I wrote about two plays in today’s Wall Street Journal drama column. The first is Mother Courage and Her Children, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Meryl Streep:
The New York stage has been infested by movie and TV stars this year, with wildly variable results: Ralph Fiennes was memorable, Julia Roberts and David Schwimmer memorably awful, while Cate Blanchett was a bit extreme but flamboyantly watchable. Now at bat is Meryl Streep, the star of the Public Theater’s outdoor production of “Mother Courage and Her Children.” Unlike Ms. Roberts, she knows her way around a theater, but her performance is a mess—though she’s probably not at fault….
Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece is set during the Thirty Years’ War, which was fought between 1618 and 1648. The Public, however, is performing it in a new “translation” (it’s really an adaptation) by Tony Kushner, who has put a thick coat of comic varnish on the blunt ironies of the original German text in order to make them more palatable to modern viewers. While some of his renderings are nicely pointed—he translates “Necessity knows no law” as “Necessity trumps the commandments”—the overall effect is too slick, and it doesn’t help that he’s littered the script with such anachronistic Americanisms as “It’s a go,” “Point taken” and “Butt out.”
I’m not opposed in principle to modernized versions of the classics, and Mr. Kushner’s gloss on “Mother Courage” might have been more effective in a less showbizzy staging, but Mr. Wolfe has glitzed it up to an enervatingly spectacular degree. I’m not exaggerating—this big-budget production contains fire, rain, snow, an onstage Jeep and flying by Foy, the “Peter Pan” people. Presumably Mr. Wolfe is also responsible, at least in part, for Ms. Streep’s bizarre decision to deliver her lines in the side-of-the-mouth manner of a take-my-wife-please comedian….
Like most of Wasserstein’s plays, “The Heidi Chronicles” is a soft-centered pseudosatire that pulls its punches, most of which are thrown at feminism, to which the play’s female characters subscribe unreservedly (if not unquestioningly) in spite of the fact that the play’s ostensible subject is the unhappiness it brings them. Instead of probing this apparent contradiction with the take-no-prisoners candor of the true satirist, Wasserstein settles for poking safe fun at such easy targets as consciousness-raising groups. As for the glib children of urban privilege with which “The Heidi Chronicles” is exclusively peopled, they all talk like escapees from the set of “Annie Hall” and appear never to have met anyone who disagreed with them about anything….
No free link. Go buy a paper, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you immediate access to my review. (If you’re already a subscriber, the review is here.)
“Very roughly, the drama may be called that part of theatrical art which lends itself most readily to intellectual discussion; what is left is theater. Drama is immensely durable; after a thousand critical disputes, it is still there, undiminished, ready for the next wranglers. Theater is magical and evanescent; examine it closely and it turns into tricks of lighting, or the grace of a particular gesture, or the tone of a voice—and these are not its substance, but the rubbish that is left when magic has departed. Theater is the response, the echo, which drama awakens within us when we see it on the stage.”
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
Apropos your post on Günter Grass, here is a question for you: are there any circumstances under which an artist's personal failings must require him to forfeit his art? Extreme example: what if Tristan and Isolde had been written by Hitler himself—should it ever be performed? And if not, where is the line to be drawn?
This is a provocative question, and one to which I’ve given much thought over the years, though I have yet to think it all the way through, perhaps because it can’t be answered. To be sure, the Israelis have “answered” it in two specific instances—the music of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss is not publicly performed in that country—but I’m not aware of any other comparable examples.
If I may, I’ll reframe my reader’s question as follows: is there any act so absolutely heinous that the works of a great artist who commits it should be permanently banned from circulation? Asked in that way, the question admits of a wide and interesting range of possible answers, but what I find even more interesting is the fact that it’s impossible to come up with a real-life case that fills the bill.
It’s not that artists are an especially well-behaved class of people. (Two words: Stan Getz.) But their misbehavior tends as a rule to fall into two broad categories, which for the sake of brevity I’ll refer to as statement-signing and wife-beating. Artists dearly love to shoot their mouths off about politics, perhaps as a way of compensating for the spectacularly single-minded selfishness with which so many of them habitually treat their loved ones, friends, colleagues, and creditors.
While neither type of behavior is edifying, it’s highly unusual for a major artist to go further than that. To be sure, I wouldn’t recommend marrying a great artist, much less loaning him money, but when it comes to the actual commission of capital crimes, such folk are woefully underrepresented. So far as I know, the only classical composer ever to have committed murder was Gesualdo, who killed his first wife and her lover. Though Richard Wagner was by all accounts a first-class bastard, he didn’t send letter bombs to music critics, and his anti-Semitism, gross and despicable though it was, never led him to advocate the use of Zyklon B on European Jewry, or anything remotely approaching it.
As for their political crimes, I’m not inclined to be forgiving of anyone who plays pattycake with totalitarianism, but if there’s been a truly great creative artist whose sins against humanity amounted to much more than first-degree talk, I'm unaware of it.
Mind you, I have no illusions about the ennobling power of art. I’ve spent too much time around artists not to know better than that. Daily megadoses of beauty won’t make you a better person unless you were a good person to begin with. What keeps great artists out of trouble is that they’re too busy making art to do much of anything but talk. It’s the second- and third-raters who end up working for the Ministry of Truth, where they burn off their frustrations by rejecting the grant applications of their betters (or sending them to concentration camps).
Having said all this, let me return to the thought experiment originally proposed by my correspondent: I wouldn’t have any objection to placing a permanent ban on performances of Tristan und Isolde if it were to be revealed tomorrow morning that Hitler, not Wagner, had composed it. I wouldn’t support such a ban, but I wouldn’t actively oppose it, either, any more than I oppose the informal Israeli ban on public performances of Wagner’s music. (It's been broken once or twice in the past, but never without an outcry of public disapproval.)
A few years ago I discussed that ban on NPR’s Performance Today. This is part of what I said:
There will probably always be heated arguments over whether Wagner’s operas contain anti-Semitic symbolism—but there can be no arguing about the hateful mind of the genius who composed them. He made sure of that. He wanted us to know exactly what he thought, and to do what he said. And that’s what the ban is really about. It’s not about the music of Wagner—the notes on the page. It’s about the man who wrote them—the man and his ideas.
My predecessor at Commentary, the late Samuel Lipman, once said something very interesting about Wagner and Israel: “In the state of Israel there still are people who care about Wagner; indeed, they care so much that they won’t let his music be played. Because for the Israelis, Wagner the man, Wagner the anti-Semite, is still alive, they take him seriously.” Sam wrote those words eighteen years ago, and they have stuck in my mind ever since.
Yes, Wagner was a great composer, one of the most important and influential figures in the history of Western music. You don’t write people like that out of the history books—you can’t. Like it or not, his music will always be played. But I don’t think music is the most important thing in the world. Music doesn’t inspire people to commit mass murder—it takes ideas to do that. And for that reason, I think it’s fitting that in at least one part of the world, Wagner’s music is rarely played in public because of the ideas of the man who wrote it. What’s more, I think Wagner himself might have understood. After all, he took his own ideas seriously, and he of all people would surely have appreciated the fact that so do the Israelis.
It’s not illegal to play Wagner in Israel: the Israeli Supreme Court has actually ruled on that point. Nor, obviously, is it illegal to listen to his music, or to buy records of it, or play them on the radio. Nor should it be. And when the last survivor of the Holocaust has finally passed on, a day will probably come when the Israel Philharmonic will at last feel free to play it. But that day is not yet here—and I, for one, am glad.
Art doesn’t have to be true to life to be good, but when a work of art is true to your life, it strikes a special chord. On occasion music has this effect on me: I can think of any number of pieces that appear to embody my feelings about the world so precisely that I feel as though I might have written them. Much of Aaron Copland’s music has that effect on me, as does the streetlights-at-dusk melancholy of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Charles Mingus’ elegy for Lester Young.
My guess is that most people are more likely to respond in this way to works of art that make use of words, and in particular to movies, which at their best are capable of creating an impression of reality so total as to be overwhelming. For my part, though, I haven’t seen many movies that seemed true in any significant way to my personal experience. Only three spring to mind, and two of them, not surprisingly, are about music. Steven Kloves’ The Fabulous Baker Boys and Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do both remind me so strongly of episodes from my own life that I can’t watch them without being plunged into autobiographical reverie.
The third is Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, and there the identification is even more complete, for I don’t know of another film that captures so perfectly the look and feel of life in small-town America (except for Junebug, which comes very close). In Hollywood, ordinary middle-class life is a state to be escaped, not examined. Unlike their novel-writing counterparts, American filmmakers are almost never willing to set a serious drama in a believable-looking small town, or even a medium-sized city located anywhere other than on the East or West Coasts. To them, the vast expanse of terra incognita known in New York and Los Angeles as “flyover country” is little more than a breeding ground for cross-burners, serial murderers, and Republicans. You Can Count on Me is utterly different from such films. It’s not that Lonergan idealizes the town in which his characters live: he is completely honest about the narrow limitations of their world. Yet he still gives them their due, sketching them with a novelistic richness of detail that defies the simplifying art of the pitchman.
Another film that penetrates deeply into the byways of flyover country is Robert Duvall’s The Apostle. Religion in the movies has typically meant either Going My Way or Inherit the Wind, with next to nothing in between. How much more daring, then, for Duvall to have made a film about the culture of southern Pentecostalism that doesn't seek to expose anybody or anything, but opts instead to portray in a straightforward, uncondescending manner the transformation of charming Sonny Dewey, a hard-drinking womanizer from Texas who makes an easy living as the upwardly mobile pastor of the Temple of the Living God, into the painfully earnest Apostle E.F., who preaches every Sunday at the One Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple of Bayou Boutte, Louisiana, and spends the rest of the week working as a grease monkey and short-order cook. To see the Apostle E.F. standing in the aisle of a sweltering clapboard church stripped of all ornament but a cheap chromo of Jesus, hoarsely stuttering spiritual platitudes and waving his Living Bible like a blunt instrument, is to behold a spectacle at once absurd (if tragically so) and thrilling.
