically promising situation and Mr. Hare makes much of it…
Oh, dear, incest again: David Eldridge’s “Festen,” a stage version of Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film “The Celebration,” is another of those extravaganzas in which the members of a dysfunctional family get together for dinner and suddenly start blurting out long-suppressed truths….
No link, so buy the damn paper, O.K.? I’m tired of telling you. And if you’re really feeling ambitious, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with instantaneous access to the complete text of my review, along with loads of additional art-related coverage.
UPDATE: The Journal has now posted a free link to this review. To read the whole thing, go here.
Here's a little taste of my next “Sightings” column, which appears biweekly in the “Pursuits” section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:
Remember the “Mozart effect”? That was the shorthand phrase for a group of studies purporting to show that playing classical music to children raised their IQs in later life. The actual research made no such claims, but such was the simplified version that found its way into the public domain, achieving such wide circulation that Zell Miller, then the governor of Georgia, actually proposed in 1998 to earmark $105,000 to buy a classical album for every child born in that state. Alas, later research left the original findings in doubt, and though the phrase entered the language, the actual concept went into the scientific wastebasket.
Even so, there remains something irresistibly seductive about the notion that listening to Mozart might actually make you smarter. William Safire, who gave up political punditry to become chairman of the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic group (the Web site is dana.org) with an interest in brain research, gave a speech last month in which he reported on the latest studies into the relationship between arts education and brain function. That may not sound sexy, but it is—at least potentially—a public-policy bombshell….
As always, there's lots more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.
I may be quiescent, but I’m not altogether inert. Here’s some of what I’ve collected while trolling the blogosphere during the past few weeks:
• Further proof that I’m soooo behind the curve: it took an Indianapolis-based art blogger to clue me in to the coming release of Terry Zwigoff’s new movie, Art School Confidential, starring John Malkovich. (To view the trailer, go here.)
• In other film-related news, Mr. My Stupid Dog reports on the Criterion Collection DVD of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln:
The Lincoln of this film seems more a product of the 1930s than the 1830s—and in that respect, more like the sainted Democrat FDR than his own Republican self. In Trotti's script, the rail-splitter has nothing whatsoever to say about race, and the closest he comes to acknowledging the reality of slavery is a not-quite throwaway line: Lincoln states that his family had to leave Kentucky because "with all the slaves comin' in, white folks had a hard time making a living." Except for an occasional servant, African-Americans are completely invisible in Ford's Springfield. Class displaces race in the film's mythic universe—to the point that when the title character, played by a startlingly young Henry Fonda, faces down an angry lynch mob, both participants and intended victims are White. Like Fritz Lang, who famously used lynch mobs as a metaphor for fascism in his film Fury Ford suggests a parallel between thuggish leaders who goad a mob to violence and equally grotesque forces poised to plunge Europe into a second world war. That Lincoln is singlehandedly able to quell the angry mob points to one of the film's deepest contradictions: In Young Mr. Lincoln, democratic society is saved from fascist control through the actions of a single Great Leader. (Lang didn't let America off the hook so easily.)
• Speaking of race, Mr. Something Old, Nothing New has found an online-viewable video of Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, a miniature masterpiece of animation which is nonetheless banned from TV broadcast on TV because it’s jam-packed with racial stereotypes. See for yourself.
• Mr. Think Denk eats a plate of dumplings and reflects on the meaning of the opening bars of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata:
I have a hard time seeing where the opening of the Kreutzer "comes from." There are no easy sources for its particular beauty. The sort of question I feel it asks is Why Do I Exist? or How Did I Come Into Being? And that is what gives it, for me, a kind of surreal beauty: an oddly certain question, a fragment that is strangely and prematurely complete. The piece is mature beyond its measures....
My favorite recording of this wonderful work, incidentally, is a live performance from 1940 by Joseph Szigeti and Béla Bartók (yes, that Béla Bartók). You can purchase it by going here.
• Mr. Delicious Pundit reminds us of Dwight Eisenhower’s rules for political success, formulated not by Eisenhower himself but by Murray Kempton. Here are the first four:
1. Always pretend to be stupid; then when you have to show yourself smart, the display has the addtional effect of surprise.
2. Taking the blame is a function of servants. When the orange is squeezed, throw it away.
3. When a situation is hopeless, never listen to counsels of hope. Fold the enterprise.
4. Do nothing unless you know exactly what you will do if it turns out to have been the wrong thing. Walk not one inch forward onto ground which has not been painfully tested by someone else….
Pastiche is not satire. Pastiche is not homage. Pastiche is a matter of preference, a way of making and creating. Pastiche combines elements of like and dislike: by placing my personal tastes, my favourites, with and against material that I might otherwise avoid, I perceive counterpoint and contrast and am often forced to reevaluate. The annoying sometimes becomes likeable while something I love dearly appears boring….
• Ms. Pratie Place proves that a picture is worth at least a thousand words. (This image reminds me of one of H.L. Mencken’s best sayings: “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.”)
• I can’t remember from whom I pinched this link—apologies in advance—but here’s a fascinating Bookforumarticle about how Dorothy Parker left her copyrights to the NAACP, and how Lillian Hellman, her literary executor, did her best to screw up the bequest:
Hellman refused to admit defeat, continuing to slug it out until a court ruled for the NAACP in 1972. In an interview with the New York Times Book Review, Hellman was still lashing out: "It's one thing to have real feeling for black people, but to have the kind of blind sentimentality about the NAACP, a group so conservative that even many blacks now don't have any respect for it, is something else. She must have been drunk when she did it."
What a pig La Hellman was.
• Mr. BuzzMachine, whose heart was out of order for a month, found out what it was like to be a Disabled Person, and filed this report:
I now stood on the right on escalators, rather than rushing up on the left. I now sought out elevators even for short, one-floor hauls. In the PATH station in New York, I stood there with old people, sick people, and mothers with baby carriages, waiting for a lift. I was embarrassed. I wondered whether they looked at me thinking, “What a lazy SOB: he looks fit and healthy and the exercise of a few stairs would be good for him: Get moving and don’t take up space on our elevator.” Of course, it’s New York: Nobody really pays that much attention to anyone else. But I heard that echo in my head….
• Want to waste a little time? Play with this collection of dialect maps. You won’t be sorry.
• Great Moments in Jazz on TV, No. 1: Billie Holiday singing Fine and Mellow in 1957, with Lester Young, sick unto death but still a giant, backing her up. (Thank you, Mr. House of Mirth.)
• Great Moments in Jazz on TV, No. 2: Art Tatum playing Yesterdays in 1954. I assume this is a kinescope from the old Tonight show with Steve Allen. Regardless of where it comes, though, it’s amazing-and-a-half. (Thank you, Messrs. Do the Math.)
On Wednesday afternoon I finished writing my “Sightings” column for Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, then decided to fly the coop. I ate lunch and got a closer-than-usual haircut at Antonio’s, the neighborhood barber shop about which I wrote last year. Then I marched briskly across Central Park and down Fifth Avenue to the Frick Collection, where I had every intention of looking at Goya’s Last Works. The Frick, like the Phillips Collection in Washington, is one of those museums that used to be a private residence and continues to reflect of the personality of its late owner, a nineteenth-century coal-and-steel baron. I like the Frick very much, but it’s been a couple of years since I last paid it a visit, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
I arrived at three-fifty-five and strode into the lobby, where a guard greeted me with the following brusque announcement: “Admission to the left. Next entry to the Goya show at five o’clock.” Not caring to spend a full hour perusing the permanent collection, I went next door to Knoedler & Company, one of my favorite Upper East Side galleries, which was showing a couple of dozen canvases by Judith Rothschild, a wealthy pupil of Hans Hofmann whose work was utterly unoriginal (her paintings look like a cross between Hofmann, Mark Rothko, and Richard Diebenkorn) but nonetheless accomplished and engaging.
After ten minutes it hit me that I didn’t especially want to spend the rest of a spring afternoon looking at paintings, so I returned to Central Park, strolled past the Loeb Boathouse, and plunged into the Ramble. I reflected—not for the first time—on how implausible and miraculous it is that there should be a place like Central Park in the middle of a place like Manhattan. I sat down on a park bench next to a young woman who had her nose in a book. I had Guard of Honor in my shoulder bag, but having just spent an entire morning and part of an afternoon writing, I was content to empty my mind of art-related thoughts and look at the trees, which had just started to put forth leaves, and the overcast sky, which was a pale shade of gray tinged with blue.
At length I found my way out of the Ramble, emerging at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, one of the many places in Central Park of whose existence I had hitherto been unaware. Had there been a show in progress I would gladly have stopped to watch it, but the theatre was shut up tight, so I left the park at Seventy-Ninth and Central Park West, across the street from the Beresford and around the corner from my own modest building. I climbed the stairs to my third-floor apartment, unlocked the door, gazed happily upon the Teachout Museum, and decided that I was through for the day.
So far this week I’ve seen a play, passed a nuclear stress test with flying colors, written two Wall Street Journal columns and the first half of the fifth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, gotten a haircut, visited a gallery, and spent a couple of hours wandering through Central Park. I’ll be seeing Awake and Sing this evening at the Belasco and The Threepenny Opera on Saturday afternoon at Studio 54.
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). 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)
• Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9)
• Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd (musical, R, 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)
"Nathaniel Hicks was obliged to admire a simple, unlimited integrity that accepted as the law of nature such elevated concepts as the Military Academy's Duty-Honor-Country, convinced that those were the only solid goods; that everyone knew what the words meant.
"They needed no gloss—indeed it probably never crossed General Beal's mind that they could be glossed, that books had been written to show that Country was a delusive projection of the individual's ego; and that there were men who considered it the part of intelligence to admit that Honor was a hypocritical social sanction protecting the position of a ruling class; or that Duty was self-interest as it appeared when sanctions like Honor had fantastically distorted it. In his simplicity, General Beal, apprised of such intellectual views, would probably retort by begging the question; what the hell kind of person thought things like that?
"Formal logic was outraged; but common sense must admit he had something there. Few ideas could be abstract enough to be unqualified by the company they kept."
My favorite kind of weather may just be overnight rain. Of course, this is immeasurably nicer when one is listening to the patter from under some covers in bed than when one is burning the midnight oil against an unmovable deadline and propping the eyelids with toothpicks. It's raining outside now, tapping gently at the windows, and I'm up late cranking out a book review and sadly thinking about wasted rainfall and what might have been. I can't say much more about the book until the review appears, but I can say that I loved it. This book is no sleeper—plenty of critics agree with me—but I'm still delighted to have a chance of my own to shout from the rooftops about it. Sometimes I'm reluctant to write about a book I've adored, because sometimes such a book will fall apart to some degree when I try to articulate its merits precisely. But on this one scrutiny is having the opposite effect, revealing fine structural details and different hues and shades that I missed previously. Which is all perfectly true, but also a way of luring myself back to the work at hand.... Blog at you soon.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, April 12, 2006 | Permanent
I took a look yesterday at a list of the twelve top-grossing movies in North America. I'd heard of four of them: I read the novel on which Thank You for Smoking is based when it came out a few years ago, and I've seen posters for Phat Girlz, Failure to Launch, and She's the Man while walking to and from the gym. The other eight weren't even names to me, nor do I plan to seek them out. As I mentioned in this space a few weeks ago, I haven't been to a movie theater since last October, and it's been at least a year since I last saw a first-run episode of any TV series (not counting cooking shows, which I regard as a species of soft porn). As for pop music, the only new songs I hear are the ones that happen to be playing on the radios of the cabs that take me to and from the theater district.
I can't remember when I've been so completely out of touch. Reviewing films for Crisis and writing my "Second City" column for the Washington Post used to keep me more or less aware of the buzz, but I gave those gigs up last fall, after which I hurled myself into a spasm of workaholism that came to an abrupt end when I checked into the hospital. Once I got out I pulled into my shell, and I've been there ever since. I now spend most of my time going to new plays, writing my Wall Street Journal and Commentary columns, and working on Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. From time to time I watch an old movie on TV that I haven't seen: I tuned in Delbert Mann's Mister Buddwing
the other night, but only because James Garner
was in it. Otherwise I look at the art on my walls, listen to familiar pieces of music, and reread old standbys (I just pulled James Gould Cozzens' Guard of Honor
off the shelf for the umpteenth time). In recent weeks I haven't even been keeping up with the blogosphere, at least not very closely.
I suspect I've entered a fallow period, a necessary time of recovery after the frenzied events of the second half of 2005. I nearly died, then I turned fifty: that’s enough to knock anybody off his pins, and I'd say I was well and truly knocked. The other day I had occasion to quote to a friend the Spanish proverb that figures frequently in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, May no new thing arise. That's for me. More than a few new things arose in my life in the past couple of years, and for the moment I've had enough.
This, too, shall pass, sooner or later. At some point I'm sure I'll start to feel the tug of the new, bob to the surface, and start sniffing the air. I always have. But not just yet. I'm not quite ready to engage with the moment. I think I'll stick to the tried and true for a little while longer. The world will have to take care of itself, for now.
"Colonel Ross must admit that modesty of this kind was pleasing in a man who had risen to high place; yet it was not (perhaps unfortunately for the world) the basic stuff of greatness. It spoke a simplicity of nature little related to the complexities, often unpleasant, of those natures that are resolved to lead, and also, by a suggestion of mystery in power in those very complexities, apt to impose leadership—the able, queer, vain men who in large-scale emergencies are turned to, and so make history.
"Beyond question General Beal had been tried by emergency and not found wanting; but as far as Colonel Ross knew or could guess, the emergencies were the soldier's, the man of action's, immediate and personal, well within a simple nature's resources of physical courage and quick sight. Because he found himself meeting such emergencies adequately or more than adequately, General Beal might be right in holding himself, humbly, no more than a lucky fellow. Colonel Ross, too, thought (that being how it was) that General Beal was lucky. Anyone was lucky who could go a successful way without the call to exercise greatness, without developing greatness's enabling provisions—the great man's inner contradictions; his mean, inspired inconsistencies; his giddy acting on hunches; and his helpless, not mere modest acceptance of, but passionate, necessary trust in, luck."
On Monday morning I pulled on my sweats, hailed a cab, and made my way across town to the office of my cardiologist, unfed and insufficiently slept but on the whole optimistic. A few minutes after arriving I was whisked into an examination room, where a technician threaded an intravenous needle into my right arm and pumped me full of thallium. "You're going to be radioactive for the next couple of days," she told me matter-of-factly. "Let us know if you're going to be traveling by air or if you have to enter a federal building—any place with metal detectors—and we'll give you a card so that they'll know why you're setting off the machine." Then she escorted me to another room containing a large, ominous-looking machine upon which I reclined motionless while a second technician took pictures of my heart.
After that I made my way to a third room containing a treadmill, where yet another technician shaved my chest and hooked me up to an EKG machine. At length the doctor arrived, told me to get on the treadmill, and set it in motion. For the next nine minutes I walked, at first slowly, then faster and faster, while the doctor monitored my heart rate and blood pressure. Finally he turned the speed up so fast that I was forced to break into a trot. He produced a syringe and shot more thallium into my arm. Then he shut the treadmill down. "Very nice," he said. "Much better than the last time we did this." I remembered my previous stress test, which took place four days after I called an ambulance and was whisked away to the emergency room of Lenox Hill Hospital, there to be filled full of drugs and diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
The second technician took another set of pictures of my heart. I returned to the waiting room, which by then was full of anxious-looking people, some of whom had IV tubes hanging from their arms. One of them was talking furiously on her cell phone to a business associate, ignoring the sign on the wall that read TESTING AREA: CELL PHONES PROHIBITED. "I'm radioactive," she said. "I guess I can't go to Washington until Friday."
I distracted myself by pulling a copy of P.G. Wodehouse's The Mating Season from my shoulder bag. I opened it to page 25, and my eye fell on the following paragraph: "Up till then everything had been fine. As I put hat on hat-peg and umbrella in umbrella-stand, I was thinking that if God wasn't in His heaven and all right with the world, these conditions prevailed as near as made no matter. Not the suspicion of an inkling, if you see what I mean, that round the corner lurked the bitter awakening, stuffed eelskin in hand, waiting to sock me on the occiput." That's not funny, I thought.
At that moment my cardiologist poked his head into the waiting room. "Mr. Teachout, could you please come into my office?" he said. His face was expressionless. I followed him into the office. "Have a seat," he said, then sat down behind the desk, holding a sheaf of color photographs of my heart in his hand. He broke out in a big smile. "I have very, very good news for you," he said. "The results of the stress test are excellent. Completely satisfactory. Your heart hasn't sustained any damage at all. There's no sign of a blockage. That doesn't mean you can go crazy now—your heart isn't completely normal yet, you need to keep taking your medicine and exercising and losing weight—but so far, everything looks great. I don't want to see you again for another three months."
Two minutes later I was standing on East End Avenue, basking in the bright blue sunshine and hailing a cab. My mind was unexpectedly empty. Thank you, I kept saying to myself over and over again. Thank you, thank you. A few minutes after that I was sitting at a table in Good Enough to Eat, breaking my twelve-hour-long fast with a reasonably healthy meal and thinking about Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines.
After I ate I walked back to my apartment and wrote the first two thousand words of the fifth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. Then, all at once, I had (to quote once again from The Mating Season) “the feeling you get sometimes that some practical joker has suddenly removed all the bones from your legs, substituting for them an unsatisfactory jelly.” I realized that the various stresses of the past few weeks—some of which I had steadfastly refused to acknowledge—had finally caught up with me, and then some. “I think maybe that’s enough work for one day,” I said out loud. I stripped off my sweats, crawled into the loft above my desk, and fell into a deep, untroubled sleep.
Do you listen to music when you write? Or do you
write in silence?
I used to write with music on—I wrote a good-sized chunk of City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy while listening to Aaron Copland’s Letter from Home repeatedly—but in recent years I’ve found that I prefer to write my first drafts in silence. Once I have a draft on paper, though, I’m often put on background music while I edit. Not surprisingly, I tend to listen to Louis Armstrong when working on Hotter Than That, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve also been listening to Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat quite a bit.
Oddly enough—or not—I discovered a long time ago that I couldn’t listen to Arturo Toscanini while I was writing. His recordings never fail to force themselves to the front of my consciousness. No other music has that effect, though.
I finished writing the fourth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong last Friday, then spent the weekend going to plays (Festen and Stuff Happens, to be specific) and resting from my protracted labors. I’ve now completed roughly fifty thousand words of the book, and I’m feeling very good about it. My hope is that I’ll have a rough draft of the book completed by the end of the summer, which will give me six months to polish it before I deliver the manuscript to Harcourt next March.
Otherwise I mostly laid low, though I did travel to Brooklyn on Saturday to dine with a friend who lives in the Ex-Lax Building, erected in 1925 to house the offices and factory of the company that made the once-popular "chocolated laxative." The building was converted a quarter-century ago, and my friend now lives in a top-floor apartment that looks a bit like this. She put on a Pink Martini album and
served me a Vietnamese beef salad (the recipe for which came out of Esquire, forsooth!) accompanied by an exceedingly nifty side dish made out of corn, red peppers, cilantro, lime, and various other good things, and I ate my meal secure in the knowledge that it was both tasty and impeccably healthful.
I’ll be spending Monday morning closeted with my cardiologist, who plans to fill me full of radioisotopes, put me on a treadmill, and see if I explode. Assuming I don’t, I’ll check in with you tomorrow.
"I do not agree with Samuel Butler's remark, 'I never knew a writer yet who took the smallest pains with his style and was at the same time readable.' I would amend this saying: nobody ever wrote well who at some time or other did not take pains with his style. In fact, until writing has by thought and practice become unselfconscious, it cannot achieve style—and by style I mean a natural easy expression which is not anonymous."
So when I saw Stephen Sondheim a few months ago in a midtown restaurant, what did I do? Absolutely nothing. Oh, I looked. I agree with Nora Ephron's definition of celebrity—someone you would stand up in a restaurant to see—but I was already standing. I looked and I beamed and I thought: Hey, I just saw Pacific Overtures! But it never occurred to me to try and approach him. Not because I was embarrassed to be a fan, but because I was content to be one, if that makes sense.
Fandom is a complicated, often reviled state. I've heard people speak derisively about someone going "fan boy" or "fan girl," but I've never been able to share the derision. Sometimes, I even go out of my way to do something nerdily fannish—sending an (unanswered) e-mail to Zilpha Keatley Snyder, shaking Clint Eastwood's hand, going to a State House press conference to see Cal Ripken Jr. in the flesh. One advantage to never having been cool…is that it frees up a lot of energy that otherwise would be invested in pride. Plus, I have to think it's good karma, sending one's gratitude out into the world. And, sure enough, sometimes it comes back, in the most rewarding and surprising ways.
But I also know that I can't, in a restaurant encounter, say anything uniquely meaningful to someone whose work has meant so much to me. I cannot make Stephen Sondheim my new best friend, no matter what clever, obscure references I make. ("I became a mystery writer because of The Last of Sheila." Not true, but it would probably get his attention.) So I settled for being just a fan, although I always tell people who use that phrase in front of me to leave out the "just." It's not a state that requires modifiers or self-deprecation. Isn't everyone a fan of someone or something? I hope so.
I felt the same way about Jerome Robbins, passing up several opportunities to speak to him on the street. And if I were to find myself seated two tables away from Sondheim, I’d do—or, rather, not do—exactly the same thing.
(Part of what brought Laura's posting to mind, by the way, is that I had lunch yesterday with a musician friend of mine who has reached a point in her career when people occasionally recognize her on the street. That must be an interesting sensation....)
I read in the morning papers of the death of Neil Welliver, who is represented in the Teachout Museum by the woodcut Night Scene, which I took to Washington with me last month to show at my Phillips Lecture. I met Welliver by chance a few years ago, and wrote about the encounter in “Second City,” my Washington Post column:
Tibor de Nagy Gallery is showing a singularly beautiful retrospective of prints by Neil Welliver, who lives in Maine and paints cool-colored, thickly brushed backwoods landscapes that have a touch of the "all-over" canvas-covering abstraction of the New York School. When I went to the counter to buy a copy of the exhibition catalogue, there was no one there to help me but a crusty, bald-headed gent who was grumbling amiably to another visitor about "goddamn snotty New Yorkers." I picked up a catalogue and pulled out my wallet, and he peered suspiciously at me. Then he grinned. "Would you like me to sign it?" he asked.
It’s Friday, and the fruits of my recent nonstop playgoing are on display in this morning’s Wall Street Journal drama column, which contains reviews of four New York shows: Julius Caesar,
On Golden Pond,
Steel Magnolias, and the Lincoln Center American Songbook concert version (now closed) of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion.
Julius Caesar is a toxic waste dump:
According to the posters, Denzel Washington is the star of “Julius Caesar,” which opened Sunday at the Belasco Theatre. The fine young ladies in the balcony signified agreement by squealing when he made his entrance in a sharp-looking business suit, this being a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s classic tale of dirty work in ancient Rome. Don’t let appearances fool you, though: The real star of this mostly horrible show is Colm Feore, who is high-strung and lustrously precise as Cassius. Next to him, Mr. Washington comes off like a well-meaning amateur, standing stiff as a weathervane and gabbling his way through Brutus’ lines. Sometimes he snaps into focus, but for the most part he stalks haplessly through Daniel Sullivan’s hopelessly confused updating, which is set in some unknown country—perhaps the one where modern-dress Shakespeare productions go to die….
On Golden Pond is a terrible play, unredeemed by the very best efforts of James Earl Jones:
Needless to say, it’s great to have Mr. Jones back on Broadway, from which he has been absent since 1987. Would that the vehicle for his return were worthy! He’s still got the best pipes in the business, but to hear them, you’ve got to sit through the damn play. I gather from the press release that this is “the first major production to feature African-American performers.” O.K. by me, but no matter what color you paint the Thayers—or how well you act them—they’re still phony. My reluctant advice: If you feel the need to be manipulated, go see a chiropractor….
