About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, June 2, 2006
TT: In one era and out the other
Overheard yesterday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:
• Middle-aged woman in socks and sandals: “Have you seen The Diary of Anne Frank yet? I decided to go, even though I don’t like seeing depressing shows—George Bush already has me depressed enough.”
• Older woman: “It says here in the program that William Inge—he’s the man who wrote this play, honey—was ‘ashamed at being homosexual.’ What do you think of that?”
Older man: “Huh.”
Older woman: “Well, what I want to know is, if he was so ashamed, why didn’t he just stop?”
OGIC: James and the giant slab
Regarding The Complete New Yorker, I'll reluctantly admit to still being part of the camp James Wolcott describes like this:
An odd thing happened. It arrived, wrapped in plastic, and there it sat, wrapped in plastic. For weeks, months. I had read a few raised-nostril reviews of The Complete New Yorker that lauded its scope, refinement, and handsome presentation, but criticized its search engine, the awkwardness of inserting a different disk for each decade, the misspellings in the synopses (dismaying, given the magazine’s reputation for meticulousness), and the inability to cut-and-paste. But it wasn’t underwhelmed reviews that deterred me from cracking open the package, and I discovered through comparing notes that others shared my paralysis. Wherever literati types gathered to namedrop and glance over each other’s shoulders, unopened sets of The Complete New Yorker seemed to loom in the background, like the slab from 2001. Editors, agents, and fellow writers admitted that they too had bought the set or received it as a gift, but somehow “hadn’t gotten around” to opening it yet—or hadn’t been able to bring themselves to. They sounded vaguely sheepish and guilty, as if shirking their duty, or shying away from what lay within. You would have thought that to pry open the gatefold to The Complete New Yorker was to enter the forbidden tomb from which no man or woman returns.
Presumably under threat of the New Criterion's everlasting ire, Wolcott finally unplasticked his slab and records his impressions in an garrulous but engaging thicket of a consideration that comes as close as one would wish to exhaustive coverage of the eight-disc behemoth. A good read and a survey of highlights for those who, like me, want to delve in armed with some manner of compass.
TT: Down in the valley
I’m in love with with Ashland, Oregon, and not just because it happens to be ringed by mountains and bisected by a brook. In addition to the three-theater Oregon Shakespeare Festival complex, which is the reason why I’m here, three other theater companies, Oregon Cabaret Theater, Oregon Stage Works, and Camelot Theatre Company, have their headquarters in town or nearby. The main drag is lined with bookstores and other enticing establishments, among them a CD shop that bills itself as a “patchouli-free zone” and an antique store whose front window is full of immaculately preserved vintage bellows cameras, all of them long ago rendered obsolete by the shiny, gadget-crammed 35-millimeter models which are now being superseded by their own digital replacements. Two doors down from my excellent hotel is an indie-flick house with an art-deco façade, and there’s an old-fashioned soda fountain up the street. As if all that weren't enough, I ran into not one but two strolling minstrels in the town square. (I half expected to find Lorelai and Rory Gilmore listening to them.)
I spent my first morning in Ashland looking for a place to have dinner on Friday. The question of where to have dinner on Thursday had previously been answered for me by Mr. Rifftides, who told me in no uncertain terms that Chateaulin was the best restaurant in town. I don't know about that, not having eaten at every restaurant in town, but I made a point of going to Chateaulin in between performances of William Inge’s Bus Stop and a new play called UP, and had myself a first-class meal. Needless to say, it didn't hurt that the management chose to play Paul Desmond's Take Ten as accompaniment to my dessert, any more than I objected to hearing Pink Martini while having breakfast at my hotel. When it comes to background music, Ashland is hip.
This isn’t paradise on earth, at least not quite. For one thing, the altitude, combined with the lingering effects of a slight case of bicoastal time-zone confusion, made my head spin after my first brisk walk around town. I suspect that the prevailing politico-cultural winds would make it spin still more rapidly were I to stick around for much longer. (I smiled wryly at the sight of the poster for the “Honoring Our Indigenous Women Activists Speaking Tour” hanging in the window of the local laundromat.) Even so, I’m not looking forward to going home. It seems I have a weakness for small resort towns surrounded by mountains whose peaks are wreathed with clouds.
TT: Loud cheers for Lynn Nottage
Speaking of Lynn Nottage, as I was yesterday, my drama column in this morning’s Wall Street Journal is in large part a review of a Baltimore production of one of her plays:
In 2004 “Intimate Apparel” and “Fabulation,” two new plays by Lynn Nottage, received high-profile Off Broadway productions. All at once she was the talk of the town, and “Intimate Apparel” went on to become the most frequently produced new American play of the 2005-06 season. But Ms. Nottage was no theatrical debutante. Nine years earlier, she had written “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” a “Glass Menagerie”-style memory play commissioned by New York’s Second Stage Theatre that received mixed reviews, though it, too, is now a regional-theater staple.
I finally caught up with “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” last weekend at Baltimore CenterStage, where it has been given a production of the highest possible quality. As for the play itself, I’ve no idea why it didn’t put Ms. Nottage on the map a decade sooner. It’s at least as good as “Intimate Apparel,” and perhaps even more immediately appealing….
I also went to Philadelphia to report on Arden Theater’s revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:
If there’s a funnier musical than “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” I haven’t seen it. The book, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, is a baggy-pants farce based on two comedies of Plautus that overflows with nudge-nudge laughs. Most of Stephen Sondheim’s songs are functional, but brilliantly so, and “Comedy Tonight,” a prologue added at Jerome Robbins’ suggestion during the previews of the original 1962 production, is one of Mr. Sondheim’s wittiest inspirations. The result is a show that rarely fails to send its audiences home happy, and the Arden Theatre Company’s spirited revival, staged with leering gusto by Terrence J. Nolen, the company’s artistic director, is full to the brim with good, dirty fun….
No link, as usual, so please pick up a copy of today’s Journal to read the whole thing, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you on-the-spot access to the full text of my review, plus much, much more.
TT and OGIC: Feedback
A reader writes, apropos of Terry’s recent trip to
Dear OGIC and Terry:
No time for hot dogs, but I had a day in Chicago worthy of you both
yesterday. I put the "Gone Fishing" sign on the door and lit out early
from Milwaukee to Chicago, where I caught the matinee Henry IV at the
Chicago Shakes. Terry, I'm with Harold Bloom on Falstaff, meaning I
think more of him and his code of life-affirming values and less of Hal
than you do, but it speaks volumes for how wonderfully this play was
done—and of how great the play itself is—that what I saw yesterday
supports my interpretation as well as your own. And thanks for the tip
on the box lunches—it sure beat the power bar I would have been
It was then on to Hyde Park, for an evening with Lettice and Lovage. I
thought the plot was a bit spotty, but the deadly earnest and real
nature of the dialogue, combined with large dollops of humor and
tremendous acting, made it a perfect complement to the Shakespeare.
