About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, April 28, 2006
TT: While I'm bristling
From this morning's Wall Street Journal, a piece of much-chewed-over news about which most of you have already heard:
Lagardère SCA's Little, Brown & Co. imprint said it is pulling from the nation's bookstores Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan's novel "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" because of similarities between certain passages in Ms. Viswanathan's work and two teen novels written by Megan McCafferty.
Little, Brown's decision will be an expensive one for the publisher, because 55,000 copies of the book have been shipped....
Ms. Viswanathan signed a two-book contract valued at an estimated $500,000 as a 17-year-old. Her novel tells the story of Opal, a brainy student who needs to broaden her life if she's going to be accepted by Harvard.
Ms. Viswanathan quickly became a media celebrity after her novel was published earlier this month.
Ms. Viswanathan has apologized, but insisted that the copying was an unintentional error.
To which I have but one thing to add: Little, Brown & Co., having been stupid and tasteless enough first to sign a seventeen-year-old author to a $500,000 contract, then to publish a novel by her called How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, is richly deserving of whatever bad things happen to it as a result.
I think I'll take that walk in Central Park a couple of days ahead of schedule. I've reached my target dudgeon level for the week.
TT: The lost language of candor
I hate spin. Really, really hate it, with an Orwellian passion. I bristle whenever I see it in print or hear it on TV. And I just saw a prime example of it in the New York Daily News gossip column, which is reporting that Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time, is about to step down. Asked to comment, a Time spokeswoman replied, “Jim Kelly is very much in charge of charting the current and future course of Time magazine. Beyond that, we never comment on speculation regarding personnel matters.”
When I see that kind of statement, I reach for my garrote. A simple No comment would have been fine—but no, the unnamed spokeswoman in question had to take the opportunity to slip in a little grease, couched in slickly anti-human phrases that might just as easily have been generated by a Spin Robot.
A moment ago I alluded to George Orwell, whose 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (which you can read here, and should if you haven’t already) is rlghtly regarded as the locus classicus of all discussions of modern euphemism. But I don’t think Orwell’s target, which was the corruption of language by political orthodoxy, is quite the same as mine. Here’s the key paragraph of his essay:
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity….
Very good, and still very true. But the new kind of spin that enrages me is a different proposition altogether. It’s not unconscious: it’s wholly knowing, a deliberate attempt to use speech not for the purposes of communication but for the purposes of manipulation, to corrupt the whole process of human interaction by making no statement that is not agenda-driven. It’s as if our culture had been taken over by lawyers—which, of course, it has. For modern spin is not so much pol-speak as lawyer-speak, with a dollop of Madison Avenue stirred in for bad measure. It’s half Safety First (never admit anything, however insignificant, that could possibly be used against you in court) and half salesmanship (never pass up a chance, however gratuitous, to plug the product). When I hear official spokesmen emitting phrases like the ones I quoted above, I feel not as if I were watching a marionette, but as if they were trying to make me a marionette.
I’ve complained about this kind of thing before, on which occasion I quoted the greatest piece of unspin ever uttered by a public figure, General Joe Stilwell’s statement to the press after Japanese troops forced his men to retreat from Burma to India: "I claim we took a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, and go back and retake it." No doubt I’ll quote it again, and no doubt I’ll do so, as before, in vain. Or maybe not. For I see no indication that lawyer-speak spin, endemic though it has become, is any more effective an instrument of public persuasion than the similarly synthetic taglines that Hollywood studios have been using for years to pitch their wares to the public. She was the first. This time it’s war. Who gives a crap? Anybody who decides to spend ten bucks on a movie because he sees a phrase like that on a poster deserves to see that movie, preferably ten times a day until he dies.
Yes, I’m feeling grumpy. This is one of my hobby horses, though I don’t make a habit of mounting it in public, and I promise not to do it again for a minimum of six months. But that doesn’t mean I’m not bristling.
TT: Wrung dry
Yesterday I got up at eight in the morning, booted up the iBook, went to work, and didn’t stop (except for a lunch break) until seven p.m. If the world ended, I didn't hear about it. When I was finished, I’d written a three-thousand-word essay from scratch, thereby proving that my cardiologist is a genius. It’s about the newly published second volume of Stephen Walsh’s Igor Stravinsky biography, and it’ll appear in the June issue of Commentary. It was the third piece I’ve cranked out in the past three days, not counting blog entries, and that’s soooo enough.
I might go see some more art today, or I might stay home and finish Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, which I started reading last night. Or both. Or neither.
Tonight I’ll be seeing Hot Feet, followed by The Drowsy Chaperone on Saturday. On Sunday I plan to take a nice long walk in Central Park. On Monday I plan to do nothing except publish the day’s blog entries, which are already written and uploaded. Got that?
See you Monday.
TT: Fangs for nothing
Once again my drama column in today’s Wall Street Journal is an extra-long triple-decker job. This week’s shows are The Wedding Singer, Lestat, and The History Boys:
It’s commodity week on Broadway, where two big-budget musicals with blue-chip pedigrees have just opened. “The Wedding Singer” is based on Adam Sandler’s 1998 movie, which grossed $80 million in the U.S. alone. “Lestat” is a stage version of Anne Rice’s best-selling “Vampire Chronicles” with songs by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Unless I miss my guess, one show will be a huge hit, the other a humiliating flop.
The hit is “The Wedding Singer,” among the most ingenious and amusing musical adaptations of a Hollywood film ever to reach Broadway….
“Lestat” will surely go down in history as one of Broadway’s costliest disasters. The only thing about it that’s worth seeing is Derek McLane’s super-spectacular set, which will go to waste unless somebody does something quick. My suggestion is that Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, the producers of “Lestat,” close the show this weekend, then hire Joss Whedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” to write a new musical using Mr. McLane’s designs. Buffy on Broadway—now there’s a concept….
The National Theatre of Great Britain has brought Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” to New York for a ten-week run, where it will doubtless send shivers down the spines of Anglophiles and snobs. Whether such folk are numerous enough to fill the Broadhurst Theatre all summer long remains to be seen, since Mr. Bennett hasn’t had a Broadway hit since “Beyond the Fringe,” which opened in 1962. For my part, I’m at a loss to say what I thought of “The History Boys.” Never before has a play left me with feelings so mixed that I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not....
I wasn’t quite persuaded, at least not on first viewing, that “The History Boys” is an effective indictment of the amoral sophistry I take to be Mr. Bennett’s ultimate target. To be glibly critical of glibness is—well—glib.
No link, so buy the paper, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with immediate access to the full text of my review, plus lots of additional art-related coverage.
TT: Get a life—somewhere else
Here's a little taste of my next “Sightings” column, which appears biweekly in the “Pursuits” section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:
If you’re an actor, New York is the perfect place to be a waiter. As anyone who lives here knows, the old joke is as true now as it ever was. Most New York artists do something else for a living, and wish they didn’t. Back when I worked in an inner-city bank from nine to five and played jazz after hours, the term for an artist’s rent-paying sideline was “day job.” Now, according to a playwright I know, it’s “slave job.” Either way, it’s no fun, and by most accounts it’s getting tougher. “Creative Workers Count,” a new study by the Freelancers Union that you can read by going to www.workingtoday.org, cites chapter and verse to prove the point….
It was, however, another passage in “Creative Workers Count” that made me sit up and think: “New York’s high concentration of creative professionals relative to other metropolitan areas gives the city a distinct competitive advantage in creative industries. But recent trends indicate that this competitive advantage may soon be threatened as creative workers relocate to cities, such as Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis/St. Paul, that offer a lower cost of living and developing creative centers.”
What’s so bad about that?
As always, there's lots more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.
Thursday, April 27, 2006
“I am a man-pen. I feel through the pen, because of the pen.”
Gustave Flaubert, letter to Louise Colet (Jan. 31, 1852)
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I 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.
• Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Awake and Sing! (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes June 11)
• Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Lieutenant of Inishmore (black comedy, R, adult subject matter and extremely graphic violence, reviewed here, now in previews for a Broadway reopening on May 3)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
• I Love You Because (musical, R, sexual content, reviewed here)
• Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
• A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop (one-woman show, PG, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Sunday)
• Defiance (drama, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here, closes June 4)
TT: Familiar faces
Carl Van Vechten
is one of those fascinating minor characters who, like Zelig or Forrest Gump, was forever popping up in the damnedest places. At various times in his life (he died in 1964) he was a music critic, a dance critic, a novelist manqué, a self-appointed publicist for the Harlem Renaissance, and—perhaps most lastingly—a self-taught photographer who specialized in celebrity portraits. (He was also gay, and his hitherto unknown homoerotic photos are about to be published for the first time.) He seems to have known everybody who was anybody, and if they were famous he took their pictures. The Library of Congress Web site has a pretty good online gallery of his portraits, many of which, like his 1936 study of Bessie Smith,
remain among the best-remembered images of their subjects. Yet few art critics have had anything to say about his work save in passing, and though I know a reasonable amount about him—one of his portraits of H.L. Mencken is reproduced in The Skeptic—it wasn’t until yesterday that I finally saw an exhibition of his photographs.
It happens that I recently had occasion to mention Van Vechten in the fourth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, so he was already on my mind when I heard that James Cummins Bookseller, an Upper East Side dealer in rare books, was putting on a show of Van Vechten portraits. I dropped in to take a look, and was—not to put too fine a point on it—dazzled.
“Carl Van Vechten Portraits” consists of sixty-four photographs, virtually all of them of artists whose names are known to this day, including James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, George M. Cohan, Aaron Copland, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Gielgud, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Sinclair Lewis, Joe Louis, Henri Matisse, Somerset Maugham, Joan Miró, Laurence Olivier, Eugene O’Neill, Jerome Robbins, Gertrude Stein, Alfred Stieglitz, Virgil Thomson, Evelyn Waugh, and Orson Welles. (The show also features the same Mencken photo I used in The Skeptic.)
The catalogue contains an introduction by Rachel Cohen that includes this revealing passage:
And this, I think, is one of the nicest ways to see Van Vechten’s photographs—as parties. At a party, one person leads to the next—in each individual photograph there is the constant sense of the social scene, almost as if the party is going on in another room and Van Vechten and the subject have just stepped in here for a minute so that they can make themselves heard. It’s this quality that makes the collected body of work absolutely unlike that of any other photographer I know—it is a world of hundreds upon hundreds of relationships, of people who were neighbors and friends and artistic collaborators, who signed one another’s petitions, and smashed furniture at one another’s parties and cheered for one another’s achievements. You could begin with almost any photograph in this catalogue, or in the whole exhibition, and trace your way through the lives of almost everyone included.