I thought of The Apostle and You Can Count on Me as I watched the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, a play that is greatly admired for the similar precision with which it portrays the lives of a group of bright young men and women of upper-middle-class privilege. What struck me most forcibly about its characters was the near-complete extent to which they were insulated from anyone unlike themselves. Needless to say, I live in their world, but I was born and raised in a different one, and I never need reminding that most Americans neither talk nor think like the members of the urban verbal class with whom The Heidi Chronicles is populated.
Of course it’s perfectly possible to make serious and memorable art out of the lives of such folk. (Whether or not Wasserstein succeeded in doing so is another matter, one that I’ll be taking up on Friday in my Wall Street Journal drama column.) Besides, it’s a truism that authors write best when they write about what they know, and given the transformation of America’s elite universities into instruments of meritocratic change, it’s increasingly less likely that our college-educated artists will know much about anybody else. Back in the days of John P. Marquand and Louis Auchincloss, these institutions served as finishing schools for the northeastern upper class. Now they act as search engines that locate and recruit young men and women of promise from all across America, then indoctrinate them with the cultural assumptions of the New Class. Instead of going back where they came from, there to leaven the cultural loaf and in turn to be influenced by local opinions and customs, the successful products of the meritocratic machine are more likely to migrate to New Class-dominated cities and suburbs, where seldom is heard a contradictory word.
This being the case, I expect it’s a fairly safe bet that the plays and films of the coming decade will look less like You Can Count on Me or The Apostles than The Heidi Chronicles. Nor is that the worst thing in the world: I like witty repartee as much as the next critic. Yet I can’t shake the lingering feeling that such plays are written in a foreign language that I speak fluently but in which I do not dream. And I still cling to the hope that I’ll someday get to review a play with which I identify as closely as I do with, say, Tom T. Hall’s Homecoming, a country song about a traveling musician who pays a brief visit to his admiring but uncomprehending small-town father:
I guess I should have written, Dad,
To let you know that I was comin’ home.
I’ve been gone so many years
I didn’t realize you had a phone.
I saw your cattle comin’ in,
Boy, they’re looking mighty fat and slick.
I saw Fred at the service station,
Told me that his wife was awful sick.
No, we don’t ever call ’em beer joints,
Nightclubs are the places where I work.
You meet a lot of people there,
But no, there ain’t no chance of gettin’ hurt.
I can't tell you how the average drama critic (if such a peculiar creature exists) gets his start in life, but I have a feeling that my own resume is a bit on the unorthodox side. I started out as a classical-music critic, then began covering the other arts as well. I occasionally wrote about plays in Second City, the arts column I used to write for the Washington Post, but I didn’t put in any time as a working drama critic until three years ago, when The Wall Street Journal tapped me to launch its theater column.
I did do quite a bit of theater in high school and college, but even then I wasn’t the sort of kid who bought original-cast albums with his lunch money. Though I’ve always loved show tunes, I first got to know them through the recorded performances of the great jazz and pop singers. Most of the classic Broadway musicals struck me as hopelessly square, and I didn’t change my mind until I moved to New York and saw my first Stephen Sondheim show, Into the Woods. That opened my eyes to the expressive potential of the form, and before long I'd come to love it passionately, if never uncritically.
No doubt it helped that I was exposed early on to two of the best-made musicals of the postwar era. The Smalltown Little Theatre produced The Fantasticks and Fiddler on the Roof when I was in high school, and I played in the pit for both shows, doubling as the onstage violinist in Fiddler on the Roof (I wore a fake beard). I had the time of my life, and in retrospect I find it puzzling that the experience didn’t cause me to become more interested in musical comedy. On the other hand, those were the days when I was deep into rock and roll, and I suppose it would have been hard for a geeky egghead who longed to be popular to turn his back on the prevailing cultural winds of the early Seventies.
All of which brings us to Saturday night, when I went to the new Snapple Theater Center at Fiftieth and Broadway to see a press preview of the new revival of The Fantasticks. As anyone who knows anything about theater can tell you, the original production of The Fantasticks opened in 1960 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, a 153-seat off-off-Broadway theater down in Greenwich Village, where it ran until 2002, racking up 17,162 performances before it finally posted its closing notice. (The building has since been sold and is about to be converted into a luxury apartment house.)
As I walked into the theater, I realized that it had been thirty-four years to the day since I’d last seen a performance of The Fantasticks. I always meant to catch it at the Sullivan Street Playhouse but never got around to doing so, just as I’ve never been to Radio City Music Hall or the Central Park Zoo. Like most New Yorkers, I figured it would run forever, and so took its existence for granted until it was too late.
When the show was over, I remembered that I’d written about the Smalltown Little Theatre production of The Fantasticks in City Limits, the memoir I published in 1991. I looked it up as soon as I got home:
The only thing wrong with The Fantasticks was that it contained no role suitable for a clumsy teenage boy with a newly changed voice. Having just talked my parents into buying me a bass guitar, I chose instead to offer my services as bassist for the three-piece “pit orchestra.” Gordon Beaver, director of the Smalltown High School Concert Choir and my beloved piano teacher, and Richard Powell, director of the high school orchestra and my equally beloved violin teacher, had always accompanied Little Theater musicals, but both men were too busy that year. No other bass players volunteered, so I got the job....
Adolescence had me firmly in its moony grip by this time, and I spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be in love with “the kind of girl designed to be kissed upon the eyes,” that being the way in which Luisa, the fey heroine of The Fantasticks, describes herself. No such girl turned up, but The Fantasticks gave me something almost as good: a chance to make music with a small group of my peers. “Making music” seems the wrong way to put it, for a musician doesn’t make anything, and when he stops playing, nothing is left behind. But he is a craftsman all the same, for the object he “makes,” though it vanishes in the air, lingers in the memory, and he lavishes on it the same intensity and skill and respect for the tools of his trade that a carpenter lavishes on a mahogany cupboard. I had spent the better part of my life doing my best to make little clay mugs and hit line drives, and my best had never been good enough. Now I had found a craft of my own, and I quickly grew to love it with a fierce passion. I had discovered the incomparable joy of doing something really well.
The Fantasticks was the first play to be performed on the tiny stage of the Smalltown Activity Center, which started life as the First Baptist Church of Smalltown, built in 1915 and deconsecrated in 1971. I worshipped there as a child, worked on two shows there as a teenager, and eventually saw it turned into a juvenile courthouse. The building was razed not long ago, and now it’s a vacant, grass-covered lot.
What remains of the fierce passion awakened during the many nights I spent rehearsing there? Nothing but memories. A thief broke into my station wagon in Kansas City a quarter-century ago and stole my battered bass guitar, and though I bought a new one, I stopped playing soon afterward. Richard Powell died last year, and Gordon Beaver followed suit six months later. It’s been years since I last saw any of the people with whom I worked in The Fantasticks. (Where are you now, Bonnie Harris?) I still have a faded copy of the printed program, though, into which I tucked a clipping of a newspaper story about the production that ran in the Smalltown Daily Standard on August 17, 1972. It was accompanied by a black-and-white photograph of our little three-piece orchestra. I'm sitting on a high stool picking a Fender bass, wearing a flowered shirt and looking very, very serious.
And what of The Fantasticks? It, too, is full of ghosts. Jerry Orbach, who sang “Try to Remember” in 1960, died in 2004. The obituary writers all led with Law & Order, though most of them made a point of mentioning The Fantasticks as well. Rita Gardner, the first in the long, long string of girls designed to be kissed upon the eyes, is still working on Broadway, playing a foul-mouthed grandmother in The Wedding Singer. Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics of The Fantasticks and played a non-singing role in the original production, directed the performance I saw last Saturday, casting himself as Henry, the same part he played at the Sullivan Street Playhouse on opening night.
As for me, I’m the gray-headed drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and a resident of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, none of which I anticipated when I was sixteen. Back then I planned to marry my high-school sweetheart and spend the rest of my life teaching English in Smalltown, but a funny thing happened on the way to the future, and I ended up sitting on the aisle of a New York theater, watching The Fantasticks with a friend who had yet to be born the last time I saw it.
Small wonder that I felt my throat tighten as I listened to the show’s very first words:
Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
My “Sightings” column in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal took as its point of departure the ignominious confession of Günter Grass:
Günter Grass became famous—and won a Nobel Prize—by giving free advice to his countrymen. Now it turns out that he preferred not to take his own medicine. After spending half a lifetime insisting that the German people had an absolute moral obligation to own up to Hitler's atrocities, the 78-year-old novelist is publishing a memoir in which he admits that he lied about his wartime service. The author of the much-admired 1959 novel "The Tin Drum," a symbolic portrayal of life in Nazi Germany, Grass now acknowledges that he was a member of the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of the Nazi paramilitary force that carried out the Holocaust. "It weighed on me," he says….
To be sure, few major artists have been known for their goodness, but nowadays we seem quicker than ever to render summary judgment on their failings. Should we be more careful about throwing stones? The next time you're tempted to do so, consider these five caveats:
• Be historically aware. Judging the sins of the past by the standards of the present can be a shortcut to self-righteousness. Make sure you have all the facts—and that you understand their historical context—before passing sentence….
• Don't lose your sense of proportion. Yes, Mark Twain used the word "nigger" in "Huckleberry Finn." So what? It's still the great American novel—as well as a powerful indictment of racism. To criticize it because it contains a once-common word now considered offensive is a prime example of political correctness run amok.
• Remember the Golden Rule. As Somerset Maugham said, "I do not believe that there is any man, who if the whole truth were known of him, would not seem a monster of depravity." When you read about the alleged misconduct of an artist, ask yourself how you'd look if your private life and thoughts were put on public display.