OK, so I didn't get back to Milwaukee until 1 this morning. And yes, I
had to get up for work at 6. And yes, I'm exhausted as I write these
words. But I wouldn't trade my day for anything in the world. There
are few things in life as wonderful as good theater. One of them is
knowing that there are people like the two of you to whom I can write
and on whom I can count to understand exactly what I mean.
And another is having readers like this. Many thanks.
Thursday, June 1, 2006
“No artist—like no public figure—should be taken at his own word.”
Clement Greenberg, letter to Irving Sandler, April 5, 1971
TT: Gone west
I’m sitting in a hotel room in Ashland, Oregon, having just returned from a performance of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel (a nice coincidence, seeing as how I went to Baltimore on Sunday to watch CenterStage perform another of her plays, Crumbs from the Table of Joy). It was a long trip—twelve hours, portal to portal—but Ashland, a resort town snuggled in the middle of the Rogue River Valley, proved to be refreshingly lovely, as did the Ashland Springs Hotel, the place where I’m staying, with which I am well pleased.
I realized as I prepared to depart from Newark very early on Wednesday that I was embarking on my first transcontinental flight since I went to San Francisco to cover the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s operatic version of Dead Man Walking for Time. (That was in the long-ago days when Time still took note of such things.) I was already afraid to fly in 2000, and a few years later my late-blooming anxiety was on the verge of becoming a full-blown, incapacitating phobia. I didn't want to rely on drugs in order to keep on flying, so I embarked instead on a rigorous course of psychotherapy. Now, 9/11 notwithstanding, it appears to have paid off. I flew from Newark to Denver to Oregon without the slightest twinge of anxiety. May it always be so.
Not having been to the West Coast in six years, I’d forgotten how compulsively beautiful the American West is when seen from the air. I spent the last two and a half hours of the trip with my nose pressed to the window, goggling at the geographic marvels passing in review beneath me, the words of the psalmist running through my head: What is man, that thou art mindful of him? Alas, I’ve never beheld such wonders other than in movies and from the windows of airplanes. Maybe I’ll do something about it, now that I’m fifty.
For the next few days, though, I’ll be spending most of my time sitting in aisle seats without a mountain view. I have four more plays to see between now and Saturday morning, when I return to New York and resume my regular duties. I’ll do my best to keep in touch between now and then, but I've been on the go for twenty hours straight as I write these words, and the very next thing I need is a good night’s sleep!
See you tomorrow.
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)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
• The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
• Faith Healer* (drama, R, adult subject matter, 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)
• 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)
• Awake and Sing! (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes June 25)
• Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here, closes July 2)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, reviewed here, closes July 2)
CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
• Defiance (drama, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here, closes Sunday)
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
"Beauty must be a byproduct of some other intention."
Robert Motherwell (quoted in Irving Sandler, A Sweeper-Up After Artists)
TT: Theory of relativity
My new Arnold Friedman lithograph arrived yesterday, just in time for me to drop it off at the framer before leaving for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this morning. It was even more beautiful than I’d expected, so much so that I gasped when I took it out of the package, as did my houseguest.
“Can you believe I only paid $225 for it?” I asked her.
“Omigod,” she replied, looking slightly embarrassed. “I’ve paid more than that for shoes.”
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
"Alas, how miserable their good looks made him! The pain of watching beautiful young girls, the isolation of desire! They reminded him of the figures in one of those pictures by Watteau that are instinct with the beauty of the moment, the fugitive distress of hedonism, the sadness that falls like dew from pleasure, as they stand, fixed in the movement of the dance, beneath the elms, beneath the garlanded urn."
Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool
TT: Coming and going
I spent Memorial Day weekend in Philadelphia and Baltimore, seeing Arden Theater’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and CenterStage’s production of Crumbs from the Table of Joy, a 1995 play by Lynn Nottage. I caught up with Nottage (along with most of the rest of the New York critics) in 2004, when two of her later plays, Intimate Apparel
and Fabulation, were premiered in the same season. Seeing them in such close succession made me a fan, which is why I went out of my way to catch Crumbs from the Table of Joy in Baltimore.
My travels began with a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I took in Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic. Wyeth is an odd case, a self-evidently gifted artist whom few art critics take seriously save as a technician. I am, for the most part, one of their skeptical number, though I do like his splendidly accomplished drybrush watercolors, a few of which are to be found in this crowded (in all senses) retrospective. I don't care at all for the large-scale paintings, which have always struck me as essentially false, all but quivering with an embarrassed romanticism poorly concealed beneath a cloak of pretended austerity. It’s the paintings that most people love, though, and I wish I could agree with them. Dr. Johnson said of Gray’s Elegy that “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” I agree—but not when it comes to Wyeth.
From there I took myself to Old Town, Philadelphia’s historical district, which is full of excellent sights to see, most of them very close indeed to the Arden (it’s next door to Christ Church, where Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross worshipped, and around the corner from Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest residential street in America). It’s also full of excellent restaurants, and I had an unusually good meal at one of them, a place called Fork that I commend to your attention should you find yourself in that famous part of town. Alas, I spent an exceedingly disagreeable night at the Independence Park Hotel, which put me up in a room that was hot, stuffy, and noisy, then served me a continental breakfast that bordered on the inedible. I won't be back, save at gunpoint.
As for the two shows, you’ll have to wait until Friday to hear about them. In the meantime, I’ll be off again very early Wednesday morning, this time to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where I’ll be seeing five plays in two and a half days and partaking of whatever other delights the city of Ashland, Oregon, may have to offer me. I plan to bring along my trusty iBook, so it seems fairly likely that I’ll be blogging at some point or points during my stay, but don’t be surprised if my postings are erratic between now and week’s end.
TT: Fair play
I spent a good-sized chunk of last week writing a lengthy essay for Commentary about Alice Goldfarb Marquis’ Art Czar, the new biography of the art critic Clement Greenberg. Eight years ago I reviewed an earlier book about Greenberg, Florence Rubenfeld’s Clement Greenberg: A Life, and it occurred to me that it might be useful for me to revisit my earlier piece. For the most part I stand by what I wrote about Greenberg (and Rubenfeld) in 1998, but there was one passage that jumped out at me:
Greenberg became closely identified with a group of painters known as the “color-field abstractionists,” whose work he believed to be the culmination of modernism. He praised the work of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski in disconcertingly lavish terms, curtly dismissing all competing artists as minor….
Greenberg’s critics were right about one thing—his history-driven theory of modernism was too neat by half—just as he himself was mistaken about a great many things, not least the long-term importance of the color-field painters, whose work he loved.
Eight years later, with Olitski’s Forward Edge and Noland’s Circle I (II-3) hanging on the walls of my living room, I find myself in a what-was-I-thinking mood. Such drastic changes of mind do happen to me on occasion, most recently in the case of the playwright August Wilson, of whom I thought poorly until I was lucky enough to see a very good production of what I’m told is his best play. Whenever that kind of thing happens to me, I try to come clean about it, in public if at all possible.
As I explained in The Wall Street Journal four years ago in a column called “The Contrite Critic”:
I’ve changed my mind about art more than once, and in so doing I’ve learned that I not infrequently start by disliking something and end up liking it. Not always—sometimes I decide on closer acquaintance that a novel or painting isn’t as good as I’d thought. More often, though, I realize that it was necessary for me to grow into a fuller understanding of a work of art to which my powers of comprehension were not at first equal.
The music critic Hans Keller said something shrewd about this phenomenon: “As soon as I detest something, I ask myself why I like it.” I try to keep that in mind whenever I cover a premiere. I don’t mean to say that critics should be wishy-washy, but we should also remember that strong emotions sometimes masquerade as their opposite.
Brooks Atkinson, for example, panned the original production of Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey” in the New York Times, calling it “drab and mirthless.” When he saw the 1952 revival, he knew he’d been wrong, and said so in print: “In 1940 ‘Pal Joey’ was regarded by its satellites as the musical that broke the old formula and brought the musical stage to maturity. There was a minority, including this column, that was not enchanted. But no one is likely now to be impervious to the tight organization of the production, the terseness of the writing, the liveliness and versatility of the score, and the easy perfection of the lyrics.”
More common, alas, is the case of the great art critic Clement Greenberg. In 1945, Greenberg dismissed Monet’s late paintings as “mere instances of his style but not works of art.” Twelve years later, he proclaimed their revolutionary significance, adding that “the righting of a wrong is involved here, though that wrong—which was a failure in appreciation—may have been inevitable and even necessary at a certain stage in the evolution of modern painting.” Excuse me? That’s like a politician saying Mistakes were made instead of I blew it.
I yield to no one in my admiration for Greenberg, but I also think the world of art would be a better place if we critics made a point of eating crow from time to time.
(You can read the whole thing here.)
If Clem Greenberg ever sat down to such a dish in his long lifetime, I’m unaware of it. I, on the other hand, try to eat it whenever circumstances warrant. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have some chewing to do….
Monday, May 29, 2006
“Revelations about a writer's life should not affect our independently formed critical assessment of his work. They may, however, confirm or explain reservations about it.”
David Lodge, “The Lives of Graham Greene” (courtesy of Kate’s Book Blog)
Friday, May 27, 2005
"I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can't be won without.
"I wish you could see just one of the ineradicable pictures I have in my mind today. In this particular picture I am sitting among clumps of sword-grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we have just taken. We are looking out over a vast rolling country to the rear.
"A narrow path comes like a ribbon over a hill miles away, down a long slope, across a creek, up a slope and over another hill.
"All along the length of this ribbon there is now a thin line of men. For four days and nights they have fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all. Their nights have been violent with attack, fright, butchery, and their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery.
"The men are walking. They are fifty feet apart, for dispersal. Their walk is slow, for they are dead weary, as you can tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies speaks their inhuman exhaustion.
"On their shoulders and backs they carry heavy steel tripods, machine-gun barrels, leaden boxes of ammunition. Their feet seem to sink into the ground from the overload they are bearing.
"They don't slouch. It is the terrible deliberation of each step that spells out their appalling tiredness. Their faces are black and unshaven. They are young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion make them look middle-aged.
"In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory—there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.
"The line moves on, but it never ends. All afternoon men keep coming round the hill and vanishing eventually over the horizon. It is one long tired line of antlike men."
Ernie Pyle, Scripps-Howard dispatch from Tunisia, May 2, 1943
TT: Where I'd rather be
I’m taking the train to Philadelphia first thing Friday morning for an art-related day trip. Believe it or not, I’ve never seen the Barnes Foundation, and I figured I’d better go now while it’s still there. Expect a report on Monday, unless I decide to write it on Tuesday.
Have a nice weekend—I plan to. Over to you, OGIC....
TT: Stoppard, Steppenwolf, Shakespeare
It’s Friday, and today’s Wall Street Journal drama column is a report on my travels to New Haven (where I saw Long Wharf Theatre’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties) and Chicago (where I saw Lost Land at Steppenwolf and Romeo and Juliet at Chicago Shakespeare Theater). Two out of three is pretty damn good:
Producer A hires overambitious movie star B to appear on stage in classic play C. Examples: Denzel Washington in “Julius Caesar,” Jessica Lange and Christian Slater in “The Glass Menagerie.” Intended result: long lines at the box office. Unintended consequence: a grade-Z show. It’s called “stunt casting,” and it’s almost always artistic bad news. On the other hand, it’s no stunt when a TV star who also happens to be a seasoned stage performer decides to spend the annual hiatus in his shooting schedule doing some real acting. Sam Waterston of “Law & Order,” for instance, is currently appearing in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties,” and he’s as good as can be….
It’s never a stunt when John Malkovich acts with Steppenwolf. To be sure, Mr. Malkovich is the creepiest of all possible film villains, but he’s also a longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member who always comes back to Chicago sooner or later to tread the boards of his old company. At present, alas, he’s in Stephen Jeffreys’ “Lost Land,” an overstuffed historical drama that isn’t worthy of him, much less of Martha Lavey, the company’s artistic director, who has temporarily abandoned the front office to give an incisive performance….
The only star in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Romeo and Juliet” is the playwright, who has been admirably served by Mark Lamos, his loyal and imaginative director….
No link—but don’t despair. Not only do they sell the Journal at newsstands for one (1) dollar, but you can also go here and subscribe to the Journal’s online edition. Whip out your credit card, click a few keys on your computer, and within seconds you’ll be reveling in all the cool stuff in the Weekend Journal section—starting with the unexpurgated text of my review. What’s not to like?
TT: To a gas chamber—go!
A friend writes:
“Good God almighty! That woman is a sewer!” Ayn Rand's heavily (and disapprovingly) annotated copy of Mary McCarthy's
essay volume The Humanist in the Bathtub, which includes
the above comment by Rand on McCarthy, is up for auction
at Butterfields along with a lot of other books from Rand's
The estimate is $3,000-$5,000. Go here to see for yourself. It’s a total hoot.
By the way, don’t you love reading the marginalia of famous people? Somebody really ought to put together an anthology….
Thursday, May 26, 2005
'They went to the theater and afterwards she listened as charmingly as any girl ever had to his dissection of the play. She didn't complain about his surgical cruelty, but seemed, if anything, excited by it. As a middle-class girl, she was used to understatement followed at once by qualification: the only passion in her family being a nonstop concern for people's feelings. Her parents would have hesitated to criticize Mickey Mouse (you haven't heard his side)."
Wilfrid Sheed, Max Jamison
TT: Quotations from Chairman Wystan
"There is no single Greek literary work of art as great as The Divine Comedy; there is no extant series of works by a single Greek literary artist as impressive as the complete plays of Shakespeare; as a period of sustained creative activity in one medium, the seventy-five-odd years of Athenian drama, between the first tragedies of Aeschylus and the last comedy of Aristophanes, are surpassed by the hundred and twenty-five years, between Gluck's Orpheus and Verdi's Otello, which comprise the golden age of Italian opera: nevertheless, the bewildered comment of any fifth century Athenian upon our society from Dante's time till our own, and with increasing sharpness every decade, would surely be: 'Yes, I can see all the works of a great civilization; but why cannot I meet any civilized persons? I only encounter specialists, artists who know nothing of science, scientists who know nothing of art, philosophers who have no interest in God, priests who are unconcerned with politics, politicians who only know other politicians.'"
W.H. Auden, "The Greeks and Us" (from Forewords and Afterwords)
“There is nothing so pleasant as to give oneself trouble for a person who is worth one's while. For the best of us, the study of the arts, a taste for old things, collections, gardens are all mere ersatz, succedanea, alibis. In the heart of our tub, like Diogenes, we cry out for a man. We cultivate begonias, we trim yews, as a last resort, because yews and begonias submit to treatment. But we should like to give our time to a plant of human growth, if we were sure that he was worth the trouble. That is the whole question: you must know something about yourself. Are you worth my trouble or not?”
Marcel Proust, Le Côté de Guermantes
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
OGIC: Around and about
• If you don't like spoilers, don't read Max Watman's trenchant, frequently withering group review of the new Ishiguro, McEwan, Canty, and more. But you'd be missing out, and the review comes complete with a rationale for revealing plot points in reviews—basically, that the very notion of "spoiling" makes no sense with regard to literary fiction. I have mixed feelings about that, but I'm in total agreement with him on the brilliance of Canty. As for McEwan, I haven't read Saturday yet, but seemingly have read every last review of it, and I have to say that Watman's main critique of the novel is one that I was surprised not to encounter sooner.
• One Lady Eve views another, with edifying results...such a fantastic movie, that.
• The Lady Megan unearthed this riveting site. You'll laugh. Right up until you cry.
• The New Yorker arrived, and I went straight to the back of the book. There I encountered Hilton Als's review of a new production of Miss Julie but could never quite catch my breath enough to take it in as, from the first mention of Strindberg's name, all I could think of was this. As the Lady Tushnet might say, hee hee! Gooooordian knot....
TT: In a nutshell
A reader writes:
Blogging has become the intellectual's TV set.
I wish I'd said that. (I will, Oscar, I will!)
TT: Ahead of the ticker
The original-cast album of Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza was released yesterday. I’ve been listening to my advance copy ever since it arrived, and I’ve been feeling something unusual and unexpected: I’m angry with those benighted drama critics whose mixed-to-poor reviews of this extraordinary show may have kept unsuspecting people from seeing it.
Fortunately, Stephen Holden of the New York Times, one of the most receptive and perceptive critics I know (he ought to write a blog!), has published a deeply comprehending review of the CD, and for the moment I can do no better than to quote from it:
"The Light in the Piazza," whose sublime original cast album was released today by Nonesuch Records, has the most intensely romantic score of any Broadway musical since "West Side Story," unless you count Andrew Lloyd Webber's kitschy, pontificating melodic oratory for "The Phantom of the Opera." There is nothing kitschy about Mr. Guettel's songs, which share with Stephen Sondheim's equally great but less overtly tuneful score for "Passion" a fascination with mad love.
Exquisitely arranged and orchestrated by the composer with Ted Sperling and Bruce Coughlin, "The Light in the Piazza" unfolds as a diaphanous swirl of strings and harp, flecked with reeds, guitar and delicate percussion; the more you listen to it, the more its mists assume form and substance….
Because Mr. Guettel is the grandson of Richard Rodgers, one of the all-time greatest Broadway melodists, the score suggests a personal conversation between generations. "The Light in the Piazza" takes place only four years after the Broadway opening of the Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster "South Pacific."
Mr. Guettel's songs share the heady romantic spirit of "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Younger Than Springtime," ballads from that show that helped define the catechism of courtship in post-World War II America. If his melodies suggest sophisticated, angular refractions of his grandfather's, his lyrics question the homilies attached to Rodgers's melodies….
I’ll be writing more about The Light in the Piazza, here or elsewhere, but for the moment I suggest you heed Holden’s words and buy the original-cast CD right now—then go see the show for yourself.
As I mentioned above, I got my copy of The Light in the Piazza slightly in advance of the rest of the listening public. This is one of the great privileges of being a critic: I’m listening to Erin McKeown’s We Will Become Like Birds, and you’re not. (It comes out June 28.) Sarah and I were talking a couple of weeks ago about how thrilled we were when publishers started sending us review copies of unpublished books. Believe it or not, I still have my first set of bound galleys, stuffed in a box somewhere or other. They’re 23 years old, which is how long I’ve been a book reviewer, God help me. Even so, I can still remember exactly how it felt when I opened the envelope and held them in my hand: I knew something the rest of the world didn’t.
That's the way I’m feeling right this minute as I listen to Erin McKeown sing “Air.” Eight months ago, Our Girl called me on her cell phone from the street outside the Chicago club where she’d just heard McKeown sing that as-yet-unrecorded song. She was so excited
about discovering a wonderful new artist that she couldn’t wait to go home and e-mail me—she had to call and tell me on the spot. Now I’m hearing the very same song for the very first time, and feeling the same overwhelming desire to spread the word. Fortunately, I don’t have to call all of you up one at a time. I love blogging. I love music. I love art. Truth to tell, I love pretty much everything, at least for the moment. Art will do that to you.
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
"During my time as a soldier in the First World War I was a member of a string quartet which served our commanding officer as a means of escape from the miseries of war. He was a great music-lover and a connoisseur and admirer of French art. It was no wonder, then, that his dearest wish was to hear Debussy's String Quartet. We rehearsed the work and played it to him with much feeling at a private concert. Just after we had finished the slow movement the signals officer burst in and reported in great consternation that the news of Debussy's death had just come through on the radio. We did not continue our performance. It was as if the spirit had been removed from our playing. But now we felt for the first time how much more music is than just style, technique and an expression of personal feeling. Here music transcended all political barriers, national hatred and the horrors of war. Never before or since have I felt so clearly in which direction music must be made to go."
Paul Hindemith (quoted in Geoffrey Skelton, Paul Hindemith: The Man Behind the Music)
To begin with, several readers caught me with my pants down when I claimed
the other day, apropos of W.H. Auden, that Forewords and Afterwords was “the only essay collection Auden published in his lifetime.” Not so, not so! It was preceded by The Dyer’s Hand, which is actually on my bookshelf, whereas Forewords and Afterwords was stuck in the back of my closet. This was double-barreled dumbness: I somehow had it lodged in my mind that The Dyer’s Hand was based on a series of lectures. (Wrong book—that’s The Enchaféd Flood.) A million pardons for my memory lapse.
Now, on to a couple of interesting pieces of correspondence:
• “Apropos of nothing, except that Auden always makes me think of Kultur, your line in the Proust questionnaire
that your idea of—Hell? unhappiness? what was it?—was ‘Siegfried’ made me laugh aloud, an achievement you share with your man Mencken, Amis and a very few others.”
I’m honored. I myself rarely laugh out loud when reading, so rarely that I can actually remember some of the specific passages that have made me do so. I don’t think that H.L. Mencken has ever done it for me, but I remember vividly that Kingsley Amis rang the bell on my first reading of Lucky Jim when his anti-hero ordered an “octuple whisky.” I’ve also done it a couple of times when reading P.J. O’Rourke, and I went out of my way years ago to mention the fact in a New York Times Book Review piece (of which I no longer have a copy, alas).
Why is it that humor on the page, no matter how funny, tends not to provoke an audible response from the reader? Or am I and my correspondent exceptional in our tendency to keep our mirth to ourselves? It happens that I’m an unusually loud laugher in public—so much so that at least one performer who knows me in private life has spotted my hoot from the stage. (She said she found it reassuring.) Must people like me be part of a crowd in order to be sufficiently disinhibited to emit the peculiar noises known as laughter? I doubt it, since I also laugh out loud when watching TV alone.
Any and all explanations will be gratefully received.
• “Unsolicited advice to my favorite blogger: we know you're a very busy man and we understand you have to make room for other things more important (yes!) than the blog. But sometimes it seems as if your every other paragraph carries this message. Awright, awreddy!”
Touché and/or ouch! It’s guilt speaking, of course: I find it almost impossible not to post without first explaining why I’m not going to be posting. Such is the merciless work ethic that rules my productive life. I keep saying that I’ll try to take unexplained time off from the blog, and I keep not doing it. Looks like the time has come to give it another try. In any case, I appreciate the nudge.
OGIC: The reluctant diarist reconsiders
Last week I mused about diaries kept and unkept, kempt and unkempt, pretentious and pedestrian. I was feeling rather cynical about the whole endeavor. But one reader's response made me think again:
I kept journals/diaries as a teenager, inspired by the diaries my great-grandfather kept since he was 19 until a few months before he died at 94. In it are recorded India's independence, the birth of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, cases he won (he was a lawyer), progress on the books he wrote (in English—they were short stories), his first trip to England, the passing of his wife—he wrote them with every intention that they would be read by others. In fact, he kept them near his writing desk and would browse in them from time to time.
After a few "journal"-like attempts in the decade that followed, I wrote very little.
I started again a couple of years ago. They are from Moleskin and there is a page a day following the calendar year.I was motivated to start and keep them fairly updated because of the sense that days were slipping into months and into years without any "account" of them.
What did I do the summer of 2001? Was I happy? Did my back hurt? Did I take walks? What did I cook for dinner? What happened on Friday nights? Did I call my parents? What did they say? You get the drift. It's banal all right, but it's my banal life.
I also started drawing/sketching/painting and would love to keep a sketch diary but haven't gotten around to it yet. But this diary is a start. I do enjoy flipping back or reading earlier years and as you say, can reconstruct my day if, in fact, something memorable happened. And yes, some days the entries are a litany of complaints.
I glue ticket stubs right on the page; I have to-do lists written in too, so it goes with me everywhere. If there is an almanac entry that speaks to me, I will copy it down; as I will play/music/movie recommendations from you or Terry! It stays open in front of me most of my day at work, so I can scribble something down quickly when I have a moment. I also enjoy the physical act of writing—not typing, but picking up my fountain pen with sepia ink and writing and watch the ink dry.
However, my diary is quite private—I am not counting on anyone else reading it (oh, the ego). And no one will award any prizes for this writing!
As for the sketch diary, ask me again in a year.
The existence of my correspondent's great-grandfather's journals, and her access to them, are the best possible argument for conscientious diary-keeping. I would give much for a similar record of my great-grandparents' or grandparents' days. It's almost enough to make me start up again, right after I burn the old, self-indulgent ones. One needs two diary tracks, really—and many, many blank books, o joy—to do the thing right.
Let me also assent to the proposition that the sensual pleasure of handwriting is a not insignificant part of the draw of diary-keeping. I use roller ball pens, not fountain pens and sepia ink, but I still feel I know just what the writer of the above means. My thanks to her for this generous response to my call for diary stories.
OGIC: My recent delinquency
Oh no! I missed my first weekend since switching to weekend blogging. Contrary to what you may expect I'm going to say about that, it's not Terry's fault. Mostly.
Terry did, of course, keep me very busy for most of the weekend, what with two plays, several meals, and six Gilmore Girls. But I deposited him at Midway Airport around two o'clock Sunday, and still had most of a day stretched out promisingly before me. Oh, the things I would accomplish. Or so it seemed.
I accomplished exactly one thing. What kept me away from the old blog-and-chain was a task that was something new for me: I was serving as a screener for a writing contest that drew many, many entries. My job was to winnow down a few hundred to, well, as few as possible. Despite several bouts of concentrated reading over the last few weeks, I still had a pile of entries to get through yesterday, as well as the task of converting the towering stacks I'd been generating—"probable," "borderline," and "NO"—into a final list of recommendations I could stand by.
I felt as though I was near the end yesterday but, as anybody out there knows who has done work like this, you never really cease refining and recalibrating your standards in response to the fluctuating quality of the field. You can't know what an above-average piece of work looks like until you have read most of the entries. So the closer I got to the end of the pile, the more my anxiety grew that I had miscategorized the entries I'd read earlier. So when I reached the pile's bottom, I went back to the beginning. Suffice it to say that blogging time, along with a fair chunk of sleeping time, fell by the wayside last night—but for the sterling cause of literary justice. Anyway, I appreciate your patience and will try to make up for my absence during the week.
TT: Red alert
Yikes, yikes, yikes! One of my deadlines was moved up a day, causing a catastrophic meltdown of my schedule. As a result, I spent all of Monday writing like a madman and most of the evening watching a movie about which I have to knock out an essay later in the week. (It was Look at Me, about which Our Girl was exactly right, thus leaving me with the unenviable task of trying to figure out how to say differently what she already said perfectly.)
Bottom line: I probably won't be posting again until Wednesday, if then. Almanac entries will appear as usual, and I may plead for sympathy from time to time, but don't expect much more than crumbs.
For now, do the usual: ooch on over to "Sites to See" and immerse yourself in the marvels of the blogosphere. And when you speak of me, speak well....
TT: Quotations from Chairman Wystan
"Half the literature, highbrow and popular, produced in the West during the past four hundred years has been based on the false assumption that what is an exceptional experience is or ought to be a universal one. Under its influence so many millions of persons have persuaded themselves they were 'in love' when their experience could be fully and accurately described by the more brutal four-letter words, that one is sometimes tempted to doubt if the experience is ever genuine, even when, or especially when, it seems to have happened to oneself."
W.H. Auden, "The Protestant Mystics" (in Forewords and Afterwords)
Monday, May 23, 2005
“Since actors had ceased to be for me exclusively the depositaries, in
their diction and playing, of an artistic truth, they had begun to
interest me in themselves; I amused myself, pretending that what I saw
before me were the characters in some old humorous novel, by watching,
struck by the fresh face of the young man who had just come into the
stalls, the heroine listen distractedly to the declaration of love
which the juvenile lead in the piece was addressing to her, while he,
through the fiery torrent of his impassioned speech, still kept a
burning gaze fixed on an old lady seated in a stage box, whose
magnificent pearls had caught his eye; and thus, thanks especially to
the information that Saint-Loup gave me as to the private lives of the
players, I saw another drama, mute but expressive, enacted beneath the
words of the spoken drama which in itself, although of no merit,
interested me also; for I could feel in it that there were budding and
opening for an hour in the glare of the footlights, created out of the
agglutination on the face of an actor of another face of grease paint
and pasteboard, on his own human soul the words of a part.
“These ephemeral vivid personalities which the characters are in a play
that is entertaining also, whom one loves, admires, pities, whom one
would like to see again after one has left the theatre, but who by
that time are already disintegrated into a comedian who is no longer
in the position which he occupied in the play, a text which no longer
shews one the comedian's face, a coloured powder which a handkerchief
wipes off, who have returned in short to elements that contain nothing
of them, since their dissolution, effected so soon after the end of
the show, make us—like the dissolution of a dear friend—begin to
doubt the reality of our ego and meditate on the mystery of death.”
Marcel Proust, Le Côté de Guermantes
TT: Idiosyncratic routine
I don’t know anyone in New York who hasn’t claimed at one time or another that the value of taking a vacation is outweighed by the difficulty of cleaning up the mess that accumulates while you’re out of the office. Alas, I haven’t been on a vacation, but I did take the weekend off to see plays in Chicago with Our Girl, and on my return I found the usual intimidating pile of snail mail, e-mail, and packages waiting for me.
As always, I briefly considered shoving it into a corner and pretending it wasn’t there, but I knew I’d have to jump back on the merry-go-round first thing Monday morning (four deadlines, two plays, two movies, two lunches, an awards ceremony, and an out-of-town trip between now and Saturday), so instead I dumped it all on the kitchen table, placed a garbage bag on the floor next to my chair, and started tearing open envelopes. Once everything was sorted and the obvious junk pitched, I went back into the kitchen, took a box of Teddy Grahams and a bottle of seltzer out of the refrigerator, returned to the table and went through all the snail mail, eating and drinking as I read. Then I booted up my computer and started in on the e-mail. By the time I’d trashed the spam and finished answering the good stuff, I’d already received replies from the first three people I’d written.
Somewhere along the way, I muttered the all-too-familiar mantra of the busy New Yorker returned from a brief visit to elsewhere: It isn’t worth it. You might as well stay home. Only I knew better. Even when you leave town on business, as I did this past weekend, at least you’re somewhere else. No, it’s not a vacation, but it’s different, a stick of dynamite that blasts you out of your accustomed ways of doing things. Instead of dining on the Upper West Side and hailing a cab at exactly 7:20, I visit unfamiliar restaurants, sleep in unfamiliar beds, see actors I’ve never seen before, meet and greet new faces. I come home refreshed and inspired…and then I sit down at the kitchen table and start tearing open envelopes.
Like death and taxes, the mail is always with me, both good (an advance copy of the original-cast CD of The Light in the Piazza) and bad (a short stack of press releases inviting me to concerts I wouldn’t dream of attending other than at gunpoint). Years of experience have taught me that the pleasure of shoving it all in a corner tonight will be more than offset by the pain of opening twice as much of it tomorrow afternoon. I slog tonight so that the next day’s slog will seem marginally less Sisyphean—and so the Teachout Museum, also known as my living room, won't look unpleasingly messy when I stroll through it in the morning on the way to the shower. (One of the unintended consequences of collecting art in a small Upper West Side apartment is that you start to feel uncomfortable whenever you throw your clothes on the floor instead of hanging them neatly in the closet.)
Such is a piece of the price I pay for the life I lead, and you don't need to remind me that the moment I decide to stop paying it, somebody else will be more than happy to take my place. Only I don’t intend to stop paying it, at least not any time soon. The embarrassing truth is that I love my daily grind, even when I can’t stand it, which isn’t very often. Sure, there are days when you have to go see Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar, but there are other days when you get to go see Tracy Letts in Orson's Shadow or Kristin Chenoweth in The Apple Tree, and you never waste time thinking about the one when you’re reveling in the other.
Yes, I love my work, except when I return from the road at the end of a crowded weekend and spend a balmy Sunday night sitting alone at the kitchen table, munching Teddy Grahams and silently stuffing a garbage bag with press releases sent by publicists who insist on calling me “Ms. Terry Teachout.” (Are you listening, New York City Ballet?) I wouldn’t mind skipping that part. No matter what you do in life, there’s always a part you wouldn’t mind skipping.
TT: Pledge drive
No, we don't want you to send us any money (not unless you can spare a life-changingly significant sum, in which case we accept with pleasure!). But do this, please:
If you read "About Last Night" regularly and enjoy doing so, tell a friend about us.
Do it right now.
We return you now to our regularly scheduled posting. That was painless, wasn't it?
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• W.H. Auden’s poetry needs no endorsement from me, but I never fail to be surprised by how many well-read people are unaware that he was also a prolific critic and essayist. I was cleaning out a closet the other day and ran across a slightly bent paperback copy of Forewords and Afterwords, the only essay collection Auden published in his lifetime (the Princeton University Press uniform edition of his complete works will ultimately contain all of his essays and reviews). I’ve no idea how one of my favorite books ended up underneath my toolbox, especially since I could see at a glance that I’d marked a half-dozen passages I must have meant to transfer to my electronic commonplace book. Instead, I’ll post them as almanac entries this week, starting today.
I am, incidentally, still chewing away happily at A la recherche du temps perdu. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get a whole lot of reading done on the ground in Chicago, but I spent a pleasant hour with the Duchess de Guermantes at the airport this afternoon. Unlikely as it may sound, A la recherche is ideally suited for planes, trains, and waiting rooms….
• Two composers I know—both of them women, but otherwise very different in age, living circumstances, and stylistic interests—told me separately in the past few days that they found one of the inescapable problems of being a professional composer to be the fact that you spend so much time alone. This is also true of writing, but I’ve never found the solitude necessary for writing to be a problem in and of itself. On the other hand, I do find that I start to get a bit isolated whenever my workaholism flares up and gets out of control. The Web, I suspect, is part of the problem: I use it to provide a change of pace when I’ve got a lot of deadlines on my plate, and it creates so powerful an illusion of “being in touch” that I sometimes forget to go out and see real live people, or even leave the apartment for anything beyond the most essential errands.
Sooner or later, though, I start feeling the need for actual human contact, which brings me back to my senses, sometimes quite abruptly. E-mail is great—better than great—but it won’t give you a kiss on the cheek when you open the door.
• Last week I went for a walk in Central Park with a musician friend, in the course of which the following dialogue took place:
ME Somebody sent me a weird URL the other day.
SHE Weird like how?
ME Well, it was for a site called, uh, maybe “Babes in Classical Music,” or “Classical Hotties,” or something like that. Anyway, it was a Web site full of pictures of good-looking women musicians, organized by what instrument they play, voice type, whatever. How silly is that? What kind of person would spend all that time putting together a site like that? I mean, get a life, right?
SHE (with dawning horror) The URL wasn’t beautyinmusic.com, was it?
ME Yeah, I think that was it.
SHE Er…um…I’m on it.
ME (with the maniacal glee of a playground bully) You’re on it? And you stood there and let me tell you all about it? I am soooo blogging this!
SHE (embarrassed) Oh, God, no, you can’t do that! It’s not my fault! I didn’t have anything to do with it! I don't even know who does the thing....
ME No way. You’re totally busted.
SHE (resigned) Well, at least don’t mention my name, all right?
ME (magnanimously) O.K. Your secret is safe with me.
Friday, May 28, 2004
"I find Trollope's insistence that writing novels is a craft like making shoes, and his pride in the money he got by writing them, sympathetic. He was aware, of course, that craft and art are not the same: a craftsman knows in advance what the finished result will be, while the artist knows only what it will be when he has finished it. But it is unbecoming in an artist to talk about inspiration; that is the reader's business. Again, Trollope would never have denied that his primary reason for writing was that he loved the activity. He once said that as soon as he could no longer write books he would wish to die. He believed that he wrote best when he wrote fastest, and in his case this may well have been true: a good idea for a novel stimulated his pen. Though large sales are not necessarily a proof of aesthetic value, they are evidence that a book has given pleasure to many readers, and every author, however difficult, would like to give pleasure."
W.H. Auden, "A Poet of the Actual" (from Forewords and Afterwords)
"The really damned not only like Hell, they feel loyal to it."
Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution
Thursday, May 27, 2004
TT: Cameo appearance
Hello, there. To all those who’ve written, I’m feeling better, though not enough to resume full-scale blogging activities (or any other kind of activities, for that matter). I’m hoping the holiday weekend knits me up more or less completely.
Sick or not, I always manage to write my Friday drama column for The Wall Street Journal, and this week, God knows how, was no exception. I wrote about two shows, Donald Margulies’ Sight Unseen and Here Lies Jenny, a new Kurt Weill revue starring Bebe Neuwirth.
I liked Sight Unseen rather better than well enough, mostly because of Laura Linney:
Is there a better American actress than Laura Linney? Judging by the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Donald Margulies’ "Sight Unseen," playing at the Biltmore through July 11, I’d be hard pressed to think of anyone who qualifies. Every word she speaks and every gesture she makes has the bright ring of gospel truth. To be sure, Ms. Linney is no off-the-rack star. Her serious face and flat, unfancy vowels are as plain—and as beautiful—as a New England meeting house. But that, too, is part of her priceless gift: what she says, you believe.
Ms. Linney does much to ennoble "Sight Unseen," a smart but superficial dramedy that hasn’t aged well in the 12 years since its Off-Broadway premiere. It’s about Jonathan, a trendy Jewish painter (Ben Shenkman); Patricia, his WASP-y former fiancée (Ms. Linney); and Nick, her husband-on-the-rebound (Byron Jennings). Their triangular interactions are presented in the upside-down manner of "Merrily We Roll Along" (the last scene of each act is a flashback). Jonathan is cynical and miserable, Patricia frustrated and miserable, Nick angry and miserable. No surprises there, a fact which Mr. Margulies’ too-clever chronological trickery fails to conceal….
As for Here Lies Jenny, it surprised me—the wrong way:
I’m a great fan of Bebe Neuwirth—who isn’t? So I was more than slightly surprised to have been disappointed by "Here Lies Jenny," the late-night Kurt Weill revue directed and conceived by Roger Rees in which Ms. Neuwirth appears through July 24. I was sure it couldn’t miss, but "Here Lies Jenny" turned out to be the last thing I expected: dull.
The Zipper Theatre has been dressed down to look like a broken-bottle joint run by George (Ed Dixon), a bartender in an advanced state of disrepair, and patronized by Jim and John (Greg Butler and Shawn Emamjomeh), a pair of pumped-up thugs. Into this den of low-rent debauchery staggers Ms. Neuwirth, a washed-up song-and-dance gal. No words are spoken, but it seems this rathole used to be her hangout once upon a time—or maybe not. For a while I thought she might be slinking back to the place where she got her start—or maybe not. Everything in "Here Lies Jenny" is deliberately left vague, not in an evocative way but in a frustrating one, like watching a bad print of an old movie with the lights on….
No link—visit your local newsstand. And thanks for bearing with me through this exhausting, difficult week! I hope to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed come Monday morning.
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
"Don't you know that the only value money has is that it buys time? It's not things; it's not travel; it's time."
Bernard Herrmann, quoted in Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fire's Center
"Oh this curse of the theatre—to continue and continue—to improve a little and slip back again, to find the precise formula and not to be able to pin it down—that is our cross, we wretched mummers."
John Gielgud, letter to Dadie Rylands, Dec. 31, 1944
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
TT: Until further notice
I’m totally out of order—too sick to do much of anything, even read. All I’ve done for the past couple of days is watch movies: Colorado Territory, Sweet Smell of Success, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Shop Around the Corner, and the second half of They Live by Night (I watched the first half a week ago, then got sidetracked).
Except for my Friday Wall Street Journal drama column, I’ve canceled or postponed everything on my calendar for the rest of the week. That includes blogging, which will be light to nonexistent for the foreseeable future—in fact, I’m posting Wednesday’s items early on Tuesday evening so that I can sleep as late as possible before dragging myself to the iBook to write my only do-or-die piece for the week.
Send a few benign thoughts my way, O.K.?
"In the end most things in life—perhaps all things—turn out to be appropriate."
Anthony Powell, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant
Monday, May 24, 2004
TT: Comprehensively blah
Amazing how fast a virus can lay you low, isn't it? I haven't read Catch-22 for years, but I seem to recall that at least one of the characters suffered from a disease called Pianosan Crud, which sounds about right for my own condition. I have deadlines and chores galore, but right now all I seem to be able to do is sit on the couch and watch undemanding movies. (I've also lost my voice, which now sounds like the snapping of a long, thick, wet rubber band.)
Anyway, apologies to all. It's back to the couch for me. See you at some point.
OGIC: Good reads
Hello, it's me. I hope and plan to be back blogging in earnest later this week or right after Memorial Day, I really do. For now, while I scramble—and try to recover from last night's wonderfully crushing "Sopranos" ep—here are a few interesting elsewheres to wander:
• In the NY Observer, Hilton Kramer writes about Constable's Skies, the gallery show that Terry so enjoyed—heartless coblogger!—a couple of weeks ago. Here's Kramer:
It’s another remarkable feature of the "skying" paintings that, from our historical perspective, so many of them seem to have anticipated the pictorial syntax and emotional tenor of 20th-century Abstract Expressionist painting. They were not, of course, conceived as abstract paintings, yet to our 21st-century eyes, they often bear such a close resemblance to certain modalities of painterly abstraction that it’s sometimes difficult to "see" them as scrupulously faithful pictures of the natural world. My guess is that they will be an inspiration for our painters for a long time to come.
As Terry guessed, I am going to miss this show, which closes all too soon. I feel relatively all right about it, however. A few years ago on a putative research trip to London, I spent almost all my time looking for Constables, and found the mother lode of sky paintings in an outer reach of the vast Victoria & Albert Museum from which I was able to find my way back by means of a trail of bread crumbs. Someday, when time allows, I'll write here about why I heretically persist in preferring Constable to Turner.
• Meanwhile, in The New Republic, Ruth Franklin offers a measured assessment of The Believer magazine:
The magazine expresses an enthusiasm for books that most other publications too often either bury or take for granted. This enthusiasm, it must be said, isn't a valid end in itself; it's also anti-intellectual, despite the ongoing search for the perfect syllabus. What The Believer offers is essentially a book club, and no one goes to a book club to talk seriously about books. It's a gathering for fans, and while there's nothing edifying about fandom, there are worse things than books to be a fan of.
• Old news by now, but good enough that I don't care, is James Wood's London Review of Books autopsy of current standard-issue academic lit crit (doubling as a review of Randall Stevenson's Oxford English Literary History, Vol. XII: 1960-2000). No wonder it isn't breathing: it's filled with sawdust.
Stevenson never reflects on a writer's aesthetic intentions, but this may be a blessing in disguise, for in those rare moments when he considers intention at all, he is crudely materialist. An interesting discussion about the way short stories, in this period, ceded ground to novels, and novels in turn became more like short stories, yields to a mystifying generalisation about novels becoming shorter: "Declining economic confidence among publishers, and dwindling stamina or leisure time among readers, encouraged some novelists almost to usurp the short story's usual dimensions. When Ian McEwan moved on from short-story writing, it was to produce a first 'novel', The Cement Garden (1978), not much in excess of one hundred pages." Ah, so that is why McEwan's novels are so short. What layers of evasion are hidden in that careful verb "encouraged".
I like Wood all the time, but this essay made me do a little dance.
Who said anything about a summer break? I had way too much to do in the past few days, and I’m feeling it—in fact, I think I may be on the verge of being officially under the weather, which is particularly uncool given the fact that I have to hit four deadlines this week.
At least I racked up a lot of art before white smoke started pouring out from under my hood. To begin with, I saw three plays in three days:
• Here Lies Jenny, Bebe Neuwirth’s Kurt Weill revue.
• Chinese Friends Jon Robin Baitz’s new play (which I saw with the v., v. cool Sarah, who was in town momentarily).
• The Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Donald Margulies’ Sight Unseen, starring Laura Linney.
All will find their way into The Wall Street Journal sooner or later.
I also visited four gallery shows in quick succession on Saturday:
• Richard Diebenkorn: Works on Paper, up at Artemis Greenberg Van Doren (730 Fifth Ave.) through Saturday, is a museum-quality exhibition of paintings and prints from Diebenkorn’s "Ocean Park" and "Clubs & Spades" series. I would have missed this splendid show had Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes not called my attention to it. See Tyler's right-hand column (he’s an artsjournal.com blogger) for details, then get right over to Artemis Greenberg Van Doren and see the show while you still can.
• Neil Welliver: Oil Studies, up at Alexandre Gallery (41 E. 57th) through June 18, is an exceptionally beautiful show of preliminary small-scale studies for some thirty-five of Welliver’s large-scale paintings portraying the woods of Maine. The difference between the two formats is one of size, not finish, though the effect is different as well: Welliver’s oil studies, like Jackson Pollock’s small drip paintings, have a concentrated focus that I find especially appealing. (The comparison isn’t at all absurd—Welliver, like Fairfield Porter and Nell Blaine, is a committed representationalist who was nonetheless deeply influenced by abstract expressionist, an approach I find hugely sympathetic.)
• Mood Indigo: The Legacy of Duke Ellington, up at Michael Rosenfeld (24 W.57th St.) through July 30, is an interesting but spotty show that purports to provide "a look at jazz and improvisation in American art." In practice, this means a mixed bag ranging from the real right thing (a Stuart Davis gouache from 1947) to pale imitations (a trio of faux Mondrians by Charmion von Wiegand and Burgoyne Diller). Among the interesting curiosities are Hans Hofmann’s Composition No. 9, a 1953 oil that incorporates elements suggestive of musical notation, and a painting by jazz drummer George Wettling, who studied with Stuart Davis (you can tell, too). Also on display is Ellington’s very own white baby grand. More fun than illuminating, but still worth a peek.
• Jacob Lawrence: Prints and Selected Paintings, up at DC Moore (724 Fifth Ave.) through June 30, is a nice but not thrilling show devoted mostly to Lawrence’s late graphic work. His flat planes of color lent themselves to lithography, but by the time he embraced the medium in earnest, his creative fire had ebbed, and though he was recognizably himself, repetition had all too clearly set in.
• Now playing on iTunes: Bob Brookmeyer’s Get Well Soon, about which I’m writing later today for this coming Sunday’s Washington Post.
Enough for now, and probably for the rest of the day. I’ve got to husband my energy if I’m going to get through this week in one piece. I promise not to vanish altogether, though—there's lots of stuff about which I want to write.
UPDATE: I spoke a little too soon—I'm definitely out of order. Looks like a spring cold (at best). Headed for bed, will see you all later.
"No writer ever truly succeeds. The disparity between the work conceived and the work completed is always too great and the writer merely achieves an acceptable level of failure."
Phillip Caputo, A Rumor of War