Nice—and yet you don’t come away with the impression that Van Vechten was an especially serious artist, which I think is just about fair enough. His portraits lack both the personal stamp and the ultimate intensity of high photographic art. I don’t know that I’d be likely to recognize any of the ones I didn't already know as “Van Vechtens” simply by looking. He was no more (and no less) than a gifted amateur with a good eye and access to a lot of very famous people. Yet there is something, maybe even quite a bit, to be said about the comparative stylistic anonymity of his approach. What you see when you look at his 1940 portrait of Charles Laughton is the man himself, tortured and unsure, with no glossy overlay of self to confuse the issue. What you see when you look at, say, Irving Penn’s wonderful 1947 double portrait of George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken is—well—Irving Penn.
I suspect it makes more sense, then, to approach Carl Van Vechten’s portraits as historical documents rather than art objects. But however you choose to see them, they’re definitely worth seeing.
Alas, Van Vechten seems never to have photographed Louis Armstrong, which is too bad: I would have loved to include one of his portraits in Hotter Than That. As I was leaving the building, though, I walked past the Margo Feiden Galleries, in whose show window I saw a gorgeous Al Hirschfeld caricature
of Satchmo. It was exactly the kind of serendipitous moment that New York offers in daily profusion—the reason why, in spite of everything, I live here and wouldn’t dream of leaving.
* * *
“Carl Van Vechten Portaits” is up at James Cummins Bookseller, 699 Madison Avenue, through Saturday. For more information, go here.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
"But like all well-bred individuals, and unlike human anarchists, the cat seldom interferes with other people’s rights. His intelligence keeps him from doing many of the fool things that complicate life. Cats never write operas and they never attend them. They never sign papers, or pay taxes, or vote for president. An injunction will have no power whatever over a cat. A cat, of course, would not only refuse to obey any amendment whatever to any constitution, he would refuse to obey the constitution itself."
Carl Van Vechten, The Tiger in the House
TT: One life to live, many to tell
A reader writes:
I was disappointed, to say the least, when I read a while back that the
title of your new book would be Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis
Armstrong. Why, you say? Do I hate subtitles? Do I hate Louis
No, it's because you're using that ridiculous phrase A Life of -----. When I first saw that in a subtitle a few years ago, in
something like (to make up a book), America's Poet: A Life of Robert
Frost, I immediately thought, what a silly use of language—did the
man have several lives? No, he had one. Someone's writing about it,
therefore it should be The Life of Robert Frost.
Now, Armstrong may have done enough with his to fill up two or three
normal lives, but he, too, had only one. So I say it should be Hotter
Than That: The Life of Louis Armstrong.
And yes, I think I know how it must have started. When my make-believe
Frost book was submitted to its editor, he, in a fit of political
correctness, said, "Oh, we can't use that title. 'Life' means biography
in the literary world. Someone might think we're saying that this book
is the biography of Frost—the one, the only, the best. No, no, no, we
can't do that, it might hurt someone's feelings." And silliness won
another small victory.
I know that it's currently a popular way to phrase it, but that doesn't
make it right (and thank God, many authors are still using The Life of -----, for example, John Szwed's excellent So What: The Life
of Miles Davis). "Life," in the title of a biography, means just that,
someone's life, the time they spent on earth. It doesn't mean
"biography," at least not in the real world.
So I'm begging you, man, change it back to the phrase that's worked
fine for hundreds of years—it's not too late! Strike a blow for
Alas, my subtitle has what I regard as an impeccable and dispositive precedent, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, written by yours truly. I explained in the preface why I gave it that name: “This is a life of Mencken, not the life. I have made no attempt to be exhaustive, so as to avoid being exhausting.” As you see, it had nothing to do with political correctness (don’t make me laugh!). I simply felt—and feel—that every biography is by definition one person’s interpretation of another person’s life, a selection from and arrangement of the available facts, and that since multiple interpretations of the same facts are not only possible but inevitable, the title should indicate as much.
As for the larger question of the meaning of "life," The New Shorter Oxford defines it as, among other things, “A written account of a person’s history; a biography.” That usage dates back to Middle English.
Here endeth the lesson. (Nice try, though.)
TT: My day
• 6:30 a.m. I wake without prompting, having slept for just five hours—not uncommon for me on days when I have a morning deadline. I descend from the loft, fix and eat a low-fat multi-grain English muffin and a bowl of cereal with skim milk, and start writing my drama column for Friday’s The Wall Street Journal, a review of The History Boys, Lestat, and The Wedding Singer.
• 10:35 a.m. The column is done. I e-mail it to my editor, change clothes, and go to the gym for a session with my trainer.
• 12:05 p.m. Dripping with sweat, I return to the apartment and check my e-mail. My editor isn’t finished with the column, but I find in the box an e-mail from Shellwood, a new British record label based in Surrey whose Web site says it is “dedicated to recording light music, mostly from the 1920-40s.” To my amazement, they’ve released a Cy Walter CD called The Park Avenue Tatum and want to know if I’d like a review copy. I respond in the aggressive affirmative. Walter was a legendary cabaret pianist who is now remembered (if at all) for having played two-piano accompaniments with Stan Freeman on a couple of albums recorded in the Fifties by Mabel Mercer and Lee Wiley. I’ve never heard any of his solo recordings, none of which has previously been reissued in any format, and I'm curious, to put it very mildly.
• 12:35 p.m. No word yet from the Journal, so I take a shower and go out a second time. I stop by the post office (where I hear a man use the expressions “Hel-lo?” and “I don’t think so!” in consecutive sentences) to mail my mother a souvenir menu from the White House mess, at which I dined last month. Next comes lunch at Good Enough to Eat (where I hear a woman use the words “condescending,” “colonialist,” and “eco-variety” in a single sentence). Then I go to the bank, the drugstore, and the grocery store. My hands twitch as I stroll past a short stack of three boxes of Mallomars, to which my attention is drawn by a handwritten sign: “Last batch of the season!!” The spasm passes and I fill my cart with low-calorie foods instead, feeling virtuous as I pay the cashier.
• 2:25 p.m. Back to the apartment again, where Tuesday’s snail mail (none of it worth reading) has arrived, as has the edited version of my column, lightly salted with the usual editorial queries, all of them helpful. I make the necessary fixes and e-mail the revised column back to the Journal.
• 2:45 p.m. I decide to spend the rest of the afternoon looking at art. Acting on a tip from an “About Last Night” reader, I take a crosstown bus to the Metropolitan Museum to see a small but choice-sounding show of Stieglitz-period American works on paper. Alas, it’s no longer on display (though the signs are still up) and I’m not in the mood to look at anything else. Even a wallful of mostly unfamiliar Arthur Doves fails to do the trick. I depart in a state of moderate dudgeon, immediately dispelled by the beautiful spring weather (it was supposed to rain today, but didn't).
• 4:20 p.m. I watch a BBC documentary on Bette Davis
stored on my DVR. What on earth do people see in her? I mean, I like All About Eve as much as the next guy, but who cares about those other movies she made in the Thirties and Forties? I’d take Ida Lupino any day. In search of insight, I consult David Thomson, who answers my question with his usual pithiness: "Davis was a vulgar, bullying actress, who made mannerism a virtue by showing us how it expresses the emotion of the self."
• 5:50 p.m. No show tonight! I wrestle briefly with the compulsion to spend the evening tinkering with Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. Inspired by Thomson, I choose instead to pop a Miklós Rózsa CD into the stereo and curl up on the couch with American Movie Critics, Philip Lopate’s new Library of America anthology, about which I’ll be writing in a couple of weeks.
• 7:45 p.m. I call my mother in Smalltown, U.S.A., as I do most nights. She had all her teeth pulled last week, but is doing amazingly well, especially for a woman of seventy-six. ("Your mother is a tough old bird," the dentist told my brother after the surgery.) We chat happily about nothing in particular.
• 9:30 p.m. I toast and eat a second English muffin, this one accompanied by smoked salmon. As I dine, it hits me that my spirits have finally bounced back from the vague funk that settled on me around the time of my fiftieth birthday in February. No doubt the arrival of spring has something to do with it. About time, too.
Last on the agenda: a good night's sleep. Another Journal deadline awaits me at noon tomorrow. A writer's work is never done.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
“In this country, you never pull the emergency brake, even when there is an emergency. It is imperative that the trains run on schedule.”
Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Visit
TT: Words to the wise
• Spanierman Gallery is about to open a major exhibition of the works of John Henry Twachtman, the greatest of the American impressionists. “John Twachtman (1853-1902): A ‘Painter’s Painter,’” which will include eighty-one of Twachtman's paintings and works on paper, is the first large-scale New York retrospective of his work in recent memory. My own feelings about Twachtman can be inferred from the fact that the Teachout Museum contains one of his etchings, "Dock at Newport." (A unique artist's proof of this exquisite etching is part of the Spanierman show.)
For more information, or to view the other works in the exhibition, which will be up from May 4 through June 24, go here.
• Mark your calendar: Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza, the best musical of 2005, will be telecast on PBS’ Live From Lincoln Center on June 15. Here’s part of what I wrote about the show in The Wall Street Journal last year:
Adam Guettel, the most gifted and promising theater composer of his generation, has returned to the stage after a nine-year absence with “The Light in the Piazza.” To call it the best new musical I’ve reviewed in this space, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” included, is to understate the case. It is, in fact, the best new musical to open in New York since “Passion,” and Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater has done itself proud by bringing so important a show to Broadway….
The score, radiantly orchestrated by Mr. Guettel and conductor Ted Sperling for a fifteen-piece chamber ensemble built around a harp, is a shimmering evocation of Italian sunshine, dappled with touches of sorrow. Comparisons to Stephen Sondheim being inevitable, I should say at once that Mr. Guettel resembles Mr. Sondheim only in the richness of his imagination. His harmonic language is more astringent and wide-ranging, his lyrics more conversational (you won’t go away talking about his rhyme schemes). He is, in short, his own man, and in “The Light in the Piazza” he has written a musical directly comparable in seriousness of purpose to “Passion” or “Sweeney Todd” without sounding anything like either of those shows.
The New York production closes on July 6, with a U.S. tour set to begin in August. To purchase the original-cast CD, go here.
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• One of the travails of writing a biography of a great artist is that you find yourself returning repeatedly to certain words and phrases—especially superlatives. The nice thing about word processing is that it’s possible to search your manuscript for repeated words. The bad thing is that if you’re not careful, you become compulsive about it.
A couple of months ago I started keeping a list of words and phrases I suspected I was using too frequently in Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. In the past week or two I’ve been going over the first five chapters of Hotter Than That with the proverbial fine-tooth comb, looking for redundancies and personal clichés. It occurred to me (that’s one of the latter, in case you haven’t already noticed) that it might amuse you (there's another one) to see the list:
by now/by then
from then/now on
small wonder/no wonder
to be sure
• Writing one-sentence summaries of movies is surely one of life's more thankless tasks (though it can be done, like everything else in life, with flair). Be that as it may, I confess to having giggled when the following précis of The Station Agent popped up on my TV screen yesterday: “Two people try to befriend an anti-social dwarf.”
That seems just a bit on the bald side, don't you think?
TT: Unopened sacks in the mailroom
The "About Last Night" e-mailbox has been discovered by art-world publicists, who are flooding it with press releases. I suppose that's an improvement on the Viagra-type spam I used to get by the carload, but it's still irritating.
I'm doing my very best to keep up with all the bonafide reader mail (I just answered a ton of it). If you should fail to hear back from me more or less promptly, though, that's the reason why. Apologies.
Monday, April 24, 2006
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living."
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
TT: On the fly
The spring rush continues. Last week I saw five plays, four of them in a row. This week I have two new musicals on my plate, Hot Feet
and The Drowsy Chaperone, and three deadlines to hit between now and Thursday. It’s all a bit much, frankly, but I’m staying afloat—and I even managed to finish editing the fifth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong in between last week's shows.
Could I use a rest? You bet, and I’ve got one planned: I’ll be heading for one of my favorite undisclosed locations as soon as I file my last pre-Tony drama column, where I plan to spend a couple of uncomplicated days doing nothing even slightly gainful and thinking no theater-related thoughts. Until then, though, the joint will be jumping, so please continue to bear with me.
For the moment I’ll leave you with a freshly written snippet of Hotter Than That to chew on. See you tomorrow!
* * *
In 1927 Aaron Copland, soon to emerge as America’s leading classical composer, declared that jazz might someday become “the substance not only of the American composer’s fox trots and Charlestons, but of his lullabies and nocturnes. He may express through it not always gaiety but love, tragedy, remorse.” But he later changed his mind, deciding that jazz “might have its best treatment from those who had a talent for improvisation.” By then the symphonic-jazz craze of which Copland was briefly among the most prominent exponents had started to dry up, and he had put his finger on the reason why. For jazz to reach its fullest expressive potential—as well as a truly popular audience—it would first need to find embodiment not in a composer, however gifted, but in a soloist of genius with a personality to match, a charismatic individual capable of meeting the untutored listener halfway.
Such a man existed, and there were those who had an inkling of his potential. When Bix Beiderbecke and Hoagy Carmichael first heard Louis Armstrong playing with the Creole Jazz Band in 1923, they were staggered. Carmichael set down his reaction in his memoirs: “’Why,’ I moaned, ‘why isn’t everybody in the world here to hear that?’ I meant it. Something as unutterably stirring as that deserved to be heard by the world.” Five years later it was being heard by the patrons of Chicago’s Savoy Ballroom, the buyers of race records, the fortunate listeners who happened to tune into Carroll Dickerson’s broadcasts from the Savoy—and no one else.
Musicians, to be sure, received Armstrong’s records as life-changing revelations. When Artie Shaw first heard them, he became “obsessed with the idea that this was what you had to do. Something that was your own, that had nothing to do with anybody else….I realized I was no longer playing music, I was playing an art form, something bigger than music.” But even if the Armstrong-Hines recordings of 1928 had circulated more widely at the time of their release, it is still doubtful that they would have made much of an impression on the public at large, consisting as they do of jazz and blues tunes unevenly played by a scrappy little band dominated by two titans. Even on the sides that featured Armstrong’s appealing voice, he was restricted to wordless scat vocals, vaudevillian novelties, or blues-drenched laments like “St. James Infirmary,” the mournful folk ballad about a man who goes to the morgue to behold his lover on a slab: “I went down to St. James Infirmary/Saw my baby there/Stretched out on a long white table/So sweet, so cold, so bare.”
In order for the rest of the world to hear and embrace Armstrong, he would need a more accessible repertoire and a more flattering setting—both of which were close at hand….
Friday, April 22, 2005
"As peace is the end of war, so to be idle is the ultimate purpose of the busy."
Samuel Johnson, The Idler (April 15, 1758)
TT: Sondheim's heir
I'm not here—I'm still holed up at my undisclosed location, watching the river flow—but my Friday Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser is reaching you on schedule by way of Our Girl in Chicago, who posted it for me at the usual appointed hour. (Look at the bottom of this posting and you'll see her stamp, not mine.)
I went to all this trouble because I wanted to be sure that the word got out about The Light in the Piazza, the new Broadway musical adapted by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas from Elizabeth Spencer's 1959 novella. It's a must:
Adam Guettel, the most gifted and promising theater composer of his generation, has returned to the stage after a nine-year absence with “The Light in the Piazza.” To call it the best new musical I've reviewed in this space, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” included, is to understate the case. It is, in fact, the best new musical to open in New York since “Passion,” and Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater has done itself proud by bringing so important a show to Broadway….
The score, radiantly orchestrated by Mr. Guettel and conductor Ted Sperling for a 15-piece chamber ensemble built around a harp, is a shimmering evocation of Italian sunshine, dappled with touches of sorrow. Comparisons to Stephen Sondheim being inevitable, I should say at once that Mr. Guettel resembles Mr. Sondheim only in the richness of his imagination. His harmonic language is more astringent and wide-ranging, his lyrics more conversational (you won't go away talking about his rhyme schemes). He is, in short, his own man, and in “The Light in the Piazza” he has written a musical directly comparable in seriousness of purpose to “Passion” or “Sweeney Todd” without sounding anything like either of those shows….
If you live in or near New York, make every possible effort to go. If not, Nonesuch will be releasing the original-cast CD of The Light in the Piazza on May 24. (To place an advance order, go here.)
I also reviewed Jeffrey Hatcher's A Picasso, a play about an imaginary 1941 encounter between Pablo Picasso and a Nazi interrogator:
It's reasonably intelligent and reasonably entertaining, though I doubt the real Picasso would have cracked quite all those one-liners under such dire circumstances (“Divorced?” “I keep trying”), much less stalked around the basement of a Paris art gallery like Groucho Marx in a tailcoat….
No link. To read the whole thing—and I have much more to say about The Light in the Piazza—buy this morning's Journal and turn to the “Weekend Journal” section, or go here to subscribe to the Journal's online edition. I recommend the latter, enthusiastically.
Thursday, April 21, 2005
“Art must give suddenly, all at once the shock of life, the sensation of breathing.”
Constantin Brancusi (quoted in Dorothy Dudley, “Brancusi,” Dial, Feb. 1927)
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
“During those last weeks of the Bishop's life he thought very little about death; it was the Past he was leaving. The future would take care of itself. But he had an intellectual curiosity about dying; about the changes that took place in a man's beliefs and scale of values. More and more life seemed to him an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself. This conviction, he believed, was something apart from his religious life; it was an enlightenment that came to him as a man, a human creature. And he noticed that he judged conduct differently now; his own and that of others. The mistakes of his life seemed unimportant; accidents that had occurred en route, like the shipwreck in Galveston harbour, or the runaway in which he was hurt when he was first on his way to New Mexico in search of his Bishopric.”
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, April 21, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: In which our heroine gains a livelihood
I'm starting a new job today! That's good news, and something I've been working on since mid-winter. It does mean, however, that I'm going to have a lot less free-floating time on my hands during which to blog—i.e., no time at all during my weekdays, and a lot less on weeknights. But…hey, Saturday. Hey, Sunday. How're you doin'?
That's right, I'm moving in on those lonely blank days on the ALN calendar. I'm Weekend Girl now. Look at it this way: you won't be getting less content, you'll just be getting it seven days a week instead of five, with nary a lull. And if you hate picking through all that OGIC dross looking for TT gold, your reading will be much simplified!
Now that I've said this, it could be I'll turn around and discover that precisely the thing I most want to do after a long day sitting at a computer in the office is to come home and sit in front of a different computer in my living room. Maybe weeknights will find me newly unstoppable; I'm not ruling out the possibility. Even if they don't, there will surely be items that I just can't wait until the weekend to post about. But in general? See you Saturday with bells on. (The first thing I plan to do this weekend is finally recap the panoply of responses I got to my books-within-books query a while back. Besides a highly helpful catalog of far more specimens than I knew existed, I received a number of interesting observations about the risks and rewards of this particular act of literary derring-do. Good stuff, so do check in.)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, April 20, 2005 | Permanent
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"'Do you know, Mr. Yule, that you have suggested a capital idea to me? If I were to take up your views, I think it isn't at all unlikely that I might make a good thing of writing against writing. It should be my literary specialty to rail against literature. The reading public should pay me for telling them that they oughtn't to read. I must think it over.'"
George Gissing, New Grub Street
OGIC: PR wizards of ID
I am forever in your debt, Eric McErlain, for calling my attention to this resolution that recently hit the table in the Idaho House of Representatives:
A CONCURRENT RESOLUTION STATING LEGISLATIVE FINDINGS AND COMMENDING JARED AND JERUSHA HESS AND THE CITY OF PRESTON FOR THE PRODUCTION OF THE MOVIE "NAPOLEON DYNAMITE."
Be It Resolved by the Legislature of the State of Idaho:
WHEREAS, the State of Idaho recognizes the vision, talent and creativity of Jared and Jerusha Hess in the writing and production of "Napoleon Dynamite"; and WHEREAS, the scenic and beautiful City of Preston, County of Franklin and the State of Idaho are experiencing increased tourism and economic growth; and WHEREAS, filmmaker Jared Hess is a native Idahoan who was educated in the Idaho public school system; and WHEREAS, the Preston High School administration and staff, particularly the cafeteria staff, have enjoyed notoriety and worldwide attention; and WHEREAS, tater tots figure prominently in this film thus promoting Idaho's most famous export; and WHEREAS, the friendship between Napoleon and Pedro has furthered multiethnic relationships; and WHEREAS, Uncle Rico's football skills are a testament to Idaho athletics; and WHEREAS, Napoleon's bicycle and Kip's skateboard promote better air quality and carpooling as alternatives to fuel-dependent methods of transportation; and WHEREAS, Grandma's trip to the St. Anthony Sand Dunes highlights a long-honored Idaho vacation destination; and WHEREAS, Rico and Kip's Tupperware sales and Deb's keychains and glamour shots promote entrepreneurism and self-sufficiency in Idaho's small towns; and WHEREAS, Napoleon's artistic rendition of Trisha is an example of the importance of the visual arts in K-12 education; and WHEREAS, the schoolwide Preston High School student body elections foster an awareness in Idaho's youth of public service and civic duty; and WHEREAS, the "Happy Hands" club and the requirement that candidates for school president present a skit is an example of the importance of theater arts in K-12 education; and
WHEREAS, Pedro's efforts to bake a cake for Summer illustrate the positive connection between culinary skills to lifelong relationships; and WHEREAS, Kip's relationship with LaFawnduh is a tribute to e-commerce and Idaho's technology-driven industry; and
WHEREAS, Kip and LaFawnduh's wedding shows Idaho's commitment to healthy marriages; and WHEREAS, the prevalence of cooked steak as a primary food group pays tribute to Idaho's beef industry; and WHEREAS, Napoleon's tetherball dexterity emphasizes the importance of physical education in Idaho public schools; and WHEREAS, Tina the llama, the chickens with large talons, the 4-H milk cows, and the Honeymoon Stallion showcase Idaho's animal husbandry; and WHEREAS, any members of the House of Representatives or the Senate of the Legislature of the State of Idaho who choose to vote "Nay" on this concurrent resolution are "FREAKIN' IDIOTS!"…
It passed, 69-0-1, and a good time was had by all. Napoleon Dynamite, much as I enjoyed it, never made me want to go to Idaho, but these guys almost do.
Monday, April 18, 2005
“It is interesting how action has been stolen almost completely by the screen nowadays, and the theatre is more and more given over to psychological exposition, with almost embarrassingly realistic dialogue and atmosphere and character taking the place of story situations—not the long-winded perorations of Shaw and Ibsen, but the nostalgia mixed with violence which is also so characteristic of Tennessee Williams and other American dramatists.”
Sir John Gielgud, letter to Kate Terry Gielgud (Nov. 23, 1950)
OGIC: At long last meme
You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be?
Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus, which still seems to me, a year after reading it, a crazily improbable object. Like the Easter Island statues or Falling Water—if it disappeared from existence and couldn't be put in front of your face, you'd have to take it for myth.
Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you." Oh, if I must!
The last book you bought was...?
A one-two-three punch: The World According to Garp, Doctor Zhivago, and Saturday.
The last book you read was...?
I reread Thomas Harris's Red Dragon.
What are you currently reading?
John Dufresne, Johnny Too Bad.
Five books you would take to a desert island...
The Wings of the Dove for love;
The Canterbury Tales for the crowd of voices;
Paradise Lost for insurance against exhausting my resources;
a Pogo collection for funny animals;
and, in a bit of a gamble, something I've never read…let's say Lost Illusions.
Who are you passing this stick on to and why?
Kenneth at Back with Interest because our taste in books is so different;
Sam at Golden Rule Jones because I'm hungry for an update;
and Miguel at Modern Kicks because he'll need some purely mental exercise after running the Boston Marathon today!
TT: Yeah, O.K., just one more
The latest visitor to the Teachout Museum writes:
Not that there's been much room in my head the last two days for anything but those captivating images on your walls. What a triumphant combination of an eclectic taste with an integrated vision: visual heaven in a small space. Many thanks.
That's what a slightly vain collector likes to hear!
OGIC: The cream in my coffee
Outer Life is back from hiatus. And where do you suppose he was all that time? Disneyland! There's much more where this came from:
I've just escaped from Tomorrowland, that horrific dystopian vision of an inhuman robotic plastic video game action hero future, looking in vain for Yesterdayland, that fabled place where children were seen but not heard. Instead I ended up in Toon Town, a surrealist landscape blending the Great Depression, film noir and talking animals into something very unsettling.…
The Disney store only stocked the children's version of Benadryl, so I'm staggering through the park alternately swilling cherry-flavored Benadryl, which makes me sleepy and dopey, and sipping coffee, which makes me happy. Then I get sneezy again, which makes me grumpy. I suppose I'm finally getting into the spirit of the place as I wildly veer in and out of various dwarf personae.
Better him than us. Far, far better.
TT: A positively final appearance
A reader writes:
Re your question of what to re-name clinical depression:
Winston Churchill referred to his depression as his "black dog.” I don't know either Greek or Latin, but if that were translated into one of those languages and the resulting phrase rolled off the tongue nicely, an -ia could be appended and this might be a good title with an interesting pedigree.
Any of you classicists out there care to help us out?
UPDATE: Several readers write….
• “i guess black dog would be canis niger, making for canis nigeria or canis nigerium, but i prefer black cloud, so perhaps niger nubigena (the later meaning born of a cloud). or niger nubiferia (nubifer meaning cloud bearing). or the redundant niger praenubilus (praenubilus meaning very cloudy or dark). or perhaps a reversal with a tweak sounds best/worst: praenubilus nigerium.”
• “Canisnigeria would be the exact word in Latin. But it might remind some
people of e-mail spam.”
• “I'm no classicist, but I know there are several '-ia' words that
capture aspects of clinical depression: melancholia, anhedonia (wasn't
that what Woody Allen was originally going to call Annie Hall?), abulia.
Maybe the problem is that we're looking for a single word to describe a
complex condition. Another thought: the depressive state seems akin to a
this-worldly form of the Hebrew Bible's concept of the attenuated
existence of the dwellers in sheol, so maybe we should be looking for a
Hebrew or Yiddish inspired coinage.”
My normally trusty iBook threw a curve ball at my head today. We're both still on our feet, if a little woozy, but I think I may need to seek advice of counsel, so to speak, once I polish off the week's deadlines (I have two).
It occurs to me that the universe might possibly be sending me a message, and that it might be smart for me to pay attention. I was turned up to eleven for all of March and the first part of April, and even though the heat is mostly off now, I can tell that I haven't yet flushed the adrenalin out of my system. I'm still having trouble sleeping—I can't seem to switch my mind off—and my tongue has gotten a bit too sharp for its own good, both in and out of print. Truth to tell, I'm not much enjoying my own company these days (except when I'm writing about Louis Armstrong, but I can't do that all the time, much as my publisher would like it!).
Since my iBook is probably going to need a sleepover and I'd already arranged to hit the road for a couple of days, I think I'll take a little vacation from the blog while I'm at it. Don't expect to see me again until Friday at the earliest—maybe Monday, if I have any sense. That may not put things completely right, but it can't hurt, can it?
By the time I rejoin you, I'll have spent several hours listening to the Hudson flow gently by my park bench, and with a little bit of luck my keel will be somewhat more even. I'll miss you—I've really enjoyed posting lately, even when I was at my most driven—but I hope you'll like me better when I come back.
Have a nice week. I'll try to do the same. Take it away, OGIC!
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• My guest for the Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was an actress friend. We were both disappointed at intermission (and stayed that way in the second half), and in the process of trying to explain our unhappiness to one another, I said, “Bill Irwin is the wrong voice type for George—way too light, a tenor in a baritone part.” She immediately replied, “You're thinking like a music critic. If he was really inside the role, that wouldn't matter.” Of course I was, and of course she was right: in a straight play, there's no such thing as a “tenor” part. (Or is there? George Bernard Shaw thought in terms of voice types when writing his plays—but, then, he was a music critic.)
"The world presents itself to me, not chiefly as a complex of visual sensations, but as a complex of aural sensations," H.L. Mencken, himself a sometime music critic, once wrote. I'm far more aesthetically polydextrous (if that's a word) than he was, but my long experience as a musician did make me so sensitive to what comes in through the ear that it may well amount to a kind of bias. I know, for instance, that it has a great deal to do with the way I respond to people in my daily life. At brunch yesterday, I was seated near a woman whose voice was so harsh and grating that it interfered with my ability to enjoy my meal.
Here's something I wrote a few years ago:
I like voices. My best friend is a woman whose speaking voice sounded so engaging to me on the phone that I asked her to lunch, sight unseen. (We've been friends for seven years now, so I must have been on to something.) Not surprisingly, I also like singers of all kinds, from cool Swedish mezzo-sopranos who specialize in nineteenth-century German lieder to rumbling bassos from Texas who wear white Stetsons and sing sardonic ditties with titles like "My Wife Thinks You're Dead." I once wrote a profile of a jazz singer in which I described her voice as sounding like "wild honey with a spoonful of Scotch," and it was probably the happiest moment of my professional life when I showed up at a nightclub to hear her sing and saw those words printed on a poster hanging outside.
The singers in question were Anne Sofie von Otter, Junior Brown, and Diana Krall, but can you guess who the woman on the phone was? Our Girl in Chicago, of course.
• Everybody I know seems to be in a reading group these days. Just to be different, I've joined a three-member movie group. Member No. 1 is a young writer who hasn't seen many movies and wants to find out what she's been missing. Member No. 2 is my punctual friend, who loves movies but hasn't seen many black-and-white ones and wants to find out what she's been missing. Accordingly, we gathered in the Teachout Museum (i.e., my living room) on Sunday evening, ordered pizza, and watched, at my suggestion, Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place. It was a hit, though both my guests were startled—and rightly so—at how frightening Humphrey Bogart was. That kind of self-lacerating, unsparing anger isn't something you expect to see out of a Hollywood star circa 1950, especially one who had established himself as a romantic lead. No wonder the film didn't do well then, and no wonder it's so greatly admired now.
Next month, Grand Illusion....
TT: Eternally obsolete
Six years ago I wrote an essay for The Wall Street Journal called “Tolstoy’s Contraption” (it’s in the Teachout Reader) in which I suggested that theater and the novel were “obsolete artistic technologies.” This must be the most misunderstood piece I’ve ever written—Saul Bellow definitely misunderstood it—which most likely means that I failed to make myself clear.
Here are the operative paragraphs:
It’s no secret that the power of novels to shape the national conversation has declined precipitously since the days when J.D. Salinger and Norman Mailer were household names…
For Americans under the age of thirty, film has largely replaced the novel as the dominant mode of artistic expression, just as the compact disc has become the “successor technology” to the phonograph record. No novel by any Gen-X author has achieved a fraction of the cultural currency of, say, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Movies like this are to today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings what The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road were to the baby boomers….
We are not accustomed to thinking of art forms as technologies, but that is what they are—which means they can be rendered moribund by new technological developments, in the way that silent films gave way to talkies and radio to TV. Well into the eighteenth century, for example, most of the West’s great storytellers wrote plays, not novels. But the development of modern printing techniques made it feasible for books to be sold at lower prices, allowing storytellers to reach large numbers of readers individually; they then turned to writing novels, and by the twentieth century the theatrical play had come to be widely regarded as a cultural backwater. To be sure, important plays continue to be written and produced, but few watch them (unless they are made into movies).
Four years later, I became the Journal’s drama critic, which doubtless struck a great many people as condign punishment for publishing so grave a heresy. But it never occurred to me when I wrote “Tolstoy’s Contraption” that anyone would ignore that last sentence. My point wasn’t that plays were no longer worth writing, or that all new plays were bad: it was that in a mass culture, live theater is not a major player in the cultural conversation, simply by virtue of the fact that comparatively few people see it. To write a play is not an efficient way of attracting the attention of very large numbers of people, and the novel (by which I mean serious literary fiction, not The Da Vinci Code), it seems to me, is headed in the same direction.
Is that bad? Only if you’re the sort of “artist” who treats your art as an instrumentality, a means of accomplishing something exterior to art and its true purposes. If you write plays (or serious novels) in order to advance a cause (or to make a lot of money), you’re probably wasting your time. If, on the other hand, your interest is in art for its own soul-illuminating sake, you’re in the right business. Merely because very large numbers of people don’t go to the theater doesn’t mean that plays aren’t worth writing and producing. Quite the contrary, it means that those of us who love theater—and I love it passionately—are thereby freed to concentrate on its unique properties, undistracted by secondary considerations.
All this came to my mind in the course of a recent rereading of David Thomson’s Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. Most people think of Welles as a filmmaker, but he started out on the stage, and I suspect he would done better to stay there. To be sure, we would have been deprived of Citizen Kane, but as wonderful as Kane is, I can think of far worse fates. Thomson understands this, as the following imaginary dialogue shows:
[T]he movies—if I may say so—their beauty is too available.
There was a time of my life, the 1970s, when I regularly taught Citizen Kane, going through it in a class, in detail, looking at the film over and over again. I probably saw it ten times a year.
I wearied of it. I had to stop seeing it. It became only its tricks, do you understand? It lost its life. Welles felt the same, I think. Consider how many times he saw every detail in the editing, how he labored over its grace. He reached a point where he could not see it ever again. It made him feel…futile, cynical even, empty. Films can do that.
But a play.
Ah yes. I think nearly every day of plays I’ve seen, or even plays I directed. Nothing remains of them. Or much of them. I have Sondheim’s Into the Woods on video in a filmed performance. And I like to see that. But it does not match what I felt that Sunday matinee at the Martin Beck Theatre—the marvel and danger of it, the cries of the audience, the passion of being there….
The passion of being there. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? That’s the one thing theater can do for you that film will never be able to do (or the novel, for that matter). It puts you in the same room, the same space, with the experience you’re having, and it requires you to make a pilgrimage to that given space at an appointed time in order to have the experience. It expects more of you. Such an experience is qualitatively different in effect from anything the mass media, ubiquitous as they are, can possibly offer. It is also, by definition, an experience available only to a limited number of people—a self-selected elite.
All of us now living have grown up with the mass media, whose effect on art has been at once to democratize it and to distort the values of many artists. I’m for democratizing the arts—or, rather, democratizing access to the arts. I believe devoutly that far more people are capable of appreciating serious art than are currently experiencing it. I don’t believe, however, that everyone is capable of appreciating it, nor do I think that a work of art is in any sense better because it is being experienced by a larger number of people. Ubiquity is not the same thing as importance, and those who hanker after the former are unlikely to achieve the latter.
Artists (and arts administrators) who were temporarily fooled into converting to the twin gospels of more-is-better and bigger-is-better are now starting to see how grossly they were misled by the mass-media promise of infinite plenty. It occurs to me that the conditions under which today’s artists grew up will someday be seen as a prolonged aberration from the historical norm, one that is now being corrected with a vengeance. I doubt, to take just one example, that every good-sized city in America is prepared to support a full-time resident professional symphony orchestra, much less an orchestra and an opera company and a theater company and a ballet company and a museum. This sad but inescapable fact explains why so many regional orchestras are now devoting most of their time to accompanying pop singers, and why so many regional museums feel obliged to fill their galleries with imported blockbuster shows from elsewhere. The balloon has burst.
One piece of good news is that arts journalism is being transformed before our eyes by the rise of Web-based new media—and just in the nick of time. The old mass media were and are zero-sum operations, as advocates of literary fiction have been discovering to their dismay in recent years. Allocate more space (or air time) to one topic and you have that much less space available for all other topics: novels compete with memoirs, classical music with jazz, theater with film, indie flicks with special-effects extravaganzas. Now that most of us live in one-newspaper towns, and now that newspapers themselves are struggling for survival, that’s turned into an iron law.
The Web is different: it permits you to publish a “newspaper” or “magazine” of your very own without having to pay for ink, paper, bricks, and mortar—much less a graduate degree in journalism. What it doesn’t guarantee, however, is that such “newspapers” will ever be read by millions of people, or that their publishers will be able to give up their day jobs. Artblogging will never be a true mass medium because serious art doesn’t appeal to a mass audience. And what’s wrong with that? Bigger isn’t better, and the world doesn’t owe artists a living, much less critics and editors. As I wrote in this space last year in response to an e-mail from an aspiring screenwriter:
As we city folk have a tendency to forget, America is a big country, and the smart people don’t all live in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles. In fact, most of them don’t. From my art-oriented point of view, the most valuable thing about the new media is their ability to distribute high culture (a phrase I don’t define narrowly, by the way) to smart people who don’t live in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, I hasten to remind my correspondent that those who want to make serious art must take it for granted that they won’t make serious money doing so. If that’s what you’re in it for, don’t even think about writing indie screenplays or literary novels or symphonies—go work for Donald Trump. Making art is its own reward, or ought to be. George Balanchine…was once asked why the members of New York City Ballet’s pit orchestra were paid less than New York City’s garbagemen. His answer? "Because garbage stinks."
Which brings us back to the alleged obsolescence of live theater. Of course it isn’t obsolete, not in any way that really matters, any more than paint on a canvas or words on a page are obsolete. It’s simply reverted to its normal place in the natural order of things—and that’s good. One of the best shows I’ve seen this season, Sides: The Fear Is Real, is performed by six unknown actors in a shoebox-sized theater. It couldn’t have been a bit better if it had been performed on TV for an audience of millions. Of course I’d like for more people to see it. That’s why I gave it a good review in The Wall Street Journal, as well as on this blog. Nevertheless, that wouldn’t make it better. (It might even make it worse, considering what you have to do in order to get a show on TV.)
Art isn’t religion, but it has something important in common with religion: it’s a form of soulcraft. Souls can only be changed one by one, and each one is as supremely important as the next. Hence there are no small audiences, only small-souled artists. Blessed are the arts that can be experienced by a mere handful of people at a time, for theirs is the kingdom of beauty at its most intense and precious. Orson Welles might not have made Citizen Kane if he’d remembered that, but he probably would have been a happier man—and a better artist.
Sunday, April 17, 2005
"[Kenneth] Tynan is a brilliant but rather odious young fellow, who is good when he is enthusiastic, but cheap and personal when he dislikes anyone's work (he hates mine). I said once 'Tynan is very good to read as long as it isn't you' but he is shrewd and readable all the same, only lacking in any respect for the tradition and of course he has seen nothing earlier than 1946! And he thinks theatre must be propaganda of some sort, and if it is merely entertainment (even if it includes it being art) it is not worth anything at all, which seems very boring to me."
Sir John Gielgud, letter to Stark Young (Sept. 15, 1958)
Saturday, April 24, 2004
OGIC: Fortune cookie
“He had thought Shiloh haunted, its beauty sinister like flags.
“Now, drifting between memory and narcotic sleep, he saw that Shiloh was not sinister; it was indifferent. Beautiful Shiloh could witness anything. Its unforgivable beauty simply underscored the indifference of nature, the Green Machine. The loveliness of Shiloh mocked our plight.”
Thomas Harris, Red Dragon
Friday, April 23, 2004
"I’d never say that the works I love most are necessarily the best."
Gustav Holst (quoted in Clifford Bax, Ideas and People)
TT: Enough already
I'm taking Saturday off, unless my resolve wavers. I have a piece to write and a play to see (A Raisin in the Sun, natch), and I think I've written enough for one week.
Our Girl may have something up her sleeve, but if not, I'll see you Sunday.
I see in this morning's Wall Street Journal that I made a small but exasperating mistake in my review of Assassins, in which I refer to "sketches of eight successful and would-be presidential assassins." As the photograph accompanying the review makes embarrassingly clear, there are nine assassins in Assassins. In fact, I meant "eight sketches," not "sketches of eight": Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who both tried to kill Gerald Ford, are portrayed in the same sketch.
So far, I haven't gotten any calls or e-mail pointing out this slip, but I'm sure they're coming. Arrgh. Gnashing of teeth.
TT: More adventures of an author
The UPS man brought me a couple of boxes’ worth of hardcover copies of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, and I knew that the inevitable moment had come at last: my book has been remaindered. I can’t complain, really, since The Skeptic stayed in print for a year and a half, got terrific reviews, and is now available in a handsome-looking trade paperback. Still, you can’t help but feel a twinge of dismay when you open the form letter from your publisher advising you that your beloved baby will soon be piled high on the discount tables, there to be sold for humiliatingly low prices. No matter how good a run you had—and I had a better one than I ever dared to hope—the party always ends.
Fortunately, I have A Terry Teachout Reader to distract me, and I also plan to find solace in schadenfreude. I linked a few months ago to a cruelly funny poem
by Clive James called "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered." Now that I have been delivered into the company of mine enemies, I shall take comfort in the concluding stanza:
Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error—
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.
So there. And should you drop by my place to see the Teachout Museum, be sure to ask for an inscribed copy. I've got plenty.
"Capri is as charming as ever it was, the people as odd: everybody is very immoral, but fortunately not so dull as those who kick over the traces often are."
W. Somerset Maugham, letter to Violet Hunt (c. 1905)
Much to my surprise, I took Thursday off. I’m not good at that—I usually find a way to sneak back into harness—but outside of e-mail and a bit of blogging, I didn’t write a word all day, nor did I read a book, watch a DVD, or listen to a CD for purposes of review. Instead, I surfed the Web idly, observed the effects of April sunshine on the Teachout Museum, thought some pleasingly inappropriate thoughts about a couple of interesting people, took a nap, ate two good meals, and made a few schedule-related phone calls.
• Somewhere in there I reread Jeffrey Meyers’ Somerset Maugham: A Life preparatory to disposing of it permanently. Meyers is the very model of a professional biographer, alas: earnest, industrious, pedestrian, with a prose style that runs to the slapdash. I actually giggled to see that in the third sentence of the preface, he rendered his subject’s middle name as "Somersault," though I simultaneously shuddered to think that so horrendous a mistake should have found its way into a book published by Knopf. If I’d made a mistake like that…but, then, Our Girl gently informed me yesterday that she'd found a teeny-tiny typo in A Terry Teachout Reader. These things happen!
• In addition, I tasted Jack Teagarden: Father of Jazz Trombone, an exemplary three-CD anthology of Teagarden’s 78 recordings which has just been released. Said Louis Armstrong: "I think Jack Teagarden moves me more than any musician I know of." Not only that, he sang as well as he played, as you can hear for yourself by going here, scrolling down to "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," and clicking on the link.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better get some work done.
Thursday, April 22, 2004
TT: Shots in the dark
I’m in The Wall Street Journal today, reviewing two Roundabout Theatre Company shows, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel.
About Assassins, which tries to make sense of the lives of eight people who killed or tried to kill American presidents, I had mixed feelings. The production is all but perfect, but the show itself, despite marvelous moments, simply doesn’t add up. Assassins, I wrote,
takes the form of a carnival sideshow whose brass-voiced barker (Marc Kudisch) invites unhappy passers-by to forget their troubles by stepping right up and taking a potshot at the man in the Oval Office: "No job? Cupboard bare?/One room, no one there?/Hey, pal, don’t despair—/You wanna shoot a president?" That’s the message of "Assassins," such as it is: if only there were ice cream for everyone, Camelot would still be with us! Instead, we preach the American dream, and some of those born losers who find it hollow seek to even the score with a gun: "And all you have to do/Is/Squeeze your little finger./Ease your little finger back—/You can change the world."
Aside from being sophomoric, this rigidly reductive thesis clashes with the core of "Assassins," a series of sharply drawn sketches of eight successful and would-be presidential assassins. Not surprisingly, this is the part of the show where Mr. Sondheim finds his footing, since his other musicals are exclusively concerned not with ideas but feelings (or the inability to feel). Not even in "Sweeney Todd," which purports to locate its antihero’s murderous rage in the dehumanizing context of 19th-century British industrialism, does he betray any real interest in or understanding of politics. For Mr. Sondheim, the political is personal, and no matter how hard he and Mr. Weidman try to persuade us that their desperate characters are meaningful symbols of mass alienation, we persist in seeing them as individual objects of pity united only in their varied forms of despair…
Intimate Apparel, on the other hand, couldn’t be better:
It’s an old-fashioned domestic tragedy, as simple and true as a silent movie, about an illiterate turn-of-the-century seamstress who falls hard for the wrong man. Uncomplicatedly staged by Daniel Sullivan on a beautifully spare set designed by Derek McLane, "Intimate Apparel" is devoid of surprise save for the fact that it’s so good. As for Viola Davis, who leads the superlative cast, she’s not just good—she’s perfect. Rarely have I seen innocence and yearning blended to such precisely balanced effect. The only thing wrong with Ms. Davis is that the script says she’s supposed to be homely, which she isn’t (though she acts homely)….
No link, so step right up, hand over one silver dollar, turn to the "Weekend Journal" section, and read the whole thing there.
TT: Gladder to be happy
A reader writes, quoting the last sentence of "Fiddlers Three," my recent Commentary essay on Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Louis Kaufman:
In the realm of art, all things being equal, most people find unhappiness more interesting than joy.
Great insight. But why do you think this is? Is it
something particular to particular cultures, or more
or less universal in art? And putting "interestingness" aside, what about other characteristics—don't most people somehow also find unhappiness in art more profound or meaningful or important, etc., than happiness?
These are challenging questions for which I don’t have any ready answers. I do think, however, that under the aspect of modernism, we’re taught to distrust happiness, at least as represented in art (and probably also in life as well). I myself don’t feel this way, which is why I gravitate to a great many artists whose view of the world is essentially sunny. On the other hand, that doesn’t stop me from embracing the dark side of art, so long as it isn’t ponderously dark. Even darkness can be "light," like The Great Gatsby, Mozart in a minor key, or Bonnard at his most obsessive.
I said on Studio 360 the other day that bad reviews are easier to write than good ones, and I wonder whether this might have something to do with the comparative "interestingness" of unhappiness. If you’re really, truly happy, it tends to render you inarticulate, which is why happiness is most easily conveyed in the lyric arts: music, ballet, painting, poetry. The characters in a novel or play, conversely, can start out and even end up happy, but if they don’t become unhappy at some point along the way, the audience will fall asleep. In much the same way, it’s harder (though not impossible!) for me to describe in words what it’s like to experience a wholly satisfying work of art. At least for a time, analysis is pointless—what I want to do is sit there and feel. Only in retrospect am I able to think clearly about why a good play was so good, whereas I start honing the scalpel as soon as the curtain comes down on a bad one.
Needless to say, I’d rather go to good plays than bad ones, just as I’d rather be happy than unhappy—and maybe that explains why I’m a critic instead of a creator. I’ve been desperately unhappy on many occasions in my life, but never did it occur to me that I might profit from my misery, much less write a sonata about it. All I wanted was for it to stop.
This reminds me that Supermaud and I were exchanging e-mails earlier today about the glorious weather in New York. Surely, I said, it was impossible to be too unhappy on a golden day like this, to which she replied that she thought the Romantic poets might have been right about spring. For some reason this reminded me of what Jeeves says somewhere about Nietzsche, whom he regarded as "fundamentally unsound." I think he probably would have said much the same thing about Keats and Shelley—but when it came to spring, he might have given them a pass. Me, too.
TT: Written in the stars
A friend of mine e-mailed me her horoscope for today, gleaned from the Village Voice's Web site:
You have two options, Virgo. The contrast between them reminds me of the difference between Norah Jones and Ani DiFranco. Jones's work is "tasteful and listenable," said The New York Times, though "nothing much happens in her songs." Shakingthrough.net wrote that though Jones can be maudlin and subdued, she creates "a winning collection of polished (albeit innocuous) gems." About DiFranco, the Times noted that "it's worth putting up with a few overbearing moments to hear someone so willing to take chances." Billboard said DiFranco's latest CD is "raw—for better (the immediacy of the performance) and worse (traces of off-key harmonies)." So which way will you go: bland and classy like Jones, or rough and stimulating like DiFranco?
Here's the funny part: my friend happens to be a jazz singer. Her response: "I have a lot more options than just these two!" I should damned well think so....
TT: Halfway round the world
Right at this moment, "About Last Night" is being read in twelve different time zones.
Hello out there! Tell your friends about us....
"Evil comes to us men of imagination wearing as its mask all the virtues."
W.B. Yeats, Dramatis Personae
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
I have all of Thursday off, glory be, so I’ll endeavor to do some juicy blogging later in the day. Meanwhile, here’s what I consumed on Wednesday:
• I saw a press preview of the Royal National Theatre’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, which opens in New York on April 25. I’ll be reviewing it in next Friday’s Wall Street Journal.
• In addition, I looked at extended chunks of a couple of old movies after returning home from the police station and washing my hands (how's that for a teaser?). One was My Darling Clementine, John Ford’s version of what happened at the O.K. Corral, the only one of his major Westerns I hadn’t seen. Factual it isn’t (the only Wyatt Earp film that remotely approximates the truth about the Earp family is Tombstone), but it has a quietly elegiac quality that I found impossible to resist. Not only is each black-and-white scene composed with a painter’s eye, but Henry Fonda’s performance as Wyatt Earp is remarkably moving—Tom Joad without the corn—and Victor "Beefcake" Mature is unexpectedly good as Doc Holliday.
I also watched part of a new restoration of Sam Wood’s 1940 film of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which includes several members of the original Broadway cast (including Frank Craven as the Stage Manager), plus a score by Aaron Copland that’s comparable in quality to Appalachian Spring. If you’ve never seen it, do, though I suggest you record it off Turner Classic Movies rather than buying any of the currently available DVD versions, all of which appear to be from crappy-looking prints.
• Now playing on iTunes: Pierre Bernac’s 78 recording of Francis Poulenc’s C., with Poulenc at the piano (hopelessly out of print, I fear). I’m in that kind of mood—what my Brazilian friends call saudade. Maybe it’ll lift after a good night’s sleep.
TT: Adventures of an author
The cleaning lady chased me out of my office this morning, so I decided to get cracking on some chores I'd shoved under the desk. I retired to the back table of Good Enough to Eat, where I ordered waffles and started filling out an inch-thick application (don't ask) that required me to answer all sorts of questions whose answers I couldn't recall off the top of my head (in what month did I move to the apartment where I was living seven years ago?).
Temporarily stymied by the long arm of bureaucracy, I finished my breakfast and strolled over to the neighborhood Barnes & Noble to see whether A Terry Teachout Reader was on sale yet. It wasn't in New Non-Fiction, so I climbed the stairs to the arts section in search of something to read. There I found three copies of the Teachout Reader shelved under Jazz/Blues, meaning that no one at Barnes & Noble had bothered to look at the contents of my book. Only a year ago, I was basking in the red-carpet treatment at that very same store, including an evening reading and deluxe placement for The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. Now I'm relegated to Jazz/Blues (though at least I got what booksellers call "face-out" placement, meaning that the front of the dust jacket is visible). As Robert Mitchum says in The Lusty Men, "Chicken today, feathers tomorrow."
From there I went to the police station to get myself fingerprinted (I told you it was a long form). I'd never before set foot inside a New York police station, and this one proved to be an oasis of dingy, demoralizing grayness in the middle of a cheery Upper West Side neighborhood. I put myself in the hands of a policeman who reminded me of the chauffeur in My Favorite Year, except that he was the most blasé person I've met in my entire life. As he went to work on my left hand ("Hey, you have great prints!" he assured me, allowing himself an unexpected surge of enthusiasm), it suddenly occurred to me that I was wearing a canary-yellow shirt and that the slightest false move on my part would smear fingerprint ink all over my midriff.
When we were done, the policeman gave me a handful of Fingerprint Ink Removal Towelettes and a useful piece of advice: "You really have to work it to get this stuff off, but it's just ink. When you go home, try some dishwashing liquid. That works pretty good." I struggled with the towelettes for five minutes, said the hell with it, and went home to the kitchen sink. One minute's worth of vigorous massage with Joy and my fingers were as good as new. Not only that, I managed not to get any ink on my shirt. Now all I have to do is finish filling out that endless form and go see Jumpers on Broadway tonight, and I can call it a day.
UPDATE: Later at lunch, this Chandlerian metaphor came to me: The precinct house was as gray as an old dishtowel.
"Marriage excuses no one the freaks’ roll-call."
Joe Orton, What the Butler Saw
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Another dark night, thank God, since I’m covering three plays this coming week, starting with the Broadway revival of Jumpers, from which I should be returning in 24 hours or so. Even so, it was a sufficiently busy day—I wrote this Friday’s Wall Street Journal drama column, among other things—and I’m still run down from finishing the Balanchine book. As a result, I (A) didn’t consume much art yesterday and (B) don’t have much pre-bedtime steam tonight. So I’ll be brief, hoping that Our Girl will take up some of the slack:
• I read part of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff over lunch and am about to take it to bed with me. I hadn’t looked into it for a number of years, and was happy to see how well it holds up.
• Now playing on iTunes: an advance copy of the Trio Solisti’s recording of Paul Moravec’s Mood Swings, out this fall from Arabesque Records. The word "great" is commonly misused by critics of my generation (though we deserve some credit for knowing there’s such a thing as greatness), but I have no doubt whatsoever that it applies to this piece. I’d stake my reputation on it. Which reminds me of a favorite saying of an actor whose name escapes me: "You bet your life, fella…and you may have to."
That’s about all I’m good for. See you tomorrow.
TT: As others see us (if we're jerks)
From Edward N. Meyer’s Giant Strides: The Legacy of Dick Wellstood, here’s a list drawn up by Wellstood of the kinds of people who came to hear him play jazz piano at Hanratty’s, the New York saloon where he appeared in the Eighties:
1. The drunken girl who sits on the piano and nuzzles while the boyfriend watches. She plays at you or, as one did once, on the backs of my hands.
2. The singers, about whom the less said the better. It’s always worse after Cardiff has won.
3. They who like it and talk about it at length so that I can’t play.
4. The ones who mumble inaudibly and expect an answer.
5. The shouters from the back of the room.
6. The glowerers who say nothing.
7. The experts, who, after I have just made a success of a Jelly Roll Morton stomp, request a Cy Coleman song with a meaningful glare and a nasty edge to their voice.
8. The critics, who buttonhole me during the intermission and talk of (1) Tony Jackson, J. Russell Robinson, and Cripple Clarence (if I’ve played too modern); or (2) McCoy Tyner, Albert Dailey, and Harold Mabern (if they think I’ve been hopelessly old-fashioned).
9. The know it alls: You’re wonderful, surely you compose—what?
10. The Hotel Carlisle executive types: Must you play like THAT?!!
11. The out & out hostile types: You Stunk.
12. The mistaken nitwit, who chides me for having played "Dark Eyes" badly, when in fact what I played was "Bourbon Street."
13. The out of place, who wants to sing Irish songs in a room full of jazz lovers and vice versa.
14. The jury: silent, attentive, well versed, determined. It’s important.
15. The jazz lover, who finds shreds of people you never heard of in your playing.
16. The groupie, who just saw Cecil Taylor and knew Peck Kelley well.
17. The total nerds, who compliment me ad infinitum and then ask for the River Seine or the Warsaw Concerto.
If you want to know what manner of music this darkly sardonic wit played when he wasn’t exasperated, get a copy of The Classic Jazz Quartet: Complete Recordings, on which Wellstood figures prominently and beautifully. It’s one of my all-time favorite albums…and not even slightly angry.
"He had sensed that in educated America, humor was the number 1 language, for criticism, passion, even cooking: and he set about learning it with grim intelligence."
Wilfrid Sheed, Max Jamison
Monday, April 19, 2004
• No show Monday. In addition, I spent most of the afternoon and evening playing catch-up—answering accumulated e-mail, working on my calendar, running long-deferred errands—and thus wasn’t able to spend much time consuming art. Fortunately, I did have time to start watching John Huston’s The Misfits, which I’d never seen, and I liked the first half-hour a lot better than I’d expected. (I normally can’t stand Arthur Miller, but his dialogue sounds rather more plausible when spoken by Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.) More as it happens.
UPDATE: It got awful, alas.
• I read most of Sam Staggs’ Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream over lunch and while waiting for an appointment. Alas, it’s too campy and not nearly as detailed as Aljean Harmetz’s Round Up the Usual Suspects, but I liked it well enough.
• Now playing on iTunes: Teddy Wilson’s "Jungle Love," featuring Bobby Hackett on cornet and Johnny Hodges on alto sax, available on this two-CD set of great Wilson sides from the Thirties and Forties. Talk about suave! Fred Astaire would have approved.
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"I like all your new poems so much, you seem to me to be writing nothing but good poems, something theoretically and practically impossible. I ought to explain my rather funny and personal remark about your sestinas: I like your poetry better than anybody's since the Frost-Stevens-Eliot-Moore generation, so I looked with awed wonder at some phrases feeling to me a little like some of my phrases, in your poems; I felt as if, so to speak, some of my wash-cloths were part of a Modigliani collage, or as if my cat had got into a Vuillard."
Randall Jarrell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, February 1957
OGIC: Bishop's bull market
I'm a little late to this party, as to most things. Everybody has been linking to Dana Gioia's excellent piece on Elizabeth Bishop in the New Criterion, but there hasn't been much said about the larger questions raised by the essay. Bishop was Gioia's teacher, and so there's a nice personal angle, but what he's really interested in are the different forces that act on literary reputations, propelling some upward and sinking others. Bishop turns out to be a great case study, having steadily ascended in stature since her death in 1979. It's pretty surprising, at least for a younger reader, to realize how little this ascendance seemed to be in the cards during Bishop's lifetime:
If Bishop's present apotheosis was preordained by Fate, no one told us thirty years ago. At Harvard in 1975 when I studied with Bishop and often spent afternoons chatting with her in a Cambridge teashop, she was a respected elder poet but no literary celebrity. Her seminar on modern American poetry, which I took, had only four other students—a reliable sign of her literary market value in fashion-conscious Cambridge. If John Ashbery exaggerated a few years later when he called Bishop a "writer's writer's writer," it wasn't much of an exaggeration.
So how did Bishop crack the canon so decisively? Gioia points to factors both extrinsic and intrinsic to her work. On one hand, Bishop's reputation benefited from growing academic interest in women's writing and gender criticism in the years following her death. On the other, Gioia argues, the poetry itself does the trick: not only its excellence, a (sometimes) necessary but never sufficient condition for canonicity, but another quality, unfashionable to talk about:
There is something essentially disinterested and noncommittal about Bishop's sensibility that is central to her broad appeal. More than any major American poet of her generation she possessed what John Keats celebrated as "negative capability," the imaginative power "of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." She had a native genius for reflecting the rich complexity of experience without reducing it into abstraction or predetermined moral judgment. She is inclusive by being artfully inconclusive. This quality of her work is not always evident when we read it casually, but once we teach her poems or analyze them seriously, this aspect is hard to ignore. There was once a term commonly used to describe this sort of meaningful ambiguity and openness to diverse kinds of interpretation: universality. Much derided and oddly misconstrued by critical theorists in recent decades, universality remains an inescapable literary notion. The term does not describe literary works that have fixed and identical appeal to all audiences everywhere; rather, universality refers to works that have a remarkable ability to engage very different audiences often in notably different ways.
I know what he means about teaching Bishop. I once taught some of her poems to a freshman humanities class, populated largely by students who had no notion of becoming humanities majors but were there to fulfill a requirement. These budding economists and biologists really perked up reading Bishop, and turned out what was collectively the best group of papers produced in the course.
In a post today on other matters, Erin O'Connor at Critical Mass discusses the related subject of accessibility in academic literary studies. Insofar as the accessibility of literary criticism and the universality of literary works are related, perhaps the misconstrual of the latter that Gioia points to is not so much "odd" as entirely predictable:
Literary scholars' collective hostility toward technology, especially as it expresses membership in a self-described cultural elite and a discipline-specific condescension to those outside it with pretenses to know or understand literature and culture, is closely connected to a deep suspicion of accessibility. Holbo is right that literary studies is one discipline that should be aiming at a wide audience and whose health may be measured in terms of its ability to connect with a public that is larger than its overspecialized self. He is right, too, that one sign of the systemic disorder of literature departments today is that their members are positively hostile to the idea that their relevance may and should be assessed by—horror of horrors—uncredentialed laypersons, the great nonacademic unwashed.
O'Connor's comments come in response to John Holbo's interesting reflections on academic blogging and non-academic literary blogging at Crooked Timber. Nathalie has additional thoughts here.
TT: Mr. Waller, annotated
Fats Waller, after Louis Armstrong the most life-enhancing jazz musician ever to make recordings, is never very far from my iTunes player. Needing a pre-bedtime boost of spirits, I clicked on "It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie," one of his celebrated deconstructions of insipid Thirties pop tunes, and began smiling from the first bar onward. It starts with a get-the-hell-out-of-my-way introduction, immediately succeeded by a jaunty chorus of solo piano in which Waller’s infallible left hand bounces up and down the keys like a fat man on a pogo stick.
There follows a quintessentially Wallerian vocal that goes something like this, sort of:
Be sure it’s true when you say "I love you."
It’s a sin to tell a lie-uhhllllrrrry!
[unctuously] Millions of hearts have been broken, yes, yes,
Just because these words were spoken. (You know the words that were spoken? Here it is.)
[simperingly] I love you I love you I love you [in an orotund bass-baritone] I love you. [gleefully] Ha-ha-ha!
Yes, but if you break my heart, I’ll break your jaw and then I’ll die.
So be sure it’s true when you say "I love [twitteringly, in falsetto] yooooou." Ha, ha!
It’s a sin to tell a lie. Now get on out there and tell your lie. What is it?
But words fail me. Go here, scroll down, click on the link and rejoice in the real right thing.
TT: How they hangin'?
I was supposed to see two shows yesterday, Assassins in the afternoon and a workshop performance featuring a friend that night, but I read the invitation to the second show wrong and thought the curtain was at eight o'clock instead of five. Fortunately, I noticed my mistake at seven, just as I was getting ready to shut up shop, go downstairs, and catch a cab. Instead of making a pointless trip to the theater district, I found myself with an unplanned night off, and decided to spend part of it rehanging some of my prints.
It happens that I've just acquired a new piece for the Teachout Museum, a copy of Fairfield Porter's Broadway, the 1971 color lithograph I chose at your recommendation to adorn the dust jacket of A Terry Teachout Reader. (I bought it here, in case you're looking to make a purchase from a very nice, very reliable Chicago-area dealer.) It hasn't arrived yet, but I'll have to shift some other pieces around when it does, so I opted to do a bit of preparatory puttering. Since I'm going to hang Broadway over the mantelpiece, the place of honor, I moved the Wolf Kahn monotype that currently occupies that space to a spot over the living-room closet. That's where I'd hung my copy of William Bailey's aquatint Piazza Rotunda, not very happily, so I took down the Porter poster that hangs over the door to my office and put Piazza Rotunda there.
No doubt all this sounds boring, perhaps even precious, but hanging the art you own is an inescapable part of owning it, and it's surprising—astonishing, really—how completely the look and feel of my living room have been altered simply by switching a couple of prints. It makes the prints look different, too, not just the ones I moved but all the others that hang around them. Best of all, I can now see Piazza Rotunda from my love seat, the spot where I normally sit when I'm alone, and I find my refreshed eye going to it constantly. Alas, I must make a special "trip" to the other side of the room to look at the Kahn, but it's the first thing you see when you open the front door, and since most of my guests like it best of all my prints, it'll be as if I'd given them a present.
As for the Porter poster, a handsome reproduction of Lizzie at the Table used to publicize the Whitney Museum's 1984 Porter retrospective, it's going on permanent loan to a neighbor who recently had a baby (a thoroughly appropriate gift, too, since the "Lizzie" of the painting was Porter's own baby daughter). Meanwhile, there's a big empty space over my mantelpiece, waiting patiently to be filled by Broadway, which is not only beautiful in its own right but also a visible symbol of my proudest professional achievement to date, the Teachout Reader.
Anyway, that's how I spent my Sunday evening. I hope you had half as much fun.
His only weakness is a lust for power—
And that is not a weakness, people think,
When unaccompanied by bribes or drink.
Sir John Betjeman, "The Town Clerk’s Views"
• On Sunday afternoon I went to see the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, which opens this week at Studio 54 (and which I’ll be reviewing in Friday’s Wall Street Journal).
• I’ve been watching Gone With the Wind in installments over the past few days. I’d only seen it twice before, both times in the theater (first in the Seventies, then in the Nineties), and not since I finally got around to reading the book, which impressed me rather more than I expected. As I wrote a few years ago:
"No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures," said Dr. Johnson, right as always. As proof of his point, I offer in evidence Gone With the Wind. Never has a middlebrow bodice-ripper been more widely reviled by highbrow critics, yet ordinary folks continue to buy it, read it, and like it, no matter how often they’re told they shouldn’t do any of the above….
Gone With the Wind, on the other hand, will keep on being read and relished by the common readers with whom Dr. Johnson rejoiced to concur, for the very good reason that it’s a pretty good novel, not to mention a rather surprising one. Over and above the pure pull of plot, it has some unexpectedly shrewd things to say about the vanity of the Glorious Cause (most of which didn’t make it into the movie). Ashley Wilkes’ anguished letter to his wife Melanie is a case in point: "I see too clearly that we have been betrayed, betrayed by our arrogant Southern selves…by words and catch phrases, prejudices and hatreds coming from the mouths of those highly placed, those men whom we respected and revered—‘King Cotton, Slavery, States’ Rights, Damn Yankees.’"
Moreover, Gone with the Wind is peopled with characters whose inconsistencies make them interesting, none more so than Scarlett O’Hara, an unattractive, inexplicably seductive anti-heroine whom Trollope himself might well have been pleased to dream up on an especially good day….
Alas, the movie doesn’t hold up nearly so well, save as a sort of apotheosis of Technicolor. The only other costume piece I can think of that uses Technicolor as vividly is John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Clark Gable and Hattie McDaniel are excellent, Max Steiner’s score is wonderful in its old-fashioned way, and the siege and burning of Atlanta are fully as effective—and unexpectedly unsentimental—as I remember them. But Vivien Leigh’s two-keyed performance as Scarlett is wearying, while the script scissors out most of the novel’s ambiguities, such as they are.
Coming as I do from a small town in the southern half of a border state, one that saw a lynching as late as 1942 and segregated schools well into the Sixties, I’ve never had much patience with those who romanticize the antebellum South, and especially now that I’ve read Margaret Mitchell’s novel, my guess is that this is the last time I’ll ever care to see the film. Sentimental period pieces only work when they evoke periods in which one might want to have lived, however briefly. I can’t think of anything more repellent than living in a land whose gentility was bought and paid for with the flesh of men.
• Inspired by the Reflections in D Minor posting to which I linked yesterday, I ripped my CD version of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Ninth Symphony, to which I hadn’t listened in a number of years. I really need to "do" Arnold in depth and write a Commentary essay about him. Maybe this fall….
Sunday, April 18, 2004
TT: Mmm, schadenfreude!
From the April 6 Valley News of Lebanon, New Hampshire, a story headlined "Professor Dumped by Dartmouth Receives Music Pulitzer":
NEW YORK—A musical work by a former Dartmouth College professor and stories of oppression both home and abroad were rewarded with Pulitzer Prizes yesterday.
The award for music went to Tempest Fantasy by Paul Moravec, who has created more than 80 other compositions. He currently heads the music department at Adelphi University on Long Island, N.Y. Moravec taught at Dartmouth from 1987 to 1995, first as an assistant professor and then as an associate. He was denied tenure at Dartmouth in 1995.
Moravec, who was in Sicily yesterday, told the Valley News by telephone that the Pulitzer was, in part, "vindication" for his rejection by Dartmouth....
Revenge—the gift that keeps on giving.
TT: Absolutely one more time only
Once more with feeling: if you live in or near New York City, you can listen to a repeat broadcast of my Studio 360 interview at seven p.m. tonight night on WNYC-AM (820). In addition, Studio 360 is carried by NPR affiliates across the country. For a list of local stations and air dates, go here.
You can also download the show or listen to it via streaming audio at Studio 360's audio archive.
TT: Here, there, and elsewhere
I’ve more or less resumed my normal performance-going ways, meaning that it’s been awhile since I’ve had time to put together a link-intensive post. Sorry about that! Here are some of the things bouncing around the blogosphere that have caught my eye:
• Modern Art Notes offers wicked speculations on the effects of last week’s West Coast power failure on the Monets currently hanging at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Casino and Gallery of Fine Art Borrowed from Greedy East Coast Museums:
Among the reasons that accredited museums should not be sending their art to non-accredited spaces is the lack of climate control systems in those non-accredited spaces. Why something like this might happen: The power in the entire Bellagio complex might go out, leaving the MFA Boston's Monet's to cook in the Vegas heat. That would never happen, would it? Oh, but it has….
• Household Opera lists fourteen things she’d rather do than grade papers:
1. Clean the refrigerator.
2. Go to the nearest big grocery store, which is two or three miles away. On foot. (Actually, it's a nice energetic 45-minute hike if the weather is good and I'm in the mood for exercise, which I was yesterday. And I take the bus home, because another 45-minute hike with groceries is too much. But still.)
3. Visit my local knitting store and fondle every type of yarn in succession — though, to be fair, I do that on non-grading weekends as well….
14. If it comes down to it, chew off my right arm so I'll have an excuse for not writing any more comments.
Writers will sympathize. Especially this one.
• Critical Mass links to David Mamet’s reflections on the new London production of Oleanna:
The play's first audience was a group of undergraduates from Brown University. They came to a dress rehearsal. The play ended and I asked the folks what they thought. "Don't you think it's politically questionable," one said, "to have the girl make a false accusation of rape?"
I, in my ignorance, was stunned. I didn't realise it was my job to be politically acceptable. I'd always thought society employed me to be dramatic; further, I wondered what force had so perverted the young that they would think that increasing political enfranchisement of a group rendered a member of that group incapable of error - in effect, rendered her other-than-human....
To which Critical Mass responds:
What Mamet wasn't around to see: Brown's own real life staging of an Oleanna-esque tragedy-cum-farce just four years later….Mamet's play may not have been PC—but in telling the truth as he saw it, and in concentrating on producing powerful drama rather than on driving home a political message, Mamet managed to be quite prescient indeed about what kinds of procedural and personal horror lie latent in the seemingly innocuous question, "Don't you think it's politically questionable ... to have the girl make a false accusation of rape?"
What they said.
• Cup of Chicha raids the commonplace book she kept as a teenager, with rich rewards, followed by another posting in which she serves up some of her favorite sentences from novels.
The Man With the Almanac has his eye on you, Chicha.
• SlowLearner on gigaplexes for live theater:
I remember when George Lucas was suggesting in interviews that huge twenty-screen multi-plexes would actually be a good thing because the exhibitors would have to fill some of those screens with artier or foreign films. I thought this was a pretty stupid thing to say, as I regularly passed theaters with Gone In 60 Seconds on nine screens or whatever, but in the five years since then, at least in New York, Lucas's prediction has been coming true. They can't fill all those screens with Hollywood product, so I keep finding myself watching The Barbarian Invasions or something at the AMC 25 on 42nd Street, of all places.
I bring it up because...what if something similar, on a smaller scale, could work in regional theater. Maybe no one wants to buy complete subsription packages anymore. Maybe no one wants to leave the house to see a play by someone they've never heard of. Fine. But maybe if that unknown play was playing across the hall, or just down the stairs from where the umpteenth Dancing At Lughnasa is playing, and maybe if the crowds for each mingle a little bit after their shows...maybe a little bit of curiosity is aroused out of sheer proximity. As long as I'm here—what's the thing in the little theater about anyway?…
• …something slant discovers that Brits and Yanks don’t punctuate the same way:
I didn’t even know that the rules were different until I was in grad school, and then, well, it was too late. [In undergrad I would consult the copy of whatever novel I was writing about (Austen, Woolf, Forster, Byatt) to refresh my memory about the "proper" rules and then despaired when I got them all wrong. So much for that.] For the record the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks if you’re using US rules, outside if you’re using British. Frankly, the British rules make more sense….
• From the Detroit News, yet another installment of Calling All Line Editors, or, Columns We Never Finished Reading:
I would not normally pick up a book written by a politician whose positions I don’t necessarily ascribe to….
• Reflections in D Minor wonders why Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Ninth Symphony, composed in 1992, "is not considered one of the greatest symphonies of all time." So do I. (I also rank it with Sibelius' Fourth and Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphonies as one of the saddest symphonies of all time.)
• Instapundit wins the Alexander Pope "But Ne’er So Well Expressed" Prize for Pithiest Sentence Blogged in the Month of April:
George Washington is an icon, and like most icons, he has attracted attention mostly from iconoclasts.
• Johnny Apple has been eating hot dogs in Chicago on the New York Times’ tab:
But no place else this side of Frankfurt has a frankfurter stand every three or four blocks, as Chicago does. And no other place anywhere has a catechism of condiments as rigorously defined as Chicago's. A proper Chicago hot dog must be served on a warmed poppy-seed bun (preferably from Rosen's bakery). It must be dressed with a crisp pickle spear, a sweetish fluorescent green relish, a slice or wedge of raw tomato, some chopped onions (or very occasionally grilled onions), a dab or two of yellow mustard, a dusting of celery salt and two or three hot little green chilies, which Chicagoans for some reason always call sport peppers….
Memo to OGIC: discuss. Memo to self: I want this man's job.
• Finally, Return of the Reluctant pays a visit to Fantasy Island, inspired by a Washington Post story about "turf wars" and "low-level spats" in the blogosphere:
NEW YORK (AP): Lit blogger Edward Champion was announced as Maud Newton's bitch last night. Mr. Champion, who lost his right to blog about literature shortly after being beaten to a pulp by Ron Hogan in a backalley brawl last April, had long been targeted by the Final Three: Sarah Weinman, Jessa Crispin and Newton.
Mr. Champion's hair has been shaven off and his limbs have been replaced by QWERTY keyboards connected to Google News. Newton and her gang plan to use Mr. Champion as either a modular bookshelf or a footstool….
Don’t get your hopes up, Ed. Supermaud can rest her feet on my forehead any old time.
"I was repining at the thought of my slow progress—how few new ideas I had or picked up—when it occurred to me to think of the total of life and how the greater part was wholly absorbed in living and continuing life—victuals—procreation—rest and eternal terror. And I bid myself accept the common lot; an adequate vitality would say daily, 'God, what a good sleep I’ve had,' 'My eye, that was dinner,' 'Now for a fine rattling walk'—in short, life as an end in itself."
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., letter to Frederick Pollock,
August 21, 1919
• I looked at two gallery shows, "Jane Freilicher: Recent Work" at Tibor de Nagy (it was just as good the second time)
and "Everyday Mysteries: Modern and Contemporary Still Life" at DC Moore, which included gorgeous paintings by William Bailey, Fairfield Porter, and Jane Wilson. (Both shows close April 24.)
• I saw a new play on Friday, Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, which I’ll be reviewing in next week’s Wall Street Journal. Yesterday I finally caught up with Good Bye, Lenin!, which I loved, even though it took me by surprise—I had the mistaken notion that it would be less poignant and more broadly comic.
• I’ve been reading Aljean Harmetz’s Round Up the Usual Suspects and James Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans.
• Now playing on iTunes: David Cantor’s "Slow Boat to China" (no, it’s not the song you know, unless you’re v., v. cool), recorded by Mary Foster Conklin on Crazy Eyes.