• The work is what matters most... Pablo Picasso treated women like dirt—but does that make "Three Musicians" a bad painting? Richard Wagner hated Jews—but does that make "Tristan und Isolde" a bad opera?
• ...but artists are human beings, too. George Bernard Shaw was a loyal supporter of Soviet Communism who looked the other way when Stalin started piling up corpses. That doesn't justify a ban on performances of "Pygmalion," but it does mean—and should mean—that there will always be a blood-red asterisk next to Shaw's name in the literary record book….
The Journal has now posted a free link to this piece. To read the whole thing, go here.
I've been invaded by a virus. It must have been sneaking up on me for the past couple of days, but I didn't realize what it was until early yesterday evening, when I started coughing and feeling increasingly crappy at dinner. I then strolled over to Lincoln Center to see Mark Morris' L'Allegro, and by the end of the first act I was clammy and exhausted. I stuck it out, but my weak chest and I passed a thoroughly awful night together. I just cancelled out of the show I was going to see tonight, and I'm planning to spend the rest of the day in bed or near it.
More as it happens, but don't be too terribly surprised if you don't see much of me here on Monday.
"'I have writers the way other people have mice,' a disturbed hostess has written me. 'What can I do to keep them from arguing, fighting, and throwing highball glasses after dinner? One doesn't dare mention names, such as Herman Melville and Harold Loeb, or the fight is on. What would you suggest?'
"Well, now, it isn't easy to entertain writers and have any fun. You might begin by saying, over the first cocktail, 'I don't want any writers to be mentioned this evening.' Do not make the mistake of adding, 'From Washington Irving to Jack Kerouac,' because that would instantly precipitate an argument about Washington Irving and Jack Kerouac. You might begin by saying, 'The porcupines are getting our artichokes.' This could, of course, lead to literary wrangling and jangling, but everything is a calculated risk when writers are present, even 'My grandfather almost married a Pawnee woman,' or 'I wonder if you gentlemen would help me put the handle back on my icebox.' A writer, of course, can turn anything at all into a literary discussion, and it might be better not to say anything about anything.
"I myself have found, or rather my wife has found, that you can sometimes keep writers from fighting by getting them into some kind of pencil-and-paper game. You could say, for example, 'There are thirty-seven given names and nicknames, male and female, in the word "miracle." I want you all to see how many you can find.' This almost always takes up a good hour, during which the writers are mercifully silent."
"Let us glance at a few brief examples of creative literature in the very young, for which they should have been encouraged, not admonished.
"The small girl critic who wrote, 'This book tells me more about penguins than I wanted to know,' has a technique of clarity and directness that might well be studied by the so-called mature critics of England and the United States, whose tendency, in dealing with books about penguins or anything else, is to write long autobiographical rambles.
"Then there was a little American girl who was asked by her teacher to write a short story about her family. She managed it in a single true and provocative sentence: 'Last night my daddy didn't come home at all.' I told this to a five-year-old moppet I know and asked her if she could do as well, and she said, 'Yes,' and she did. Her short story, in its entirety, went like this: 'My daddy doesn't take anything with him when he goes away except a nightie and whiskey.'…
"Finally, there was Lisa, aged five, whose mother asked her to thank my wife for the peas we had sent them the day before from our garden. 'I thought the peas were awful, I wish you and Mrs. Thurber was dead, and I hate trees,' said Lisa, thus conjoining in one creative splurge the nursery rhyme about pease porridge cold, the basic plot sense of James M. Cain, and Birnam wood moving upon Dunsinane. Lisa and I were the only unhorrified persons in the room when she brought this out. We knew that her desire to get rid of her mother and my wife at one fell swoop was a pure device of creative literature. As I explained to the two doomed ladies later, it is important to let your little daughters and sons kill you off figuratively, because this is a natural infantile urge that cannot safely be channeled into amenity or what Henry James called 'the twaddle of graciousness.' The child that is scolded or punished for its natural human desire to destroy is likely to turn later to the blackjack, the golf club, or the .32-caliber automatic."
James Thurber, "The Darlings at the Top of the Stairs"
Thank you to everyone who has emailed me with their unfavorite movies. Seems there's a little Evil Ebert inside all of us, and it is perfectly delighted to be asked out to play. Time has been short, so regretfully I haven't been able to write most of you back yet. I promise to do so this weekend, and I'll also share your bętes noires with the rest of the class—watch this space. Moreover, next week I'll turn the question on its head and give you a chance to defend those films that you believe to be insufficiently appreciated. It will be interesting to see whether the invitation to praise results in quite as much mail as the invitation to bury.
Friday again, and time for the weekly postmortem...er, Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. This time around I slit the throat of Lennon and report on Terrence McNally's Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams:
I give the cast full credit for trying to make something out of nothing, but halfway through the first act I was muttering, “Bring on the deranged assassin!” Alas, “Lennon” needed no Mark David Chapman to supply the coup de grâce: It was dead on arrival....
Terrence McNally has a way of writing plays that start well, then go off the tracks. “Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams” is a good example of this bad tendency. For the first half-hour or so, it's a witty, agreeably sentimental backstage play about a middle-aged theatrical couple (Nathan Lane and Alison Fraser) who gave up their dreams of stardom to run a small-town children's theater. Then it hits a pothole and turns into a problem play about a cranky, cancerous grande dame (Marian Seldes) who wants Mr. Lane to euthanize her. Then it hits another pothole and turns into an overripe melodrama about sexual frustration. By the end, Mr. Lane is wearing a dress—but I'll stop there....
There's plenty more where that came from—and this week the Journal has posted a free link to my review on its "Today's Free Features" Web page. To read the whole thing, go here, with the compliments of The Wall Street Journal. Stagebloggers, take note!
(As always, I encourage you to subscribe to the Online Journal by going here. It's soooo worth it.)
To begin with, I want to thank the sharp-eared reader who read this posting about Joseph Taylor's 1908 recording of “Unto Brigg Fair” and wrote to tell me that it has indeed been transferred to CD. It's part of English Rhapsody, a really lovely collection of music by Frederick Delius, George Butterworth, and Percy Grainger, performed by Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra. I have since bought the disc, ripped all 39 seconds' worth of “Unto Brigg Fair,” and dumped it into my iPod. I bet I'm the only person in the world whose iPod contains a 1908 recording by Joseph Taylor….
Love your blog, particularly the poetry. But if you google the great "perhaps everything terrible…" line you'll see that although Richard Rhodes incorrectly attributes it to Auden, the line actually comes from Rilke. (Auden's great. Eliot's great. Stevens is great. Merrill can be great. Rilke is the best.)
• “How unobservant of you and Maud. Stars are indeed visible in the New York City sky—not very many, not very often—but they are the sign of an especially clear night. You see more of them if you live in an apartment building and have access to the roof. I once saw the wisp of a comet from the top of mine. My desk looks over Third Avenue, St. George's Church, and Stuyvesant Park, and I see moons of many different colors and brightness.”
Yeah, well, serves us right for not living in high-rise buildings....
• “I loved your post
about the problems of recommending a play like '25th
Annual....' When I saw it, the first thing I thought was 'this is perfect
for the new hot HS musical' (something has to replace 'Fiddler' and 'Oklahoma' and 'Grease'!) but then I heard the 'problem song' and the Jesus-on-the-cross and the gay parents and had to rethink that. At my old school, where most of the children are relatively sophisticated, we decided that the parents of the 4-6 grade students could choose to allow those kids to come to the evening performances of 'Laramie Project' and 'A Chorus Line,' but that we would schedule other activities during the afternoon performance so as to
not offend anyone that thought those were too heavy/inappropriate for their
child. And several parents did not allow their children to attend (much to
the kid's disappointment). Jesus and gay parents aside, any child 11-15
will be laughing at 'M.U.E.' but not for the right reasons—they'll be
laughing because it's happened to them, because it's an embarrassing topic,
because they're trying to be 'cool,' etc., just as they laugh at the lyrics
to 'The Flintstones' ('we'll have a gay old time').Your solution is probably the best, even though it sort of looks like the ratings addenda to the NYTimes movie reviews (which, I think, are getting progressively snarkier).”
• “I was catching up with About Last Night (you write faster than I
can read) last night and came across this
about several pieces you
listed from Bill Evans: 'No one has ever made more beautiful music.'
I might have been able to swallow that without gagging had I not been
listening to Angela Hewitt's new recording of the Bach keyboard
concerti. Come now. Shirley U. Jest.”
Well, O.K., maybe I exaggerated in the heat of aesthetic frenzy, but surely Evans' recording of “My Foolish Heart,” at the very least, is not unworthy of comparison to Bach, no matter who's at the piano. (And stop calling me Shirley.)
• “I loved the map. I could see the green dot in the heart of Europe and
knew that was in fact me reading your blog, as I do every day. (At
least, if I was reading the map and the rest of the page correctly.)
Very cool. I'm an American living in Prague for 13 years and got turned onto your web page a couple of years ago, which I read religiously. It's a great
way for this English major/music major/lawyer/investment banker to keep
up with what's really important back home. Your reviews and
recommendations are spot on, and I make it a point to chase up (whenever
possible) your suggestions. Many thanks for producing such a
consistently interesting, honest, enriching and deeply enjoyable body of
Right back at all of you. Need I say how much Our Girl and I love hearing from the readers of "About Last Night"? Keep it coming.
"'No, not really.' Her reply was automatic, and she immediately doubted its veracity. Really, insanity was the only explanation for some of them. But there was no diagnosed mental illness in her family, so she was telling the truth."
I owe a massive apology to Maud and Dan Kennedy for what I wrote two posts down ("The Odd Couple"). I read their posts about the New Yorker Target ads uncarefully to begin with, and then thoughtlessly lumped them in with the sort of commentary I'd read in Slate and Fishbowl NY, which were of an entirely different stripe. And I hadn't seen the actual magazine. Ergo, the actual force of their objection went over my head completely and I posted something deeply stupid. I apologize.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, August 18, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Rather dullish and decidedly formal
Confronted with the workmanlike diaries of Nathaniel Hawthorne, of whom he is writing a critical biography, Henry James is positively confounded. And, truth be told, a little annoyed!