Steel Magnolias, making its Broadway debut in this revival, is an unpretentious commercial charmer:
Robert Harling’s 1987 play about the comical clients of Truvy’s Beauty Spot is, of course, actor-proof. I last saw it performed by a stageful of Orthodox Jewish schoolgirls, and it was still funny. Nevertheless, it profits from the attentions of professionals, and this cast is nothing if not professional. Don’t ask me why Marsha Mason was cast as a grumpy Louisiana broad, but everyone else, Frances Sternhagen very much included, is just right or close to it. Christine Ebersole gives a nicely lemony performance as M’Lynn (think Eve Arden), Delta Burke shrewdly underplays Truvy (don’t think Dolly Parton), and Broadway debutantes Rebecca Gayheart and Lily Rabe are charming as Shelby and Annelle….
And Passion was predictably fine, with one unexpected qualification:
Patti LuPone was especially fine as the sickly, unbeautiful Fosca, whose desperate obsession with Giorgio (Michael Cerveris) pulls him inexorably away from his married lover Clara (Audra McDonald). Paul Gemignani, Mr. Sondheim’s preferred conductor, made Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations sound more luscious than ever. As for the score, it’s beyond praise, a musical achievement comparable in quality to “Sweeney Todd.” I can’t say better than that.
I had only one reservation about “Passion,” which is that Ms. McDonald’s singing is becoming infested with scoopy mannerisms that have no place among Mr. Sondheim’s spare vocal lines….
As usual, no link. Buy today’s Journal and look me up in the Weekend Journal section, or go here and subscribe to the Online Journal, which gives you access to all the paper’s cultural coverage (highly recommended, if I do say so myself).
"Mr. Miles was the Mathematical master, and for that very reason especially detestable to me, for whom mathematics was anathema. He was also a prig, the type of pedantically superior, insular prig which England, above all other countries, manages to produce in its perfection. Nearly every sentence that proceeded from his lips had so exasperating a flavour that it excited a wild sense of irritation, even when one agreed with him.
"I have recently discovered his exact counterpart in an English musical critic, whose name cannot be mentioned, as he is unfortunately still alive. In this man's articles and books I noticed a certain tone that reminded me forcibly of Mr. Miles, so that I was curious to meet him to see if the resemblance went any further. It did indeed; and I was confronted with an almost perfect replica of the Mathematical master at Elmley. I was taken back to those far-off days and my memory was refreshed as effectively as by any of the scents, tastes and tactile aids to recollection discovered by Proust. There was the same anaemic earnestness, the same superior disparagement of things that escaped his comprehension, the same milk-and-water voice upon which a University twang lay like a thin layer of vinegar. His personality, just like that of Mr. Miles, excited all those sentiments of irritation that can only be relieved by the application of a well-aimed kick. If it were not for the fact that the respective dates of births and deaths overlapped I should be inclined to believe in a reincarnation."
If you ask it, they will answer. Thanks to all of the readers who lent their brains for picking yesterday and this morning, taking on my question about fiction containing fictional fiction/poetry—or better, as one correspondent puts it, "writers writing writers' writing." This actually goes to what's only a minor point in the review I'm writing, but the input was helpful in a few different ways. First, I figured out what was the elephant in the room I was overlooking—it's apparently The World According to Garp, which was cited by a majority of people who wrote and which I haven't read but soon will have. Second, I have added several other titles to my Read Me! list. I can't in good conscience write about any of these in my piece, not having read them, but I can happily put them in the queue. Third, there was simply a lot of good food for thought in the (veritable torrent of) email I received. I'm planning a longer follow-up post, to be written after the review.
When the review appears, I'll certainly link to it here. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who helped. You guys are so much better than ye olde Google.
You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be? Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character? Matilda Wilson, in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.
The last book you bought was...? New Orleans UnMasqued, by S. Frederick Starr (thank you, Alicublog).
The last book you read was...? A Distant Prospect, by Lord Berners.
What are you currently reading? W.H. Auden, Prose, Volume II: 1939-1948.
Five books you would take to a desert island... Boswell’s Life, The Brothers Karamazov (or maybe Demons), the Library of America Flannery O’Connor, The Portrait of a Lady, and A la recherche. (We’ll assume for the sake of argument that the guest hut on the island in question contains a King James Bible and a complete set of Shakespeare, just as all such quizzes about music really ought to take Mozart for granted.)
Who are you passing this stick on to and why? Duh, who else? Go get ’em, Girl.
(And yes, I cheated. I’ll get back to Louis this afternoon.)
I really think I blogged enough on Wednesday, don't you? I checked, and it came to about 3,500 words, the length of one of my Commentary essays. I guess that answers the question of whether or not I'd still write if I didn't get paid for it....
Anyway, the whole of Thursday will be devoted exclusively to Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, followed by a trip downtown to see a play that I will be viewing in the company of a Blogger to Be Named Later.
I’ve been stockpiling cool links for the past couple of months (some of which I poached long ago from other bloggers whose names I've forgotten—please forgive me in advance!). Now that I finally have a free evening, I’ll empty the bulging bag. Enjoy.
• Sarah mulls over a question with which I, too, have been much preoccupied of late:
Persona can be a very, very tricky thing. In my own case I tend to present different sides of myself to different people so who knows how many different versions of "me" actually exist. But I remember when I first met Jennifer Weiner last fall, and she has a very open public manner—the kind that makes people believe they could instantly be her friend. And I definitely felt that, but also wondered how easy it could be for people to misinterpret that vibe and try to get "too close" and possibly overstep boundaries….
It's a good question, and it begs others: how "real" are the public faces of public figures? And how real ought they to be? When you create a second self for public consumption, does it tend over time to swallow up the private self? Or can a bright line be drawn between the two?
• Here's another good question: should autobiographers tell the truth? Brenda Coulter thinks so:
Years ago, my husband was a huge James Herriot fan. He read every one of Herriot's books and he lived for the weekly installment of PBS's All Creatures Great and Small. So when I, thinking of Arthurian legend and a Wagnerian opera, suggested that we name our first child Tristan, my husband eagerly assented because he admired the irrepressible Tristan Farnon he'd read about in the Herriot books.
I, too, thought Herriot's stories were warm and funny. But I quickly lost interest in the author when I learned he had been writing novels rather than memoirs….
Give me the truth or give me a made-up story. Just don't mix the two and leave me to wonder which I'm reading.
Tourists don’t really go to the Louvre to look at the Mona Lisa. They go so that when they return home they can tell friends that they saw the painting.
Those of us who spend time looking at and writing about art tend to be condescending toward the masses that gather in front of da Vinci’s painting—looking, as they do, to the work to provide validation for their trip to Paris.
Unfortunately, though, many of us do the same. Reading through top ten list after top ten list this month in both the print media and around the blogosphere has made me realize that too many art writers neglect seeing exhibitions in their haste to prepare for saying that they have seen them….
• …while Kulturblog unlocks the secrets of Technicolor. The teaser: “I'll bet you all didn't know that Technicolor films were shot on black and white film.” (Correct.)
• Department of Really Beautiful Soundbites: Listen to the singing of Roland Hayes here. (If you don’t know who he was, click on the link and find out.)
• Speaking of singers, “Heather,” a California pianist who blogs (and very thoughtfully, too) at in the wings, meditates on the eternal mysteries:
They always wore the most flattering shades of lipstick and the sexiest, must-have-been-bought-abroad shoes. Their necks never without a prettily patterned scarf, they talked of where to go for perfectly plucked eyebrows, fresh lemon wedges and curative cups of tea. The men carried their ribcages high, but effortlessly, mindlessly; I always envied that ability to preen so easily. Singers. So bee-yoo-ti-ful, but not without a bad rap: can't count, can't read music, and completely paranoid about the "health" of their instrument. Accompanying my way through their (also enviable) art song repertoire, I developed a quick "like it" or "don't" response to vocal quality, to the tone of individual voices, but I found it more difficult to qualify the actual mechanical skills of singing and what, exactly, made one singer so musically convincing and another one just kind of fumbling to the end of the song….
Sometimes I think you have to be middle aged to realize how cool things are. You grow up with MP3s and iPods, as my daughter will, and it’s the way things are. If you remember the KUNK-KUNK of an 8-track tape, having a featherweight gumpack that holds a billion bits of music is really quite remarkable….And then there's the cellphones and the tiny cameras and the widescreen TVs and home computers that sing to each other silently across the world; wonders, all. This really is the future I wanted. Although I expected longer battery life.
“Many years ago, I was told the following story: Broadway producer Leland Hayward was about to put Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days onto the stage. He asked the author whom he envisaged as the ideal actor to portray Henry the Eighth. The playwright thought about it, then mentioned a good, safe, workmanlike actor of very little panache. ‘No, no,’ said Hayward. ‘Suppose there were absolutely no problems in getting anyone in the world you wanted—who would you name?’
“Anderson immediately said, ‘Rex Harrison, but you’ll never be able to get him.’
“Whereupon the producer grinned and said, ‘Why not ask him?’ Then he made the necessary calls and, indeed, procured Rex Harrison’s services.
“‘There’s a lesson in this, Max,’ said the legendary Mr. Hayward. ‘Never start out asking for someone you would eventually settle for.’”
André Previn, No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood (courtesy of Marla Carew)
The cleaning lady chased me out of my office today, beyond the reach of e-mail and phone calls and the Web, so I fled the apartment and ventured out into the cool blue sunshine. The sidewalks of my Upper West Side neighborhood were thick with strollers, all of them headed toward Central Park. I walked in the other direction, and before I knew it I was walking through the front door of Antonio’s Barber Shop, Get haircut having figured prominently on my yellow desktop stickie for the past couple of weeks.
I like Antonio’s, mostly because it reminds me of all the other barber shops I’ve visited regularly. Not the mall-type franchise stores that I patronized in college—I never liked those—but the ones in Smalltown, U.S.A., where I got my hair trimmed in the company of older men who chatted pleasantly about matters of no interest as the radio purred softly in the background. I found a place like that when I first moved to New York twenty years ago, and last year I found another one in my own neighborhood. You don’t hear much English at Antonio’s, just the soothing murmur of Spanish-language conversations whose subject matter is scarcely less intelligible to me than the talk of business and sports that I recall from my Smalltown days. This afternoon the TV was tuned to a baseball game—the Yankees versus the Red Sox, I think—and I liked that, too. I closed my eyes, listened to the click and hum of the barber’s tools, moved my head on command, and imagined myself when young.
Alas, imagination gave way to harsh reality when I opened my eyes and saw the salt-and-pepper locks that littered the floor around my chair. Perhaps I’m not quite being fair to myself, since most of my hair is still a comfortably mousy shade of brown, and from a distance it’s almost possible to overlook the fact that much of it has turned steely gray. Today, though, no pretending was possible: I’m all grown up.
Do I feel grown up? Who does? Sometimes I feel sixteen, sometimes sixty, usually somewhere in between, but never, ever forty-nine. Nor can I decide what effect my young friends have on my sense of self. Do they make me feel younger—or older? I honestly can’t say, though one thing I know, or think I know, is that my barber makes me look younger. So my friends tell me, at any rate, and I’ve chosen to believe them. Ever since I started going to Antonio’s, which is close enough to my front door to make casual visits practical, my hair has been both a good deal shorter and considerably more kempt. Add to that the fancy new rimless eyeglasses the Mutant
picked out for me last month, and you get…what? A middle-aged writer with graying hair and hip-looking bifocals, that’s what.
My progressive bifocals (the telltale line that separates the two parts of the lens is invisible) are the only deliberate attempt I’ve ever made to conceal an outward sign of advancing age. It’s never occurred to me, for instance, to color my hair, nor do I ask my barber to make me look younger. “Not too short,” I say, and he takes it from there. As he fulfilled my gnomic request this afternoon, I sat passively in the chair and found myself recalling, somewhat to my surprise, a stanza by a poet for whom I've never much cared:
Youth ended, I shall try
My gain or loss thereby;
Leave the fire ashes, what survives is gold:
And I shall weigh the same,
Give life its praise or blame:
Young, all lay in dispute; I shall know, being old.
And shall I? Shall any of us? I was talking the other evening to a fellow critic seated behind me on the aisle of a Broadway theater. He’s eighty, and doesn’t look it, nor does he feel it. “I don’t feel a day over sixty-five,” he told me. “I keep waiting for all that wisdom that’s supposed to come with old age—but it hasn’t come yet.”
As for me, all I know is that nothing I imagined for myself when young has come to pass: everything is different, utterly so. I’m not a schoolteacher, not a jazz musician, not the chief music critic of a major metropolitan newspaper, not a syndicated columnist, not settled and secure. Nor am I the person I expected to be, calm and detached and philosophical: I still cry without warning, laugh too loud, lose my head and heart too easily, the same way I did a quarter-century ago. The person I was is the person I am, only older. Might that be wisdom of a sort?
I came home from Antonio’s to find my apartment slightly askew, the way it always is after my cleaning lady comes to call. The prints on the walls are slightly crooked, the furniture not quite in the right place. A stranger’s hand has passed over the neatly squared-off surface of my life and mussed it up. Usually I spend five or ten minutes setting everything to rights, but today I decided to leave it as is. All I did was throw the windows open, hopefully.
I just emailed Terry with a question that has come up in something I'm writing, and he offered the brilliant suggestion that I ask all of you, too.
There are a lot of novels about writers. There aren't so many novels about writers in which the (real) novelist attempts to recreate his character's work. I can think of two off the top of my head, but both of them are somewhat anomalous: Nabokov's Pale Fire, of course, and A. S. Byatt's Possession (both featuring poetry, interestingly). Neither of these is, strictly speaking, about the writers whose work appears, however. There must be more out there. What am I forgetting—what, that is, that's good or at least well-known?
Much obliged, dear readers.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, April 6, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Department of highly original excuses
Just received from someone who hasn't written for days and days:
I think I owe you about five million emails. I need to write about panthers, but then I shall return.
• “I just want it to be known that I am, I would guess, the first person
to have given up your blog for Lent. Take that as a compliment. I
find your blog so enjoyable that a significant part of my Lenten
discipline was to read you only on Sundays for forty days. It has made
Eastertime that much more special.”
• “I've been meaning to read The Skeptic. I finally got around to it & wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it.
About twenty years ago, on a rainy morning, I found my way to Hollins Street, befriended some grad student who was living there, and spent hours in old Henry's chair, trolling through his library. A blissful day.
Your portrait seems just. Thanks for the book.”
• I wrote a drama column for The Wall Street Journal yesterday. My editor kicked it back to me with the observation that I’d already used the word “clunker” three times so far this season, and would I please come up with a different way to describe the play in question? At once delighted and puzzled by his apparent omniscience, I wrote back to ask how the hell he could possibly know such a thing. It turns out that Journal editors have access to an online archive which allows them to make electronic queries of precisely that sort. My editor, who had a vague inkling of having run across the word “clunker” in one of my recent reviews, checked it out and hit pay dirt.
I was, as I say, delighted to have been caught in the act. Not surprisingly, we all have our personal clichés, needless to say, and when you write as much as I do, it’s inevitable, alas, that you’ll overuse more than a few of them from time to time. (The preceding sentence contains six of them.) Doubtless (that’s seven) the day will come, if it hasn’t already, when some busybody writes a piece of software that will automatically check for such repetitions throughout the whole of a journalist’s oeuvre.
I’m sure that, too, will be a good thing, though I confess to finding it a bit frightening to contemplate. Among other things, I write a thousand-word drama column each week, which adds up to a book’s worth of prose every other year. That’s a lot of adjectives, only so many of which can be meaningfully applied to the stages of New York, Washington, and Chicago. Should I ever be asked to put together a volume of my theater reviews, I’m sure they’ll require a not-inconsiderable amount of editing merely to trim away redundancies and repetitions.
To what extent, then, ought a prolific writer of a certain age be expected to avoid repeating himself? I guess I’m going to find out….
• “Never sleep with anyone you only like well enough,” a friend told me the other day, apropos (I hope!) of nothing in particular. I turned this provocative piece of advice over in my mind several times, arriving at no settled conclusion about its general applicability as a rule of life. It did, however, remind me of another half-remembered piece of advice that I’ve never gotten around to tracking down. I’m pretty sure it was said to Garson Kanin by Leland Hayward, the theatrical agent, and I think it’s in Kanin’s Tracy and Hepburn, of which I don’t have a copy. At any rate, this is more or less how it goes: “Never start off by asking for what you'd be willing to settle for.” Inspired by my vigilant editor at the Journal, I just spent a few minutes surfing the Web to pin down the exact wording, but came up empty-handed. (If anyone out there in the ’sphere happens to know the quote or own the book, an accurate rendering would be greatly appreciated.)
Yet my investigation wasn’t pointless, for in the process a second half-remembered quote bubbled to the surface of my stream of consciousness, and amazon.com’s search-inside-the-book feature sent me to it with a bare minimum of fuss. It’s on the last page of A Life on the Road, Charles Kuralt’s autobiography, and it was said to him by the humorist Harry Golden: “When you get to be my age, sonny, all you ever think about are the women you could have gone to bed with and didn’t.”
“I laughed, then,” Kuralt added—the last line of the book.
What did we do without the Web? Got more work done, probably.
• I had, as expected, a very pleasant dinner with Alex Ross and Helen Radice. As I walked home from the restaurant, it struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spent a whole evening in the exclusive company of classical musicians. This is all the more surprising given the fact that I am, or used to be, a classical musician, and have spent a good-sized chunk of my life (including the greater part of last Tuesday and Wednesday) writing about classical music. On the other hand, if you were to wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me what I was, I probably wouldn’t say, “Why, a musician, of course!” I don't spend most of my time writing or thinking about classical music, or even listening to it. In recent years I’ve been mostly interested in painting and the theater, and before that I went through a lengthy period of intense involvement in dance. Yet I felt entirely comfortable gossiping with Alex and Helen: it was as if I’d never been away.
Somehow all this reminds me of something Henry James said in an 1888 letter (found, of course, on the Web):
I have not the least hesitation in saying that I aspire to write in such a way that it would be impossible to an outsider to say whether I am, at a given moment, an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America (dealing as I do with both countries,) & so far from being ashamed of such an ambiguity I should be exceedingly proud of it, for it would be highly civilized.
That’s sort of what I aspire to be: a critic who moves among the arts so freely and naturally that it’s not immediately obvious which one he knows best. I like to think I’ve had some success at achieving that goal, but I also know in my heart of hearts that I’m a musician first, if not necessarily last and definitely not always. It’s my native tongue—my first love, the one you never quite forget, no matter how many may have followed.
• I just got an urgent e-mail from an editor informing me that Saul Bellow died earlier today and asking if I wanted to write an appreciation. I said no, not merely because I'M TAKING WEDNESDAY OFF!! but because Bellow never really interested me, not as a writer and not as a man. I didn’t find him at all sympathetic, yet he didn’t irritate me enough to cause the accretion of a strong negative opinion. He simply wasn’t on my screen (except when he took a shot at me in the New York Times, but that's another story).
Might it have been a generational thing? Among the New York intellectuals, Bellow was a fixed star, a literary giant about whom you had to have an opinion, be it good or bad. I don’t think that’s true today, and I wonder how well his work will be remembered ten years from now, or even five. My guess—and it’s nothing more than that—is that he’ll be seen as a period piece. That doesn’t exactly add up to an appreciation, does it?
Five years ago, by the way, I would have said yes to that editor, run straight to the nearest bookstore, come back with a tall stack of paperbacks, and stayed up all night knocking out a thousand words of well-honed prose. I may be a workaholic, but at least I’m no longer a degenerate one.
UPDATE: Rick Brookhiser puts his finger
on certain aspects of Bellow’s work that I found especially tedious. And Galley Cat is tracking the postmortem bounce in sales of Bellow’s books on amazon.com.
“The voice is the focus of so much comment on Welles’s performances, early and late, that it is worth observing that any huge natural endowment is a double-edged sword for a performer. The greatest artists—Olivier and Margot Fonteyn spring to mind—are those of modest natural endowments who have worked and worked to extend them, thus developing in themselves disciplines and hard-won strength which open up worlds of expression and imagination unknown to those who had it all for nothing.”
Sorry gang, I'm still all jammed up over here—or, I should say, jammed up again after the briefest of respites. Both blogging and emailing remain on hold. She's been busy lately, however, and during that lovely, lapsed break I recall taking great interest in this and its companion piece.
P.S. I ordered spring, but the kitchen sent summer. I'm sending it back to be cooled down about ten degrees.
That's all, folks. Not only did I post a lot more than I expected today, but I also wrote a piece from scratch when I didn't need to. All this suggests that I'm (A) stuck on Full Speed Ahead and (B) out of gas, which is (C) a dangerous combination, especially if you're (D) pathologically inclined to overwork.
I'm dining Tuesday night with two bloggers, Alex Ross and Helen Radice of twang twang twang, and that's going to be the sum total of my activities for the day. If I post anything, flame me.
I picked up my much-thumbed copy of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon this weekend, happy to realize that enough time has passed since my last reading that I can come back to it afresh. And fresh it is—I'm finding that I'd forgotten most of the details, and the details are where Harris is at his wry, observant best. His writing is larded with allusions and references, mainly to the history of crime, but opening up onto all manner of other subjects. What I'm discovering is that the book is enhanced by having a wired computer at hand while one reads it, the better to Google various names and terms. Here are a few interesting trails the first third of the book alone has set me off on:
• Remember how, in the prehistory of Harris's novels, Will Graham recognized Hannibal Lecter as the killer he was looking for and got him put away? The story is briefly recounted in Red Dragon: during a routine interview with a potential witness, Graham glimpsed a familiar old medical text on a shelf in Lecter's psychiatric office. He mentally flashed on one of the book's illustrations, "Wound Man," an early modern medical training diagram that the killer had reconstructed in a kind of tableau mordant at one of the murder scenes. An excellent detail made more lurid and more educational by the visual aid. And for the record, count me in the camp that believes the otherwise great Anthony Hopkins has turned Lecter less interesting, not more—into a bit of a clown, sadly.
• A reference by a minor character to Joseph Yablonski, previously uncomprehended by me, this time led me to learn a little something about the charming history of the United Mine Workers.
• A reference to Dr. William Beaumont triggered a hazy memory of visiting some museum as a child—it must have been this one—that featured a hypnotically icky set of dioramas depicting the good doctor's famed experiments on Alexis St. Martin's open stomach. I could find no web-based evidence that said exhibit still exists, which is truly a shame. Nothing snaps a museum-weary youth's attention to order quite like a dollhouse figure dangling food on a string into a hole in another doll's abdomen. Rooting around fruitlessly for evidence that the exhibit lives on, I found this potentially exciting claim (scroll down to "Literature") that Dr. Beaumont traveled for a time with a far more illustrious Alexis: M. de Tocqueville lui-męme. Wow, this guy was twice the historical figure I thought he was, at least. Are you kidding me? Well, yes. This apparent stunning revelation led me to a truly dandy site, for which I am grateful despite quickly finding there that…it's the wrong Beaumont. Gustave, not William. A Frenchman, not an American. Tsk tsk, Mackinac Island Tourist Bureau. Do your homework!
More to come? We'll see. This is definitely the slowest I've ever read one of Harris's books, but possibly the most fun I've ever had doing so. (I haven't read Black Sunday, and Hannibal was a joke. But this book and Silence of the Lambs are little cabinets of wonders, and damn good novels to boot.)
This year’s Pulitzer Prizes have been announced. Alas, WebCrimson, the server for artsjournal.com, went down seconds after the news broke at three p.m. (the same thing happened last year), so I was unable to post until now. I’m belatedly delighted to report, however, that my colleague Joe Morgenstern, who reviews film for The Wall Street Journal, won a Pulitzer for criticism, and that John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, which I praised in the Journal earlier this year as “the best new play of the season,” has won the drama prize.
For a full list of winners and finalists, go here.
One of the curses of writing a biography is that you spend the rest of your life remembering things you meant to put in but somehow forgot at the last minute.
In honor of the current Broadway revival of Julius Caesar, as well as in the no doubt vain hope of cooling off my overheated head, I’ve been rereading Simon Callow’s Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, to my way of thinking one of the best theatrical biographies ever written (it covers Welles’ life up through the release of Citizen Kane). Not only is it every bit as good as I remembered, but it also contains two fascinating snippets of information that I intended to include in my Mencken and Balanchine books. Alas, they slipped through the cracks, so I’ll share them with you now, ruefully:
• Why did Welles and John Houseman call their company the Mercury Theatre? Says Callow: “The new venture’s name—so perfectly apt—was casually assumed after their first planning meal when their eyes idly lit on a two-year-old copy of the bracingly radical magazine edited by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, American Mercury; their winged feet barely hit the ground thereafter.”
• I mentioned in All in the Dances that Welles was at one point romantically entangled with Vera Zorina, George Balanchine’s second or third wife (depending on whether you count Alexandra Danilova, to whom everyone wrongly thought he was married). I forgot to add, however, that Welles referred to Balanchine in passing in his very first radio show for CBS, a Mercury Theatre of the Air adaptation of Dracula. As Callow explains, “There is the odd private joke: in Dracula, one of the men overboard is called Balanchine, a jest for the personal amusement of the ballerina Vera Zorina…‘Balanchine! Balanchine! Is Balanchine below?’ the sailors cry. ‘Balanchine’s gone!—Like the other!—Like all the others!’ For those who knew what the joke meant, [Welles] was delighted to boast, in this oblique fashion, of his conquest.”
Feel free to print out this posting and insert it in the appropriate places of your copies of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken and All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine.
If you don’t have copies of The Skeptic and All in the Dances...well, jeepers, what’s been keeping you?
If the month of March came close to doing me in, then the week just past should by all rights have been the last straw: five plays, three deadlines, and countless other chores, all coming on the heels of a week-long trip to Washington to attend my first National Council on the Arts meeting. Too much of a whole lot of good things, in short, and by Thursday I was feeling the strain, not least because somewhere along the way I apparently forgot how to go to sleep—though I did finally remember to fill my ice trays. (Thanks, Ali!)
So what on earth possessed me to cram one more item into my schedule? Because I did: I went to the Beacon Theater to hear the Pat Metheny Group perform The Way Up, the new Metheny-Lyle Mays composition about which I spoke
last month on Soundcheck. Short of going on a fifty-mile overnight hike, it was the dumbest thing I could possibly have done, not least because Metheny and his band are notorious for playing really, really long shows. This time around, they started out by performing The Way Up in its album-length entirety. Then, without benefit of intermission, they launched into an extended greatest-hits set that went on for yet another hour and a half.
That is, to put it mildly, a hell of a lot of music, and the Pat Metheny Group doesn’t go through the motions, either: I don’t know when I last saw so much energy discharged in the course of a single evening. I was already tired when I got to the theater, and once I realized that Metheny was going to keep on rocking until eleven at the earliest, my heart sank. “A little too much is just enough for me,” Ned Rorem
says, but I’ve always begged to differ. I like art songs, small paintings, beautifully wrought novellas, one-act plays, and concerts that leave you wanting more. (I don't believe I've ever shared my Drama Critics' Prayer with you: Dear God, if it can't be good, let it be short.) Besides, The Way Up is a complex piece of writing that demands of its listeners a substantial amount of sustained concentration. Because of this, I'm not so sure it was ideally served by being presented as part of so long a program. I know I didn’t want to hear anything else after it was over, any more than I care to see another ballet after watching New York City Ballet dance Jerome Robbins’ eighty-minute-long Goldberg Variations, despite the fact that NYCB always follows it with a chaser.
All this notwithstanding, I stayed to the bitter end, mostly because my companion for the evening was a Pat Metheny buff who would have been more than happy to spend the whole night listening to his music. I didn’t want to leave her high and dry, so I stuck it out—and sure enough, I got my second wind before long and came roaring back to life. What’s more, the next-to-last song, a trio version of “Farmer’s Trust” played with feathery delicacy by Metheny, Mays, and Steve Rodby, turned out to be one of the high points of the evening.
By then, of course, I was wound up tight and thrilled to pieces, and I would have gladly stuck around for at least another hour or two. It was, alas, a purely temporary buzz, one that wore off as soon as the music stopped. By the time I finally made it home, I was too tired to do much of anything, even fall asleep. Instead of going to bed, I collapsed in a heap on the couch and stared numbly at the TV until half past way too late. Still, I wasn’t sorry to have spent so much time with the Pat Metheny Group, not even slightly. Nothing in moderation: so reads the epitaph on Ernie Kovacs’ tombstone in Forest Lawn. I’m not sure how wise a rule of life that is—Kovacs died at forty-three—but even those of us who believe devoutly in the gospel of proportion in all things should occasionally make a point of spending an evening traveling the road of excess, if only to remind ourselves of what we’re missing out on by being so damnably moderate.
Speaking of, er, moderation, I’ve got yet another deadline waiting in the wings, so I’ll see you tomorrow, or whenever….
"I wound up with Othello, Lear and Macbeth and one is inclined to be silent about them—they are so stupendous. Othello is disagreeable to me because his villain comes down front and tells you he is a villain and what nasty things he means to do, and chance favors him unfairly, but the talk is so tremendous that you forgive that. As to Shakespeare generally, apart from the superlative passages, as I believe I said the other day, he can talk better than Richard II or Macbeth or any of the rest of them, and he gives you his talk without too much regard to whose mouth he uses. It is a transcendent echo of life rather than life. How far is our pleasure in his language a matter of education and convention like that in the language of the Bible or the French delight in snoring tirades in Alexandrine verse which gives me no pleasure at all?"
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., letter to Harold Laski (1922)
I am a regular visitor to your website, often first thing in the morning or later during lunch. I have always found the arts interesting but somewhat difficult to grasp. Not so much because they are above me, but my busy life, between spending time with my four young boys, my wife and work, allows little time left to pursue the arts. You provide me with a porthole to view them at least on a very general level. I have taken some of your musical recommendations as they are the easiest for me to indulge in. The Paul Desmond Quartet Live disc is most enjoyable. While I am a neophyte in the jazz world I have listened to Coltrane, Miles, Brubeck, Marsalis and such and enjoyed them.
Anyway, my point is that I had listened to Norah Jones' first CD when it came out awhile back and enjoyed it. I found it fresh and different but the thing that really was great about it was that I could turn on the radio and hear it with little searching and effort. While I agree after several listens there is nothing new or interesting that you hear, being able to actually understand the lyrics, decent vocals and having a melody played on pop radio stations was so very refreshing.
After reading your comments on her first album I would agree that it definitely belongs in the pop/country category and not jazz and that her music is pleasant enough. And that I think is the point or question. The Norah Jones CD was a hit I think because of one its novelty and two there was actual singing and music as opposed to much of the garble in pop music. It was great to have something so different pumping through the major airwaves and easily available, somewhat along the lines of the middlebrow culture that you have mentioned was regularly available on TV back in the day. I see it as people having a thirst for more culture but they are so busy with their lives that they don't know where to begin and the major broadcasters have no interest in providing it to the public.
I know that it is the case with me and it is the reason that I turn to your website. For ways that I can quickly absorb some culture. I try out some of the music, I follow the links you post to art work. Anything to give me a quick culture hit in my limited free time. I wish I could absorb more of the real thing but as I mentioned above life gets int the way. Until my kids grow a little older I will just have to make do with the tasty morsels you leave me on your website and attempt to follow up on them as often as possible.
And for that I will thank you.
I wish I’d gotten this e-mail prior to taping my upcoming appearance
on Kurt Andersen’s Studio 360, because Andersen and I talked about how arts blogs have the potential to do exactly what my correspondent has in mind. I don’t know whether that section of the interview will make the final cut, but I do want to say that right from the start, I’ve sought to use "About Last Night" not only to communicate with full-fledged urban aesthetes, but also to make the world of art more accessible to ordinary folks who "have a thirst for more culture."
Back in the Fifties, mass-circulation organs of middlebrow culture like Time and Life fulfilled that function, and did so wonderfully well. Now they don’t even try. I was staggered to learn, for instance, that the only note Time is taking of this year’s arts Pulitzers will be to run a piece about The Known World (which, needless to say, it failed to review on publication). How is it possible that a weekly newsmagazine which ostensibly covers the arts could find no space even to mention Paul Moravec or Doug Wright?
Instead of cursing the journalistic darkness, I started "About Last Night," and whenever I get letters like this one, I know it’s starting to spread a little light. You can help. Please—please—tell a friend about Our Girl and me. Our traffic has been rising steadily ever since we went live last August (we received more than 50,000 page views in March), but the world is still full of lots and lots of people who are waiting to discover a blog like this, whether they know it or not. In fact, they might not even know what a blog is! So give them a nudge. They’ll be glad you did. We'll be glad you did.
I just added several interesting-looking blogs to the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column. Check them out. In addition, I've posted links to the on-line archives of three important New York-based arts critics, Peter G. Davis (classical music), Hilton Kramer (art), and John Simon (theater). You can read their latest pieces each week by clicking on their "Sites to See" links.
Next, I'll reevaluate all of our currently listed blogs and prune out the ones that are now inactive or haven't retained their initial interest.
(See what happens when you finally finish a book? All of a sudden you've got time to play with your blog!)
• Last night I sawLuciana Souza’s opening night at Joe’s Pub. The house was sold out and the music
was so beautiful that even the bartenders crushed their ice with reasonable discretion. As if that weren’t enough, I got to meet Janis Siegel, on whom I’ve had an intermittent crush ever since high school (she came to see the show and went backstage to tell Souza that it was "perfect"). I’m pleased to say that she lived up to my expectations—she’s v., v. cool.
Richard has been reading some of my books—I gave him Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings—do you think that a good choice? E.W. he found terribly sad, but witty—why is it that men find my books so sad? Women don’t particularly. Perhaps they (men) have a slight guilt feeling that this is what they do to us, and yet really it isn’t as bad as all that.
• Now playing on iTunes: Mischa Levitzki’s 1933 recording of Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso. I wouldn’t sell my soul to be able to play piano like that, but I might rent it….
"The goods that a writer produces can never be impersonal; his character gets into them as certainly as it gets into the work of any other creative artist, and he must be prepared to endure investigation of it, and speculation upon it, and even gossip about it."
OK, I'm going to be easing back into this thing you call blogging, starting now. Thanks to those who missed me; that really makes a girl feel guilty…er, good.
Hm, what's this greater-than sign? Oh yeah, coding. It's all beginning to waft back.
To kick things off again, I wanted to call attention to something excellent I read today. An ex-colleague of Colby Cosh's died recently, and Colby has posted a really indelible remembrance of him. You're unlikely to have heard of Candian reporter Terry Johnson; his death won't make the faintest ripple in the wider world. But Colby's artful, unsentimental character sketch surely will make you remember him. It put me a little bit in mind of the late great Robert McG. Thomas, the idiosyncratic obituarist for the New York Times, but it's a different ball of wax—a stickier one—to effectively memorialize someone you knew. Colby's piece is less anecdote-driven than Thomas's obits, and fundamentally different in that it's a record of personal experience. Although the subject was as eccentric as any of Thomas's, Colby captures him in an everyday key and produces a condensed, vivid character study. Here's a taste:
Terry was so defenceless against the basic demands of life that he never, to anyone's knowledge, owned a winter coat during the time he lived in Edmonton. A fellow housemate made an annual ritual of frogmarching him to the barber to get his Karl Marx beard and his spirit-of-'68 hair hacked at. No piece of furniture in the common area of the house lacked for holes made by his cigarettes. He had the barest acquaintance with bathing and probably none, in his adulthood, of dentistry. He made do, defiantly. Somehow he acquired a whole wardrobe of other people's clothing; one got the distinct impression he didn't get it from Goodwill or Value Village, but that he just somehow gravitated home from the pub wearing a bowling shirt with "Larry" on the breast pocket.
In short, he seems now to have been an addict in training. When I lived with him I knew him to possess no vices more severe than beer, in modest bachelor quantities, and pot, in quite massive ones. Actually, he had one that was arguably more harmful, at least to his ability to meet deadlines: video games, particuarly Sid Meier's Civilization. No one ever burned a deadline with more determination than Terry Johnson. The rest of us copy-breeders began to get nervous around Friday sundown, with the magazine going off to the printer on Sunday, but Terry would carry on Minesweeping until Saturday afternoon and not give it an apparent second thought. He would vanish from home and office for 48 hours at a time when he was supposed to be quizzing farmers about genetically modified seed or fuel prices.
The alive quality of this sets me to wondering, should Colby drop some of the opinionating and get to work on a novel? (Partial answer: not if that means he would stop covering the NHL playoffs.)
James Tata recently posted a list of "the last twenty books of fiction or literary essays I have read." I enjoy reading this kind of list, in much the same way that I like looking at other people’s bookshelves. When the listkeepers in question also happen to be famous, of course, the results are interesting for a different reason. Justice Holmes, for example, kept a written record of every book he read as an adult, and I find it both amusing and illuminating to know that he read (among many other things) both Swann's Way and Rex Stout. Yet I take equal pleasure in knowing what my fellow bloggers are reading, looking at, or listening to, not only because I’m interested in them as personalities but also because such knowledge can lift me out of my own preoccupations and preconceptions. Though I own a wide variety of books and CDs, I have a tendency to run the plow through the same old furrows when left to my own devices. Sometimes a passing mention by a fellow blogger reminds me of a book I love but haven’t reread for years, or makes me want to click through to amazon.com and buy one I have yet to read.
I also like the fugitive nature of reading lists, which I find wholly compatible with the fugitive nature of blogging itself. One of the things I missed while I was working on All in the Dances was the welter of discussion set off by the posting in which Return of the Reluctant suggested that bloggers ought to set their sights higher: "This whole ‘link plus commentary’ business is about as difficult as microwaving a burrito. I think blogs can do better. I know I can do better. There's something extant in the form that has made us all lazy." I’m for that (up to a point, Lord Copper!), but I’d also be sad if my favorite blogs were to lose the informality that is, at least to my way of thinking, a major part of the medium's appeal. I also find that I’m disinclined to read looooong quasi-essays on line (though that may well change over time as I become more habituated to the practice). For my part, I think of "About Last Night" as a kind of public notebook, one in which there is room for both considered reflection and fleeting fancy.
In any case, there’s plenty of room on the Web for people to do whatever they want. The trick, as always, is to make yourself do it. I’m a great fan of features like Shaken and Stirred’s "worms," in which she mentions a song that happened to invade her ear that day—but do I do anything like that? Nope. The only thing that appears on this blog each day is my almanac entry, in which I occasionally (but not usually) hint at my current reading. Perhaps I’ll try experimenting with a daily posting in which I simply mention some work of art consumed by me in the preceding twenty-four hours. In fact, I’m definitely going to do that, and you’ll let me know what you think of the results.
James Tata’s reading list was prefaced by this sober reflection:
I find myself writing here about the books I have been reading much less often than I thought I would when I started this blog. Some of the reasons are because I'm a very slow reader, I select the books I read much more haphazardly than I wish I did, and I find that my opinions of books are not easily summarized in the time I am able to devote to this blog. The bulk of my writing time is given over either to writing I get paid for or writing I hope I will eventually get paid for. I don't think I am the only blogger for whom this is true. Despite the hopes of many, blogs will not become the primary forum for literary journalism so long as the writing in them is done for free. We might hope that blogs will fill the void left as the NY Times and other paying venues reduce their commitment to reviews of fiction and poetry, but work of the highest quality will never be done as a hobby, whether it be literary criticism, teaching, computer programming, or basketball.
About that, I’m not so sure. While we have it on the very best authority that no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, the fact remains that neither Our Girl nor I make a cent off this blog. (Perhaps someday we will, but that’s not why we’re doing it now.) Is what we post on "About Last Night" of the "highest quality"? That’s for you to judge, though my inclination would be to say that the difference is one not so much of quality as of kind. If you’re looking for my Definitive Thoughts on a given subject, order a copy of A Terry Teachout Reader
or follow the links in the right-hand column to my published pieces. What I post here, by contrast, is strictly provisional—a peep into the workshop.
That doesn’t mean I take it less seriously. I was sitting next to a wealthy businessman at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago, and he asked me, out of the blue, what I’d do if I didn’t have any "financial concerns." Had I been a bit quicker on the uptake, I might have said a few choice words about how a poor writer like me would be inspired to unforeseen heights of brilliance were a Morandi etching
to be hung over his desk. Instead, I blurted out the first thing that popped into my mind. "I’d be tempted," I told him, "to take a year off and do nothing but blog." Not that I’d ever really do such a thing—I’m too firmly committed to my print-media gigs, and I enjoy them too much to give them up—but I’d be powerfully tempted to spend a whole year experimenting with the seemingly infinite possibilities of blogging.
Which brings me back to something James said: "Despite the hopes of many, blogs will not become the primary forum for literary journalism so long as the writing in them is done for free." Probably not. But blogging offers other possibilities, both to professionals and (especially) amateurs. We don’t have to replace the Times Book Review. For that matter, we don’t need to replace the Times Book Review, or any other existing print-media publication. What draws me to the blogosphere is the fact that it lets me do something new. Time will tell whether or not it's worth doing, but I’m already sure of one thing, which is that I’m having fun doing it—and no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for fun.
This blog works the same way as my shelves. It's arranged specifically by what I am interested in….I refuse to change my posting habits. I fear my blog would be less boring if I couldn't enjoy a book about Bobby Fischer, a wonderful A. L. Kennedy novel, and rereading a classic all at the same time.
I think something went slightly askew in that last sentence, but my guess is that Bookslut and I are on the same page here.
I’m in The Wall Street Journal this morning, reviewing Stephen Belber’s Match, which opened at the Plymouth Theatre last night. The play itself is somewhat uneven (though very funny), but Frank Langella’s performance is wonderful:
"Match" might have been written for the sole purpose of giving Mr. Langella a platinum-plated chance to flounce his stuff. No sooner does the curtain go up than he grabs the reins and gallops down a theatrical steeplechase that leads straight from outrageous bitchery to unadorned, heartfelt emotion. If Mr. Langella doesn’t own this play, then at least he’s got a thousand-year lease.
He’s so exciting, in fact, that "Match" comes off looking rather better than it really is. Not that Mr. Belber’s play is shoddy goods—far from it—but it’s possible to head for the subway thinking you’ve seen something other than a highly efficient tearjerker lightly sprinkled with honesty, a somewhat deceptive impression for which the star of the show deserves most of the credit.
Alas, you’re going to have to take my word for it, since "Match" is built around a series of surprises that critical etiquette forbids me to disclose. Were it a clunker, I might blow the gaff out of sheer spite, but it’s so entertaining that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun. This much, however, I can say: Mr. Langella plays Tobi Powell, a first-class dancer turned second-class choreographer who now teaches at Juilliard and lives in a dingy, souvenir-crammed apartment far from the scenes of his flaming youth. Shy, mousy Lisa Davis (Jane Adams) and her regular-guy husband Mike (Ray Liotta) pay him a visit, ostensibly to interview him for Lisa’s dissertation about ballet in New York in the ’50s. Before long, though, the "interview" has morphed into an inquisition, Mike has revealed himself to be a raving homophobe who can no longer conceal his disgust at Tobi’s effeminacy, and…well, I’d better stop there….
No link, so to find out more—though not too much more—buy this morning’s Journal, turn to the "Weekend Journal" section, and give me the once-over.
I gave Mr. Elegant Variation a tour of the Musée Teachout yesterday. I inscribed his freshly bought copy of A Terry Teachout Reader, he knelt and kissed my ring, and we repaired to Good Enough to Eat, my neighborhood hangout, where he confessed to being of Hungarian parentage and told scabrous stories about other West Coast bloggers who must remain nameless for fear of possible litigation. Then he headed out into the rain for a downtown rendezvous with a bunch of drunken East Coast bloggers.
• By way of Bookish Gardener (new in "Sites to See," and very highly recommended) comes this link to a Dutch Web site devoted to paintings of women reading. I’m not quite sure why I think this is so cool, but I do.
• You’re going to hear Luciana Souza tonight
at Joe’s Pub, right? No? Well, at least pay a visit to the Web site of WNYC-FM and check out her guest shot on John Schaefer’s Soundcheck, which aired yesterday and has now been archived. Go here to listen.
• In case you haven’t read enough about The Triplets of Belleville, animation expert Michael Barrier reviews it on his Web site, which isn’t quite a blog but nevertheless contains lots of interesting stuff, updated semi-regularly. Everything Barrier writes is worth reading.
• This one’s purely for fun: Elsa has written a sort of found poem (I can’t explain it any better) based on Mr. TMFTML’s blogroll. Most amusing.
• My Stupid Dog tells us what Tony Kushner and Tim LaHaye have in common:
Kushner's entire oeuvre prior to Homebody/Kabul could be considered an extended exercise in red-diaper fundamentalism. His wilder moments, like the physical manifestation of the Devil in Bright Room Called Day, the character of Thomas Browne's Soul in Hydrotaphia, or the postmortem appearance of the Rosenbergs in Angels in America: Perestroika, aren't crass attempts to perk up an otherwise dull evening by invoking the supernatural. In these scenes, Kushner concretizes his belief system, and tries to will its obvious falsehoods into the realm of objective, unquestioned truth.
Usually we notice such desperate rhetorical strategies only when they come from the Far Right: Take, for example, the much-discredited system of dispensationalist eschatology espoused throughout Tim LaHaye's Left Behind books. Kushner's drama offers occasional glimpses into the mind of its fundamentalist author, much as the Left Behind books do, though in Kushner's case that fundamentalism is Marxist-Leninist rather than Christian-traditionalist….
• Everybody’s posting to and commenting on Camille Paglia’s essay on "The Magic of Images: Word and Picture in a Media Age," which I liked but found more than a little self-consciously showy, as is her wont. The best take I’ve seen so far is from The Reading Experience (readability: 100%).
• Finally, start your weekend off right by going here and scrolling down approximately seven screens to the listing for James P. Johnson’s 1927 recording of "Snowy Morning Blues" (the 1944 remake is almost as good). Click on the link and RealAudio will pour something into your computer that’s guaranteed to make you smile.
See you tomorrow, unless I check back in today. Meanwhile, keep an eye peeled for Our Girl, whose return to the blogosphere, she claims, is fairly imminent.
I keep meaning to write something, but I can't stop reading long enough to do so. Here are some more of my recent gleanings from the Web:
• Over in the Top Five module of the right-hand column, I’ve posted a few heartfelt words in praise of Jane Freilicher: Recent Work, up at Tibor de Nagy through Apr. 24. Now Hilton Kramer has reviewed the same show at length for the New York Observer:
Cloudy skylines and vivid floral bouquets, still-lifes and landscapes, nasturtiums and petunias lording it over Manhattan’s imposing cityscape, the rectilinear cityscape itself dissolved into a phantom Cubist still-life—these are some of the suggestive incongruities to be savored in Jane Freilicher’s new paintings at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Brilliantly rendered floral color commands the foreground in most of these paintings, while views of the city, seen in a distant haze through an upper-story window, have a mirage-like quality—too shadowy to be entirely real, yet never venturing into the kind of fantasy we associate with surrealism….
Abstractionism in color is particularly evident in her two Flora paintings on handmade paper, with their shallow-spaced, all-over structure, and an abstractionist impulse can be seen in all of her recent paintings. It’s even more emphatically stated in Seascape, another painting on handmade paper, which has a structure of stacked horizontal forms.
All of this suggests that what we’ve been witnessing—though not always acknowledging—in the history of American art since the 1950’s is a widespread movement among representational painters to come to terms with the powerhouse influence of the Abstract Expressionists. Not only as a critic but also as a painter, this was an issue that Fairfield Porter was absolutely obsessed with: In writing about abstract painting, he often went looking for its subject matter, and in writing about realist painting, he was mainly concerned with pure pictorial form.
What this also suggests is that, in the long term, representational painters may have derived greater benefits—pictorial, aesthetic benefits—from the Abstract Expressionists than abstract painters have. It may be heresy to suggest this, but in the presence of Ms. Freilicher’s current exhibition, it’s a heresy worth thinking about….
Read the whole thing here. Then go see the show. It’s not to be missed.
• Golden Rule Jones has run 17 arts blogs through an on-line tool that tests Web sites for "readability." According to the creator of the tool in question, "A level above 12 indicates the writing sample is too hard for most people to read." Mr. Jones scored 12.9, Our Girl and I a paltry 12.2. The thorniest thicket, not surprisingly, was The Reading Experience (16.5), while Return of the Reluctant and Old Hag both racked up a spectacularly fluffy 10.1.
• Jeff Jarvis recalls his tenure at People, apropos of that magazine’s thirtieth anniversary:
I was at People during a few crucial cultural changes. While I was there, the audience fragmented before our very eyes. It used to be that we could put a No. 1 TV show on the cover and, zap, it would sell. But suddenly -- thanks to the most revolutionary device ever invented, the remote control -- that changed.
I remember my managing editor and mentor, Pat Ryan, coming down the hall more than once shouting at me, "TV's dead, Jarvis, it's dead." That meant another Dallas cover had inexplicably bombed. The audience sat asunder.
Welcome to the future of media and culture.
The audience took control of their entertainment (just as, today, we are taking control of their news and media). Cable grew. VCRs were just starting to be sold. We were no longer captive to three networks. We watched what we wanted to watch.
The truth is that our time in a shared national experience was short -- it lasted only from the moment TV reached critical mass until the mid-80s and the spread of the cultural bomb we called the clicker. "Who Shot J.R." was our last single shared experience. Even now, when we watch a war, we watch it through CNN's eyes or FoxNews' or the Internet's.
Some lament the passing of that shared national experience. I don't. It was a tyranny: rule by the mass (or rather, what executives thought the masses should or would want). Now the individual is in charge again….
• Finally, MoorishGirl brings us this stunning story of a modest author:
When Edwidge Danticat went on Radio Times on WHYY-FM (90.9) the other day to talk about her new novel, The Dew Breaker, callers didn't want to discuss plot or character. They had bigger questions for the Haitian-born writer. Like: "Is there hope for Haiti?"…
"I find it difficult being a spokesperson," said the shy, soft-spoken, 35-year-old novelist, who gave a reading at the main branch of the Free Library. "I don't think in an op-ed way. I don't always have an immediate response. My work is my soapbox. What I hope is that people will read that and then want to find out more about Haiti."
Newly minted Pulitzer laureate Anne Applebaum has an interesting take on the rise and fall of the middlebrow:
I've recently been to two literary award ceremonies -- this week's was just an announcement -- and both times I've lost. Maybe losers bring their own bitter, twisted emotions to their recollections of such events, but I still don't think it's wrong to describe the "literary" contingent at both events as, well, bitter and twisted. On both evenings, prize committee chairmen got up to praise the novel or historical work they'd selected, invariably adding a phrase or two about how, in "today's world" such works are "ever more necessary." Anyone talking about criticism described the lonely life of a critic; anyone talking about poetry became downright defensive. Most of the winners, in fact, were very brief. It was as if the gap between the nice things being said about them inside the room and the hostility of the world outside was too unbearable to discuss.
I'm not quite sure how it got to be this way -- writers of heavy books on one side, mass media on the other -- because it wasn't always so. The great American cultural blender once produced whole art forms, such as Broadway musicals and jazz, that might well be described as a blend of the two. But nowadays, that gap is so wide that I'm not even sure the old descriptions of the various forms of "culture" -- highbrow, middlebrow, popular -- even make sense any more. Does Edward P. Jones, the Washingtonian whose eloquent novel, "The Known World," won a Pulitzer Prize this week, even inhabit the same universe as MTV? Does anybody who reads one watch the other?…
This happens to be one of the major themes of A Terry Teachout Reader, which The Elegant Variation (with whom I’m having lunch today) tells me is now on sale in a major New York bookstore, Coliseum. That’s my first Manhattan sighting.
Not to plug myself excessively, especially since Maud has made it unnecessary by posting an item about the Teachout Reader toward which I point you with immodest pleasure. She's a friend (and says so), so you're welcome to take her praise with a stalactite or two of salt, but I still hope you like it as much as she did.
Via artsjournal.com, our invaluable host, comes this fascinating story about a robot conductor (no jokes just yet, please):
The latest human activity to be mastered by robots was demonstrated recently when Sony’s QRIO bot successfully conducted an entire orchestra.
The 58-centimetre-tall humanoid robot led the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in a unique rendition of Beethoven’s 5th symphony during a concert held at the Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Tokyo on 15 March….
The full story is here, together with a link to a short RealPlayer videoclip of an excerpt from the "unique rendition." Take a look—but listen, too. While I can think of a few conductors on whom QRIO’s "interpretation" of Beethoven’s Fifth might possibly be an improvement, I think it’s likely to be a little while longer before Lorin Maazel needs to start sweating.
At our Studio 360 taping yesterday, Kurt Andersen asked me about the thumbs-up/thumbs-down tendency in modern-day reviewing. This morning, I found in my mailbox an essay about criticism from an interesting-looking Web site called Charlie Suisman’s Manhattan User’s Guide:
With a film, say, or a book, a negative review may not be helpful, but the thing itself continues to exist, regardless of critical reaction. The inherently ephemeral nature of restaurants and theatre productions means that negative critical reaction can effectively close a business down. That makes the critic's words in those fields especially fraught. There are reviewers out there who consider themselves consumer advocates, helping readers spend their money wisely. It's a thumbs up/thumbs down mentality and there's nothing inherently wrong with it. But the best critics have always brought much more to their analyses: crucially, a sense of context and the weight of institutional memory.
If you're reviewing a play by, say, Jon Robin Baitz, you can't be an effective advocate for the reader if you don't bring full knowledge of Mr. Baitz's career to the table. And not just that: you should also be able to place the play in historical, stylistic, and theatrical context. Critics (good critics, in our view) have taken something of a curatorial role. Think of Pauline Kael on movies. It's not really about nurturing, we wouldn't call it "being supportive", but it is at least cognizant of an artist's career, of a trajectory, of how the threads have come to together. It may be tough love, but the love for the form (and often for the practitioners) comes through. The artist and the critic are in it for the long haul….
Institutional memory takes two forms. There's the institutional memory of the critic's own paper and there's the institutional memory of the industry being reviewed. Both need to inform the analysis. Of course a reviewer will reach his or her own conclusions, but being heedless of what came before leads to exactly the kind of disjointed, decontextualized appraisal that understandably drives artists, and chefs, and readers to varying states of distraction….
I like that. And I wish I’d read it before the taping.
Earlier today, I went all the way downtown to the studios of WNYC to tape an episode of Studio 360, Kurt Andersen’s weekly radio series on art and culture. This particular show is about criticism, and I’m the critic in question. The occasion (naturally) was the publication of A Terry Teachout Reader, and
Andersen and I had a lengthy and exceptionally wide-ranging conversation about what I do and how I do it. I’ve been interviewed on quite a few radio shows over the years, but this one was especially satisfying—the questions were smart and to the point, and I had more than enough time to answer them in detail.
New Yorkers can hear my appearance on Studio 360 at ten a.m. next Saturday, April 17, on WNYC-FM (93.9), or at seven p.m. next Sunday, April 18, on WNYC-AM (820). No matter where you live, you can also listen on the Web in live streaming audio by going here.
Studio 360 is carried by NPR affiliates across the country. For a complete list of local stations and air dates, go here.
Once the show has been broadcast, it’ll be archived here so that you can hear it at your convenience.
One way or another, give a listen, O.K.? I think it’ll be fun.
"A woman was walking along one of the paths with a dog on a lead. She wore a grey tweed coat and transparent pink nylon gloves, and carried two books from the public library in a contraption of rubber straps. What is the use of noticing such details? Dulcie asked herself. It isn't as if I were a novelist or a private detective. Presumably such a faculty might be said to add to one' s enjoyment of life, but so often what one observed was neitehr amusing nor interesting, but just upsetting."
Neruda, Luciana Souza’s new CD, is out this week. I wrote the liner notes:
If Luciana did nothing more than sing, she’d still be a miracle. But she also writes music, sometimes to her own graceful words, sometimes to those of poets who catch her curious ear. Neruda is an hour-long song cycle based on the poetry of Pablo Neruda and the piano pieces of Federico Mompou, sung in her Brazil-perfumed English (a language she speaks with the freshness and surprise of an explorer charting a new world) and as uncategorizably protean as everything else she does. "House" dances down the street in a sinuous 7/4, spurred on by her own deft percussion playing. "Poetry" has the concentration of an art song by Fauré or Copland. The long melody of "Tonight I Can Write…" unwinds like the slow course of the moon through the night sky.
"People say, oh, you’re so eclectic, and I usually say that I really don’t look at styles any more," Luciana once told me. "I recognize, well, it’s classical music or contemporary this or jazz that, or Brazilian, but I’m not worried about that. Only I don’t want to be categorized as ‘the Brazilian singer.’ I look, I sound, I am, I wouldn’t want to escape that—Portuguese is a delicious language to sing in—but I didn’t want to be just that. Let people decide for themselves what I am, and if they don’t like it, they can get their refund on the way out."
That says it all, I think. Luciana doesn’t care about definitions in a book. She makes music. She is made of music. "I used to be very focused on, is what I do O.K. for you and for you and for you?" she says. "You ask that kind of thing as a younger person. Is what I’m doing relevant, is it valid, does it have quality, is it hip? I used to ask myself all these things, and now I’m asking less, because I know my music is all these things and none of these things, all the time."…
Luciana will be performing Neruda live this Friday at Joe’s Pub, with repeat performances on April 16, 23, and 30. All shows start at 9:30 and reservations are essential.
To buy Neruda (or to listen to excerpts), go here. To find out more about Luciana’s upcoming performances at Joe’s Pub, go here.
As I read over this morning's Pulitzer coverage, I noticed that the runners-up for the drama prize that went to Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife were a pair of plays I panned in The Wall Street Journal.
One was Omnium Gatherum. With all due respect to Old Hag's current guest blogger, who loved it, I thought otherwise:
For openers, the play, co-written by Theresa Rebeck ("Bad Dates") and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, is a drawing-room comedy set at a chic dinner party in what at first blush appears to be a high-rise apartment overlooking Ground Zero. The dizzy hostess (Kristine Nielsen) and her guests are all coarsely realized caricatures: an ultra-fey Cambridge don (Dean Nolen), a cosmopolitan Arab (Edward A. Hajj), a you-go-girl black matron (Melanna Gray), a humorless vegan (Jenny Bacon), even a loud-mouthed right-winger (Phillip Clark). (I’d like to see the chic dinner party to which he got invited.) In an inept attempt at subtlety, each guest is made to say one or two things inconsistent with his or her caricature—though somebody ought to tell the authors that making the fey Brit a raving Israel-hater was more accurate than they might have guessed.
What next? Well, Guest No. 6 turns out to be a fireman (Joseph Lyle Taylor), who (of course) speaks in dese-dem-doseisms and (also of course) has a climactic monologue in which he tells what he saw on 9/11. The witty chit-chat (next to none of which is amusing) degenerates into boozy sniping. The vegan confesses that she’s…pregnant! The hostess announces that she’s invited a Mystery Guest (Amir Arison), who turns out to be…an Arab terrorist! The fireman admits that he’s really…dead! In fact, all the guests are dead, and as if that weren’t enough of a cliché, they’re in hell. So is the audience, though most of them didn’t seem to know it, since I heard no groans when this last fact was revealed....
My personal trainer, who knows a thing or two about pop culture, recently described "Seabiscuit" to me as "a smart movie for dumb people." "Omnium Gatherum," by contrast, is a dumb play for—and by—people who think they’re smart.
No less horrible was Man from Nebraska, which I saw on a trip to Chicago in January:
I was appalled by Tracy Letts’s "Man From Nebraska"...in which Ken Carpenter (Rick Snyder), a Baptist family man from Lincoln, Neb., awakes one morning to find he has lost his faith. He thereupon embarks on a pilgrimage to London, where he falls in with Tamyra (Karen Aldridge), an arty bartender, and Harry (Michael Shannon), a mediocre sculptor. These enlightened folk introduce the benighted Ken to the Religion of Art, and he returns to Lincoln a fully fledged member of the herd of independent minds, there to renounce fundamentalism, fast food and small-town narrowness. Such smug little exercises in cross-cultural condescension are par for the course in the capital of Blue America, but I wasn’t expecting to stumble across one in the City of the Big Shoulders. I guess there’s no hate like self-hate: Mr. Letts, a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble, was born and raised in Oklahoma....
Two bullets dodged! I'd say that's a good day's work.
"The three hurried downstairs, to find, not the gay dog they expected, but a young man, colourless, toneless, who had already the mournful eyes above a drooping moustache that are so common in London, and that haunt some streets of the city like accusing presences. One guessed him as the third generation, grandson to the shepherd or ploughboy whom civilization had sucked into the town; as one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit. Hints of robustness survived in him, more than a hint of primitive good looks, and Margaret, noting the spine that might have been straight, and the chest that might have broadened, wondered whether it paid to give up the glory of the animal for a tail coat and a couple of ideas. Culture had worked in her own case, but during the last few weeks she had doubted whether it humanized the majority, so wide and so widening is the gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophic man, so many the good chaps who are wrecked in trying to cross it. She knew this type very well—the vague aspirations, the mental dishonesty, the familiarity with the outsides of books. She knew the very tones in which he would address her. She was only unprepared for an example of her own visiting-card."
Most of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical compositions of the past were undistinguished and are now deservedly forgotten, but here are some of the well-remembered winners that preceded Paul Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy:
1945: Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring 1947: Charles Ives, Symphony No. 3
1949: Virgil Thomson, Louisiana Story (film score)
1950: Gian Carlo Menotti, The Consul 1958: Samuel Barber, Vanessa 1963: Samuel Barber, Piano Concerto
That’s nice company.
Arabesque has recorded Tempest Fantasy for release on CD later this year, together with Mood Swings, another of Moravec’s strongest pieces of chamber music. I’ll let you know when it comes out.
UPDATE: I just got a call from Moravec, who's spending his spring break in Sicily (he teaches at Adelphi University). He's feeling pretty bubbly, needless to say.
"Do you realize that I'm going to be in the World Almanac next year?" he asked.
The server for "About Last Night" melted down seconds after this year’s Pulitzer Prizes were announced, making it impossible for me to post immediately, as I’d planned to do. The crash was particularly irksome in light of the fact that three of the prizes were deeply and personally satisfying to me:
• Paul Moravec, a great composer (and I don’t use that adjective lightly) whose music I’ve championed for years, won for Tempest Fantasy, a five-star masterpiece which has just been recorded (watch this space for details).
If you think all modern music is ugly and meaningless, you haven't heard Moravec's. He's one of a group of composers I've dubbed the New Tonalists, and he figures prominently in A Terry Teachout Reader, where I quote him as follows: "Trying to compose beautiful things, I say what I mean and mean what I say. The irony in my work is not glibly postmodern, but rather the essence of making audible the experience of fundamental paradox and ambiguity." Beautiful is definitely the word: I can't think of another classical composer of the baby-boom generation whose work means more to me. The Pulitzer committee, which has a famously bad track record when it comes to music, has done itself proud this year. (Incidentally, I just saw on the wires that the other finalists for this year's music prize were Steve Reich and Peter Lieberson.)
Says jazz composer Maria Schneider, a Moravec fan: "YAY!" I couldn't have put it better myself.
• Anne Applebaum won the general nonfiction prize for Gulag: A History, a National Book Awards finalist (I was one of the NBA judges). Most of you probably know about Applebaum and Gulag by now, so I'll say only that I regard it as one of the most important American books of the past quarter-century, regardless of genre. It's handsomely written and brutally honest—no small achievement, either, considering the longstanding unwillingness of so very many influential people to acknowledge the horrible truths set forth by Applebaum in such unsparing detail. It's damned well about time.
If you haven't read Gulag, you must.
• Doug Wright won the drama prize for I Am My Own Wife, a play I've been touting with wild abandon ever since I first saw it last year. "This show deserves every prize there is," I wrote in The Wall Street Journal when it transferred to Broadway. For now, this one will do quite nicely.
Here's part of what I wrote about the original off-Broadway production:
I don't begrudge Vanessa Redgrave her well-deserved Tony for "Long Day’s Journey Into Night," but simple justice compels me to add that the best actress currently appearing in New York is neither on Broadway nor a woman. It’s Jefferson Mays, the star of Doug Wright’s "I Am My Own Wife," off-Broadway’s latest dispatch from the wilder shores of gender identity, in which Mr. Mays plays Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East German transvestite with more than one secret under her skirt....
Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Doug Wright met Charlotte, the 65-year-old owner of an East Berlin museum of knickknacks from the 1890s. Mr. Wright saw "her" as a gay hero, a courageous changeling who had "navigated a path between the two most repressive regimes the Western world has ever known—the Nazis and the Communists—in a pair of heels," and started interviewing her with the intention of writing a play. Sounds earnest, no? But as Mr. Wright discovered, Charlotte was no hero: To save her own skin, she became an informer for the East German secret police, going so far as to turn in one of her best friends.
Everything about "I Am My Own Wife" is outstanding, from Moisés Kaufman’s limpid direction to the deceptively simple stage design of Derek McLane. But the real hero of the evening is Mr. Wright, who hides nothing from the audience, not even his still-powerful longing to idealize Charlotte. "I need to believe in her stories as much as she does," he admits—yet he pays us the supreme compliment of letting us make up our own minds about this complex creature, instead of telling us what progressive minds ought to think.
Not only have I not been blogging, I haven’t even been reading blogs (at least not very much), so I dived into the deep end of the pool last night and regaled myself after a month-long layoff. Here’s some of what I found, out there in the ’sphere:
• Via Jolly Days, these wise words from a 1972 interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer:
I really don’t believe that literature can influence life to any great degree. Art is a force, but without a vector. Like the waves of the sea it flows forward and backward, but the net result is static. While I believe that fiction requires a story and should appear dynamic, it actually describes human character and personality, which remains almost constant.
I’d say that art stirs the mind but never moves it far in one direction or another. Admirers of Dostoevsky and Goethe were Nazis who played with the skulls of childrren. The hope that great literature can bring peace or make the human race better is without basis. When readers ask me about the message of my works I tell them that the greatest message we’ve got is the Ten Commandments. They are short, precise, clear. We don’t need new messages, and they will certainly not be found in novels, good or bad.
• Sarah reports on a tiny factual error Lawrence Block made in his latest mystery novel—and the hundreds and hundreds of readers who’ve written to tell him about it. A funny, depressing, thoroughly cautionary tale. (He is, of course, going nuts, poor man.)
• Via Arts & Letters Daily, Walter Laqueur reviews a new collection of essays by Sir Isaiah Berlin about culture under the Soviets. Berlin visited Russia in 1945, where he met with a number of writers and intellectuals:
It could not have been easy to gain their confidence, for they had not the faintest idea about the identity of this visitor from another world and whether he could be trusted. But once such trust was established, they did not go back. They wanted to know the fate of literary figures in the West -- they were aware that Marcel Proust and James Joyce were no longer alive, but were less sure about Virginia Woolf. Both Akhmatova and Pasternak had no doubts about their place in the history of Russian culture, certain in the '40s and '50s that they were the greatest living Russian poets. Living in isolation, they occasionally developed beliefs that were more than a little bizarre. Akhmatova thought that Berlin's visit to her in 1945 had made Stalin so furious that he launched the Cold War. Or the famous story of Stalin's (only ever) phone call to Pasternak -- the dictator wanted to know whether Osip Mandelstam was a truly great poet, the corollary being that his life might be spared. Pasternak defended Mandelstam, albeit not wholeheartedly, but said that the truly crucial issue was that he, Pasternak, be given an early opportunity to meet Comrade Stalin to discuss some philosophical-spiritual problems of world-shaking importance. Stalin must have thought Pasternak a holy fool….
• Via artsjournal.com, our invaluable host, Boston Globe reports on the NEA’s "Shakespeare in American Communities" tour, in the process suggesting that those journalists (and bloggers) who can’t believe the NEA could possibly do anything good nowadays should take a second look:
After the curtain came down on a touring production of "Othello" in South Bend, Ind., a middle-age woman approached a cast member.
"I came a Shakespeare virgin," she confided, "and am going home a blushing bride."
This little anecdote tickles Joe Dowling, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which is putting on the "Othello" tour. It tells him that what he's trying to do -- help people break through their preconceptions that the Bard is "too hard" or "too boring" -- is working….
• Says The Forager in a month-old posting with which I just caught up:
When tastemakers grab onto something, it's not enough for them merely to champion it or talk about why they like it or explain why it's worth seeing-reading-listening to-exploring-etc. In order to justify their own existence, tastemakers have to convince an audience that said work is of vital importance to anyone who considers themselves culturally literate.
The Sopranos becomes a legitimate target for backlash not so much because it's overvalued as a TV show (it's not--it remains one of the best TV shows ever), but because tastemakers started talking about the show in terms that made it seem far more important than a TV show could ever be. (Exemplified by the slogan "It's not TV. It's HBO." Actually, it is TV, i.e. just as important and significant as Friends and The Apprentice.)...
Now, I like The Sopranos, but my life wouldn't be different if I stopped watching it or even if it never existed at all. Backlash, by attacking the critical consensus, reminds us how artificial and insignificant that consensus really is. It reminds us that our personal choices about what we like to watch or what we like to listen to aren't as important as we'd like to think.
• How "grammatically sound" am I? According to this quiz, it seems I am a Grammar God, which is a nice thing to find out after a lifetime spent at the typewriter and its successor technologies, especially since I’m strictly a play-by-ear man when it comes to the finer points of English (I know how, but not why).
• I caught only one new movie during my Balanchine-related hiatus, The Ladykillers, which I saw purely for professional reasons. My review hasn’t been published yet, but until then, our beloved Cinetrix says all that needs to be said:
The Ladykillers feels like a summer stock version of a Coen Brothers movie. Forget asking how well the remake stands up to the original Ealing comedy. There is no joy, no sense of getting away with anything here….
I have now added the Coen brothers to my permanent do-not-review list. Ars longa, vita brevis.
I returned from North Carolina this afternoon (about which more tomorrow) and promptly set to work on "About Last Night," which (as I'm sure you know) hasn't exactly been in the front of my mind for the past month or so. Now that All in the Dances is finished, I'm raring to go, and I've started out by completely updating the right-hand column, in which you will now find:
• A fresh set of Top Fives
• My latest "Second City" column, which appeared in today's Washington Post
• Two new pieces in "Teachout Elsewhere"
I start blogging in earnest on Monday, and I have lots of stuff up my sleeve, so watch this space.