About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, October 13, 2006
TT: On a sinking ship
I review two Broadway shows in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Heartbreak House and the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Losing Louie:
George Bernard Shaw used to be a near-constant presence on Broadway. Now he’s history. The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “Heartbreak House” is only the second Shaw play (not counting “My Fair Lady”) to be seen there since 1993. Could it be that American audiences have finally tired of the garrulous Irishman who devoted his long life to telling the world how to fix itself? Perhaps—but I hope not. Though Shaw could be a frightful bore, his best plays have remained vibrantly stage-worthy, and “Heartbreak House,” the oddest and least characteristic of them, has grown ever more contemporary in the 86 years since it was first performed on Broadway. This production features some fine acting, and if the overall results are no better than goodish, Shaw’s intentions still come through clearly.
Shaw called “Heartbreak House” “a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes,” by which he meant to suggest a resemblance to the rambling, atmospheric plotlessness of the plays of Chekhov. (Most of Shaw’s own plays, by contrast, are linear to a fault.) It starts off, however, in the cozy manner of a good old-fashioned weekend-in-the-country comedy, the kind in which unsuspecting visitors to an English country house find themselves swept up in amusing romantic hijinks. But Captain Shotover (Philip Bosco), the octogenarian sailor whose living room looks strangely like the stern gallery of a sailing ship, is half-senile—or seems to be—and the other members of his family turn out to be as amusing as a basketful of unfed snakes....
If you think Broadway doesn’t produce enough unfunny comedies of its own, you’ll be happy to hear that Simon Mendes da Costa’s “Losing Louie” has made its way from London to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Biltmore Theatre, where it came perilously close to putting me to sleep….
No free link. To read the whole thing, buy a copy of today’s paper and turn to the “Weekend Journal” section, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to the complete text of my review. (If you’re already a subscriber, you’ll find it here.)
In my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I consider the wider implications of the revival of Grease that opens on Broadway in June. The stars of this production will be chosen not by the director or producers, but by the viewers of You’re the One That I Want, an NBC reality-TV series that makes its debut later this season. Yes, it’s a gimmick—but I have a sneaking feeling that when all is said and done, You’re the One That I Want will prove to have been a very significant episode in the history of commercial theater in America.
To find out why, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.
• I was interviewed by the BBC last week for Pods and Blogs, a radio series on which I discussed my recent Wall Street Journalcolumn about YouTube and the fine arts. The interview aired on Tuesday. To listen via streaming audio, go here. (If you’re in a hurry, my segment starts roughly forty-four minutes into the hour.)
• Doug Ramsey, a/k/a Mr. Rifftides, reported the other day on a fascinating concert by the Bill Mays Trio (a group I admire without reserve) that blended jazz and classical music to what sounds like brilliant effect. To read what he wrote, go here. I mention it because Doug is now reporting that part of the concert will be broadcast in streaming audio via the Web this coming Sunday at four o’clock Eastern. For further details, go here.
Should the broadcast not fit into your schedule, you can get a taste of the Bill Mays Trio on its own by purchasing this CD. I commend it to your attention.
• A reader reports that Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times recently delivered himself of this one-sentence summary
of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs:
Wotan, the king of the gods, driven by lust and power, makes bad bargains and then is forced by his wife to contend with their consequences, losing control of the world in the process.
That is, if I do say so myself, pretty damn neat. I seem to remember a Comden and Green lyric that dealt no less efficiently with the plots of a number of classic novels, but I’m away from my library this week and so can’t check it out for myself. Can anyone out there oblige me?
• Another reader passes on this quote from the great jazz drummer Art Blakey:
Jazz is known all over the world as an American musical art form and that's it. No America, no jazz. I've seen people try to connect it to other countries, for instance to Africa, but it doesn't have a damn thing to do with Africa.
No source, alas—I’ve done a bit of surfing to try and track it down, but everyone cites it without identifying the occasion on which Blakey said it. Having spent more than a little bit of my spare time running down alleged remarks by H.L. Mencken that turned out to be apocryphal, I’m reluctant to accept it as authentic without a source. Once again, I’d appreciate a steer in the right direction.
Mr. Something Old, Nothing New, a/k/a Jaime J. Weinman, has found and posted a link to a YouTube clip of Little Miss Britten, Dudley Moore’s knowing spoof of a Benjamin Britten folksong arrangement as sung by Peter Pears. (It was part of Beyond the Fringe, the now-legendary 1960 revue written and performed by Moore, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, and Jonathan Miller.) Jaime correctly describes it as “the greatest classical-music parody of all time.” I sent it to an opera coach who plays a lot of Britten, and she promptly wrote back, “This is the funniest thing I've ever, ever seen.” I might add that she loves Britten's music. So do I—and so did Moore, who claimed that he wrote “Little Miss Britten” “out of absolute love and admiration for Britten and with no malice aforethought at all.” Alas, it won’t make any sense unless you know the original, but if you do, you’ll laugh so hard as to run the risk of self-injury.
I love parody and wish in vain that I had a gift for it. As I wrote a couple of years ago, I believe it to be “one of the most powerful and illuminating forms of criticism.” Fortunately, the complete text of the greatest of all literary parodies, Max Beerbohm’s A Christmas Garland, is now available online via Project Gutenberg, and I commend it to your attention.
The best-known of the Christmas Garland parodies is “The Mote in the Middle Distance,” Beerbohm’s lethally exact sendup of H*nry J*m*s’ late style:
It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it.
It’s splendidly wicked, but I confess to preferring “P.C., X, 36,” in which R*d**rd K*pl*ng gets his:
I had spent Christmas Eve at the Club, listening to a grand pow-wow between certain of the choicer sons of Adam. Then Slushby had cut in. Slushby is one who writes to newspapers and is theirs obediently "HUMANITARIAN." When Slushby cuts in, men remember they have to be up early next morning.
For those of you who weren't reading "About Last Night" back in 2004, here is Hugh Kingsmill’s parody of A.E. Housman, which is equally good—and equally cruel.
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
Here are some gems gleaned from my recent voyages into cyberspace:
• Mr. Modern Art Notes holds forth on the genius of Richard Diebenkorn, making an important point in passing:
A few weeks ago I was chatting with a chief curator about a Richard Diebenkorn painting in one of his galleries. "You know," I said. "It's remarkable that there's never been a full, comprehensive Ocean Park survey exhibit."
The curator paused. "Are you sure about that?" he said, less asking than implying I should double-check Diebenkorn's exhibition history.
"Completely sure," I said. "There's never been a Berkeley show either. It's bizarre. It's probably the contemporary art show most in need of being done."
The curator was still disbelieving, but allowed me my fervor. It's true. There's never been a museum (or gallery, for that matter) exhibit surveying the paintings, the drawings, the paintings-on-paper, or the three together….
Or, I might add, the related prints. You won’t find one in the Teachout Museum, alas—I haven't got that kind of money to throw around—but I am the proud owner of an etching by Diebenkorn, who would be universally acknowledged as one of the greatest American artists of the twentieth century had he not made the fatal mistake of living and working in California. Even now, far too many New Yorkers suffer from the wildly mistaken notion that the West Coast is an aesthetic desert. I don’t know where they picked it up—probably from Woody Allen.
• Speaking of the West Coast, Mr. Anecdotal Evidence serves up the best capsule description of Raymond Chandler’s special gifts I’ve read, my own feeble attempts included. Here’s part of it:
Chandler’s literary conscience was bothered by the genre in which he had chosen to work. Part of him wished to write "heavy novels." We can be grateful he never did, because the hard-boiled detective story enabled him to indulge his strengths, minimize or ignore his weaknesses and create great books that continue to give dependable pleasure to readers. "All of which is to say that gusto thrives on freedom, and freedom in art, as in life, is the result of a discipline imposed by ourselves," as Marianne Moore once wrote in a very different context….
It’s official: I share the house with six thousand books…
Alas, I have also exhausted my supply of downstairs walls. (As I live in a Cape Cod, upstairs walls are in somewhat short supply. Or, rather, the upstairs walls are both short and in short supply.) My parents have already suggested building stacks—not to mention another room—but I think that there may be other, more creative, alternatives….
I especially like her idea for “floating, inflatable bookcases,” which reminds me of my favorite line from Mark Helprin’s Memoir from Antproof Case: “I had had wonderful ideas all my life—the antigravity box, the camel ranch in Idaho, artillery mail—but I had never been able to translate them into reality.”
• Why aren’t blogbooks selling? Brenda Coulter, a romance novelist who blogs on the side, offers some sensible observations, accompanied by this amusing aside:
Publishers haven't been offering big-name bloggers contracts for novels. And rightly so, because wit and erudition on a blog aren't reliable indicators of talent for fiction-writing....I'm an effusive admirer of Terry Teachout’s writing. But even this fangirl doesn't assume he'd make a brilliant novelist. For all I know, he'd stink at fiction.
Alas, I would and do, as I confessed in this space two years ago.
In English English clever seems to be a clearer term of praise, for something like what Americans would just call "smart," but often when I use "clever" it is not a compliment….
• Mr. Jerry Jazz Musician asked a cast of very interesting characters, including Ahmad Jamal, Roger Kellaway, John Pizzarelli, and Nancy Wilson, to name “the five greatest albums (LP or CD) of all time.” The answers he got are—to put it mildly—illuminating.
• By way of Ms. Althouse, here’s Alice Cooper on politics:
“You won’t find any political songs, excepted for ‘Elected,’ which is a satire, on my records. You’re never going to find me promoting this candidate over that candidate because I’m sitting there going, ‘Why should people who like my music…vote for the guy I’m voting for?’” Cooper said. “Asking me who to vote for is like asking the guy who makes your pizza who to vote for.”
When I became a drummer and moved from New Jersey to Las Vegas to live and work full time, the first thing my dad and uncles would ask me when I would come home to Jersey on visits was: "So, Ron, are you screwing those showgirls silly?" Or, "So, Ron, have you gotten to see Frank and Dino in Vegas? I'll bet there's tons of gorgeous cooze hangin' around them all the time, begging to screw them—am I right?"
On the other hand, when they discussed Perry, the men were equally reverential but about his sound family values. My father and my uncles all said, more than once in one form or another: "You know Ron, Perry Como, he goes to church with his family every week and he doesn't fool around on his wife. He's a good man. He used to be a barber you know, so underneath he's like us, a working man. He doesn't let his success go to his head."
So what does an impressionable young man do with these conflicting moral positions?...
I recently presented this Frank versus Perry ethical dilemma to one of my cousins. I concluded my story by asking him: "So, what do you make of this?" He thought for a moment, and then with a silly grin on his face, said: "I think the solution is to be a barber and screw a lot of beautiful women."
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 11, 2006 | Permanent
"I was just thinking the other day that I was born in 1939 and so, all my life, people I don't know have been trying to kill me. The Germans dropped bombs on my house in London and I remember my mother saying: better sleep under the stairs. Then it was the Russians, then the Irish, now another lot of terrorists. I'm starting to accept that I'm a marked man."
Alan Ayckbourn, interview, The Guardian (Oct. 4, 2006)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 11, 2006 | Permanent
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
TT: Make me smile
As I was soaring through the skies of Pennsylvania the other day, my iPod served up Leopold Stokowski’s 1937 recording of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (not currently available on CD, alas). You may know it as the piece to which Mickey Mouse nearly drowned in Fantasia. No sooner did it start playing than I broke out in a broad grin. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice always does that to me—and did so long before I ever saw Fantasia. It’s one of the many pieces of music that has the mysterious power to make me happy.
The nucleus accumbens (NAc) is the center of the brain’s reward system, playing an important role in pleasure and addiction. The NAc is active when gamblers win a bet, or drug users take their favorite drug. It is also closely involved with the transmission of opioids in the brain, through its ability to release the neurotransmitter dopamine. Avram Goldstein had shown in 1980 that the pleasure of music listening could be blocked by administering the drug nalaxone, believed to interfere with dopamine in the nucleus accumbens….
The rewarding and reinforcing aspects of listening to music seem, then, to be mediated by increasing dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, and by the cerebellum’s conribution to regulating emotion through its connections to the frontal lobe and the limbic system. Current neuropsychological theories associate positive mood and affect with increased dopamine levels, one of the reasons that many of the newer antidepressants act on the dopaminergic system. Music is clearly a means for improving people’s moods. Now we think we know why.
To which I reply: I thought so. I’ve always found music to be one of the most potent means of attitude adjustment known to man, and now science has proved it. Ha!
All of which inspires me to pass along this list of things to which I listen whenever I feel the urgent need to upgrade my mood:
• Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse • Stan Kenton’s recording of Gerry Mulligan’s “Young Blood”
• Bernstein’s Candide Overture
• Wild Bill Davison’s 1943 recording of “That’s A-Plenty” (turned up very loud)
• Luciana Souza’s “Doce de Coco” (from Brazilian Duos)
• Noël Coward’s “Uncle Harry”
• Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”
• The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek”
• Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture
• The finale to Fauré’s incidental music to Shylock (George Balanchine used it in Emeralds)
• The John Kirby Sextet’s “It Feels So Good”
• Buddy Rich’s 1966 live recording of “Love for Sale”
• Booker T. and the MGs’ “Hip Hug-Her”
• Gershwin’s An American in Paris • Shostakovich’s Festive Overture • Johnny Cash’s “Hey Porter”
• Deidre Rodman and Steve Swallow’s “Famous Potatoes”
• Copland’s “Buckaroo Holiday” (from Rodeo)
• Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues” (with Baby and Johnny Dodds)
• The Who’s “Shakin’ All Over” (from Live at Leeds)
• The finale of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber • Blossom Dearie’s “If I Were a Bell” (the version on Winchester in Apple Blossom Time • The Dixieaires’ “Joe Louis Was a Fighting Man”
• Donald Fagen’s “Morph the Cat”
• Sidney Bechet’s 1932 recording of “Maple Leaf Rag”
• Doc Watson’s “Let the Cocaine Be”
• Lee Wiley’s “You’re a Sweetheart”
• Sergio Mendes’ 1966 recording of “Mais Que Nada” (not the icky hip-hop remake, eeuuww!)
• Wesla Whitfield’s “Lucky to Be Me”
• Mendelssohn’s Rondo capriccioso • The Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man”
• Stephen Sondheim’s “A Weekend in the Country” (from A Little Night Music)
• The first movement of Mozart’s A Major Piano Concerto, K. 488
• Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft”
• Steely Dan’s “My Old School”
• Walton’s Crown Imperial (as played by Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble)
• Flatt and Scruggs’ “Farewell Blues”
• Stan Getz and Bob Brookmeyer’s “Open Country”
• The first movement of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto
• R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe”
• The Beatles’ “Revolution”
• Bill Monroe’s “Rawhide”
• The first movement of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony
• Johann Strauss’s Fledermaus Overture
• Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three little maids from school are we” (from The Mikado)
• Django Reinhardt’s “Swing 42”
• Pretty much anything by Count Basie, Erroll Garner, Fats Waller, Haydn, or John Philip Sousa
• The sound of Louis Armstrong’s voice
I don’t guarantee results, but all of the items on this list can be counted on to give me a cheap, easy high—with no side effects.
"For of course I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the esthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it's an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails, or someone tying a Bimini hitch that won't slip. I don't think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn't matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist kitsch, no matter how much of the demos loves it. To me, it is a form of manufactured tyranny. Some Australians feel this is a confession of antidemocratic sin; but I am no democrat in the field of the arts, the only area—other than sports—in which human inequality can be displayed and celebrated without doing social harm."
I just added a very large number of new YouTube clips to the fine-arts/historical video-on-demand “network” about which I wrote in my recent Wall Street Journalcolumn about YouTube. To view them—and hundreds of other equally interesting video and audio clips—go to the right-hand column and scroll down until you see Satchmo’s name. The latest links are marked with asterisks.
As always, feel free to send me the URLs of any video or audio links of comparable quality that you’d like to see me post. (Also, be sure to let me know if any of the existing links have gone dead since I posted them.)
Supermaud dangled a tasty bit of bait in front of my nose the other day:
Colin Burrow argues, while reviewing a new biography of John Donne, that “literary biography is intrinsically pernicious.” I wonder how biographers, including my friend Terry Teachout (who penned a biography of H.L. Mencken, and talked a bit about the experience here), would respond.
I’ll see you and raise you, Maudie.
First, though, here’s the context for that nose-thumbing sound bite:
Literary biography is one of the background noises of our age. It’s a decent, friendly sort of hum, like the Sunday papers or chatter on a train. It gives the punters a bit of history and a bit of literature, and perhaps a bit of gossip, and what’s more it saves them the trouble of reading history. And poems too, for that matter. Not to mention the ordeal of ploughing through a load of literary criticism. But there are two respects in which literary biography is intrinsically pernicious, however well it’s done. The first is that literary biographies need a thesis in order to catch the headlines. This can turn what ought to be a delicate art into a piece of problem-solving or a search for a key to a life….The other problem is that even the best examples can’t entirely avoid the naive reduction of literature to evidence or symptom—epiphenomena which are brought about by, and potentially reducible to, biographical origins.
Yeah, well, O.K., I get the idea, and I even agree with it, sort of. Far too many new biographies—including a forthcoming book about a famous filmmaker that I read last week and will be reviewing later this year—are rigidly and reductively thesis-driven, an approach that never fails to remind me of what Earl Long, Huey’s brother, said about Henry Luce, the founder of Time and Life: “Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoestore and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.”
I loathe biographers who nudge you in the ribs every few pages, sticking in pointed little reminders that the deeply suppressed sadomasochistic tendencies (or whatever) of Flannery O'Connor (or whoever) permeated her life and thought and insinuated their way into every page she wrote, blah blah blah. Who among us hasn’t thrown up his hands in despair at the prospect of reading another such book, especially when it’s nine hundred pages long? Repeat after me: show, don't tell. Let the reader draw his own conclusions. Or, as Our Lord and Master Henry James instructed us, Dramatize, dramatize!
On the other hand, I don’t think my biographies are like that, and even if you beg to differ, I’m sure you can think of any number of biographies that fail to fill Colin Burrow’s bill of attainder. Most people, after all, are complicated, and the biographer’s job is to give literary shape to that complexity. Of course we simplify—every human utterance more elaborate than a wordless howl is an act of simplification—and on occasion we pocket pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit our story line. Nevertheless, the smart biographer never papers over or tries to explain away his subject’s inconsistencies. Instead, he treasures them, for they are the salt that gives savor to the story of a life.
For what it’s worth, here are five first-rate biographies that in my opinion succeed in presenting clear, coherent accounts of their subject’s lives without stooping to rigid reductiveness:
Friday again, and time for my weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. I reviewed three plays in this morning's paper, two of which are off-Broadway productions, the Ma-Yi Theater Company’s No Foreigners Beyond This Point, a play by Warren Leight (he wrote Side Man), and the Mint Theater Company’s Walking Down Broadway, a previously unproduced 1931 play by Dawn Powell. The third is A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, Richard Greenberg’s new comedy:
“No Foreigners Beyond This Point” [is] a sharply pointed, similarly autobiographical play about Andrew and Paula (Ean Sheehy and Abby Royle), a pair of wide-eyed American liberals who move to China in 1980 to teach English and find themselves swept up in the wake of Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution.
“No Foreigners” is the last show I ever expected to see at the Culture Project, a downtown redoubt of theatrical leftism. Though it starts out funny, it soon toughens up into a hard-edged portrait of two pink-diaper babies forced to face the dire implications of their parents’ political folly. Would that Mr. Leight had skipped the Neil LaBute-like what-it-all-means coda, but for the most part he lets his material speak for itself, never more eloquently than in the startling admission made to Paula by the toadying Vice Principal Huang (Francis Jue): “Curry favor. Always. Curry favor by betraying friends. I think at most, in China, everyone can have one or two friend. At most. Even those, you might not trust when times are rough.”…
“Walking Down Broadway” is a period piece, one from whose period we are now far removed, and as such oddly poignant in its effect. Considered solely as a hitherto-unknown piece of writing by America’s greatest comic novelist, it’s as uneven as you’d expect—you can all but hear Powell fishing for the right tone—but [Christine] Albright is wonderfully touching as Marge, whom Powell fans will recognize as a rough sketch for the plucky New York émigrés of such later novels as “A Time to Be Born.”…
“A Naked Girl on the Appian Way,” the Roundabout Theatre Company’s latest production, is, or purports to be, a comedy about an upper-upper-middle-class couple (Richard Thomas and Jill Clayburgh) with three adopted children, one white (Matthew Morrison), one Dominican (Susan Kelechi Watson), and one Asian (James Yaegashi), the first two of whom are sleeping together and want to get married. The third is bisexual. Oh, yes, Mom’s a lesbian…
Mr. Greenberg clearly thinks all this is the stuff of a postmodern “You Can’t Take It With You,” and the audience at the preview I attended gave every sign of agreement, emitting the self-congratulatory barks of a theaterful of trendy New Yorkers priding themselves on their tolerance. Me, I felt as though I were being dosed with a fast-acting but excruciatingly unpleasant opiate….
No link, and there’s lots more where that came from. To see what you're missing, buy today’s Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, the best deal in Web-based newspapers.
"If you let in only the brilliant, then you produced bookworms and bench scientists: you ended up as socially irrelevant as the University of Chicago (an institution Harvard officials looked upon and shuddered)."
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 6, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: The world rights itself
Hockey's back, and I experienced a lovely moment of related sensory overload this evening. After dropping off a friend in Bridgeport, I drove to the end of the block while fiddling with the radio tuner. At the stop sign I looked up to see Cellular One Field just ahead, bathed in light as the White Sox battled the Red Sox in a Very Important Playoff Game inside. Just then, I successfully tuned in the local hockey game as the puck was about to be dropped—the first NHL hockey I had seen or heard in 16 months was really, truly happening! For a few seconds there, before I turned toward the expressway, the glowing not-Comiskey, surrounded by a meaningful-looking halo of light, stood for my thrill at hearing the sounds of hockey again after a long silence. It was kind of like experiencing a synesthesia of the sports rather than the senses. I don't believe they've yet concocted a technical term for that.
I've more or less composed myself by now, but let me indulge in just a wee hockey story to mark the end of Canada's long national nightmare, and mine.
Sam [Pollock] was very impressed with how scientific football coaching had become, and so for a while he tried to adapt their methods to our game. He would wander the highest reaches of the Forum, searching out patterns of play, and if he detected something he would quickly radio Busher Curry, who would be pacing the gangway, a plug in his ear. No sooner would the Busher get Sam's message than he would rush up to Bowman with the words of wisdom. Once, when we were leading the Bruins here, 3-2, with a couple of minutes to go, Sam, watching above, got on the radio to the Busher, who immediately rushed to the bench with the message for Scotty, which Scotty passed on to us. The message was "Sam says don't let them score on you."
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 6, 2005 | Permanent
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated each Thursday. 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, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Dirty Rotten Scoundrels* (musical, R, extremely vulgar, reviewed here)
• Doubt* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• Fiddler on the Roof (musical, G, one scene of mild violence but otherwise family-friendly, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, reviewed here)
• Sweet Charity (musical, PG-13, lots of cutesy-pie sexual content, 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)
"Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone. Although, in daily life, we do not always distinguish these words, we should do so consistently and thus deepen our understanding of our human predicament."
Count me overjoyed, elated, and ecstatic that the early word on the Wallace and Gromit movie is positive:
"Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" has forced me to ponder the deepest mysteries of cinema. Why, for instance, do certain faces haunt and move us as they do?
I am thinking of Gromit, the mute and loyal animated dog whose selflessness and intelligence can be counted on, when things get really crazy, to save the day. Gromit has no mouth, and yet his face is one of the most expressive ever committed to the screen. In particular, his brow—a protuberance overhanging his spherical, googly eyes—is an almost unmatched register of emotion. Resignation, worry, tenderness and disgust all come alive in that plasticine nub. To keep matters within the DreamWorks menagerie, you might compare Gromit to Shrek, who has the genetic advantages of Mike Myers's Scots burr, a bevy of celebrity-voiced sidekicks and rivals, and state-of-the-art computer-animation technology. Good for him. But Gromit, made by hand and animated by a painstaking stop-motion process, has something Shrek will never acquire in a hundred sequels: a soul.
I had a good feeling about this, and not only on the basis of "The Wrong Trousers" and the other delightful shorts. When I somewhat unaccountably went to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory over the summer, the high point of the screening was, by a very wide margin, the trailer for Were-Rabbit.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 5, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"So what this writer impressed on me was the fundamental importance of time management, of routine in the life of a writer, that you had to use routine like a tool, like a fulcrum and lever for heavy lifting."
Michael Ruhlman, House: A Memoir
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 5, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Mountain to Mohammed
A few weeks back I reviewed Caryl Phillips's new novel, Dancing in the Dark, for the Baltimore Sun. (In print it appeared right alongside Lizzie Skurnick's review of On Beauty. The bloggers are taking over! We are your overlords.) It didn't appear on the website, so I can't provide a link—but I can cut and paste! I liked the book a good deal more than Brooke Allen, who registered respectful disappointment in the NYTBR last weekend. Until near the end of the novel, I actually thought I agreed with some of Allen's misgivings, but the denouement utterly changed my mind about the entire book.
Dancing in the Dark is a fictional account of the life of Bert Williams, a black American vaudeville performer who found theatrical fame by portraying, in blackface, a character that amounted to a racist caricature. Here's some of what I wrote for the Sun:
One of the most famous entertainers to don blackface on the American stage was a black man. He was Bert Williams, a native West Indian who emigrated to the U.S. with his parents as a boy and became half of the vaudeville team Williams and Walker, the first black performers to make it to Broadway. In Dancing in the Dark, Caryl Phillips ventures to imagine the unknown inner life of this enigmatic historical figure. What his keen novelist's eye discerns behind the multiple masks Williams wore is quietly harrowing.
…The existence of Phillips's Bert Williams is a trial. We sense this even before we know of the compromises that make it so difficult. From the outset, the prose has a somber, almost funereal timbre—the antithesis of the low comedy that characterizes Bert's "foolish blackface antics" on stage. A bracing tonal chiaroscuro results from this juxtaposition of the "clownish roughness and loud vulgarity" that he projects and the profound gravity he contains. Bert cultivates this distance between outside and inside, as though a private existence of monkish reserve could cancel out the exaggerated exuberance of his stage persona.
…The power of Dancing in the Dark builds slowly and almost imperceptibly as Bert shuffles from mirror to stage to mirror again, rubbing away a little more of himself each time he removes his makeup. Together, the book's somberness and its intricate introspection make for a sometimes glacial pace. But the reader's patience is ultimately rewarded. All of the tensions and contradictions engendered by Bert's situation are released in the crises at the end of the novel, and with them comes a world of feeling that has been dammed up to bursting.
On one hand, Bert's black audience grows increasingly disapproving of his trademark character. In expressing their unease, they merely echo the reservations that he has silently harbored from the first time the burnt cork touched his skin. But in an astonishingly moving scene, Bert, having been confronted with objections that he shares, finds himself defending the character he plays—"he shuffles a little, and he may be slow-witted, but we surely recognize this poor man. The essence of my performance is that we know and sympathize with this unfortunate creature."
On the other hand, the white audience whose approval underwrites Bert's livelihood will tolerate no divergence from the caricature they adore. Emboldened by the examples of the proud black professionals and activists around him in Harlem, Bert seizes an opportunity to perform on film without his makeup. The cold reception with which this is met leaves him a lost man for whom all the pathos of the ordinary has-been is multiplied by the baleful effects of racism, politics, and self-loathing.
There were times, I'll admit again, when the novel almost lost me, it was so slow-moving and lugubrious. But it all added up, I thought, to something pretty amazing.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 5, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Now It Can Be Heard
I see that the archived version of Terry's and my radio appearance is now available on the Hello Beautiful! website. If you listen, which I recommend, you'll get to hear Terry say a lot of very smart things and you'll get to hear me throw in a few choice adjectives! But most of all, you'll get to hear a thoroughly fascinating interview with Stephen Lang, the actor, writer, and director of the one-man show Beyond Glory, appearing at Chicago's Goodman Theatre through October 16th. Moreover, you'll hear taped excerpts from this astounding show, as well as live ones that Lang recreated in the studio during his live interview with host Edward Lifson. Trust me, this is an interview worth listening to and, especially, a show worth seeing.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 5, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Not proven
I haven’t had anything to say in print about August Wilson’s death, and won’t, because it happens that I haven’t seen all that much of his work. I rarely sought it out before my midlife conversion to drama criticism—it never sounded like my sort of thing—and Gem of the Ocean, the only play of his I’ve had occasion to review
for The Wall Street Journal, struck me at the time as “far too self-consciously poetic," which for me is the kiss of dramatic death.
I wish I were in a stronger position to stick my oar in, since yesterday’s journalistic elegies for Wilson were (to put it mildly) fairly windy. If I had to guess, I’d say that my negative impression of his style, even though it’s only based on a couple of his plays, would probably be sustained were I to see five more of them in a row next week, and unlike many of my colleagues, I see nothing wrong with speaking ill of the recently dead, so long as you didn't wait until they died to say what you really thought of them.
On the other hand, I also don’t believe in expressing broad-gauge opinions about artists based on insufficient experience of their art. To be sure, I’ve been around long enough to know that many, perhaps most artists are in some fundamental sense pretty much all of a piece. (If you don’t like one Clyfford Still painting, you probably won’t like any of them.) But I’ve also been known to change my mind
about artists and works of art as I get to know them better—sometimes quite dramatically.
To quote from the essay to which I just linked:
I've changed my mind about art more than once, and I've learned that I not infrequently start by disliking something and end up liking it. Not always—sometimes I decide on closer acquaintance that a novel or painting isn't as good as I'd thought. More often, though, I realize that it was necessary for me to grow into a fuller understanding of a work of art to which my powers of comprehension were not at first equal.
The music critic Hans Keller said something shrewd about this phenomenon: "As soon as I detest something, I ask myself why I like it." I try to keep that in mind whenever I cover a premiere. I don't mean to say that critics should be wishy-washy, but we should also remember that strong emotions sometimes masquerade as their opposite.
As I say, my guess is that I’m never going to end up liking August Wilson. I know my own taste well enough to suspect as much. But if he really was as good a playwright as his recent obituarists claim, then I’ll surely have plenty of opportunities to change my mind in the years to come.
And in the meantime? As Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” So I was.
UPDATE: Here's a dissent on Wilson (in a predictable place).
One of the most popular pieces in the Teachout Museum (which I showed off to a New York art critic yesterday afternoon, and which I’ll be showing to a curious artist tomorrow) is Jane Freilicher’s Late Afternoon, Southampton. I’ve written about Freilicher more than once, both here and elsewhere, most extensively in a 2002 “Second City” column in which I described her as
one of the chronically underrated group of New York-based representationalists who learned invaluable lessons in composition and paint handling from the abstract expressionists. Freilicher's subject matter is conventional—landscapes, skylines, still lifes—and her palette is soft and even-toned, so much so that you might well be tempted at first glance to dismiss her subtle style as bland. Instead, take a long look at “Dark Afternoon,”
in which a fractured cubist cityscape serves as backdrop for two houseplants placed on a Cezanne-like tabletop that thrusts them out at the viewer. My guess is that "Dark Afternoon," like most of the other paintings in this lovely show, would be a satisfying work to live with, one that gives up its quiet secrets gradually but never completely....
Alas, Freilicher’s paintings as yet hang in few museums, but if your interest has been piqued by any of the above links, a handsome coffee-table monograph about her work was published earlier this year. Jane Freilicher, by Klaus Kertess (Harry N. Abrams, 176 pp., $60), contains more than 150 beautifully reproduced images, plus an accompanying text that tells everything you could possibly want to know about an American artist decidedly worthy of wider recognition.
Put it on your Christmas list—or just give it to yourself.
The soil now gets a rumpling soft and damp,
And small regard to the future of any weed.
The final flat of the hoe's approval stamp
Is reserved for the bed of a few selected seed.
There is seldom more than a man to a harrowed piece.
Men work alone, their lots plowed far apart,
One stringing a chain of seed in an open crease,
And another stumbling after a halting cart.
To the fresh and black of the squares of early mold
The leafless bloom of a plum is fresh and white;
Though there's more than a doubt if the weather is not too cold
For the bees to come and serve its beauty aright.
Wind goes from farm to farm in wave on wave,
But carries no cry of what is hoped to be.
There may be little or much beyond the grave,
But the strong are saying nothing until they see.
If I grow bitterly,
Like a gnarled and stunted tree,
Bearing harshly of my youth
Puckered fruit that sears the mouth;
If I make of my drawn boughs
An inhospitable house,
Out of which I never pry
Towards the water and the sky,
Under which I stand and hide
And hear the day go by outside;
It is that a wind too strong
Bent my back when I was young,
It is that I fear the rain
Lest it blister me again.
I just came home from a special "parent/teacher" performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (the show is usually dark on Sunday nights) to which persons under the age of sixteen were not admitted. A good thing, too, because it was really, really dirty. Also really, really funny: the show ran some twenty minutes long, mostly because of all the extra laughter. Would that I could share a few of the more printable punch lines with you, but I was laughing so hard all evening long that I wasn't able to scrawl any legible notes. Suffice it to say that if another such performance should ever be given, do whatever you have to do to wangle a ticket—and leave the kids at home.
Speaking of fun, you know what? I took Saturday off. No writing, no editing, no chores, no gallery-going, no bound galleys to read, no Broadway press preview. Instead, I watched a couple of dumb movies on TV (Mickey Blue Eyes, forsooth!), stared at the walls (which of course has a different implication in the Teachout Museum than it does in most places), and went to a birthday party for one of my best friends. Oh, and I slept until eleven! Whee!
Now the prose engine is turning over in earnest, but I'm feeling a lot livelier for my day-long rest, in addition to which I have far less on my plate than I did last week. As you can see, blogging is coming easier again: along with today's postings, you'll find plenty of new stuff in the right-hand column, to which I commend your attention.
That's all for today—I've got a deadline to hit, and I'm happy to say that I'm not dreading it. See you Tuesday.
Here’s what I’ve been reading in between deadlines:
• The exquisite Canadienne serves up some dark thoughts on a subject of interest to us all:
I've always known I am a perfectionist. What I have come to realize, as of late, is that there is one huge problem with being this way: the perfectionist, when judging himself/herself by this standard, is doomed to eternal failure. After a while, there's no joy in doing anything when you consistently fail to live up to an unattainable standard. Right now, in my singing, I am a living breathing wreck of a mess, because I cannot attain anything even close to perfection in my current role….
I don't know how to stop damning myself to eternal failure by being a perfectionist. All I know right now is that I am driving myself crazy with it. I fully realize, objectively, that while performing in this production with this conductor, I will never reach anything even closely resembling my own vision of perfection—nor the conductor's, nor the director's. Regardless, I don't know how to allow myself to strive for anything less. and therein lies my problem. As I write this, I'm remembering Warren Jones in a master class saying "Be excellent. If you try to be perfect, you'll fail. You will succeed at striving for excellence." Maybe that's a better goal. Right now, I don't even feel like even excellence is attainable. The closest I've gotten so far is "o.k."…
As today’s almanac entry suggests, it is the fate of most serious artists to bear this cross, though a few are fortunate enough to be graced with the unselfconsciousness that is God’s gentlest gift to the gifted. In my case the curse comes and goes (not that I'm any kind of artist, but at least I can imagine what being one would feel like). Sometimes my wheels start spinning, and the next thing I know, I’ve frittered away pointless hours trying without success to trim a recalcitrant sentence to its ultimate essence.
The good news is that we always get a second chance—not to perfect yesterday's flawed performance, but to do it better tomorrow. Remember the scene in Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham in which Tim Robbins, returning to the dugout after having pitched a great inning, is told by Kevin Costner not to get smug about it?
ROBBINS: I was great, eh?
COSTNER: Your fastball was up and your curveball was hanging—in the Show they woulda ripped you.
ROBBINS: Can't you let me enjoy the moment?
COSTNER: The moment's over.
Yes, that’s a pointed little sermon about the importance of perfectionism, but it’s a coin with two sides: do your best, learn from your mistakes, then move on. Good, bad, or both, the past is past.
Sure, we all want to be published. But if you knew you'd never be published, would you keep writing? Don't worry—there's no wrong answer to that question. But if your answer is that you'd keep writing, then it's you I'm hoping to encourage when I say don't get bogged down in studying the rules [of writing]. They will not ensure publication. In fact, if you allow them to leech the joy from your writing, I believe you'll find the rules will effectively prevent publication.
I think there’s something to this, and I also think that blogging has had the effect of liberating thousands of talented amateur writers whose particular gifts may not necessarily fit neatly into the pigeonholes of professional publication. Just because you aren’t comfortable writing oped columns or magazine essays doesn’t mean you don’t have anything valuable to say. How wonderful, then, that the blogosphere allows us to say what we want in the way that best suits us….
• Speaking of the artist’s life, here’s another eye-opening dispatch from the road by Mr. Think Denk:
As if the glamour of a touring pianist's life needed any further confirmation or evidence, I am now blogging from a Denny's in Lubbock, Texas. Outside, Lubbock's wide, dusty Ave. Q bakes in seemingly endless sunshine, while inside, and particularly backstage at the concert hall, one freezes in extreme air-conditioning. I just left the piano technician safely behind in the chilly hall, a friendly man with a gentle west Texas drawl, and asked him to remove some of the metallic quality from the upper octaves—though I have to admit that asking any technician to do anything to a piano fills me with fear, with second thoughts and self-remonstrances...the devil I know so often seems preferable to the devil I don't. I will have to drown these unnecessary, futile fears in spicy chicken and fries.
Anyone could imagine that after weeks and weeks of just Bach, leaping into the Tchaikovsky piano concerto could be a shock...perhaps only paralleled by the cultural sea-change of leaving Manhattan for Lubbock. As I sat on the floor in the Lubbock baggage claim, awaiting my giant gray bag, beneath an advertisement for irrigation pumps, my face made wan by the inevitable banks of fluorescent light, I charged my phone at a lone necessary socket….
Oh, man, have I ever been there.
• No less illuminating (to stick with today’s Mostly Music theme) is this meditation by my favorite blogger:
As a pianist, I am perhaps highly sensitized to the physical manifestation of sound, since the sounds I produce seem held at quite a distance from my body. Once, in the middle of a lesson, a piano teacher picked up a pencil and tapped the eraser from key to key. She said, "I can play this Bach with a pencil. Now you tell me, what's the difference between you—your fingers—and a pencil? Why should I listen to you when I can listen to a pencil?" (That was one of those go-home-and-sob-for-hours lessons.) There are two camps of musicians: those who use the breath and those who touch. (Those who play laptop or any stringed instrument are, I think, in the latter camp with us pianists and percussionists.) What we all have in common is how we use our ears. Lately, I find my ear straining to find ways to embody the music, to flow with the breath, to…be more like a singer.
This reminds me that one of the things I loved most about playing bass was the sheer physicality of wrestling with an instrument as big as I was, wrapping my arms around it and trying to coax it into doing my bidding, gradually realizing that it, too, was a living thing to which I had to be reciprocally responsive. Not unlike, er…well, you know what I mean.
• ...and a list of “all the art blogs in the known universe.” By “art blog,” the compiler means “visual art blog,” but it’s still a very interesting list, one with which I plan to spend quite a bit of time the next time I have quite a bit of time to spend.
• Finally, if you’ve ever suspected that the shuffle-play key on your iPod wasn’t really serving up random strings of tracks…well, I hesitate to say it, but perhaps you’d better go here and feed your paranoia. Just don’t send me your therapy bills!
Ivy Compton-Burnett, the English novelist, told a friend late in life that she could no longer read Jane Austen with pleasure, not because her admiration for Austen had lessened but because she'd read her novels so many times that she had them virtually by heart, and hence could no longer be surprised by them. When I read that, I wondered: is it really possible to exhaust a masterpiece? Much less an entire art form? I can't imagine being unable to hear anything new in Falstaff or the Mozart G Minor Symphony, though I suppose it could happen. And as for a person who came to feel that music or painting or poetry had nothing more to say to him, he'd be in dire straits indeed….
"A man who makes pictures like the one we were looking at is an unhappy creature, tormented day and night. He relieves himself of his passion in his pictures, but also in spite of himself on the people round him. That is what normal people never understand. They want to enjoy the artists' products—as one might enjoy cows' milk—but they can't put up with the inconvenience, the mud and the flies."
Henri Matisse, c. 1941 (quoted in Hilary Spurling, Matisse the Master)
By the time most of you get around to reading these words, I’ll be headed for Raleigh, where I’m scheduled to see three performances by Carolina Ballet and give a speech about All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. I’ll be home Sunday, in plenty of time to report to you on Monday about my trip. For now, I leave you in the capable hands of Our Girl, who has her own tales to tell about our recent adventures in Chicagoland.
P.S. You'll find new stuff (finally!) in the right-hand column, with more coming next week. (Which reminds me to remind you that my Commentary essay is once again accessible to non-subscribers. Don't know what happened last month, but it's fixed now....)
The cast included Stacy Keach, Linda Lavin and Matthew Modine, who together with their less well-known colleagues did what they could to enliven a show whose only distinction is that it isn't quite as horrible as Mr. Miller's last play about Marilyn Monroe, "After the Fall," with which the Roundabout Theatre Company battered Broadway earlier this year. "Finishing the Picture" is, however, quite horrible enough, a bitter stew of score-settling and self-regard that left me wondering, not for the first time, how the author of "Death of a Salesman" could have stooped so low….
Needless to say, the playwright's ex-wife is also among those present, though the actress playing her, Heather Prete, is never allowed to show her face (we do, however, see the rest of her naked body) or utter an intelligible word. As she grunts, mutters and screams, the other actors talk (and talk and talk) about her, emitting an endless stream of pseudo-poetic burble in the Miller manner: "What we had that was alive and crazy has been pounded into some hateful, ordinary dust."
Out in Hyde Park, for instance, the Court Theatre, the University of Chicago's resident professional company, is putting on a revival of Edward Albee's best-known play, acted with such high-keyed desperation that you'll still be talking about it for days after you see it. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" which closes Oct. 24, long ago lost the fist-in-the-face shock value it had back in 1962, but Mr. Albee's portrait of a dying marriage in the shrieking stage is still blunt enough to make you squirm.
Kevin Gudahl, whom I hailed in January for his superb performance in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "A Little Night Music," is even better this time around as George, the small-time college professor who spends his drunken nights clawing at himself and his wife, Martha (Barbara Robertson), in a frenzy of self-loathing. Mr. Gudahl reeks of damnation—you can all but smell the brimstone from the back row of the theater….
Speaking of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, whose praises I've sung more than once in this space, I have nothing but happy things to say about that company's rumbustious production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Directed by Barbara Gaines and running through Nov. 21, it's as festive as a Halloween party, in part because of the perfect match of theater and set. When the actors come galloping down the aisles of the 500-seat Courtyard Theater and storm onto the three-quarter-round stage, upon which James Noone has placed a two-story Tudor house that revolves on a turntable, you know you're going to have a ball—and you're right. Ms. Gaines has brought out the bawdy comedy of "Merry Wives" without sacrificing the sweetness, and the ensemble cast enacts her vision with infectious delight. I hate to single out one player for special comment, but I couldn't take my eyes off Lise Bruneau, whose low, sharp-edged voice and come-hither warmth are just right for Mistress Page. You'll hear more of her.
I wanted to get off the beaten path and find out what the smaller theater companies of Chicagoland have to offer, so I took a chance on the Porchlight Music Theatre's "Sweeney Todd," which runs through Nov. 7, and was generously rewarded by a lively, tough-minded production of Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece. L. Walter Stearns, the director, emphasizes the melodrama, right down to the garden-hose arterial spurts with which the Demon Barber of Fleet Street bisects the throats of his victims, and Michael Aaron Lindner, the star of the show, wields his vengeful razor with galvanizing rage....
No link. As always, head for the nearest newsstand, or do the other thing.
Our Girl and I managed to do a few other things last weekend, too. For openers, we went to the Lyric Opera to see a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that packed all the theatrical wallop of a straight play. This kind of thing is a lot less common than you might think, and not just because so many opera singers can’t act (though that’s probably the main reason). Many opera houses are simply too big for painstakingly directed productions to register clearly, and most of today’s major-house opera directors typically opt for high-concept stagings that rely on large-scale, scenery-driven effects.
Peter Stein's approach is different. “All the drama, all the theater, lies in the music,” Stein says of Don Giovanni, and so he’s produced the opera without any obtrusive conceptual overlay, placing his singers in the midst of Ferdinand Wögerbauer’s startlingly plain sets and directing them with the self-effacing clarity and simplicity of actors in a naturalistically staged play. Bryn Terfel, who sees Don Giovanni as “a real Jekyll-and-Hyde psychopath,” responded with a performance of fearful, unpredictable forcefulness—but, then, everybody else in the cast seemed to thrive on the opportunity to be a bonafide singing actor for once. Karita Mattila as Donna Anna, Susan Graham as Donna Elvira, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo as Leporello: all seemed real in a way you rarely see in major-house opera. Even the Zerlina, Isabel Bayrakdarian, made a strong impression rather than a merely charming one. I’d been tipped off that this production was out of the ordinary, but it never occurred to me that its quality would be so essentially theatrical. It was Our Girl’s first Don Giovanni, and I was tempted to lean over to her midway through the first act and whisper, “It isn’t always going to be like this.” She was enthralled. Me, too.
Four plays and an opera in the space one long weekend didn’t give us much room to maneuver (we actually saw Merry Wives and Virginia Woolf back to back on Sunday), though we did manage to work in a marvelous boat tour of the architecture of downtown Chicago, an event I highly recommend. In addition to promising-sounding plays that went unseen for lack of time, we could have gone to hear Jean-Yves Thibaudet play the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto and Liszt’s Totentanz with the Chicago Symphony, or caught a double feature of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground at the Siskel Film Center (I really hated to miss that one!).
Such unstinting abundance sounds like…well, like my life in New York. And though Chicago is in some ways a special case, it’s also not at all untypical of a phenomenon I wrote about in The Return of Beauty, an essay about the arts in America that I wrote last year for a U.S. State Department “electronic journal” called The Arts in America: New Directions. (It was translated into several different languages for distribution around the world.)
Apropos of Carolina Ballet, which I’m seeing this weekend, I wrote:
To mention Carolina Ballet is to be reminded of another important trend in post-postmodern art, the "deprovincialization" of America's regional performing-arts groups. Not only are our medium-sized cities capable of supporting first-rate opera and ballet companies, but many of these groups are doing better work than their New York-based counterparts. Most of the fresh, engaging new productions currently being presented by New York City Opera, for instance, originate at Glimmerglass Opera, a "regional" company based in upstate New York. Similarly, a fast-growing percentage of the leading dance companies in the United States, among them Carolina Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and the Kennedy Center's Suzanne Farrell Ballet, are "Balanchine companies" led by New York City Ballet alumni who danced for George Balanchine and whose superbly danced repertories consist in large part of their mentor's work. The city long known as "the dance capital of the world" may well be on the verge of becoming no more than primus inter pares in the increasingly decentralized world of post-Balanchine ballet….
I can’t think of a better example of the decentralization and deprovincialization of American art than what Our Girl and I saw in Chicago last weekend—as well as what we could have seen. “About Last Night” concentrates on the arts in New York City because I live here, but I’m acutely aware of the fact that my home town is not the be-all and end-all of American art. Fortunately, The Wall Street Journal encourages me to get out of town as often as my schedule permits to report on what’s happening elsewhere in American theater, and whenever I do, I never fail to be impressed by the richness and abundance of the artistic life of other American cities. One of the things I long to do in the second part of my life as a critic of the arts is spend more time reporting on what I see elsewhere in America, both for the print media and on this blog.
For now, I’m looking forward to my next trip to Chicago. I don’t see how it can top my last one, but when it comes to the arts in America, I’m always ready to be amazed.
Regular readers of this blog know I’m addicted to What’s My Line?, the prime-time TV game show that ran on CBS from 1950 to 1967 and can now be seen early each morning on the Game Show Network. (Newcomers to “About Last Night” can read all about it here.) The final episode of What’s My Line? aired two weeks ago, and there’d been some talk that the show would be dropped from the schedule thereafter. Instead, GSN is now replaying the very first episodes, originally seen at the dawn of network television, back in the impossibly distant days when Harry Truman was president and Milton Berle was TV’s brightest star. My interest in these ancient kinescopes can’t properly be described as nostalgic—they predate me by six years—but I still find them endlessly fascinating, not merely for their entertainment value but as time capsules crammed full of fading souvenirs of a long-lost era.
On the same day I watched the first episode of What’s My Line?, I received a small package from my brother in Smalltown, U.S.A. He hadn’t told me what was in it, but I knew without peeking that it would contain a box of vanilla taffy purchased at the SEMO District Fair. (Back where I come from, “SEMO” stands for “southeast Missouri.”) My family has been bringing taffy home from the SEMO District Fair ever since I was a small boy. Four decades later, it still comes in the same red-and-white cardboard boxes whose lids inform the happy buyer that he’s eating Malone’s State Fair Taffy Candy, manufactured by the Malone’s Candy Co. of Marion, Illinois, and sold exclusively at seven fairs: “Du Quoin, Ill. Tulsa, Okla. Little Rock, Ark. Indianapolis, Ind. Jackson, Miss. Shreveport, La. Cape Girardeau, Mo.” Each chunk is wrapped in wax paper, is as sticky as flypaper in August, and tastes like…well, like what it felt like for a wide-eyed child to go to the fair on a September night, ride on the double Ferris wheel, eat corn dogs, and cart home a box of State Fair Taffy and a helium-filled balloon.
The last time I went to the fair was three years ago, a couple of days after 9/11. I was stranded in Smalltown, U.S.A., waiting for the planes to start flying again so that I could make my way back to Manhattan. Though all of us in Smalltown were stunned by the horrors that had just played out on our TV screens, we knew we needed a break from reality, so I drove up to the fair with my mother, my brother, and his family, and we bought taffy and rode the rides. Alas, the double Ferris wheel was long gone—no doubt it had proved too tame for a generation of thrill-seeking youngsters raised on modern-day theme-park roller coasters—but the taffy hadn't changed a bit. Though I suppose it isn’t the very best taffy in the world (that honor belongs to Smoky Mountain Taffy Logs, made and sold in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the resort town where the Teachout family spent some of its most memorable summer vacations), it was still pretty darn good. Since then my brother has made a point of sending a box to me every year. I always swear that I’ll dole it out to myself one piece at a time, making it last until October or November, and I always end up polishing off the whole box in two days flat, the same way I did when I was eight years old. When it comes to taffy, I've never been very good at deferred gratification.
It occurred to me this year that I could go on line and buy my own taffy, but no sooner did I get the idea than I realized how wrong it would be to do so. Malone’s State Fair Taffy Candy is meant to be eaten only once a year, at the short-lived moment when summer starts to give way to fall and the night air shows the first signs of growing crisp and clear. To eat it at any other time would be an unforgivable affront to the spirit of nostalgia. Nevertheless, I Googled “Malone’s State Fair Taffy Candy” earlier today—just to see what I could find out about its history, you understand—and do you know what I learned? Nothing whatsoever. It seems the Malone’s Candy Co. of Marion, Illinois has yet to make its way into the information age.
I'm strangely grateful that this should be so, though I’m no less grateful that the Game Show Network and my trusty digital video recorder have made it possible for me to watch What’s My Line? as often as I want, and call my mother on my cellphone to tell her who yesterday's Mystery Guest was. (I saw Artie Shaw on the program the other day, and marveled at the scarcely believable fact that he’s still alive, the last surviving bandleader of the Swing Era.) One of the underappreciated pleasures of modern technology is the power it has to bring us closer to our memories. Yet it also pleases me that the Malone’s Candy Co. prefers to remain shrouded in mystery, and that its stalwart employees continue to set up their old-fashioned candy stands in Du Quoin, Little Rock, and Cape Girardeau, where they make a ton or two of taffy, wrap each sticky piece in a slick square of wax paper, scoop it into cardboard boxes, and sell it to fairgoers, one of whom brings a box home and sends it to his hungry brother on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
By such unearned acts of familial grace do middle-aged wanderers who have strayed far from home and its ways recapture the past, if only for two tasty days at a time.
Speaking of Artie Shaw (some of whose best recordings are collected on an excellent new CD called Centennial Collection), here’s a piece I wrote about him for the New York Times on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday in 2000. I forgot to include it in A Terry Teachout Reader, but I like it anyway, and I thought you might enjoy reading it.
* * *
H.L. Mencken once suggested that in a well-run universe, everybody would have two lives, "one for observing and studying the world, and the other for formulating and setting down his conclusions about it." This is more or less the way that the clarinetist Artie Shaw, who turns 90 on Tuesday, has contrived to arrange things. In the first half of his long, spectacularly eventful life, he played jazz with Bix Beiderbecke and Mozart with Leonard Bernstein; married Lana Turner and Ava Gardner; made a movie with Fred Astaire; and was interrogated about his left-wing ties by Joe McCarthy. Then, at the age of 44, he stopped playing music and started writing fiction, eventually producing a monstrously long autobiographical novel called "The Education of Albie Snow."
Though only a single chapter has seen print, Mr. Shaw's magnum opus really does exist, and presumably will be published sooner or later, in some form or other. (Robert Altman says he wants to turn it into a movie, with Johnny Depp in the title role.) Still, it is unlikely that his second career as a writer will overshadow his previous career as a musician. In part because he became a pop-culture icon at the age of 28, he has never been properly acknowledged as a giant of jazz—except by his fellow musicians. Yet his recordings leave no possible doubt of his immense stature, as both virtuoso soloist and nonpareil bandleader.
Alas, much of Mr. Shaw's achievement must now be taken on faith, for most of his records are out of print, and no label has gone to the trouble of commemorating his 90th birthday. BMG, which owns the 78s he made between 1938 and 1945, has no plans to release a retrospective boxed set, and the only tribute thus far has been the publication of Vladimir Simosko's Artie Shaw: A Musical Biography and Discography (Scarecrow Press), a dry but thorough survey of his musical career. Mr. Shaw can hardly be surprised by this lack of interest in a legendary veteran of the swing era, since he has spent much of his life decrying the commercialism of the pop-music industry—even though he also spent the better part of three decades playing "commercial" music, and profiting handsomely by it.
Mr. Shaw's first big band was an ensemble of unorthodox instrumentation (it included a string quartet) whose failure inspired him to change musical directions and organize what he called "the loudest goddamn band in the world." He then struck it rich in 1938 with a crisp, incisive recording of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" that made him a superstar virtually overnight. For all his oft-expressed contempt of commercialism, he had a knack for making good music that pleased the public—a knack with which he would never come to terms—and the "Beguine" band, which featured the superlative singing of Billie Holiday and Helen Forrest, the fiery drumming of the 21-year-old Buddy Rich and a saxophone section that played with breathtaking fluidity and grace, was an incomparable dance band, by turns lyrical and galvanizingly hot.
Mr. Shaw himself wrote many of the band's lucid, transparent arrangements, whose simplicity was deliberately intended to appeal to a mass audience, but which had the paradoxical effect of providing an ideal background for his richly elaborate improvisations. His intense, saxophone-like tone was sharply focused but never shrill, even when he was cavorting in the instrument's highest register, and his blues solos were tinged with an exotic modal color suggestive of synagogue chant.
A self-made intellectual manqué, he loathed the adoring teenage fans who had made him rich, telling one reporter they were "a bunch of morons." In 1939, he walked off a New York bandstand in the middle of a set and never came back; within a matter of months, though, he had moved to Hollywood and started another band, this one equipped with nine string players and a pianist, Johnny Guarnieri, who doubled on harpsichord with Mr. Shaw's in-house jazz combo, the Gramercy Five. The new group became as popular as its predecessor, turning out an elegantly poised version of "Star Dust" that remains to this day one of the best-remembered recordings of Hoagy Carmichael's most famous song.
In 1941, the "Star Dust" band gave way to a 32-piece orchestra with 15 strings, billed as "Artie Shaw and His Symphonic Swing." Mr. Shaw, who had been studying with the classical composer David Diamond, now sought to meld jazz and classical music in a manner reminiscent of the Paul Whiteman band of the late '20s, using the bluesy trumpeter-vocalist Oran "Hot Lips" Page in much the same way Whiteman had featured Bix Beiderbecke, an early Shaw idol. The erratic but brilliant drummer Dave Tough drove the potentially unwieldy group with consummate subtlety, and Paul Jordan contributed original compositions such as "Suite No. 8" in which the string section was not tacked on as an afterthought but integrated into the ensemble with deceptive ease.
In 1942, Mr. Shaw broke up his Symphonic Swing, enlisted in the U.S. Navy and toured the Pacific with a band that performed under fire at Guadalcanal. Combat fatigue forced him stateside in 1944, and he started a stringless civilian band featuring the great trumpeter Roy Eldridge and an unusually diverse library of arrangements that ranged from the Basie-style charts of Buster Harding to such wryly witty Eddie Sauter compositions as "The Maid with the Flaccid Air." Though it was known as an "arranger's band," Mr. Shaw was, as always, firmly in control, and its performances reflected his lifelong liking for versatility—and accessibility. Woody Herman's contemporaneous, bop-flavored First Herd was far looser, which may explain why highbrow critics have always preferred it to Mr. Shaw's postwar band, despite the latter's undeniably progressive tilt.
Like the First Herd, the Shaw band contained players who were interested in bebop, including the guitarist Barney Kessel and the pianist Dodo Marmarosa, and the ever-curious clarinetist began to explore the new style alongside them in an updated Gramercy Five. Following a hiatus during which he played only classical music, he returned yet again to the bandstand in 1949, this time with a full-fledged bop group; by then, he had assimilated the musical dialect of bebop, and his solos were every bit as contemporary-sounding as those of his younger sidemen, among them the tenor saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.
The big bands were dying off fast, though, and Mr. Shaw's bop band broke up after just five months. Thereafter, he shuttled in and out of music, taking a year off to write The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity (1952), a self-conscious but compelling memoir in which he catalogued the destructive effects of what he called "$ucce$$." Two years later, he put together one last Gramercy Five that teamed him with the guitarist Tal Farlow and the pianist Hank Jones. Stimulated by their playing, he rose to new heights of musical sophistication, and it seemed he was finally ready to give up on "$ucce$$" and settle for being a uniquely individual jazz soloist. Instead, he quit music in the fall of 1954, and never played clarinet again. He claimed he had no alternative—giving up the clarinet, he has said, was like cutting off "a gangrenous right arm...to save your life"—but he has also never stopped talking about it, suggesting that his decision may not have been quite as inevitable as he would like to suppose.
At 90, Mr. Shaw is by all accounts the same garrulous, curious, contentious man who put down his instrument 46 years ago, longing to free himself from the seductive lures of superstardom but never quite capable of turning his back on fame. He has a Web site, artieshaw.com, on which is posted a third-person autobiographical statement so self-aggrandizing as to be endearing: "Shaw is regarded by many as the finest and most innovative of all jazz clarinetists, a leader of some of the greatest musical aggregations ever assembled, and one of the most adventurous and accomplished figures in American music." You'd have to laugh at such braggadocio, except for one thing—it's all true.
* * *
A footnote: RCA finally got around to putting out a five-CD Artie Shaw box set, Self Portrait, in 2001, perhaps in part because I took them to task in this piece. Whatever the reason, they did a fabulous job, and Self Portrait is still in print, as well it should be.
In addition, Shaw buffs will want to know about The Artistry of Artie Shaw, a CD just released by Hep, the British jazz reissue label, which contains such extreme rarities as the recordings of short classical and semi-classical pieces by Debussy, Granados, Kabalevsky, Milhaud, Poulenc, Ravel, Shostakovich, Morton Gould, and Alan Shulman that Shaw made in 1949 with the New Music Quartet and a large string ensemble.
Seeing Bright Young Things put me on an Evelyn Waugh kick. I’ve just reread Vile Bodies and the two volumes of Martin Stannard’s biography and am now preparing to chew my way through the rest of the novels (I hadn’t looked into any of them for a few years). It also reminded me that you can listen to five audio clips from the BBC’s celebrated 1960 TV interview with Waugh by going here.
When I went to the BBC Web site the other day to listen to Waugh again, I discovered that a few additional interviews had been posted since my last visit. No Max Beerbohm, alas, but Joe Orton, whose Entertaining Mr. Sloane was recently revived in an off-off-Broadway production, can now be heard in excerpts from an interview taped one week before his lover beat him to death in 1967. To listen, go here.
Sorry I haven't posted anything else today. Writing this week's Wall Street Journal drama column took more out of me than I expected (as did the frenzied round of theatergoing in Chicago from which I returned only yesterday), and now I have to dress and head downtown to the West Village to see yet another play.
All I can say is that I haven't forgotten you. In fact, I'm full of unwritten postings, and they'll start spurting from my fingers as soon as I have an uninterrupted stretch of down time lasting more than ten minutes. Maybe tonight, depending on how long the play lasts. Maybe tomorrow morning.
At any rate, stay cool and watch this space for stuff.
"He delighted in writing, in the joinery and embellishment of his sentences, in the consciousness of high rare virtue when every word had been used in its purest and most precise sense, in the kitten games of syntax and rhetoric."
I just got back from Chicago, where Our Girl and I had a pluperfectly splendid time, and have much to tell, some here and some in this Friday's Wall Street Journal.
Alas, I also have 215 e-mails to answer (not counting my accumulated blogmail, the very thought of which makes me tremble), two plays to see, and two pieces to write, a drama column and a speech. What's more, I'm off again on Friday, flying down to Raleigh to spend two days looking at Carolina Ballet. All of which means that you probably won't hear much more from me today.
Expect me back in force tomorrow...not early. And if you're waiting to hear directly from me, be patient! I'm doing my best.
Just a quick update here from the girl. Terry and I have been rather busy, if you call an opera, a haircut, three plays, an audience with the bean (oops, make that Cloud Gate), a river cruise, and nine episodes of Buffy over three days busy. There was also an encounter with a chocolate-covered tomato, which went as well as could be expected. Tomorrow we'll rest and we'll blog; for now, we're rushing off again, to the Goodman Theatre for this evening's entertainment, the star-studded Finishing the Picture. See you on the other side.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview
with playwright Tony Kushner, published in Seattle Weekly:
How important is it to be political in the arts right now?
You can't find any important work of American art, in theater or anywhere else, that doesn't have a very powerful political dimension. [But] whatever you do with your day job—and writing plays is what I do—is no replacement for activism, which is a necessary part of being a citizen in a democracy. And not to be foolish and think that writing a political play is going to do it, because there's only one thing that does it—organizing and voting and demonstrating and fund-raising and e-mailing and joining groups. Art is not [it]. I mean, I admire theater groups that mobilized around the antiwar effort, but I don't think that's essential, and it can be incredibly misleading because you wind up with everybody getting up and doing sort of a performance piece about the war. What we really have to be doing now is organizing people to get out and vote for the candidate that the Democratic party nominates for president. It's the one thing that counts right now. And nothing else does.
I’m sure Kushner believes every word of this. But…all important American art is political? Really and truly?
Rather than belabor the blindingly obvious (though I can’t help but wonder whether Kushner is tone-deaf), I want to share another quote from you. As I was proofreading the Teachout Reader, I came across something John Sayles once told an interviewer. It struck me so forcibly that I made a point of including it in an essay I wrote last year about Sayles’ film Sunshine State. Asked why so few American directors make politically conscious movies, he replied:
It’s easier not to, and sometimes it’s really not the point of a movie. Sometimes it would really get in the way. I think more than being political or not political, it’s often the problem of being complex: The characters aren’t heroic. Sometimes they do things you don’t like, even if you may like them, and it’s hard to know exactly who the good guys and bad guys are, because everybody is a little bit compromised. And if you put that into your average adventure movie, it makes it complicated in ways that slow the movie down and really aren’t appropriate for that particular movie.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining why I love John Sayles’ movies and don’t much care for Tony Kushner’s plays, even though I doubt that Sayles' politics are noticeably different from Kushner's.
Close readers of "About Last Night" may have noticed that OGIC and I don’t print certain words on this blog. (I don’t know what her reason is, but I’m too genteel.)
Having said that, I must go on to confess that posts like this one, which actually caused me to laugh out loud while sitting next to an open window, also make me wonder whether I, too, ought to consider introducing a touch of vulgarity into this blog. Maybe just a little bit? A teeny-weeny pinch? You think not?
Well, Kingsley Amis introduced the concept of the "obscenity-saver" in his extremely funny novel Girl, 20. Obscenity-savers (which also have a more pungent title that I can’t print here) are cant phrases you find so irritating that it’s almost as satisfying to snarl them out loud as it is to actually talk dirty. Some of the obscenity-savers used by Sir Roy Vandervane in Girl, 20 include "school of thought," "Christian gentleman" and "sporting spirit." So perhaps I’ll try throwing around an obscenity-saver or two the next time I get in a mood to emulate Mr. TMFTML. Oh…stream of consciousness! Tonal nostalgia!!DIFFERENTLY ABLED!!!
I just thought you’d like to know that the index to A Terry Teachout Reader is finished! So am I, almost—I swear I’ll never do anything like this again.
Now that the great task is complete, I’ve got to hit the road in two separate installments. I leave for Washington on Friday morning. I’ll be back in New York long enough to catch the Sunday matinee of Golda’s Balcony, then it’s off to St. Louis to jabber for two days at Washington University, then it’s back to New York on Wednesday to see the last press preview of The Boy From Oz. I’m not taking the iBook with me on my travels, but I promise to post a line or two on Sunday, and of course I’ll be back in the saddle next Wednesday (if my plane lands on time) or Thursday (if it doesn’t).
Thanks for your patience. This blogging thing is harder than I thought—but it’s still fun.
I reviewed two new plays in Friday's Wall Street Journal, Lisa Loomer’s Living Out
(which I liked) and Jez Butterworth’s The Night Heron
(which I way didn’t). Here’s the lead:
Clear the decks for superlatives. Of all the new plays to open in Manhattan since I launched this column six months ago, Lisa Loomer’s "Living Out," running through Nov. 2 at Second Stage Theatre, is easily the smartest, with acting and direction to match. Dramatically speaking, it’s a dry martini, mixing crisp satire and heart-tugging pathos in exactly the right proportions, and unlike the flabby, feeble 9/11 plays currently buzzing around town, it never stoops to pretentiousness.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, since I came within inches of passing up "Living Out." Who wants to see a play about Latino nannies in Los Angeles and the well-to-do Jewish mothers whose children they tend? Not me, I thought. I have the strongest possible aversion to heavy-handed political playwriting, and never having seen any of Ms. Loomer’s work, I expected the worst. Well, fear not: "Living Out" contains no sermons, no bumper stickers, no clunkily obvious messages of any kind whatsoever. It’s about life, not politics, and it aims its shafts of wit in all directions—including straight at the heads of the audience….
No link, so to find out more about Living Out (and to read the terrible things I had to say about The Night Heron), extract a dollar from your wallet, buy a copy of Friday’s Journal, and turn to my theater column in the "Weekend Journal" section. I highly recommend it—and not just for my stuff, either.
Unpaid advertisement: I can’t tell you how many people I know are surprised to find out that the Wall Street Journal covers the arts, and does it well. You don’t have to be rich to read it—all it takes is a buck, and I’m there every Friday.
Courtesy of artsjournal.com, my invaluable host, this
story from the Guardian about a recent survey showing how little Brits know about art:
Nearly half (49%) of those questioned were…unable to identify who painted the "Mona Lisa." One in 10 Britons cited Vincent Van Gogh instead of Leonardo da Vinci as the master behind the Louvre's most celebrated treasure.
Meanwhile, despite the painting's popularity with students, more than four out of five people (85%) cannot name the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch as the artist behind "The Scream."…
The survey has gloomy news for gallery directors. It finds that more than two fifths (43%) have never set foot inside Britain's art galleries.
Needless to say, I can’t imagine that Americans would score any better—probably worse—but my snap reaction to this grim report is not quite what you might suppose. After all, how many people can one reasonably expect to know who painted the "Mona Lisa"? In a well-regulated society, of course, the answer would be 100%, but our society isn’t regulated at all, meaning (among many other things, some good and some not) that we don’t "expect" anyone to know anything about high art. As a result, most ordinary people don’t know anything about it, and are perfectly happy not to—so far as they know. What surprised me, in fact, was that the number of Brits who’d never been to an art gallery was as low as 43%, not as high.
I’m not saying, however, that the capacity to appreciate high art, or at least to get real pleasure out of it, is limited to those people who currently know who painted the "Mona Lisa." For it so happens that throughout much of the 20th century, ordinary Americans were regularly exposed as a matter of course to a remarkably wide variety of high art—and not by the public schools, either, but by the commercial mass media.
I grew up in the Age of the Middlebrow, that earnest, self-improving fellow who watched prime-time documentaries and read the Book of the Month. That was me, in spades. I was born in a small Missouri town in 1956, the year Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected by a landslide, and as far back as I can remember, I was eager to learn what was going on beyond the city limits of that small town, out in the great world of art and culture. Not that we were hopelessly at sea—we had a Little Theater and a Community Concerts series—but my home was hundreds of miles from the nearest museum, and it wasn’t until I went to college that I saw my first live performance of a ballet. Nevertheless, I already knew a little something about people like Willem de Kooning and Jerome Robbins, thanks to Time and Life magazines and The Ed Sullivan Show, and what little I knew made me want to know more.
Ours is essentially a popular culture, of course, but in the democratic culture of postwar America, there was also unfettered access to what Matthew Arnold so famously called "the best that has been thought and said in the world"—and, just as important, there was no contempt for it. When I was a boy, most Americans who didn’t care for high art still held it in a kind of puzzled respect. I doubt that Ed Sullivan cared much for Maria Callas or Edward Villella, but that didn’t stop him from putting them on his show, along with Louis Armstrong and the original cast of West Side Story (not to mention Jackie Mason and Seńor Wences). In the Sixties, all was grist for the middlebrow mill.
Just as city dwellers can’t understand what it meant for the residents of a rural town to wake up one day and find themselves within driving distance of a Wal-Mart, so are they incapable of properly appreciating the true significance of middlebrow culture. For all its flaws, it nurtured at least two generations’ worth of Americans who, like me, went on to become full-fledged highbrows—but highbrows who, while accepting the existence of a hierarchy of values in art, never lost sight of the value of popular culture.
The catch was that the middlebrow culture on which I was raised was a common culture, based on the existence of widely shared values, and it is now splintered beyond hope of repair. Under the middlebrow regime, ordinary Americans were exposed to a wide range of cultural options from which they could pick and choose at will. They still do so, but without the preliminary exposure to the unfamiliar that once made their choices potentially more adventurous. The rise of digital information technology, with its unique capacity for niche marketing, has replaced such demographically broad-based instruments of middlebrow self-education as The Ed Sullivan Show with a new regime of seemingly infinite cultural choice. Instead of three TV networks, we have a hundred channels, each "narrowcasting" to a separate sliver of the viewing public, just as today’s corporations market new products not to the American people as a whole but to carefully balanced combinations of "lifestyle clusters" whose members are known to prefer gourmet coffee to Coca-Cola, or BMWs to Dodge pickups.
The information age offers something for anybody: Survivor for simpletons, The Sopranos for sophisticates. The problem is that it offers nothing for everybody. By maximizing and facilitating cultural choice, information-age capitalism fused with identity politics to bring about the disintegration of the common middlebrow culture of my youth. Let’s return for a moment to those unlettered folks who don’t know who painted the "Mona Lisa." I assume, since you’re reading this, that you’re distressed by this unmistakable symptom of the widespread cultural illiteracy with which what Winston Churchill liked to call "the English-speaking peoples" are currently afflicted. But it so happens that a great many American intellectuals, most of them academics, would respond to your distress with a question: so what? To them, the very idea of "high art" is anathema, a murderous act of cultural imperialism. They don’t think Leonardo da Vinci should be "privileged" (to use one of their favorite pieces of jargon) over the local neighborhood graffiti artist. And as preposterous as this notion may seem to you, it is all but taken for granted among a frighteningly large swath of the postmodern American intelligentsia.
Which brings us right back to the problem of cultural illiteracy. How can we do anything about it if we can’t even agree on the fact that it is a problem—or about what basic cultural facts ordinary people should be expected to know? The answer is simple: we can’t.
What’s really sad is that most people under the age of 35 or so don’t remember and can’t imagine a time when there were magazines that "everybody" read and TV shows that "everybody" watched, much less that those magazines and shows went out of their way to introduce their audiences to high art of various kinds. Those days, of course, are gone for good, and it won’t help to mourn their passing. I’m not one to curse the darkness—that’s one of the reasons why I started this blog. Even so, that doesn’t stop me from feeling pangs of nostalgia for our lost middlebrow culture. It wasn’t perfect, and sometimes it wasn’t even very good, but it beat hell out of nothing.
"One morning, when they were walking on the deck, Christopher heard himself say: 'You know, it just doesn’t mean anything to me any more—the Popular Front, the party line, the anti-fascist struggle. I suppose they’re okay but something’s wrong with me. I simply cannot swallow another mouthful.' To which Wystan answered: 'Neither can I.'"
Well, Terry apparently continues immersed in matters indexical, as he warned us. I have some deadlines of my own to cope with. All in all, it's looking like a light menu here at the arts blog today.
However, it is beyond my powers of self-suppression not to somehow mark the beginning of the new hockey season—yes, even here at this arts-dedicated site. Now, if baseball were my thing, I'd actually have a pretty easy time of it. From Roger Angell to John Sayles, cultural and artistic attention to baseball is not just plentiful, it can sometimes seem downright pestilent. (I'm looking at you, NYTBR—an entire issue? Every year?)
With hockey the pickings are most definitely slimmer, at least down here south of the border. But there are a few things I can call your attention to. Of course, there's the elephant in the room; it may be old news, but it always holds up to another viewing. Then there's the far-flung hidden gem, to procure which you'll have to trek to the far reaches of internet commerce, Amazon Canada, but which I recommend most highly. Finally, there's the nostalgic favorite.
But let me put in an extra word for Mordecai Richler's wonderful book (that would be the hidden gem). It includes essays not only about my game of choice but about boxing, sports writing by non-sportswriters, Jews in sports, and (natch) baseball. It's a showcase where a masternovelist gets to be fan, artist, journalist, and—since a game well played is in his eyes art—critic, all at once.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 9, 2003 | Permanent
Wednesday, October 8, 2003
OGIC: Paragraphs I wish I'd written
This comes from The Old Man and Me, Elaine Dundy's out-of-print and hard-to-find sophomore (but never sophomoric!) novel. It followed her 1958 cult classic The Dud Avocado (which, now that I think of it, is also a title I wish I'd written).
There is a sort of coal hole in the heart of Soho that is open every afternoon: a dark, dank, dead-ended subterranean tunnel. It is a drinking club called the Crypt and the only light to penetrate it is the shaft of golden sunlight slipping through the doorway from time to time glancing off someone's nose or hair or glass of gin, all the more poignant for its sudden revelations, in an atmosphere almost solid with failure, of pure wind-swept nostalgia, of clean airy summer houses, of the beach, of windy reefs; of the sun radiating through the clouds the instant before the clouds race back over it again—leaving the day as sad and desperate as before.
It's amazing to me that everyone in Hollywood runs around snapping up rights to any book that sells any copies at all, and nobody has yet thought to film either of Dundy's darkly charming books. OK, so some of those movies—well, at least one—will probably be good, but that doesn't mean I have to like this compulsion to film everything in print, as though what really ratifies a book's worth is having one of its characters end up as yet another notch in Anthony Hopkins's belt. (In fact, they're filming David Auburn's play Proof in my neighborhood lately, and I walk around alternating between craning my neck to try to glimpse Hopkins, la Gwyneth, or Jake Gyllenhaal, and despising myself.)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 8, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Two blogatrices
Two new sites debut on the blogroll (look right, scroll down) today. They're so new, they still have that new blog smell. One is the moviegoing Pullquote, written by the Cinetrix, a mysterious and witty being who knows what she's talking about, and has good taste to boot. (Link via Old Hag.)
The other is the hard-boiled Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, a title that proves hard to abbreviate to blogroll width, so I've listed it under the name of its proprietress, Sarah Weinman. Confessions covers literary news generally and crime fiction in particular, all in a manner more sunny than noir.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 8, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Waxxxing delirious
It might be an understatement to say that my friend is pleased with last week's #1 album:
This white girl has nothing but infatuation and admiration for the OutKast CD "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below." It’s two CDs, actually—Dre and Big Boi have packaged their respective solo albums together in one jewel case and labeled it the next OutKast album. To those who think a house divided cannot stand, think again. The two display a voracious musical intelligence that is literally a trip. Big Boi's "Speakerboxxx" is the less varied but no less intoxicating half of the project; he moves from channeling Earth, Wind & Fire to a gospel choir to more of the urbanity heard on Outkast's last album, "Stankonia," with complex raps that hold together in the middle of his riffs, not just around the edges. Singing about everything from Daniel Pearl and Operation Anaconda to the gangsta quadrivium of women, guns, drugs, and name brands, Big Boi explodes all over "Speakerboxxx" with an energy that can only be described as Olympian.
"The Love Below," Dre's contribution, is at the same time randier and more romantic—and musically all over the map. Underlying his erotic exhortations—i.e., to "shake it like a polaroid picture"—are grooves drawn from Prince, a mellower Hendrix, the best of neo-soul, George Benson; every offering strikes a different tone. How can you not like a guy who sweetly sings, "so what if your head sports a couple of gray hairs/Same here, and actually I think it's funky in a Claire Huxtable-type way"? And then has me singing along to a song whose refrain is "crazy bitch"?
Sure, there are some fillers and cringers here and there, and the de rigueur talky interludes, but considering the mass of music they've put together here, the whole project has an astronomical batting average. It's the most infectious, enthusiastic, ambitious music I’ve heard in a long time.
She's not the only one. Read more about it here and here.
UPDATE: Slate's Sasha Frere-Jones is similarly smitten.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 8, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Progress report
You haven't heard from me lately because I'm racing to finish the index to A Terry Teachout Reader (I'm doing it myself to save money). So far, I've finished 295 pages out of 407. The deadline is Thursday. I think I'll make it. I'd better make it. If I hadn't fallen behind by a week and a half because of my hard-drive crash, I think it might actually be kind of fun, in part because indexes (indices?) often contain stretches of something like found poetry. Here's a sample:
Chasing Amy (Smith), 279
Cheers (TV series), 57, 277
Cheever, John, 292
"Chelsea Bridge" (Strayhorn), 258
The Children’s Hour (Hellman), 219
Chinatown (Polanski), 172
Chopin, Frederic, 126, 129-30
Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings (Kenner), 55-57
"Chuckles Bites the Dust" (episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show), 175
The Cider House Rules (Irving), 89
Citizen Kane (Welles, score by Herrmann), 177, 279
So yes, it's kind of fun, and yes, I'll be glad to be done. Once I've got it wrapped up, you'll hear about my trip to Raleigh to see Carolina Ballet, the plays I saw off Broadway this week, and whatever else comes to mind. Until then, Our Girl in Chicago will do her best to keep you satisfied. Judging by the numbers on the site meter, I'd say she's doing fine.
In the meantime, I'm calling the doctor the second I start dreaming about page numbers....
The latest installment of the Washington Post Book World's "First Encounters" series has Michael Dirda unpacking a series of poems by Victorian writer George Meredith. Meredith is a tough nut to crack; there's a reason he's read and remembered mainly by scholars. Meredith has his rewards, but to the modern ear his writing does sound, in Dirda's words, "labored, overblown and clunky."
Still, Meredith was an original, and it's nice to see his Modern Love get a little ink in the WaPo. The poems in question tell of the break-up of a marriage, and Dirda mentions in a general way that Meredith wrote from the experience of his own failed marriage to Mary Ellen Meredith (née Peacock). But it's the spectacularly awful way the marriage failed that's really fascinating and that, for at least one critic, actually provides the key to understanding the difficult nature of Meredith's writing.
Allon White told the rest of the story in 1981 in "The Uses of Obscurity: The Fiction of Early Modernism" (out of print but sometimes available used). He argued that the labored, over-furnished quality Dirda points to in Meredith's writing was in part a response to a formative experience of shame: a compulsion to "clothe in formal obscurity their author's strange and touching fear of [his books'] 'ridiculous nakedness.'"
This sense of exposure, according to White's persuasive and affecting account, had its source in the truly sadistic circumstances of Meredith's cuckolding as a young husband. In 1855 his good friend, the artist Henry Wallis, had painted Meredith posed as the Romantic-era poet-fabricator-suicide Thomas Chatterton, "lying exposed across a sofa before an open window, the torn fragments of his verse upon the floor and the phial of poison nearby."
Here's White's account of what followed:
The painting was an immense success, hung at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1856 and bought by Augustus Egg. Egg had engravings made of the picture which were distributed and sold in London and the picture became one of the most famous mid-century story-portraits.…But sometime between August 1856 and July 1857, Mary Ellen and Wallis began an adulterous affair. It was precisely at this period that the picture was being exhibited, and the prints must have circulated in the artistic and intellectual groups of London at the same time as the gossip. Wallis and Mary Ellen went off to Wales together, and Meredith was left to look after his young son Arthur whilst the picture of himself, painted by the man who had cuckolded him, continued to attract whispers, insinuations and knowing smiles.…
In that picture, Meredith is posed and exposed as the fake poet, the marvellous boy who was himself exposed to the world as forger and mad imitator, part inspired and part fraud. The picture must have been an agony for Meredith. Desperately struggling for artistic fame himself, he saw this picture become a source of fame and recognition for the friend who had stolen his wife—"Faultless and wonderful," Ruskin said of it, "a most noble example of the great school." A picture of horrible and humiliating ironies, it was simultaneously an attack upon himself as an artist and as a body displayed in its deathly stupor, the languorous romantic pose transformed, by the ulterior story, into the ridiculous, indecent body of a man lying and pretending at the feet of his wife's seducer.
Such an episode is not necessarily the "origin" of shame in Meredith but the iconography freezes the endless moment of shame into a tableau of horrid petrification.
It seems safe, at this late date, to confess that The Egoist was the one book on my main oral examinations list that I did not read in its entirety. I dodged that particular bullet; the novel didn't come up in the questioning. Retrospectively, I think I feel less shamed or shrewd than just sad to have cut my corners on an author whom, it seems, nobody much wants to talk about anymore.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, October 7, 2003 | Permanent
Monday, October 6, 2003
OGIC: Charm school
The weekend's top movie, School of Rock, is perfect for what it is: a funny wisp of a premise played out with wit, sweetness, and seeming spontaneity. The beauty of it is how unlabored it all seems—and also, contrary to what you might expect, the fact that it's been kept clean and family-friendly. Jack Black says in this interview that
Just because you take out the cuss words doesn't mean you have to be less funny. In fact, I think I was more funny to make up for it. You get more intense. You have to communicate those cusswords through your face muscles.
You won't mind that it's formulaic and predictable and takes full advantage of the cuteness of its kid costars. You won't care that Black has yet to show he can master more than one character (i.e., the same guy he played in High Fidelity). You'll fall hook, line, and sinker for its seductive vision of the rock band as an ideal little society: a meritocracy that's also all-inclusive.
Just go see it, and let the critic in you take the night off. I haven't had this kind of effortless fun at a movie since the first time I saw Clueless.
I just received in the mail a copy of Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History. Like all his books, it is fabulously energetic and violently opinionated, and thus as a result irresistibly readable—you can open it almost at random and find gems. It also contains, as advertised, a categorical rejection of the modern movement in art, whose values and virtues Johnson denies virtually in toto (he does like Edward Hopper).
I’ve always been fascinated by this kind of clean-sweep rejectionism, in part because it speaks to a quirk in my own temperament. I vividly remember the thrill of guilty pleasure with which I read for the first time this oft-quoted passage from Evelyn Waugh’s 1957 novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold:
His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom. There was a phrase in the ’thirties: "It is later than you think," which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought.
I don’t feel this way, but I think I know what it would feel like to feel this way, and I confess to finding it more than a little bit tempting. Since there is, after all, so much about the modern era that is worthy of loathing, why not simply loathe it all and be done with it? The problem is that I’ve never been able to reject the evidence of my senses, which tell me that Stravinsky was a great composer (usually) and Picasso a great painter (sometimes). For me, pretending otherwise would be a pose, and I don’t like poseurs.
It also helps that I have a good many interesting friends who are a good deal younger than I, and that insofar as possible I try not to waste their time telling them what things were like when I was their age. I feel the temptation to live in the past, but one can truly live only in the moment, and the last thing I want to do is end up like the pathetic narrator of "Hey Nineteen," the Steely Dan song
about a no-longer-young baby boomer who tries to tell his teenaged girlfriend about Aretha Franklin but discovers that "she don’t remember/The Queen of Soul," subsequently realizing that "we got nothing in common/No, we can’t talk at all." On the whole, I prefer to hear about the world they live in (though sometimes their stories make me shiver), and not infrequently they draw my attention to wonderful things about which I wouldn’t have known had I not been paying attention to what they had to say.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the world is full of rejectionists of various kinds—not so many as when I was younger, but still quite a few. I have a number of older musician friends who claim to hate all kinds of post-Sinatra pop music, for example, and I also get occasional letters from readers who want to know how I could possibly admire the music of Benjamin Britten or the paintings of Giorgio Morandi, or take a movie like Ghost World seriously. What nearly all these latter correspondents seem to have in common is that they really, truly don’t like any modern art, a position which puzzles me. Now, I freely admit to having problems with large tracts of the modern movement, and I long ago brought in guilty verdicts on atonal music and minimalist art, but at no time in my life has it ever occurred to me to dismiss all modernism as a snare and a delusion.
Are these anti-modernists poseurs? Some probably are, but I can’t imagine that many of them are merely playing at the old-fogy game. A greater number, I suspect, are rejecting something about which they know nothing, or at least not nearly enough to have an informed opinion. (H.L. Mencken was like that, as I explain in The Skeptic.)
Not knowing much about modernism, needless to say, is an affliction not limited to the ranks of the confirmed modernism-haters. Hanging on the walls of my apartment are works on paper by William Bailey, Nell Blaine, Helen Frankenthaler, Jane Freilicher, Wolf Kahn, Alex Katz, John Marin, Fairfield Porter, and Neil Welliver, and I never cease to be amazed by the high percentage of my visitors who don’t recognize any of their names—though most of them do like the art, or at least claim to. I’d be interested in knowing whether the author of the following amazon.com customer review of Art: A New History is familiar with the work of any of the above-mentioned artists, all of whom are "modern" but only one of whom is an abstractionist in the conventional sense of the word:
This excellent, irreverent survey of art history is a breath of fresh air for those struggling artists and art historians who are dissenters from the contemporary art establishment. I hope that Johnson's emphasis on training, technique, and realism will aid in the post-modern renaissance that is now quietly occuring, especially among younger artists who are burnt out on the stifling sameness of the arts community and want a return to classical training, beauty, and order in an arts climate that has for decades been inhospitable to those values.
But even after allowing for the effects of ignorance, there still remains a not insignificant residue of what I suppose must be called well-informed clean-sweep rejectionism, though I prefer to think of it as Pinfoldism. Paul Johnson is a prime example. He’s not even slightly ignorant (though judging by the index to Art: A New History, I suspect he doesn’t know as much as he should about the less radical forms of modern American art), and while I don’t know him personally, he doesn’t strike me as a poseur, either. He just doesn’t like modern art—modern visual art, that is, though my guess is that his rejectionism encompasses music and literature as well. I wouldn’t dream of arguing with him, either, since he seems perfectly happy to live without the fruits of the modern movement.
What’s more, Johnson's rejectionism hasn’t stopped him from writing a good book. You don’t have to be right to be interesting. Insofar as possible, though, I’d rather be both.
Feeling low down and dirty? Here’s a little Monday-morning musical festivity to float your boat. Go here, then click on "Maple Leaf Rag," and if your computer is equipped to run RealAudio files, you will be treated to three minutes of red-hot jazz, courtesy of www.redhotjazz.com.
(This happens to be one of my half-dozen all-time favorite jazz records of the Thirties, by the way.)
I’m pleased to announce that the trade paperback edition of my most recent book, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, can now be ordered in advance at amazon.com. To buy it, click here, and it’ll be sent to you on publication in November. It’ll make a great stocking stuffer (if your sock is big enough).
For those who’ve been asking, the unofficial publication date of A Terry Teachout Reader, Yale University Press’ forthcoming collection of my greatest hits, is April. This could change, depending on whether or not I get the book proofread and indexed on time! I haven’t seen it yet, but my editor tells me that the dust jacket (which makes use of the Fairfield Porter lithograph chosen by you, the readers of "About Last Night") looks terrific.
Now all I have to do is get my George Balanchine biography written, and 2004 should be a very good year....
The MacArthur Foundation’s "genius grants" have been known to go to some pretty awful people, but on balance the fine-arts grants have tended to be…well, not altogether bad. Stephen Hough, my favorite classical pianist, got one a couple of years ago, and now Osvaldo Golijov, one of the most interesting and provocative classical composers around, is part of the latest roster of recipients.
If you’re curious about what manner of composer is thought worthy of a MacArthur these days, I can recommend two CDs. This one contains a representative and well-played sample of his chamber music. Also of interest is his extraordinary Pasion Segun San Marcos, about whose New York premiere I had this to say in the Washington Post:
Golijov’s St. Mark Passion is a rich musico-dramatic stew in which seemingly incompatible styles are jammed together like the sounds you might hear through the open window of a fast-moving car on a hot summer night. Classical strings, chattering brass, Afro-Cuban percussion, flamenco guitar, a Venezuelan chorus that struts and hollers like a black gospel choir—you name it, Golijov has stirred it in, not merely for effect but with the shrewd self-assurance of a composer who knows exactly what he’s about.
The recording, incidentally, features Luciana Souza, about whom I need only remind you that her appearance with the New York Philharmonic in Central Park this summer was the subject of "About Last Night"’s first posting. Enough said?
(Nobody asked me, by the way, but I'd sure like to see Maria Schneider get a genius grant.)