I have said that Hawthorne was an observer of small things, and indeed he appears to have thought nothing too trivial to be suggestive. His Note-Books give us the measure of his perception of common and casual things, and of his habit of converting them into memoranda. These Note-Books, by the way—this seems as good a place as any other to say it—are a very singular series of volumes; I doubt whether there is anything exactly corresponding with them in the whole body of literature. They were published—in six volumes, issued at intervals—some years after Hawthorne's death, and no person attempting to write an account of the romancer could afford to regret that they should have been given to the world. There is a point of view from which this may be regretted; but the attitude of the biographer is to desire as many documents as possible. I am thankful, then, as a biographer, for the Note-Books; but I am obliged to confess that, though I have just re-read them carefully, I am still at a loss to perceive how they came to be written—what was Hawthorne's purpose in carrying on for so many years this minute and often trivial chronicle. For a person desiring information about him at any cost, it is valuable; it sheds a vivid light upon his character, his habits, the nature of his mind. But we find ourselves wondering what was its value to Hawthorne himself. It is in a very partial degree a register of impressions, and in a still smaller sense a record of emotions. Outward objects play much the large part in it; opinions, convictions, ideas pure and simple, are almost absent. He rarely takes his Note-Book into his confidence, or commits to its pages any reflections that might be adapted for publicity; the simplest way to describe the tone of these extremely objective journals is to say that they read like a series of very pleasant, though rather dullish and decidedly formal, letters, addressed to himself by a man who, having suspicions that they might be opened in the post, should have determined to insert nothing compromising. They contain much that is too futile for things intended for publicity; whereas, on the other hand, as a receptacle of private impressions and opinions, they are curiously cold and empty. They widen, as I have said, our glimpse of Hawthorne's mind (I do not say that they elevate our estimate of it), but they do so by what they fail to contain, as much as by what we find in them.
I haven't read the notebooks in question, but this reminds me for all the world of the sort of observations that Andy Warhol's diaries elicited. But nobody really brought to those the sky-high expectations that James seems to have brought to his predecessor's notebooks. What I love about the above passage is the heated contest of James's impulses to protect Hawthorne and to excoriate him for being so dull, a contest that ends in a stalemate. First, James thinks he's going to be tactful about this and tell you what he really thinks only between the lines: he's thankful for notebooks—"as a biographer." As a reader, one gets the sense, he's about an inch away from tossing them into the fire. Then he gives up the charade: "I am obliged to confess"…that I haven't the foggiest what Hawthorne thought he was up to! Then he's tactful again: the chronicle is valuable…if you want information about Hawthorne "at any cost." And so on.
The reigning note, however, is confusion verging on a sense of having been betrayed by the notebooks' emptiness. You don't often catch James not knowing what to say, but here the discovery of his literary father figure's personal banality has him practically sputtering. Rather affecting, if you ask me.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, August 18, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: The odd couple
That I don't understand all of the fuss about Target usurping the New Yorker's ad pages this week must mean that I'm part of the problem. And it would, in fact, be less than honest to deny that I'm a passionate fan of the place. Terry can personally attest to this: before I owned a car, he used to rent one when visiting Chicago and always, but always, cheerfully acceded to my pleas to be driven to Target in said rental during his stay. That, dear readers, is a true blue friend.
But, personal shopping preferences aside, exactly what is it about the infernal New Yorker-Target alliance that is raising so many eyebrows? Is it simply the purchased exclusivity, or is it something about Target being the purchaser? Again, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the notion that anyone would regard Target as less than sublime. But even if I didn't harbor this deep bias, I think I'd still be a lot more disturbed/bemused by, say, those frequently turgid theme issues of the NYer that have seemed so to proliferate over the past few years, and so many of which seem designed to lure ad dollars as much as to lure readers. In these cases the line separating editorial integrity from the bottom line begins to look perilously thin. As far as I can tell, the Target discomfort doesn't have anything to do with fears about the contamination of the editorial side of the magazine—or if it does, they haven't been aired out. So what's the hubbub, bub? What am I missing?
P.S. This isn't an isolated incident of Target-targeting animus, either. Earlier this summer I attended a Chicago architecture event where it was mentioned that a Target may open in the historic Carson, Pirie, Scott Building. I was startled when a large contingent of the audience hissed at the news as though they'd heard that a Wal-Mart was opening in Robie House. Sure, it would be grand if Carson Pirie Scott could live on forever in the great building named for it, but at least we're talking apples and apples; one retailer replacing another hardly seems grounds for a hissy fit. Is the Dayton Company, which owns Target, worse than Saks, which owns Carson (but is trying to sell it)? Related: a few years back, Bloomingdale's moved its Chicago home store into the abandoned Medinah Temple, thereby saving the building from being condemned. So the place where Terry and I once attended an earth-shattering performance of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand is relegated to retail now—but at least it's still standing, and has even received some loving restoration. Is that all bad?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, August 18, 2005 | Permanent
TT: So you want to see a show?
Not surprisingly, people in and out of town are always asking me what plays they should see, so here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated each Thursday. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
BROADWAY: • Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content)
• Fiddler on the Roof (musical, G, one scene of mild violence but otherwise family-friendly)
• The Light in the Piazza* (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene)
• Sweet Charity (musical, PG-13, lots of cutesy-pie sexual content)
• 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)
Courtesy of our Site Meter world map, here are some places where “About Last Night” has been read in the past twenty-four hours:
Apple Valley, California
Burnaby, British Columbia
Halletts Cove, Australia
Mountlake Terrace, Washington
Oneonta, New York
Prague, Czech Republic
(We were also viewed in unnamed cities in China, Egypt, and Israel.)
Hi, y'all! Come back soon—and tell your friends, wherever they are.
"Everybody who collects art has some adventure. There's no question about it—whether it's paying a lot of money for a picture and hanging it in exactly the right spot, or whatever it is. There's never a day goes by in my life that I haven't looked at the things I have. And that's all my life because I started when I was twelve. I don't look at everything, of course. I don't go around and count them. But there are certain things that I have that bring back the whole minute when I first saw them, the impression I had, the things that made me want them."
Vincent Price (quoted in Victoria Price, Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography)
Terry does indeed know where to insert the knife—and has a wicked twist of the wrist when it's called for. Another critic
pretty well-versed in the art of punishment is Ebert, who has posted this list of the worst movies he has had the misfortune of seeing. It's a nice enough little parade of potshots.
I wonder, though: wouldn't it be so much more fun if one had, you know, seen more than a handful of these movies? (If you have—I'm sorry.) I recently took part in an impromptu summit meeting on bad movies while waiting for Wedding Crashers (not at all bad) to start, during which my friend averred that to make a truly bad movie, you must have pretensions to goodness or, better yet, greatness. I think I agree.
Is it news to anyone that "Baby Geniuses" is terrible? How much fun is it to stick your finely honed pin in "Halloween III"? Once in a while Ebert's list gets a little more controversial, and that's where the fun begins. For example, he hates "The Usual Suspects": "Once again, my comprehension began to slip, and finally I wrote down: "To the degree that I do understand, I don't care." Now we're getting somewhere. This is the kind of movie that has actual fans who may take one's derision as an indictment of their judgment and taste. More like this, please.
Which leads to a question. What are your favorite sacred-ish cows to slaughter? And by "sacred-ish," I mean revered, or at least taken seriously, by your own peer group. You know: movies it actually costs you something to cut down. I can ridicule "American Beauty" or a lot of other Best Picture winners until I'm blue in the face, but it takes a Jarmusch-directed roll of the eyes to really get my friends' attention. (About Jarmusch, it's not all that fair a blanket judgment, as I haven't seen a thing the man's made since the highly unwatchable "Night on Earth," while most of the JJ fans I know seem to pin their fandom on "Dead Man," unseen by me. Still, "Night on Earth" was bad enough to instantly tar many a Jarmusch film as of then unmade, and I don't regret missing any of them. But I'm certain to break the boycott at last for Bill Murray in "Broken Flowers" even though I'm growing a little weary of Murray's indie-film rounds-making. It's starting to remind me of the way every city needs their Frank Gehry structure, and a lot of them look interchangeable—these days every young Turk director needs a Bill Murray performance, and a lot of them look pretty interchangeable as well. Give me Bilbao and "Rushmore" and let's move on already.)
But as I was saying: if you were to draw up your own Ebertesque hit list, what would the most controversial entries be? Email me.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, August 17, 2005 | Permanent
Here's some of what I've run across on the Web in the past couple of weeks:
I used to teach it implicitly: journalism is a profession. Now I think it's a practice, in which pros and amateurs both participate. There were good things about the professional model, and we should retain them. But it's the strength of the social practice that counts, not the health of any so-called profession. That is what J-schools should teach and stand for, I believe. I don't care if they're called professional schools. They should equip the American people to practice journalism by teaching the students who show up, and others out there who may want help….
Yes. Totally. And if you're a blogger, you soooo know what he's talking about.
• Online theater columnist Peter Filichia points out that the list of the ten longest-running plays on Broadway “is the same today as it was on June 13, 1982, the day Deathtrap finally called it quits”:
1. Life with Father (3,224 performances)
2. Tobacco Road (3,182)
3. Abie's Irish Rose (2,327)
4. Gemini (1,819)
5. Deathtrap (1,793)
6. Harvey (1,775)
7. Born Yesterday (1,642)
8. Mary, Mary (1,572)
9. The Voice of the Turtle (1,557)
10. Barefoot in the Park (1,530)
(Incidentally, how many of you recognize all ten of these plays? The only one of which I'd never heard was Gemini.)
• Found object: I saw a new one-woman play about Edna St. Vincent Millay the other night, and came away wondering what her actual speaking voice sounded like. The answer is here.
• Department of Posthumous Praise: The divine Ms. Althouse, who guested on Instapundit last week, used that space to pay a nice little tribute to the late Barbara Bel Geddes, and got a funny and revealing piece of e-mail in return.
I, too, thought Bel Geddes was a babe, especially in Blood on the Moon, one of my all-time favorite Westerns (not yet out on DVD, and why the hell not?).
• We don't do politics here, but Mr. Alicublog was so funny the other day on the subject of conservatives who hate Hollywood that I just had to steer you his way:
I actually think rightwing cinephile Jason Apuzzo has a great idea—that conservatives who are forever bitching about ee-vil Hollywood should cease "verbally 'rebutting' these movies like dour lawyers in a courtroom" and start making movies themselves. I should certainly like to see Halliburton Films' epic production, The Joe McCarthy Nobody Knew, starring John Goodman as a hard-drinking Wisconsin Senator up against International Communism and the Democrat Party, played by James Woods. I would also enjoy a new version of The Grapes of Wrath in which the Joads toss flowers to the men who have come to bulldoze their home, and cheerfully take jobs at roadside hamburger stands built by a dreamy-eyed young Ray Kroc (played by Stephen Baldwin)….
While Mr. A and I rarely see eye to eye on matters of state, nobody, and I mean nobody, does the funky reductio ad absurdum the way he does.
• Here's why litbloggers should post more often about out-of-print books...
• …and here's why they shouldn't get so big for their britches that they forget the whole point of book reviewing (or any other kind of criticism, if I do say so myself).
• Mark Swed takes a long look at which American symphony orchestras are up and which down, and comes up with some interesting conclusions:
The orchestral landscape in America is not what it used to be. Once, American ensembles were lorded over by the "Big Five"—the main orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland. East Coast critics, while conceding the orchestral energy emanating from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, continue to use that proprietary term, but it means nothing. The real scene has no center.
The hot conductors are in Los Angeles (Esa-Pekka Salonen), Boston (James Levine), San Francisco (Michael Tilson Thomas), Atlanta (Robert Spano) and Minneapolis (Osmo Vanska). This fall, David Robertson is expected to put St. Louis on the A-list. In 2006, when [Marin] Alsop begins in Baltimore, it too should join the party….
I don't buy every name on that list, but it's a good starting point for discussion.
• My favorite blogger (who says I can't make a commitment?) goes to an exhibition of art by Richard Tuttle, and compares what she sees there to the recipes of Paul Bertolli:
The presentation of simple principles tends to leave meaning wide open, but Tuttle and Bertolli only flirt with abstraction. Tomato? Plywood? Wire shadow? Summer squash? One cannot help but reference a very personal relationship to these familiar materials, and this bit of "personal referencing" is what provokes comments of the sort I heard wandering through the Tuttle show: "Why, I could do this!" or "My son made a picture just like that in his second grade art class." Sure, and your son could smash a whole tomato in a bowl and call it gazpacho, too. Viewing the simple as "art" is often a challenge and why Restaurant or Museum become almost necessary. Bertolli and Tuttle are virtuosos who turn our focus to something quite primary and basic; while not revolutionary, their work causes one to pay attention and realize that being simple is not so simple at all….
You can cook for me any time, ma'am.
• I love this map, at which I look several times each day. (Have you seen it yet, OGIC?)
• This is the best list I've seen on a blog in, like, ever. Be prepared to spend at least ten minutes relishing it.
• Finally, two from Supermaud, who filets Thomas Wolfe (me, too! me, too!), then remarks on an urban phenomenon I recently noted with similar wistfulness:
There are no stars in the Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean zero.
After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it's not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it's red and hanging low in the sky….
That puts me in mind of something I once wrote about small-town life: “A small town needs lots of explaining. It has no tall buildings, and the landmarks are all in your mind. When you look up, you see the sky; when you show somebody the sights, you see yourself.”
The one thing you can almost never tell an artist friend is that you don't like his art. It's dicey merely to say that you don't understand a particular work, much less that it doesn't speak to you (even if you go out of your way to assure him that the failing is yours). It's all but impossible to have a friendly relationship, or even a cordial one, if you simply don't respond to anything he does. In some cases this is a function of the artist's vanity, but I'm sure that more often it has to do with his deep-seated uncertainties. Many of the artists I know have fragile egos, and though some of them are amazingly successful at hiding this fragility, most are not. As Orson Welles once said to Peter Bogdanovich, “A bad word from a colleague can darken a whole day. We need encouragement a lot more than we admit, even to ourselves.”
What is less well understood is that the problem runs in both directions. I've met and liked artists whose work I later discovered I didn't much care for, and that fact invariably had an adverse effect on the way I felt about them as people. Indeed, I now go well out of my way to avoid being much more than polite to artists whom I meet socially until I have a chance to look at or listen to their work—and most especially if I like them on sight, as is occasionally the case.
I met the Mutant, a friend of mine who sings jazz, under circumstances that forced us to sit together in a shuttered nightclub and chat for an hour or so one afternoon, then return to the same club that evening to hear a performance by a mutual friend. When we parted, she gave me one of her demo CDs. I'd enjoyed talking to her so much that I actually took a cab straight to my apartment and listened to the whole CD before coming back to the club. Oh, God, I hope this is good, I said to myself all the way home. It was, and we immediately became and remained very close friends. Would that have happened if my response to her singing had been lukewarm? I doubt it.
It is, needless to say, surprisingly easy to admire the work of artists you can't stand personally. In addition, I find it all too easy to steer clear of occasions to review their work, which is why I go out of my way to do the opposite and write favorably about them whenever I can. It's one of the ways I keep myself honest (though I don't write profiles of artists I dislike personally—that's where I draw the line).
• I wrote what I thought was a pretty funny theater review this morning. It took me two and a half hours to finish the first draft and an hour to polish it. I spent most of that last hour cutting 120 words out of my 1,070-word first draft. None of the cuts was longer than a single sentence—it was mostly a matter of trimming individual words and phrases. The first draft contained all the jokes that made it into the final version I e-mailed to my editor, but they were much funnier when I was done.
To the extent that I have a reputation for being funny (though only on paper, alas), it's probably because I take such pains to trim away superfluous verbiage from my best lines. Wit, I suspect, is mostly a matter of self-editing. Beyond that, I learned a long time ago that one of the easiest ways to be funny is to say exactly what you think. Some critics pull their punches, but I never do. Often I pass over bad things in merciful silence—I try whenever possible to give working actors a break, for instance—but when I do throw a punch, I always go straight for the jaw.
It's not quite the same thing, but Somerset Maugham once wrote a short story called “Jane” about an unsophisticated woman who acquired a reputation as a high-society wit simply by telling the truth:
I'd said the same things for thirty years and no one ever saw anything to laugh at. I thought it must be my clothes or my bobbed hair or my eyeglass. Then I discovered it was because I spoke the truth. It was so unusual that people thought it humorous. One of these days someone else will discover the secret, and when people habitually tell the truth of course there'll be nothing funny in it.
George Bernard Shaw agreed: “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It's the funniest joke in the world.” That's what I try to do. An example is my Wall Street Journal review of the recent Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, in which Christian Slater played Tom, the character based on Williams himself. I compared Slater's bluntly straightforward performance to the “careful, over-enunciated” acting of Jessica Lange as his mother: "The bluff, easygoing Mr. Slater is all wrong, too, but at least he acts like a real person, albeit one from some other play (I wanted to send him a telegram at intermission saying DIDN'T ANYBODY TELL YOU TOM IS GAY?)." That's not a joke, nor is it a comic exaggeration. It's a near-verbatim transcript of what I was thinking as I watched Slater on stage—but it's funny.
• Said today by my trainer: “You know, I think God is like a little kid with an ant farm. Sometimes he squashes you, sometimes he only pulls off a couple of legs. Or caves your tunnel in. Or sprays you with Raid.”
I'll be spending the coming week covering the New York International Fringe Festival, an undertaking that invariably keeps me jumping. I saw two full-length plays earlier this evening, one at 5:15 and the other at 9:45 (not in the same place, needless to say!), with five more to go between now and next Monday, not to mention a pair of Wall Street Journal deadlines on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and a performance of Mark Morris' L'Allegro on Thursday at Lincoln Center.
For all these reasons, I'm going straight to bed instead of staying up late to blog. See you when the smoke clears.
Today would have been Bill Evans' seventy-sixth birthday. Here's something I wrote about him in the New York Times Book Review in 1998:
Many jazz musicians resemble their music. Who could have looked more worldly-wise than Duke Ellington, or wittier than Paul Desmond? But sometimes a musician embodies a contradiction, and then you can read it off his face, just as you can see a fault line snaking through a tranquil landscape. Such was the case with Bill Evans. His shining tone and cloudy pastel harmonies transformed such innocuous pop songs as ''Young and Foolish'' and ''The Boy Next Door'' into fleeting visions of infinite grace. Yet the bespectacled, cadaverous ruin who sat hunched over the keyboard like a broken gooseneck lamp seemed at first glance incapable of such Debussyan subtlety; something, one felt sure, must have gone terribly wrong for a man who played like that to have looked like that....
So it did, which is why Evans isn't around to celebrate his birthday with us. But rather than dwell on the unknowable sorrow at the heart of his exquisite artistry, I'd rather point you toward five recorded performances which, taken together, say all that really needs to be said about the most influential jazz pianist of his generation:
You have to live in Manhattan to know how hot it gets here in the middle of August. The only film I can think of that conveys the sheer awfulness of the kind of heat wave that now has us in a tight, slimy stranglehold is Rear Window, whose noirish subject matter puts me in mind of one of my favorite Raymond Chandler quotes: “It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks." Alas, there was nothing dry about the heat in New York this weekend. No sooner did you step outside than it smacked you in the face like a steamy towel wielded by a sadistic barber. (See? Heat waves make everyone Chandleresque, or at least me.)
Saturday, the weather bureau warned us, would be especially brutal. Fortunately, mid-August is the slackest part of the theatrical year, and I had no press previews scheduled, nor was there anything else pressing on my calendar. I'd set the whole day aside for a friend of mine who's moving back to California next week. I slept late and was awakened by a phone call from her. Something urgent, it seemed, had come up at the last minute. Could we possibly reschedule our farewells for later in the week? I said sure and hung up. Then it hit me: I had the rest of the day off.
Being a recovering workaholic, my natural impulse was to sit down and start writing, or at least call a few friends in the hope of filling the empty hours ahead with activity. Instead, I went downstairs to collect the day's mail and found in it a postcard signed with a totally illegible scrawl. It read: What have you been up to? I have not seen much of your stuff recently. Hope all is well. The comical notion of my not having been up to much lately snapped me back to my senses. What better way to spend a sickeningly hot Saturday than to stay inside and do nothing? My refrigerator was full, my DVR backed up with half a dozen unwatched movies, my desk stacked high with piles of unheard CDs, my walls covered with art that longed to be looked at. “The hell with it,” I said. “I'm staying home.” And so I did.
What did I do all day? I caught up on my e-mail and took a nap. I watched Young Man With a Horn, a deliciously absurd film about a Bix Beiderbecke-like jazz trumpeter that features a lovely piece of acting by Bix's real-life friend Hoagy Carmichael, and Colorado Territory, Raoul Walsh's 1949 scene-by-scene remake of High Sierra, in which the middle-aged gangster originally played by Humphrey Bogart is turned into a black-hatted Western bandit played by Joel McCrea (believe it or not, it's better than the original). I listened to an advance copy of a gorgeous new CD by Trio da Paz that comes out next month, and finished reading the pre-publication galleys of Tunes for 'Toons,
a fascinating new book about music in animated cartoons.
The hours flew by unregretted, and at length it was eight-thirty, time for dinner. I ventured outdoors in the still-startling heat, strolled over to Good Enough to Eat, and treated myself to the special, Cajun pork tenderloin with peach chutney. Carrie, the owner, came by my table as I was savoring the last morsel. “What on earth are you doing here on a night like this?” she asked. “Did you know today is the restaurant's twenty-fourth birthday? I'm so glad you came!” Then she signed my check and told the waitress not to take my money. On the way home I looked up and saw an orange half-moon glowing comfortingly in the warm black sky.
In the morning I headed down to the Village to brunch on apricot-and-banana pancakes cooked by a very nice intercontinental businesscouple with an arty streak (he plays bassoon, she violin). Afterward I stepped into the waiting elevator and was joined on the next floor by a gaunt, black-clad woman holding a small robot in the shape of a dog. She cooed at the robot and stroked it tenderly, and it made affectionate-sounding noises in return. “Very convincing,” I told her as we got off and walked through the lobby. She glared at me and stalked away. Laughing, I hailed an unairconditioned cab driven by an unwashed sociopath who unceremoniously whisked me back to the world.
Last Thursday “About Last Night” launched a new weekly feature, “So You Want to See A Show?” It's a list of recommended shows on and off Broadway, based on my Wall Street Journal theater reviews. In the listing for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, I described the show as “family-friendly.”
Later that day a colleague sent me this e-mail:
I have to dissent, I'm afraid, from your description of the "Spelling Bee" as family-friendly—at least if one's family includes pre-teens. When I saw the show, I remember thinking that the "My Unfortunate Erection" song was itself a bit unfortunate, in that the show would have been great for even eight- or 10-year-olds were it not for that out-of-place piece of bawdy. But with it in the show, I'd say that a sort of PG-13 rating is the best one could give it. And even then, I think parents of 13- and 14-year-old daughters might find themselves awfully uncomfortable.
I don't think I'm being priggish here. It's just that with a "family-friendly" endorsement, no small number of folks with pre-teens might take their kids, and those kids will come away with a lot of, er, questions for their parents.
It's funny how having daughters (mine are six and four) hones one's attentions to such issues.
I think my colleague (who is a big-city blue-stater, by the way) has it mostly right, and I think I know why. Not only am I childless, but I haven't spent any considerable amount of time around children since I was one myself. Moreover, it didn't occur to me that most parents would even consider taking pre-teens to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or any other show not specifically intended for children. As a general rule I don't think youngsters belong in Broadway or off-Broadway theaters, and when I described Putnam County as “family-friendly,” I had teenagers in mind. Hence I didn't consider the possibility that a song whose title is euphemistically listed in the program as “M.U.E.” would be a problem for pre-teen children, since I didn't envision them being there. Now I know better.
Where I part company with my colleague—up to a point—is his assumption that “parents of 13- and 14-year-old daughters might find themselves awfully uncomfortable” were they to take them to Putnam County. Indeed they might, but I wonder: how many of their daughters would share their discomfort? In order to answer this question, I sought the counsel of several of my women friends, all of whom were in agreement that no teenage girl of their acquaintance would be surprised, much less discomfited, by any part of the show, specifically including “M.U.E.”
To be sure, my women friends are for the most part New Yorkers, whereas the people who see Broadway shows mainly come from elsewhere. As I mulled over this fact, I recalled a letter I received a few months ago from an out-of-town reader of The Wall Street Journal who wanted to know whether it would be all right for him to take his teenagers to see Putnam County. He'd heard that one of the characters was a young girl who was being raised by two gay men, and that one of the scenes treated the Crucifixion humorously. If these things were true, he wrote, he'd be uncomfortable letting his kids see the show.
I gave a lot of careful thought to his letter before replying. I considered pointing out, for instance, that the gay men in question are portrayed as bad parents—though not because they're gay—and that the advice Jesus gives from the cross in Putnam County is both serious and correct. (Interestingly, the character who portrays Jesus is no longer shown on the cross in the restaging of the show now playing on Broadway.)
In the end, though, I decided it would serve no useful purpose for me to make such excuses. It would be understating the case to say that I'm not a moral relativist, but different people do have different standards, and they aren't always predictable. One of the people I took to see Putnam County, for instance, is a devout, impeccably chaste young lady of my acquaintance who asked to go along with me and loved every minute of it, including “M.U.E.” As for me, I left no doubt in my original review that I approved of Putnam County, which I described as “that rarity of rarities, a super-smart show that is also a bonafide crowd-pleaser….a musical that is not merely funny, but wise.” Still, my correspondent had made clear the standards by which he would judge the show were he to see it, and it seemed no less clear to me that it was my duty as a journalist, as well as a matter of common courtesy, to be as helpful to him as possible—to tell him, in other words, what he wanted to know, not what I thought he should think. So I replied that I was pretty sure he wouldn't feel comfortable taking his children to Putnam County, and left it at that.
All these things went through my mind as I mulled over my casual decision to describe Putnam County as “family-friendly.” Whatever my suspicions about the sexual sophistication of the average teenage girl, the purpose of “So You Want to See a Show?” is to offer aid and comfort to the readers of “About Last Night,” many of whom have children and live in places other than New York City. At the same time, I don't want to compromise my own standards, or sound like a stuffed shirt. Hence I've decided to add to each listing a movie-style rating, followed by a brief description of any potentially troublesome aspects of the show. In the case of Putnam County, for example, this Thursday's listing will read as follows:
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).
Perfect? Probably not. I doubt this particular circle can be squared perfectly—but I'll do my best.
Sides: The Fear Is Real… reopens off Broadway this Thursday at the Culture Project. Here's what I wrote about it last April in The Wall Street Journal:
“Sides: The Fear Is Real” is an object lesson in how to put together a tightly knit evening of comic sketches. Collectively written by the six terrific Asian-American performers who make up Mr. Miyagi's Theatre Company, “Sides” is a zany catalogue of everything that can possibly go wrong at an audition. Pretentious playwrights, sexually omnivorous casting directors, fresh-out-of-school actors caught in the chokehold of stage fright: all are portrayed with such demented gusto that you barely stop laughing long enough to catch your breath. Pay no attention to the inside-baseball title, which refers to the script handouts given to actors who try out for a role in a play, TV show or film. Civilians will find “Sides” fully intelligible—and rib-crackingly funny….
Shirley Horn, the great jazz singer-pianist, suffers from diabetes. She lost one of her legs a few years ago as a result of her illness, and now she's on dialysis in a Washington nursing home. I'm told that she'd greatly appreciate “flowers, cards, prayers, etc.” If you're one of the many people who has been touched by her music and feel like giving something back in return, here's where she's staying:
Gladys Spellman Specialty Hospital and Nursing Center
2900 Mercy Lane
Cheverly, MD 20785
If you don't know Shirley Horn's music, I commend to your attention this fourteen-track sampler drawn from her Verve catalogue. It's a beautiful tribute to a unique and irreplaceable artist.
I arrived at the New York State Theater last night in a state of near-exhaustion. I'd been racing the engine pretty hard for several days in a row, shorting myself on sleep in the process, and that day had been especially long (I went out to Brooklyn to interview Madeleine Peyroux, a singer whom regular readers of "About Last Night" know that I greatly admire). Under normal circumstances I would have been taking better care of myself, especially since I have to see eight plays and write five pieces between now and next Friday. Alas, I'd grown a little self-neglectful, and by the time I fell into my seat I was running on fumes.
The curtain went up on the Mark Morris Dance Group, and within minutes I realized that I was having trouble making sense out of A Lake, the first work on the program. I didn't have much more luck with Marble Halls, a lovely ensemble piece set to the Bach Violin-Oboe Concerto. At that point I leaned over to my companion for the evening and whispered, "I'm going home at intermission."
Needless to say, I don't normally bail out of performances, and I never leave a play that I'm reviewing for The Wall Street Journal, no matter how awful it may be, until the bitter end. The idea of missing the second half of a Mark Morris performance would normally be horrifying to me. This time around, though, I knew I wasn't all there, and as much as I hated to miss Jesu, Meine Freude, which I've never seen, I figured I'd better quit while I was behind. So I did.
The rest of the story is quickly told: I went straight to bed and slept for eleven hours. Now I feel surprisingly human again. And while I have a New York International Fringe Festival performance on my plate today, it's a matinee, meaning that I can and will do the same thing tonight.
To all of you who've been writing to urge me to take it a bit easier: I read you loud and clear.
I got a trifle intemperate in today’s Wall Street Journal, where I reviewed Dracula: The Musical, not very affectionately:
Frank Wildhorn, the Rodney Dangerfield of Broadway, is no more likely to get any respect for "Dracula: The Musical," which opened last night at the Belasco Theater, than for his previous shows. I don't wish to inflict needless pain on innocent bystanders, so if you actually liked "Jekyll & Hyde" or "The Scarlet Pimpernel," my suggestion is that you stop reading now, since I bring not peace but a sword -- or, rather, a wooden stake.
Actually, Mr. Wildhorn's watery score isn't the worst thing about "Dracula." His is more a sin of omission, since he has neglected to write any tunes capable of being remembered for longer than 10 seconds at a time, meaning that you forget them before they're over. (Believe me, it's better that way.) No, the villains-in-chief are Don Black ("Bombay Dreams") and Christopher Hampton ("Sunset Boulevard"), who share blame for the cliché-crammed book and lead-footed lyrics. It's possible to ignore the music, but there's no way to get around the awful words that gush from the stage like blood from a severed artery….
"Dracula: The Musical" is more the sort of show you'd expect to see at a theme park with money to burn -- and nearly every cent of it spent on special effects. When he's not plunging through trapdoors or crawling out of coffins, Count Dracula (Tom Hewitt) is zooming through the air with the assistance of Flying by Foy, the folks who brought you "Peter Pan." Alas, Des McAnuff, the director, has yet to figure out that even the most eye-catching trick reaches a point of diminishing returns after the first dozen or so repetitions.
Did I mention the orchestra? Well, there isn't one, only three instrumentalists and three synthesizer players who labor mightily to produce sounds better suited to accompanying a discount video game….
On the other hand, I had good things to say about Horton Foote’s The Day Emily Married, now playing at Primary Stages' 59E59 theater complex:
The near-nonagenarian playwright, better known to the public at large for his screenplays (including the Oscar-winning "Tender Mercies"), has reached into his trunk of unproduced scripts and pulled out this tough-minded tale of domestic woe, in which the twice-married Emily (Hallie Foote) and her greedy second husband, Richard (James Colby), move in with Lyd (Estelle Parsons) and Lee (William Biff McGuire), Emily's aged, fast-failing parents. Things get bad, then worse, and before long it becomes clear that the only one with any hope of redemption is Emily -- and that the only way she can seek it is by wounding her parents beyond the possibility of healing.
"The Day Emily Married" is far from original (it's two parts "Little Foxes," one part "Glass Menagerie"), but Mr. Foote mixes his familiar ingredients with the practiced skill of a veteran druggist, and the results are both well made and finely played. Ms. Foote, the playwright's daughter, is especially good, investing Emily with the vinegary edge of a frustrated woman on the brink of a lonely middle age. Michael Wilson directs with self-effacing precision, and Jeff Cowie's set, two rooms of a small-town farm house by the highway, is wholly true to life. (The creaky screen door alone deserves a prize for authenticity.)…
No link, so go buy yourself a Journal to read the whole review. Or subscribe to the online edition—an excellent idea, if I do say so myself—by going here.
Frenzied telephone calls all morning (I'm booking myself into this weekend's New York International Fringe Festival even as we speak), an interview in Brooklyn this afternoon (I'm the -er, not the -ee), Mark Morris at Lincoln Center tonight...you get the picture. Expect no further postings until Friday.
"Apart from emulative envy, the only aspect of envy that does not seem to me pejorative is a form of envy I have myself felt, as I suspect have others who are reading this book: the envy that I think of as faith envy. This is the envy one feels for those who have the true and deep and intelligent religious faith that sees them through the darkest of crises, death among them. If one is oneself without faith and wishes to feel this emotion, I cannot recommend a better place to find it than in the letters of Flannery O'Connor. There one will discover a woman still in her thirties, who, after coming into her radiant talent, knows she is going to die well before her time and, owing to her Catholicism, faces her end without voicing complaint or fear. I not long ago heard, in Vienna, what seemed to me a perfect rendering of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and was hugely moved by it, but how much more would I have been moved, I could not help wonder, if I were in a state of full religious belief, since the Ninth Symphony seems to me in many ways a religious work. Faith envy is envy, alas, about which one can do nothing but quietly harbor it."
I just signed off on the photo insert for All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, which contains 14 "images," as we say in the book biz. Together with the frontispiece and two photos reproduced on the dust jacket, that comes to a total of 17 images with which I tried to sum up Balanchine’s life and work as completely as I could.
I think every biography of an artist should contain as many well-chosen photos as the budget will permit—especially a biography of a visual artist like Balanchine. The trick, of course, is to integrate them with the text. Ideally, you want to second-guess the reader and include images of everything and everyone mentioned in the book about which (or whom) he might be curious.
To that elusive end, I looked for:
• A photo of each individual discussed at length in the book.
• A photo of each Balanchine ballet described in detail in the book.
• A mixture of small-group and large-ensemble photos.
• A mixture of performance photos, rehearsal photos, and posed images taken in the photographer's studio.
• Portraits of Balanchine taken at different times in his life.
• At least one photo illustrative of his interest in music.
Since the insert could be no more than eight pages long, I talked Harcourt into including a frontispiece (that is, a photo opposite the title page) and putting photos on the front and back of the dust jacket. Then I drew up a wish list and sent Meital Waibsnaider, my trusty research assistant, down to the New York City Ballet Archives at Lincoln Center to do my dirty work for me. She returned with a pile of pictures carefully chosen to my specifications, from which we selected most (but not all!) of the 17 photos reproduced in All in the Dances.
Between them, these 17 photos illustrate:
• Thirteen major Balanchine ballets, Apollo, Prodigal Son, Serenade, Concerto Barocco, Symphony in C, Orpheus, The Four Temperaments, La Valse, Agon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Liebeslieder Walzer, Don Quixote, and Stravinsky Violin Concerto, 11 of which receive more than passing mention in the text.
• Five of the many ballerinas with whom Balanchine is known to have been in love: Alexandra Danilova, Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil Le Clercq, Diana Adams, and Suzanne Farrell.
• Twelve other dancers with whom he worked closely: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jacques d’Amboise, Jillana, Serge Lifar, Nicholas Magallanes, Peter Martins, Kay Mazzo, Arthur Mitchell, Francisco Moncion, Violette Verdy, Edward Villella, and Patricia Wilde.
• Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins, and Igor Stravinsky, his three most important offstage colleagues.
• A 1938 photo by Walker Evans that shows Balanchine seated at a piano, playing from a score.
Looking at the results now, I regret that I failed to include Tamara Geva, Serge Diaghilev, Allegra Kent, and Patricia McBride, all of whom are mentioned prominently in the text. I also wish I’d found room for an illustration of Balanchine’s work in Hollywood and on Broadway—perhaps a rehearsal shot from The Goldwyn Follies, which starred Vera Zorina, his third wife. And one major ballet discussed in All in the Dances, The Nutcracker, slipped through my net.
For the most part, though, I’m delighted with the finished product. Not only did we contrive to cram a huge amount of information about George Balanchine into just 17 images, but nearly all of them are aesthetically pleasing in their own right. (The photographers include Costas, Walker Evans, Fred Fehl, Paul Kolnik, George Platt Lynes, and Martha Swope.)
See how complicated it is to put together a good photo insert? It’s not just a matter of sitting down one afternoon and flipping through a couple of bulging scrapbooks. Meital and I have been working on this one for more than two months, and we (well, she) had a hell of a time tracking down certain photos and obtaining permission to reprint them. Still, it was worth the trouble. Should you happen to read All in the Dances, the chances are good that you’ll be able to see much of what I’m talking about—at least to the limited extent that any still picture can rightly be said to "illustrate" a ballet, or capture the ephemeral essence of a stage performer's personality.
If I sound proud, that’s because I am. From the beginning, I wanted the images in All in the Dances to complement the text as fully and sensitively as possible. I think they do. I hope you think so, too.
UPDATE: I just got an e-mail from Harcourt's managing editor in San Diego, informing me that he's been unable to obtain high-resolution scans of two photos. The next-to-last minute having arrived, he wants me to FedEx him my personal copies of the books in which these two photos were first published. Fortunately, I happen to own both volumes, so it's off to the nearest FedEx office.
That's how books get published in the information age!
My assistant's hard drive crashed yesterday, thus throwing our smoothly running operation into a tizzy. This being a writing-for-money day, I may not be getting back to you again until tomorrow. Then again, maybe I will. We'll see.
P.S. Our Girl in Chicago is on vacation. She promised to tell you so, but I think she left in too much of a hurry to bid you farewell. Think lovely thoughts and she might try to post from her insecure, undisclosed location. Or maybe not.
"Only the young have such moments. I don't mean the very young. No. The very young have, properly speaking, no moments. It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days in all the beautiful continuity of hope which knows no pauses and no introspection."
Congratulations on the completion of the book on Mr. B. And when can we expect the Armstrong opus?
I suppose you could say that the seeds of my next book, a full-length biography of Louis Armstrong, were planted three years ago, when I was writing an essay for the New York Times about Armstrong’s centenary in which I called him "jazz’s most eminent Victorian." (The Teachout Reader contains a longer version of this piece.) Struck by the way in which Armstrong’s autobiographical writings point up the intensity of his work ethic, I’d thought it might be worth paying a visit to his home in Queens, which at that time was not yet open to the public. So I arranged for Michael Cogswell, who runs the Louis Armstrong Archives, where Armstrong’s papers and personal effects are preserved, to give me a private tour of the Armstrong house (it’s good to write for the Times, even as a freelancer). That tour inspired these words:
In a review of Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words and The Louis Armstrong Companion, Brian Harker, an assistant professor of music at Brigham Young University, remarked that Armstrong was "a product of turn-of-the-century African American ideology, especially that of Booker T. Washington. Like Washington, Armstrong was an accommodationist, determined to play—and win—by the rules of the white majority." This is true as far as it goes, but it overlooks the fact that most jazz musicians, black and white alike, come from middle-class backgrounds, while most of those who are born poor strive mightily—and, more often than not, successfully—to join the ranks of the middle class. Anyone who doubts that Armstrong filled the latter bill need only visit his home, located some seven blocks from Shea Stadium in a shabby but respectable part of Queens. It is a modest three-story frame house whose elaborate interior is uncannily reminiscent of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s gaudy Memphis mansion. From the Jetsons-style kitchen-of-the-future to the silver wallpaper and golden faucets of the master bathroom, the Armstrong house looks exactly like what it is: the residence of a poor southern boy who grew up and made good.
Unlike Graceland, though, it is neither oppressive nor embarrassing. As one stands in Armstrong’s smallish study (whose decorations include, among other things, a portrait of the trumpeter painted by Tony Bennett), it is impossible not to be touched to the heart by the aspiration that is visible wherever you look. This, you sense, was the home of a working man, one bursting with a pride that came not from what he had but from what he did. The American dream has had no more loyal exemplar. "I never want to be anything more than I am, what I don’t have I don’t need," he wrote. "My home with Lucille [his fourth wife] is good, but you don’t see me in no big estates and yachts, that ain’t gonna play your horn for you. When the guys come from taking a walk around the estate they ain’t got no breath to blow that horn."
As he drove me from the house to Queens College, where the Armstrong Archives are located, Cogswell asked casually if I’d thought of writing an Armstrong biography. I told him that I’d only just put a Mencken biography to bed after ten years of struggle, and that the thought of doing the whole thing all over again was too horrific to contemplate. I suppose I must have meant what I said, but it’s no less true that I’d been stirred—perhaps more deeply than I knew—by my first sight of the Armstrong house, which brought tears to my eyes. The wheels were already starting to turn.
Teachout isn't sure which of several book ideas might come to fruition. "I don't contemplate writing another biography, though I'm really glad I did this one. I'm a scholar manqué, like a lot of journalists, and to do a fully annotated book based on primary source material was my chance to be a full professor without having to put up with all the nonsense. I'm not sure I need to do it again."
Truth to tell, I was sure I didn’t. Or so I thought. But a couple of months later, as I lay in bed in a hotel room not far from Washington’s Union Station, mulling over a lecture about Mencken that I’d just delivered, an idea hit me from out of nowhere like an arrow in the middle of my forehead: I should write a biography of Louis. It really did come to me just like that—and the more I thought about it, the better it sounded. Like Mencken, Armstrong was a quintessentially American figure. Like Mencken, none of Armstrong’s previous biographers had managed to get him on paper in all his fascinating complexity. Like Mencken, he was a packrat who saved everything, and most of what he saved, like his home in Queens, has been preserved and impeccably organized for the use of researchers. And having written my first biography, I’d learned enough along the way to have an easier time with the next one…right?
By the time I got back from Washington, I’d talked myself into writing another biography. Shortly thereafter, to my amazement, Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu, my agents, talked me into writing two—and it didn’t take much talking, either. Glen and Lynn wanted me to build on the success of The Skeptic by bringing out a fairly short book as soon as possible. I mentioned that I was interested in writing a brief life, and when Lynn suggested over a celebratory dinner that George Balanchine might be a good subject, I agreed on the spot. It had never before occurred to me to write a book about Balanchine, but no sooner were the words out of Lynn's mouth than I fell in love with her idea: first Mr. B, then Satchmo.
That dinner was a year and a half ago. Last Friday, with All in the Dances ready for the printer, I rented a car and headed for Queens, accompanied by Stephanie Steward, my research assistant. We’d been planning for weeks to spend a day visiting the Armstrong house and archive—an orientation tour for Steph, so to speak. The house was opened to the public as a museum last October, but as I turned the corner onto what is now Louis Armstrong Place for the first time in three years, I saw that nothing much had changed but the street sign. The block was still shabby but respectable, a textbook example of a working-class neighborhood, and except for the garage, which has been turned into a reception center and museum shop, the house looks the way it did in 2001: the same gaudy wallpaper, the same gold faucets, the same touchingly elaborate furnishings, right down to Tony Bennett’s oil painting of Armstrong. Steph's eyes were as big as hubcaps. As for me, I felt like laughing and crying at the same time.
When the tour was over, I said to Steph, "I know how I want to start the book."
"Just like this. Coming to Louis’ house and taking a tour."
She thought about it for a moment, then nodded. "Awesome," she said.
We’ll see whether my idea holds up over three or four years’ worth of research and writing. But even if I should change my mind later on, it won’t matter. The important part is that I’m off and running. As of last Friday, I’m officially at work on my next book.
"America is a country of children. The New Yorkers are a little more grown up, but not much. Once some friend of mine put me on a ferry to Coney Island. This, Tsutsik, I wish you could see. It is a city in which everything is for play—shooting at tin ducklings, visiting a museum where they show a girl with two heads, letting an astrologer plot your horoscope and a medium call up the soul of your grandfather in the beyond. No place lacks vulgarity, but the vulgarity of Coney Island is of a special kind, friendly, with a tolerance that says, ‘I play my game and you play your game.’ As I walked around there and ate a hot dog—this is what they call a sausage—it occurred to me that I was seeing the future of mankind. You can even call it the time of the Messiah. One day all people will realize there is not a single idea that can really be called true—that everything is a game—nationalism, internationalism, religion, atheism, spiritualism, materialism, even suicide."
I just sent an e-mail to Harcourt containing my final changes and corrections to the second-pass proofs of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. "I am now signed off on the text of All in the Dances," I wrote, taking a deep breath as I typed those words and another as I clicked the send button. Barring any unexpected glitches (or last-minute catches) at Harcourt’s end, the book that goes to the printer this week will be the book whose text I have approved. I’m all done.
I’ve been feeling rather strange about All in the Dances in recent weeks, and especially since I started working on the galleys last month. I spent a full decade at work on The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, and by the end of that time, it had become an oppressive, inescapable presence in my life, not unlike the "heavy bear who goes with me" of Delmore Schwartz’s once-familiar poem. I wanted nothing more than to be rid of it. All in the Dances, by contrast, took me just three months to write, and throughout that period I was simultaneously preoccupied with the imminent publication of A Terry Teachout Reader. Before I knew it, one book was written, another in the stores, and within weeks I'd embarked on the lengthy process of seeing the first one into print. As a result, the experience of writing All in the Dances now seems unreal, almost dreamlike to me. Did I really write it this past winter? Could it possibly be ready to ship off to the printer?
The second-pass proofs arrived via Federal Express last Friday, and I spent yesterday and this morning combing through them line by line, hoping against hope that my eye had not yet grown so numb as to cause me to overlook any remaining mistakes. In the end, the list of changes I e-mailed to San Diego was reassuringly short, but not so short as to make me distrust my good judgment. I fixed two outright errors, one a mistranscribed word in a Serge Diaghilev letter (I spotted that one), the other a tiny but embarrassingly significant factual slip-up in the next-to-last chapter (the managing editor spotted that one, God bless him). I changed or deleted five repeated words and phrases (my personal bugaboo). I made minor adjustments of emphasis to two phrases, the second of which was in the very last paragraph of the book (got to get that one right!). I changed two punctuation marks and queried the hyphenation of three words. Finally, I asked the editor to make two typographical adjustments, both of which will be invisible to anyone not fanatically obsessed with such dainty matters.
So that’s that. I’m not quite finished—I still have to approve the layout of the photo insert and proofread the captions—but the book itself is now definitively complete. And yes, I still feel more than a little bit strange, this time for reasons I couldn’t put into words until just now, when a coin dropped in my head and I recalled something Samuel Johnson wrote in the final installment of The Idler, his second and last series of periodical essays:
Though the Idler and his readers have contracted no close friendship, they are perhaps both unwilling to part. There are few things not purely evil of which we can say, without some emotion of uneasiness, "this is the last." Those who never could agree together shed tears when mutual discontent has determined them to final separation; of a place which has been frequently visited though without pleasure, the last look is taken with heaviness of heart; and the Idler, with all his chillness of tranquillity, is not wholly unaffected by the thought that his last essay is now before him.
This secret horror of the last is inseparable from a thinking being whose life is limited, and to whom death is dreadful. We always make a secret comparison between a part and the whole; the termination of any period of life reminds us that life itself has likewise its termination; when we have done anything for the last time, we involuntarily reflect that a part of the days allotted us is past, and that as more is past there is less remaining.
Grim thoughts to be thinking about a book of which I’m still intensely proud! (The doubts and second thoughts will come calling later on.) But they’re all of a piece with the uneasy feelings that most of us New Yorkers are experiencing these days. As I drove through the Lincoln Tunnel last Friday afternoon, and rode past Citicorp Center in a cab late Saturday night, I saw cars filled with unsleeping policemen, on guard against unknown nightmares. I’ve been hearing more helicopters in the air of late—or perhaps I’m simply noticing them more often. We’re all thinking night thoughts in broad daylight, and there’s nothing to be done about them but live our lives. George Balanchine, who nearly died of tuberculosis as a young man, had something to say about that: "You know, I am really a dead man. I was supposed to die and I didn’t, and so now everything I do is second chance. That is why I enjoy every day. I don’t look back. I don’t look forward. Only now."
Dr. