About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, May 12, 2006
TT: Due to circumstances beyond our control
If you’ve been wondering why “About Last Night” looked a little funny today, the reason is that our server went kaplooie on Thursday night. We weren’t able to publish any of our regular Friday postings for the same reason. They’re up now, so if you missed them, scroll down and you’ll find them in the usual place.
The Broadway season is now officially over, and I’m sweeping up the debris in my Wall Street Journal drama column. This week I lower the boom on Tarzan and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial:
You guessed it: “Tarzan,” the new Disney musical, is chockful of actors who swing around the theater on artificial vines. Talk about easy calls! But, then, there aren’t many surprises in this leaden stage version of the 1999 cartoon version of the 1912 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs about a shipwrecked foundling raised by apes. The only surprising thing about “Tarzan,” in fact, is that so much of it is so tiresome….
Culprit No. 1 is Phil Collins, whose score, some of which is new and some recycled from the movie, is a plodding bore, monotonously paced and unenlightened by the faintest glimmer of wit….
Culprit No. 2 is David Henry Hwang, the author of “M. Butterfly” and a notorious purveyor of PC. His book is a seemingly unending string of ham-handed Disney-style public-service announcements for tolerance, lightly sprinkled with flat punch lines. Jane: “Tarzan’s not a gorilla, he’s a human being. Honestly, that’s not even his real family.” Daddy: “Do you know of any families that aren’t real, my dear?” I bet you didn’t know “Tarzan” was a parable about non-traditional families, did you?...
Herman Wouk’s 1953 stage adaptation of the last part of his blockbuster World War II novel is a nuts-and-bolts courtroom drama that all but plays itself—if you let it. Jerry Zaks, familiar on Broadway for his stagings of such musicals as “Little Shop of Horrors” and last year’s short-lived revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” evidently thinks otherwise, for he has directed the first act of this thoroughly grim play as if it were an episode of “Hogan’s Heroes,” pumping up the occasional moments of comic relief and encouraging the cast to resort to noisy caricature….
No link. Your alternatives remain unchanged: (1) Buy a copy of today’s Journal. (2) Subscribe to the Online Journal by going here, which will give you immediate access to the full text of my review and lots of other good stuff.
In my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I take a look at a freshly coined name for the “new eclecticism” of such contemporary musicians of polystylistic inclination as the Bad Plus, Theo Bleckmann, Julia Dollison, Adam Guettel, Osvaldo Golijov, Michael John LaChiusa, Nickel Creek, Luciana Souza, and Maria Schneider.
Might the phrase “shuffle play” be taking on broader cultural significance? To find out—maybe—pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.
“To an extent the theater will always be a magnet for hobbyists, people who are drawn like trainspotters or matchbox fans to compare different performances of Hamlet. They form, if you like, a core audience, who survive over the years. Their overriding interest is in the maintenance and improvement of their collections, and so they will direct their attention not so much at what is said, as to the skills which are being used to say it.”
Courtesy of Our Girl in Chicago, 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. (Once again, there are no asterisks this week!)
BROADWAY: • Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here) • Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9) • Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content) • Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here) • The Drowsy Chaperone (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here) • The Lieutenant of Inishmore (black comedy, R, adult subject matter and extremely graphic violence, 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) • The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here)
CLOSING SOON: • Awake and Sing! (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, extended through June 25) • Defiance (drama, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here, closes June 4) • The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
“The Evening Pulpit was supposed to give daily to its readers all that had been said and done up to two o'clock in the day by all the leading people in the metropolis, and to prophesy with wonderful accuracy what would be the sayings and doings of the following twelve hours. This was effected with an air of wonderful omniscience, and not unfrequently with an ignorance hardly surpassed by its arrogance. But the writing was clever. The facts, if not true, were well invented; the arguments, if not logical, were seductive.”
Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (courtesy of Clive Davis
On Saturday afternoon I saw my last show of the 2005-06 season, Tarzan. The New York Drama Critics Circle, of which I am a member, votes this Thursday on the best plays of the year, and the names of the winners will be released immediately after the ballots are tallied (the news will be posted here).
All this means that Broadway is quiescent until August, when Martin Short’s new musical comes to town. I have a couple of weeks to catch my breath before I hit the road and start seeing out-of-town shows, and I’m going to need it. It’s been a long, grueling season, full of the good, the bad, and the ugly, though I suppose in the long run that I’ll remember it above all for the fateful night when I had to be helped into a cab by a kindly press agent, followed a few hours later by my admission to Lenox Hill Hospital.
Amazingly enough, I only skipped a single drama column last December, and I was back on the aisle two days after coming home from the hospital, marveling
at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of Mrs. Warren’s Profession. In retrospect I suppose it was stupid of me to get back on the horse so quickly (though I left New York the very next day to spend a couple of weeks convalescing in Smalltown, U.S.A., which was a bit smarter). Nevertheless, I did it, and I’m not sorry: I had something to prove to myself, and I managed to prove it without doing any damage to my weakened heart.
Having done so, though, I scaled back my playgoing, restricting myself to two shows a week. It wasn’t until the spring rush started that I opened up the throttle, and even then I took care to husband my energy. As regular readers of this blog are well aware, I stopped going to nightclubs, and I haven’t been to a single movie since I got out of the hospital.
So has the time come for me to resume normal activities? Yes and no. I have no intention of reviving the Old Me, the fellow who never spent an evening at home when he could be anywhere else. I was already growing more reflective in the weeks just prior to my collapse, and I mean to stay that way. On the other hand, I’m feeling better than ever, and now that I’ve survived the spring rush, I’m inclined to test myself still further—within limits. The past six months have taught me a number of valuable lessons, the most important of which is to be unafraid of doing nothing.
Just the other day I spent the morning writing my Wall Street Journal drama column, then decided on the spur of the moment to stroll across Central Park to the Guggenheim Museum to see the David Smith retrospective. It was an eat-your-spinach self-assignment: I’ve never warmed to Smith’s welded sculptures, but every art critic I respect says he’s the real deal, so I figured I ought to give him yet another try and hope that the scales would fall from my eyes.
I hadn’t yet eaten lunch, so I bought a couple of dirty-water dogs from the pushcart at Eighty-First Street and Central Park West, then perched myself on a convenient rock and dined al fresco. After that I headed east—but not for long. No sooner did I pass under Winterdale Arch than I spotted an empty park bench, and in an instant my high-minded resolve evaporated. Instead of spending the afternoon with David Smith, I spent it sitting on the bench. The sun warmed my skin, the breeze cooled it, and though I gave brief thought to taking an improving book out of my bag, I ended up doing nothing at all but listening to the birds and looking at the passers-by.
Midway through my reverie, an anxious-looking pedestrian politely interrupted me. “Pardon me for bothering you,” she asked, “but will I get to the East Side if I stay on this path? These roads are awfully curvy, and I seem to be going in circles.”
“I know what you mean,” I replied, “but if you go this way and keep an eye on the skyline, you’re bound to end up on the East Side sooner or later.”
She thanked me and moved on, leaving me to ponder the lovely implications of the phrase sooner or later. I make my living by going to performances and hitting deadlines, so when I’m off duty, I try to let things happen when they happen instead of insisting that they happen at this time or that. I doubt the Celestial Accountant really means for us to account for every second of wasted time, but should it turn out that He does, I intend to tell Him that I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a cloudless summer afternoon than sitting on a park bench, reveling in the passing moment. I didn’t spend enough afternoons that way in the first part of my life, and now that I know better, I have every intention of wasting every second I can spare.
* * *
I’ve decided to play hooky for the rest of the week. I'm leaving you in the capable hands of Our Girl, who will post my regular theater-related items on Thursday and Friday, along with whatever else she may have in mind. See you Monday!
An informal catalogue of cardinal critical sins, with fresh and glaring illustrations from some of today’s Most Favored Critics, seems to be underway this month. Just yesterday Terry tagged James Wood for devoting a mere ten percent of his prime NYTBR real estate to the new Flaubert biography he was purportedly reviewing there. Commandment the first: You shall not overlook the book under review.
Meanwhile, last week, James Marcus rightfully zapped John Banville for finding Philip Roth’s new novel insufficiently, well, Banvillesque:
This is transparently the recipe for a John Banville novel--the infinite nuances, the atomized perceptions--and the biggest boner a critic can commit is the insistence that all writers should do what he does. It's embarrassing.
Thus, Commandment the second: You shall not critique a tulip by wishing it a rose, especially if you grow roses. (Sorry, tulips on the brain these days—they are everywhere, and god bless 'em.) Marcus considers Roth’s book on its own aesthetic terms here.
"The spot was charming, and Lily was not insensible to the charm, or to the fact that her presence enhanced it; but she was not accustomed to taste the joys of solitude except in company, and the combination of a handsome girl and a romantic scene struck her as too good to be wasted. No one, however, appeared to profit by the opportunity; and after a half hour of fruitless waiting she rose and wandered on. She felt a stealing sense of fatigue as she walked; the sparkle had died out of her, and the taste of life was stale on her lips."
Having been tagged, I hasten to fulfill my obligation:
I am writing this in longhand. I want Steve Yzerman to put off retiring. I wish I were ice-skating NOW. I hate drivers on cell phones. I love northern Michigan (Michigancentrically, "up north"). I miss the Clinch Park bears. I fear speaking in front of an audience. I hear a train, distantly. I wonder what will happen on House next week. (In the first-season reruns on USA; do not send spoliers and nobody will get hurt.) I regret not taking up ice-skating sooner. I am not a credible liar. I dance with Baryshnikov in my daydreams. I sing at full volume when alone in the car or the kitchen.
I cry after double-overtime sudden-death playoff games that end badly. I am not always conscious of how old I've gotten. I make with my hands ice cream! Most recently, oatmeal ice cream (no raisins for me, thanks). I write in longhand when practical, which is seldom. I confuse being nice with giving undue encouragement sometimes. (Don't worry, I don't mean you. You I like.) I need strong coffee every morning, iced during summer. I should return my moldering Netflix discs and stop ordering movies that are good for me. I start innumerable blog posts I never finish. I finish basic skating lessons in two weeks and start looking for hockey lessons. I tag Mr. Quiet Bubble and Ms. Bookish Gardener.
Virtually nobody watches D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation anymore, even though it was one of the half-dozen most influential films in the history of the medium. Much of the lingua franca of cinematic storytelling was invented by Griffith, and The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, was the laboratory in which he brought his ideas to fruition. It was also one of the most racist movies ever made, a shameless glorification of the role played by the Ku Klux Klan in the reconstruction of the postbellum Old South.
Or so, at any rate, we’re told. Never having seen The Birth of a Nation, I only “knew” it was racist because that was what I’d always heard and read. So when Turner Classic Movies aired the film last week as part of a month-long series called Race and Hollywood: Black Images on Film, I decided it was time to see for myself.
In case you’re wondering—or worrying—this isn’t going to be a revaluation of The Birth of a Nation. Somewhat to my surprise, it turned out to be every bit as appalling as everyone says, a near-encyclopedic compendium of racial stereotypes of the grossest, most offensive sort. Small wonder that TCM prefaced and followed it with an on-camera discussion by Robert Osborne and Donald Bogle, the author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. (I'm a bit surprised that the network didn’t run on-screen disclaimers during the film itself.)
None of this, however, interested me half so much as the fact that The Birth of a Nation progresses with the slow-motion solemnity of a funeral march. Even the title cards stay on the screen for three times as long as it takes to read them. Five minutes after the film started, I was squirming with impatience, and after another five minutes passed, I decided out of desperation to try an experiment: I cranked the film up to four times its normal playing speed and watched it that way. It was overly brisk in two or three spots, most notably the re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination (which turned out to be quite effective—it’s the best scene in the whole film). For the most part, though, I found nearly all of The Birth of a Nation to be perfectly intelligible at the faster speed.
Putting aside for a moment the insurmountable problem of its content, it was the agonizingly slow pace of The Birth of a Nation that proved to be the biggest obstacle to my experiencing it as an objet d’art. Even after I sped it up, my mind continued to wander, and one of the things to which it wandered was my similar inability to extract aesthetic pleasure out of medieval art. With a few exceptions, medieval and early Renaissance art and music don’t speak to me. The gap of sensibility is too wide for me to cross. I have a feeling that silent film—not just just The Birth of a Nation, but all of it—is no more accessible to most modern sensibilities. (The only silent movies I can watch with more than merely antiquarian interest are the comedies of Buster Keaton.) Nor do I think the problem is solely, or even primarily, that it's silent: I have no problem with plotless dance, for instance. It’s that silent film “speaks” to me in an alien tongue, one I can only master in an intellectual way. That’s not good enough for me when it comes to art, whose immediate appeal is not intellectual but visceral (though the intellect naturally enters into it).
As for The Birth of a Nation, I’m glad I saw it once. My card is now officially punched. On the other hand, I can’t imagine voluntarily seeing it again, any more than I’d attend the premiere of an opera by Philip Glass other than at gunpoint. It is the quintessential example of a work of art that has fulfilled its historical purpose and can now be put aside permanently—and I don’t give a damn about history, at least not in my capacity as an aesthete. I care only for the validity of the immediate experience. I’m with A.E. Housman:
A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America a request that I would define poetry. (America is the source of much irritation of this kind, to be sure.) I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by the symptoms which it provoked in us. One of those symptoms was described in connexion with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: “A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, “everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.” The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach.
This famous passage is from Housman’s 1933 lecture The Name and Nature of Poetry, and even after making due allowance for the personal prejudices of the practicing artist, it pretty well sums up my view of things. Thrill me and all is forgiven. Bore me and you’ve lost me. That's why I think it’s now safe to file and forget The Birth of a Nation. Yes, it’s still historically significant, and yes, it tells us something important about the way we once were. But it’s boring—and thank God for that.
UPDATE: Mr. Parabasis has cleverly turned the sixth paragraph of this posting into a meme. Care to play, OGIC?
While we’re on the subject of how blacks were portrayed by the American mass media at the turn of the century, allow me to direct your attention to Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922 (Archeophone, two CDs), an anthology containing fifty-four of the earliest commercial sound recordings made by black performers and public figures.
You can order Lost Soundshere, and you can also listen for free to streaming-audio samples of every track included on the set, including speeches recorded by Booker T. Washington in 1908 and by Jack Johnson in 1910. If, like me, you’re interested in early spoken-word recordings, I guarantee that you’ll find these particular snippets fascinating in the extreme.
I blogged a couple of weeks ago about Carl Van Vechten, the photographer-boulevardier-enthusiast whose portraits of famous people were recently exhibited at an Upper East Side bookshop. Since then I’ve had occasion to re-read an out-of-print biography of Van Vechten, and I confess to being envious of what you might call his achievements in the field of propinquity. Among many, many other things, he attended both the Armory Show
in New York and the Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring, at which he shared a box with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who subsequently became his lifelong friends, joining a troupe that also included Ronald Firbank, George Gershwin, Zora Neale Hurston, H.L. Mencken, Eugene O’Neill, and Bessie Smith.
Van Vechten was born in 1880, died in 1964, and in between was intensely curious about everything to do with the arts. I had forgotten when I wrote my previous posting, for instance, that he was not merely a dance critic but the very first American dance critic, and that he lived long enough to see and admire both Anna Pavlova and New York City Ballet. Van Vechten preserved his curiosity well into his old age: among the subjects of his later photographs were Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, over whose music he “swooned,” writing with special admiration of “those long Rossini-like monotonous crescendos that stretch out endlessly like the moon of my delight in the orient.” (I’d bet money that this is the album he had in mind.) He even set down his opinion of Elvis Presley for posterity:
I heard him with amazement and I am convinced that his appeal is purely (or impurely) sexual. And as he does not appeal to me on that basis, I have discarded him forever, unless he comes around with his hand-organ to sing at my door.
“To me,” Van Vechten wrote, “discovery is nine-tenths of the interest in life.” Not a bad motto for someone in my line of work.
“Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life's foolscap.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (courtesy of such stuff)
I just read James Wood’s review of Frederick Brown’s Flaubert: A Biography, which appeared in this week’s New York Times Book Review. It is 3,250 words long, of which only three hundred make any mention of the book Wood is allegedly reviewing, from which he quotes only a half-sentence, though he finds room to refer to Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and hip-hop. Am I the only person out here in the ’sphere who considers this the wrong way to go about reviewing an important new biography of a major author in a widely read publication?
I’m not saying I haven’t committed the same critical crime on occasion—I’m sure I have, and I'm sure somebody will be pointing that fact out to me in fairly short order—but this piece strikes me as an especially egregious case in point. Brown’s Flaubert is a remarkable biography, maybe even a great one. It doesn’t deserve to get lost in the shuffle of its own reviews.
It's Friday, this is my Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser, and everybody else is wrong about Christina Applegate and Sweet Charity:
Walter Bobbie, director of the Broadway revival of “Chicago” that's still going strong after nine years, has done a similarly sterling job here. His staging of the scene in which Charity hides in a closet to avoid embarrassing her kindly benefactor Vittorio (Paul Schoeffler, who is just right) should be taught in drama schools. Denis O'Hare is a hoot as Oscar, Charity's wimpy boyfriend. The sleazy hookers who sing “Big Spender” are so tough, you could strike wet matches off them. Even the pit band catches your ear, in part because of Don Sebesky's gleaming new orchestrations.
As for Ms. Applegate, she's a charmer, winsome, witty and alive. Her singing voice is plenty good enough, and though she's only a so-so hoofer, choreographer Wayne Cilento has done a near-miraculous job of staging her numbers in such a way as to divert your eye from her limitations. Would I have preferred seeing an all-singing-all-dancing Broadway baby like Ms. d'Amboise or Tracy Shayne tear up the stage in “I'm a Brass Band”? Duh, of course—but I really did enjoy watching Ms. Applegate doing her damnedest up there, and I bet this won't be her last musical….
David Mamet won the Pulitzer Prize 20 years ago for “Glengarry Glen Ross,” his fathomlessly dark portrait of a group of cutthroat Chicago real-estate salesmen. Now it's back on Broadway, directed by Joe Mantello and performed on a pair of ultra-realistic sets designed by Santo Loquasto in which every detail is on the nose, all the way down to the sickly green paint on the walls of the fluorescent-lit office in which Mr. Mamet's characters snap for “leads” like a tankful of starving piranhas. No less convincing is Liev Schreiber, who plays Richard, the flesh-eating sociopath who'll say anything to close a deal. With his close-cropped hair, sleek bullet head and blowtorch intensity, he looks and sounds positively demonic….
James Lapine, the director, has rejiggered things slightly but significantly to accommodate the bigger house's thrust stage and arena seating, with results that left me happily bedazzled. The cast of the original production is unchanged—and rightly so, “Putnam County” being perfect in every possible way, zany and touching and super-smart. I predict it will run forever, and I plan to go back and see it yearly. (I've already been three times, once on my own dime.)
(Incidentally, I just got an advance CD of the original-cast album. Too much reverb on the dialogue, but otherwise it's a lovely souvenir.)
No link. Buy the damn paper already, for God's sake. Or go here for a lead.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to drive upstate to read a Shakespeare sonnet at an outdoor wedding….
What does it help, you ask? What doesn't it, ask I. For the moment what it is helping is proofreading, which is sucking up all my attention tonight and keeping me, for now, from posting the little Randall Jarrell birthday celebration I had planned. So here's what has passed my notably low threshold of amusement so far in the journal issue I'm proofreading tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present:
Mr. "Merlin Heidegger" and the illustrious "Wa Ho Auden."
There are typos, and then there are typos. It's almost a shame to have to fix such gorgeously goofy ones. But we must make the world safe for those who are not so easily amused.
...delivering the first hundred pages of your next book to a waiting editor. Thus, one must imagine me happy (and yes, the reference is intentional). I dropped it off, I came home, I don't have anywhere to go tonight, and what am I doing? Blogging, of course. But briefly, briefly! I'm really sitting in front of my iBook, listening to Donald Fagen's "Century's End" and running my fingers idly over the keyboard, somewhat in the manner of a roomful of monkeys, because I'm soooo burned out. Too much. I think I wrote 20,000 words in the past week and a half. Maybe more. Yikes. Ouch.
Anyway, these are the last words that will ever cross my lips, at least until tonight, when I post tomorrow's almanac entry and drama-column teaser, and then I am going to bed. No alarm. No phone. No nothing.
I'm trying to figure out what this posting is about. I guess it's about being so tightly wired that the process of becoming unwired takes a few hours. At least.
Oh, now I remember what I was going to tell you: I'm not reading my blogmail this week. Forgive me. I'll read it next week.
I just thought you'd like to know that I did indeed work all night, and that I finished writing the second of the first two chapters of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong a few minutes ago, a couple of hours' worth of line editing excepted. Once that's done, all I have to do is print both chapters out and take them downtown to André Bernard, my editor at Harcourt. I hope he's planning to give me a very good lunch.
Now that I'm done, I'll be heading north tomorrow afternoon for the wedding of my ex-assistant (better known as one of the Lascivious Biddies), at which I'll be reading a Shakespeare sonnet, a first for this newly minted drama critic. I told a friend the other day that I was putting my mouth where my money was!
I'll be posting Friday's almanac entry and the weekly teaser for my Wall Street Journal drama column before I go, but nothing else until Monday. I'm sure you understand. I'm still running fairly smoothly on the vast amount of adrenalin built up by my recent labors and my trip to Washington, D.C., but at some point in the next few hours I have no doubt that the bottom will fall out. That's all right, though: I don't think I've ever been so happy with anything I've written in my whole life as I am with these two chapters.
On which note I'd better be getting back to work. See you later.
"I've had some great ovations in my time. When people do that, they must feel something within themselves. I mean you don't just go around waking people up to the effect of saying, 'You know, this music is art.' But it's got to be art because the world has recognized our music from New Orleans, else it would have been dead today. But I always let the other fellow talk about art. 'Cause when we was doing it, we was just glad to be working up on that stage. So for me to be still on earth to hear that word, sounds pretty good. I'm just grateful for every little iota."
Went to Washington, ate my dinner, saw my show, marveled yet again at the maximal coolness of my friend (who, among many other things, makes incredibly funny faces). Returned to New York this morning to find 99 e-mails (not counting blogmail) and two brush fires (one at a magazine, the other at a newspaper). Put them out, went to lunch, and found myself standing on an Upper West Side street corner next to two casually dressed young women who were walking their dogs.
WOMAN NO. 1 So, how's the Prozac working?
WOMAN NO. 2 (beaming down at her dog) Oh, it's just amazing—he doesn't bark nearly as much since we put him on it!
I bet they don't have conversations like that where you come from. Wherever you come from.
Radio silence resumes as of now. Something tells me I'll be up late tonight flogging away at the last item on my itinerary….
"The most infuriating thing about men was that they were both predictable and impossible. Their buttons were ridiculously easy to push, but unfortunately, every button came with its own self-destruct program."
The shadows of late afternoon and the odors
of honeysuckle are a congruent sadness.
Everything is easy but wrong. I am walking
across thick lawns under maples in borrowed tennis whites.
It is like the photographs of Randall Jarrell
I stared at on the backs of books in college.
He looked so sad and relaxed in the pictures.
He was translating Chekhov and wore tennis whites.
It puzzled me that in his art, like Chekhov's,
everyone was lost, that the main chance was never seized
because it is only there as a thing to be dreamed of
or because someone somewhere had set the old words
to the old tune: we live by habit and it doesn't hurt.
Now the thwack…thwack of tennis balls being hit
reaches me and it is the first sound of an ax
in the cherry orchard or the sound of machine guns
where the young terrorists are exploding
among poor people on the streets of Los Angeles.
I begin making resolutions: to take risks, not to stay
in the south, to somehow do honor to Randall Jarrell,
never to kill myself. Through the oaks I see the courts,
the nets, the painted boundaries, and the people in tennis
whites who look so graceful from this distance.
Poking my head in here briefly to relay some highlights from the day's mail:
• Lynn Becker, whose photos of "Cloud Gate" I linked to here over the weekend, has kindly written to clarify what the "armature" around the trees in Millennium Park is doing. "There was a symposium at the Art Institute at the time the park opened," she writes, "and the landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson explained the caged trees—'the hedge'—as protecting the garden from the rampaging hordes making their way after a concert in Gehry's Pritzker Pavllion to the garage entrances on Monroe, and also as creating an outside/insider for her 'secret garden.'" So it's for their own good! And she quotes Gustafson saying more about "pre-figuration": "The armature is basically a pruning guide for the shoulder hedge. It is also based on a theory by Andre LeNotre, which is called prefiguration, in Versailles. He prefigured all the hedges with wood, so you had to wait for, Louis IV had to wait to see what his garden was going to look like. He could imagine it through the prefiguration. The armature is a prefiguration of what the hedge one day will be its shape, and when its pruned, at the every end, the armature will disappear"
Ah. This is helpful to me but not, I think, to the trees, which I persist in wanting to anthropomorphize. I felt the same way about all the tulips when it snowed in Chicago two weekends ago—although, sitting in the Wrigley Field bleachers in that same snow for four hours, I was at least as pitiable as they were. (For those of you who watched that game on WGN, I was the one in the Canadiens toque—apparently such a novelty in post-NHL America that it got me thirty whole seconds of air time.) In any case, raise your hand if you spent your 30th birthday wandering around Versailles, followed by a rousing performance of Carmen at the Bastille Opera House. I may be in a minority here.
• I also received some interesting responses to my post about Jenna Elfman and Lauren Graham's döppel-gangliness:
Don't know how big a Superman fan you are, but if you've even the faintest acquaintance with the property at all, then you might share my disappointment that Lauren Graham was not cast as Lois Lane in the upcoming mega-movie.
I would consider signing that petition. Also:
Did you know that [Elfman and Graham] once co-starred in a sitcom together? Townies lasted for about 2 months in 1996; Elfman, Graham, and Molly Ringwald played 20ish waitresses in a Gloucester restaurant. Ringwald was the sensible one, Graham the neurotic, and Elfman the tramp. And the divine Conchata Ferrell was on hand as their boss.
I certainly did not know that, but it's reassuring to learn that they have been seen in the same room together.
For those of you who were wondering, I finally finished writing that really long piece for Commentary, and I don't see to be showing any obvious signs of mental or physical disintegration other than being unable to keep my eyes open. I'll be devoting the morning to this Friday's Wall Street Journal drama column, as well as some as-yet-unknown portion of a book review for the Journal. Come lunchtime, though, I'm off to Washington, D.C., where I'll be spending the evening dining with a v. cool friend (maximally cool, as a matter of fact) and taking her to see Shakespeare Theatre's new production of The Tempest, about which I hear interesting things.
Barring the installation of Star Trek-style transporter tubes at my hotel, I won't be back in New York until some time on Wednesday afternoon, so don't expect any postings until Thursday, when I'll return to the blogosphere with, er, something or other. If I haven't finished the second chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong by then, the something-or-other in question might well be a snapshot of me waving goodbye as I assume a new identity and disappear into the Delinquent Author Protection Program forever. (Probably not, though.)
I got a call yesterday from a fact checker at The New Yorker who wanted to know whether H.L. Mencken actually sent the following form letter to angry correspondents: Dear Sir or Madam: You may or may not be right. Would that he had—it's a great story—but in the decade I spent researching and writing The Skeptic, I found not the slightest bit of evidence that he ever sent such a letter to anyone.
What tickled me about this call was that it made me feel like a Grand Old Man. The nice young fellow from The New Yorker asked, “Is this Terry Teachout, author of The Skeptic?” in tones that made me wonder whether I'd just heard a preview of my obituary. I hope my Louis Armstrong book is better than The Skeptic (with which I was pretty damn pleased, to be sure), but for the moment I guess that label is firmly fixed to the bottom of the screen: World's Greatest Authority on H.L. Mencken. Three years after my biography was published, I continue to get a call or two every month from fact checkers and other earnest souls seeking to establish whether or not Mencken really did make some snappy crack or other.
Here's the interesting part: the Mencken quotes about which I get called are always spurious. No exceptions.
After I posted last week's Wall Street Journalreview of the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, in which John C. Reilly plays Stanley Kowalski, I got this e-mail from a reader of the blog who is a well-connected theater buff:
I've heard that when John C. Reilly was beginning the shoot of CHICAGO with his costars, the producers—Marty Richards and others—wanted to see what
they had before a foot of film was shot. So the cast—Reilly, Zeta-Jones,
Zellweger, Gere—assembled for a run-through in some performance space or
other, and took seats onstage, with the producers down below. Reilly
noticed that Zellweger was REALLY scared; he leaned over and said,
soothingly, “Don't worry, Renee, it's just like a play...we're onstage and
they're the audience.”
Zellweger looked at him, and said, quivering, “But
I've never been in a play!'”
“'The thing is, I started in life as a stunt driver.'
“Anne Marie, surprised, said, 'Really?'
“'You may have seen the one,' Chester said, 'where the guy's escaping in the car, they're after him, the street becomes an alleyway, too narrow for the car, he angles sharp right, bumps the right wheels up on the curb, spins sharp left, the car's up on two left wheels, he goes down the alley at a diagonal, drops onto four wheels where it widens out again, ta-ran-ta-rah.'
“'Wow,' Anne Marie said.
“'That was me,' Chester told her. 'We gotta do it in one take, otherwise I'm gonna cream the car against some very stone buildings. I liked that life.'
“John said, 'Was it you in the rest of the picture?'
“'Nah,' Chester said, 'that was some movie star. They even had to bring in somebody else to do his swimming. Anyway, the problem was, that career dried up. They don't need the guys like me now, they got computers to do the stunts.' He shrugged, but looked disgusted. 'People wanna look at a cartoon, a car on a diagonal down the alley, nobody at the wheel, nobody's life at stake, what I say is, it isn't the pictures got worse, it's the audience.'”
Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' new musical The Light in the Piazza has extended its run at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre through the summer.
The show, which opened on April 18 after a month of previews, will now play until Sept. 4. It was to have closed on June 12.
Though it opened to mixed reviews, Piazza has since become a favorite of New York's awards organizations. It led the Outer Critics Circle Awards nominations with 11 nods, while the Drama Desk organization also nominated it in 11 categories.
In case you missed it, here's part of my Wall Street Journal rave.
I got out of Sweet Charity late Sunday afternoon, caught a cab going north, went straight home, threw off my clothes, and made ready to climb into the loft and grab a little shut-eye preliminary to spending the evening at my desk, working on all the stuff I've got to write and deliver to various editors between now and Thursday, when I fly the coop to read a Shakespeare sonnet at an upstate wedding (about which more next week).
Fortunately, I decided to check my e-mailbox before crashing, and the first piece of mail I opened was from a friend who wrote, “Are we still on for tonight?” I uttered a well-known monosyllable three or four times in a row, having remembered in a sudden flash of prospective horror that I was supposed to be at the Jazz Standard in forty-five minutes to hear Dena DeRose. I threw my clothes back on, ran downstairs, and caught yet another cab, this one headed south. Somewhat to my surprise, I got to the club on time, and even managed to remain upright and conscious throughout the whole set. (Dena was hot, of course—it was my fault, not hers, that I was a little fuzzy.)
I'm still somewhat shaken by the closeness of my shave. It's true that my itinerary for the week is pretty alarming, but it's been at least a decade since I've flat-out forgotten a show I was scheduled to see. That's the critic's nightmare—especially when his schedule is so tightly packed that he can't work in a repeat performance before filing his review.
I'm not going to try to tell you I've learned my lesson, but I do think it might possibly be a smart idea for me to take my phone off the hook, go straight to bed, and remain horizontal for an absolute minimum of eight hours.
You can wait to hear about the rest of my weekend, right? Good.
P.S. If you still long for fresh copy, I've updated the "Teachout in Commentary," "Second City," and "Teachout Elsewhere" modules in the right-hand column with links to my latest print-media pieces. Read 'em and weep. Or whatever.
As regular readers of “About Last Night” know, I'm hopelessly addicted to the What's My Line reruns that can be seen early each morning on the Game Show Network. But even if you're not especially interested in the early days of network TV, I absolutely guarantee that you'll be fascinated by the episode scheduled to air early Tuesday morning (it was originally seen on June 3, 1956). Why? Because the first guest is none other than Frank Lloyd Wright.
Set your VCR for 3:30 A.M. Eastern time this Tuesday. This one's a must.
“I think that to be an American is an excellent preparation for culture. We have exquisite qualities as a race, and it seems to me that we are ahead of the European races in the fact that more than either of them we can deal freely with forms of civilisation not our own, can pick and choose and assimilate and in short (aesthetically &c) claim our property wherever we find it. To have no national stamp has hitherto been a defect & a drawback; but I think it not unlikely that American writers may yet indicate that a vast intellectual fusion and synthesis of the various National tendencies of the world is the condition of more important achievements than any we have seen. We must of course have something of our own—something distinctive & homogeneous—& I take it that we shall find it in our 'moral consciousness,' our unprecedented spiritual lightness and vigour. In this sense at least we shall have a national cachet.—I expect nothing great during your lifetime or mine perhaps: but my instincts quite agree with yours in looking to see something original and beautiful disengage itself from our ceaseless fermentation and turmoil.”
Henry James, letter to Thomas Sergeant Perry (Sept. 20, 1867)
Howdy. Sorry to be getting to this so late in the weekend. I've just seen off my weekend guest and am more convinced than ever that guests are a wonderful thing. Not only is my apartment cleaner than usual; not only did I enjoy the considerable pleasure of my friend's company; on top of all that, I doubt I would have caught either Art Chicago in the Park or the Chicago production of Lisa Loomer's play Living Out at American Theater Company (in collaboration with Teatro Vista) if she hadn't visited.
We had a good time at Art Chicago. I spent a lot more time looking at old-guard work (Marin, Cornell, Frankenthaler, Hockney) than new, and I admit to being surprised and feeling a little shortchanged when we ran out of exhibits just as it felt like we were warming up. It says here that the show is indeed smaller and less spectacular than it used to be (thanks to Iconoduel for the link). But the weekender and I used the remainder of the afternoon to take the full tour of Millennium Park, sans bean, sad to say—"Cloud Gate" is still under wraps from the winter, having its seams welded out. With clouds rife in the sky and the light changing rapidly, it would have been a great day to watch the weather reflected in the steel. Through what I hope is the tail end of the cover-up, we piners for the bean can console ourselves with this revealing photo essay about its construction.
The part of Millennium Park I still can't figure out is the part that seems to be a jail for trees. Were they bad? Are they eligible for parole? The Park website is only partly illuminating on this topic—it says that the metal framework hemming in the trees is the "Armature," which "provides a simple and permanent clipping guide for precisely maintaining the curved profile of the mature Shoulder Hedge" and, more mystifyingly still, "also pre-figures the Hedge form." Um, whatever they say. But I can't help waiting for the day when some arboreal activist sets the poor trees free—they truly do look miserable.
After a little late-afternoon wine, potato chips, and napping, we struck out again and met up with my friend the Law Prof and his weekend guest for dinner and the play. Both guests were attorneys, and a little way into the play it was clear that there's no more receptive audience for the lawyer humor that pervades Living Out than a lot of self-deprecating lawyers. This element of the play merely picked up a thread that my companions had gotten going at dinner.
We liked the play, which I picked because it was a Critic's Choice in the Chicago Reader, but more so because I remembered Terry's rave review for the Journal when it premiered in New York in 2003. Lisa Loomer's play follows the intertwined fortunes of two young mothers in Southern California who are employer and employee. Ana is an immigrant from El Salvador raising one child and trying to get a second to the States. Nancy is a Hollywood entertainment lawyer who hires Ana as a nanny for her newborn so she can return to work. Both are well-meaning, and as Terry's review emphasized, the heart of the play is the friendship they almost find despite the yawning gulf of privilege and opportunity dividing them. It's a sobering story, holding out the possibility of connection over this gulf, but holding it just out of reach.
The actors in the ATC production are very good, especially Sandra Marquez in the most important role as Ana. Her colleagues do well too, but there were a few times during the performance I saw when Marquez single-handedly saved a joke with her funny, knowing expressions. I found some of the jokes targeting yuppies too easy by half, especially those aimed at Nancy's doofus Legal-Aid-type husband. Luckily, actor Thomas Gebbia tackles the part with enough gusto to carry some of the lamer jokes by sheer force of spastic energy. After Marquez's, though, the most enchanting performance comes from Tanya Saracho as a Mexican nanny whom Anna befriends; Saracho's character Sandra has a monologue in the second act about a trip to Texas—a beautifully written speech, funny and heartbreaking—that she sends soaring out of the park. (The still here captures a little bit of the exhilaration of her delivery. I haven't looked at the clips, but presumably one of them shows part of this speech.)
Living Out has performances scheduled through May 22. Get your tickets here.
Wow, I just saw a few minutes of a terrible Lifetime movie (redundant, I know) starring Jenna Elfman. I never watched Dharma and Greg, but I did like Elfman in Ed Norton's 2000 film Keeping the Faith. That was a while ago now, and I haven't thought a whit about Elfman in the interim. So when I saw her prowl campily across my small screen just now, it hit me like a freight train: what we have here is the downwardly mobile, blond Lauren Graham. They're eerily alike in manner and stature. If it weren't so obvious who's on an upswing and who's, well, on Lifetime, they'd make a perfect pairing for Fametracker's Two Stars, One Slot feature: battle of the leggy, wisecracking Amazon women.
The always captivating Eve Tushnet has been listing great titles, of books mainly. She comes up with so many, though, that the list quickly becomes a little bit numbing, the titles a little indistinct from each other. I'm curious what she'd say are her top five. Challenge!
Here are a few that I didn't see on her list or those of her readers: Two Girls, Fat and Thin. I Lost It at the Movies (or should I say Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?). The Man without Qualities. The Gastronomical Me. And, what the hell, Consider the Oyster. And of course my all-purpose favorite, The Dud Avocado.
Speaking of Mary Gaitskill, while scanning my bookshelves last night I noticed that her Bad Behavior sits beside Donald Westlake's Good Behavior. I have no memory of having consciously placed them so; perhaps they just sort of gravitated toward each other smittenly when I wasn't looking. Hard to think of two more different books, but the spines do complement each other nicely.
Another title I love, but that is simply puzzling if you don't know anything about the book, is Anthony Burgess's novel about Keats, ABBA ABBA. Also in the context-counts category is the memoir of (Sir) Frank Kermode, Not Entitled, although on second thought, perhaps it's a bit too cutely elliptical.
Here's a phrase that makes my blood run cold: "That play deals with a lot of really good issues." I myself prefer plays that deal with life, not issues, but the two have been known to overlap on occasion, and it's not unheard of for a really good playwright to use a "really good issue" as the pretext for a voyage into the unchartable labyrinth of human motivation. More often, what you get is a pulpit-pounding sermon with a politically correct moral, but Bryony Lavery's "Frozen," which transferred to Circle in the Square this week after a successful Off-Broadway run, is the polar opposite, an issue-driven play that grinds no axes. It is superior in every way-script, performances, staging, set. If I had tonight off, I'd go see it again….
Prymate is awful:
Esther (Phyllis Frelich), a deaf-mute anthropologist, steals Graham (André de Shields), a gorilla with emphysema to whom she has taught American Sign Language, from a research lab run by her ex-lover Avrum (James Naughton), a heartless scientist who wants to infect Graham with HIV in order to find a cure for AIDS. Accompanied by Allison (Heather Tom), a sexy sign-language interpreter, Avrum tracks down Esther and Graham in the New Mexico wilderness, and…
You get the idea, right? Right. And The Distance from Here isn't much better:
Mr. LaBute, who customarily writes about upper-middle-class folk with too much leisure time on their hands, has chosen this time around to write about a bunch of working-class kids, their mothers, and their mothers' boyfriends. He explains in a program note that "The Distance from Here" is an attempt to "acknowledge a kind of person I've always known well but consciously and constantly marginalized. I never liked the way those kids dressed, or the music they listened to, or the way they talked, so from the beginning they were, in essence, dead to me….They knew, even at sixteen, that they had absolutely no hope in this life."
A lot of really good issues, yes? Well, maybe, if Mr. LaBute actually knew something about his teenaged losers and their hopeless lives. Alas, he hasn't a clue as to how they talk ("I feel you've been wronged"), just as his notion of fully rounded characterization is to make everyone on stage smoke cigarettes and say "whatever" at ten-second intervals….
No link. Whaddya do? Buy a paper! What does it cost? A dollar!
This was an all-theater day, and a long one (but what else is new?).
• I spent the morning and early afternoon writing my Wall Street Journal review for Friday.
• After a couple of hours’ worth of miscellaneous busywork, I headed for Avery Fisher Hall, where I saw the New York Philharmonic’s semi-staged concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, starring Kristin Chenoweth, directed by Lonny Price, and conducted by Marin Alsop. That’s for next Friday’s Journal.
• Because of an early curtain and an earlier dinner, I didn’t have enough in-between time to do much of anything other than give my guest for the evening a tour of the Teachout Museum and read the first couple of chapters of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake.
• Now playing on iTunes: Helmut Walcha’s recording
of Bach’s chorale prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, a piece that has long been especially close to my heart. I’m listening to its soft and gentle sublimities in the hopes of winding myself down far enough to get a few hours’ worth of sleep. I depart early this morning for a date with a museumful of paintings far from here. I’m not bringing my laptop—I need a break—and I’m won’t be back until Sunday. Any blogging that takes place here between now and then will be strictly up to Our Girl. Egg her on!
P.S. The Teachout Reader ended the day at 202 on amazon.com. Wow!
The Wall Street Journal doesn’t review books by its writers and regular contributors, but it does feature them in its book-review column from time to time, and I awoke this morning to find that I’d gotten the deluxe treatment, a very nice little package of excerpts from A Terry Teachout Reader called "The Critic and His Culture" in which I talk about Leonard Bernstein, Martha Graham, Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, and Frank Sinatra.
The unsigned compiler of these excerpts remarks that some of the essays in the Teachout Reader
are devoted to cultural politics, others to the arts, which ideally seek to describe life, as he puts it in one essay, "in all its proliferating, ideology-transcending complexity." Mr. Teachout writes about music, dance, literature and the movies for many publications—and, along the way, about the often wayward personalities who have dominated the American cultural scene.
I’d say that’s a pretty good summing-up of my self-drafted job description.
UPDATE: So far today, the amazon.com sales rank of the Teachout Reader has risen from somewhere around 18,000 to 477. (It was hovering around 31,000 last week.) I know, I know, that probably means seventeen people ordered copies this afternoon, but at least it makes me feel like a literary rockstar.
Your quote from Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister ("She reached a quick arm around my neck and started to pull. So I kissed her. It was either that or slug her") put me in mind of the following, from P.G. Wodehouse's story The Castaways (1933):
Even when he ached for Genevieve Bootle, some inner voice told him that if ever there was a pill it was she. Sometimes the urge to fold her in his arms and the urge to haul off and slap her over the nose with a piece of blotting paper came so close together that it was a mere flick of the coin which prevailed.
Fascinating, is it not, how two superb writers express a similar idea in two very different and very idiosyncratic ways?
As you may know, Chandler and Wodehouse were students at Dulwich College at the same time!
Nice. It just goes to show the value of an English public-school education. But were Chandler and Wodehouse really at Dulwich at the same time? That doesn't sound quite right to me.
Trivia-minded readers, solve this conundrum!
UPDATE: My original correspondent writes:
Your skepticism about whether the two authors-to-be attended Dulwich College simultaneously proves justified. David Jasen, in his P.G. Wodehouse: A Portrait of a Master, states that Wodehouse started at Dulwich in May of 1894 at age twelve-and a half, and left in July 1900. According to the Spring 2004 edition of the Dulwich Society Newsletter, Chandler didn't start at Dulwich until the September term of 1900 (when he was twelve).
Not much to tell, though I only have one more crowded day before I pull up stakes and leave town for a long weekend of laptop-free rest, relaxation, and art consumption at a Secure Undisclosed Location. In the meantime, here’s my Tuesday:
• I saw a press preview of Neil LaBute’s new play, The Distance from Here, about which I’ll be writing in Friday’s Wall Street Journal.
• I found out that my absentee bid for a Hans Hofmann lithograph, "Composition," was unsuccessful. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but I got creamed—somebody with money to burn wiped the floor with my pitiful little bid.) In case you’re curious, here’s what it looked like. Sigh. Arrgh. Oh, to be rich! Alas, I picked the wrong line of work….
• I’m doing Raymond Chandler in between everything else, and today I finished rereadingFarewell, My Lovely, partly in the hopes of persuading a friend of mine who recently confessed to having read only The Big Sleep (shame, shame) to embark forthwith on the whole corpus, currently available in an elegant Library of America two-volume edition.
• Now playing on iTunes: "Don’t Worry ’Bout Me," recorded live by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1954 and currently available on Jazz Goes to College. This do I in honor of Doug Ramsey, Paul Desmond’s biographer, who left a message last night for me to call him. (If you’re reading the blog right now, Doug, the next phone call you get will be from me.)
I’ll try to work in another post or two in before I hit the road first thing Thursday morning. I see that Our Girl has finally come in from out of the cold, so if you ask her nicely, maybe she'll keep you company until my return on Sunday night!
I started reviewing books for magazines nearly twenty-three years ago (and no, it doesn’t seem like only yesterday). The third or fourth book about which I wrote was Winter Season: A Dancer's Journal, a memoir by Toni Bentley, who was at the time a twenty-two-year-old dancer with New York City Ballet. I can't recall how I heard about her book or why I took an interest in it, since I’d as yet seen only two or three ballets, none of them by George Balanchine. Whatever the reason, I was struck by Bentley’s poetic chronicle of a dancer’s life, and wrote a review in which I called Winter Season "quite possibly the most revealing book about the world of ballet ever to see print." This is an embarrassingly choice example of a baby critic talking through his hat—I doubt I’d read any other books about the world of ballet in 1982.
Be that as it may, my review found its way into print. I shelved Winter Season and eventually forgot about it, but Bentley’s evocative little memoir obviously made a deeper impression on me than I knew, for a decade later I finally got around to seeing my first Balanchine ballet, and within a couple of years I had somehow metamorphosed into a full-fledged dance critic. Now I’m about to publish a book of my own about Balanchine’s life and work. Would any of that have happened had I not stumbled across Winter Season in 1982? Maybe—but maybe not.
As for Toni Bentley, she fell victim to a hip injury and stopped dancing a few years after publishing Winter Season. She turned herself into a full-time writer, collaborating with Suzanne Farrell on her autobiography
and writing several striking books of her own. I learned a few years ago that we shared an agent, but by then Bentley had moved to Los Angeles, and our paths never crossed. Last year, though, the University Press of Florida brought out a new edition of Winter Season, and a sentence from my 1982 review was printed on the back cover. I smiled to see it, remembering what a powerful effect the book had had on me all those years ago, and what an unexpected effect it ended up having on the rest of my life. Not only that, but I realized upon rereading it that the uninformed praise of a baby critic had by some unearned act of grace been right on the money: Winter Seasonis one of the most revealing books about the world of ballet ever to see print.
Four months ago, as I was gearing up to write All in the Dances, I looked in my e-mailbox one evening and found a note from a reader of "About Last Night" that was signed "Toni Bentley." Astonished, I wrote back at once, asking if she were the Toni Bentley. Sure enough, she was, so I told her to look on the back cover of the paperback of Winter Season, which in turn astonished her. Charmed by this chain of coincidence, we resolved to have lunch the next time she found herself in Manhattan, which was yesterday. Toni appeared on my doorstep, I gave her the fifty-cent tour of the Teachout Museum, and we proceeded from there to Good Enough to Eat, where we conversed for an hour and a half, marveling every few minutes at yet another unlikely-sounding thing we had in common. She's as good a talker as she is a writer, and we vowed to do it again soon.
This story has no moral, save that my chance meeting with Toni was made possible by the existence of this blog. To be sure, it was possible, if difficult, for readers and writers to get in touch prior to the invention of blogs, and sometimes correspondences and even an occasional friendship blossomed as a result—but not often. "About Last Night," by contrast, has made it easy for anyone who reads my stuff, on or off line, to send me a note that I’ll see within hours of its dispatch. Even if you know nothing about the blogosphere, all you have to do to find the e-mailbox of "About Last Night" is google my name. It’s amazing how many people have done just that in the past ten months, including a number of performers about whom I’ve written, a couple of long-lost friends I hadn’t seen since high school—and Toni Bentley.
So this is a Tale of the Blogosphere, as well as a Tale of Middle Age. Once you’ve lived long enough, certain arcs in your life loop the loop and start heading your way again. The urge to reconnect with the past, to answer unanswered questions, becomes all but irresistible, which is why people write memoirs, call up old girlfriends (and occasonally write novels
about it), and go to class reunions (I’ve been to one so far). I can think of at least a dozen friends from my increasingly distant past about whom I’m curious, and in a few cases I’ve been able to satisfy that curiosity by surfing the Web, though most of them, alas, have slipped between the cracks. This is another aspect of middle age that goes unmentioned in the instruction manual: you learn that some stories have unhappy endings, while others simply trail off into silence. Even so, the Web does facilitate the closing of certain circles, some as small as a fleeting desire to know the name of an actor seen and noticed in a bit part, others as large as a lifelong quest for a missing piece of your identity.
Nor is it always a one-way process. Sometimes you find in your e-mailbox a note from a person you’ve never met, and all at once you remember what it felt like to open an unread book and fall headlong into a strange new world. That’s what happened to me in 1982, and I’m glad I got a chance to tell Toni Bentley about it face to face. I hope I get to repay a few more debts like that while I still can.
Cinetrix has been fortunate enough to catch a Boston-area screening of Word Wars, the Scrabble documentary that premiered at Sundance this year. In January I interviewed the filmmakers, Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo, here and here. I still haven't seen the film myself, and Cinetrix's review makes me even grumpier about it:
The journey to the nationals goes through a money game with inveterate gambler Matt at G.I. Joel's Bronx home [$1,000 rides on the best of 50 games straight], a tournament in Madfrost/Stamford [CT] that sees the first Speed Scrabble game in competition, and an event in One Veranda/Reno, Nevada. There are detours to the Hasbro headquarters in Providence, Rhode Island, and a Baltimore elementary school where Marlon extols the beauty of the game to a classroom of kids. Along the way our four heroes are up and down, hot and cold--Marlon even hits Tijuana for a little stress relief [ahem]--but their gaze never wavers from the $25,000 purse for first place. The final confrontation, scored to Miami Vice-style guitar heroics, is detailed play by play: Fischer and Spassky meet Rocky. Hack reviewers could be forgiven for pulling out the old "stand up and cheer" sobriquet. It's good stuff.
"My rubber heels slithered on the sidewalk as I turned into the narrow lobby of the Fulwider Building. A single drop light burned far back, beyond an open, once gilt elevator. There was a tarnished and well-missed spittoon on a gnawed rubber mat. A case of false teeth hung on the mustard-colored wall like a fuse box in a screen porch. I shook the rain off my hat and looked at the building directory beside the case of teeth. Numbers with names and numbers without names. Plenty of vacancies or plenty of tenants who wished to remain anonymous. Painless dentists, shyster detective agencies, small sick businesses that had crawled there to die, mail order schools that would teach you how to become a railroad clerk or a radio technician or a screen writer—if the postal inspectors didn't catch up with them first. A nasty building. A building in which the smell of stale cigar butts would be the cleanest odor."
It’s been raining all day, or since the beginning of time—I can’t remember.
I spent the morning filling out an inch-thick form.
I put on a suit and tie and went downtown for a meeting.
By the time the meeting was over, all the cabs in Manhattan had dissolved in the late-afternoon rain, leaving only a dirty yellow slick in the gutters.
When I finally got home, I was very, very wet.
For these reasons and others like them, I have consumed no art of any sort today, except for a couple of fugitive glances at the Teachout Museum and a few paragraphs of The Big Sleep gulped down in between bites of a midday sandwich that bore only a coincidental resemblance to the one I ordered.
That’s all I have to say. If you want to read something good, don’t waste any more time on me—go look at Maud’s prize-winning story instead.
Teachout -- music, dance, drama, and literary critic -- is a commentator of rare daring. He is funny, astute, straight-talking, strong-minded. He is eager to tackle hard issues, unafraid to identify himself as a highbrow, willing to make value judgments. Beauty is real and worth fighting for, and he is ready to accept the challenge of the ''pesto-and-phallocentrism crowd" and others.
The best pieces in this collection of illuminating and often electrifying short essays -- originally published in the New York Times Book Review, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, Crisis, New Dance Review, and the National Review -- focus on modern dance and jazz. The essays on Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, and Leonard Bernstein are sensational. Isadora Duncan is a ''top-seeded contender for the title of least intentionally amusing person ever." But Teachout is outspoken about writers and critics as well. He forcefully defends Willa Cather against ''the mills of trendiness [which] grind ceaselessly . . . in the age of feminist criticism." He is unafraid to attack the practitioners of black studies and what he calls their ''fellow literary-theory racketeers." Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman are ''the Nick and Nora of the limousine left." Dance critic Arlene Croce ''made the mistake of being right at the wrong time." Just when you feel at ease with his sharp criticism, he goes soft in the last essay, on singer Nancy LaMott, and breaks your heart.
I’ve been busy, but I’ve also had three very good days of what a friend of mine calls "arting," so I’m not complaining:
• On Friday night I saw a press preview of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen, which opens Tuesday at Circle in the Square after a successful off-Broadway run. I’ll be reviewing it in next Friday’s Journal. After the show, I went to ChikaLicious, an East Village dessert bar, accompanied by a friend whose first name happens to be (no fooling) Chika. Only in New York….
• The weather on Saturday afternoon was golden, so I strolled across Central Park to an East Side auction house, where I took a peek at a Hans Hofmann lithograph on which I’ve placed an absentee bid (the hammer falls on Tuesday). Cross your fingers—I covet this one desperately.
• From there I returned home to meet Sarah, who was in Manhattan all week to cover the Edgar Awards for "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind," her must-read crime-fiction-and-more blog. I gave her a tour of the Teachout Museum and persuaded her to help me do a bit of manual labor (one of my prints had come unmounted, so we carried it to the neighborhood framer). We dined in the immediate vicinity, then taxied down to the Village Vanguard to hear the Jim Hall Trio. It was Sarah’s first time hearing Hall, and she gave every sign of bedazzlement. As for me, I’d already heard the trio on Wednesday,
but they were even better last night. (Incidentally, the set was recorded for CD release—go here to find out how to buy a copy.)
• Back at home again, I squared off the evening by watching the first hour of Brute Force, a 1947 Popular Front-style prison-break film noir directed by Jules Dassin, scored by Miklós Rózsa, and starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn. The script is ham-handed, with lots and lots and lots of root-cause speechmaking, but I still enjoyed it, and Rózsa’s score, as always, was pointed and passionate.
• Today I returned to Broadway to see a press preview of Prymate, a new play by Mark Medoff, author of Children of a Lesser God, opening Wednesday at the Longacre. Again, I’ll be reviewing it in Friday’s Journal.
• In between all the aforementioned activities, I readCarrying the Fire, a memoir by Michael Collins, the member of the Apollo 11 crew who didn’t land on the moon along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (he was the command-module pilot). Carrying the Fire is all but forgotten, though it shouldn’t be: Collins is the only American astronaut to have had a truly writerly sensibility, and he tells his story with flair.
• Now playing on iTunes: Benjamin Britten’s divinely lyrical Hymn to St. Cecilia, recorded by Sir David Willcocks and the King’s College Choir. I’m hoping it helps to waft me bedward, since I’m worn out (though happily so) and greatly in need of deep sleep.
See you Monday, unless I decide to take the day off, which is well within the realm of possibility. We'll just have to see.
Many tales to tell, but no time to tell them just yet (except to say that Sarah is way more than merely cool), since I have a jampacked day ahead of me. Fortunately, I have the night off, so I'll fire up the links and write a nice long "Consumables" after I return from my post-matinee dinner.
In the nonce, the latest edition of "Second City," my monthly Washington Post column about goings on in New York, is now available on line. Go to the right-hand column, scroll down to the "Second City" module, click on the May link, and you're there.
"Some people have an unconquerable love of riddles. They may have the chance of listening to plain sense, or to such wisdom as explains life; but no, they must go and work their brains over a riddle, just because they do not understand what it means."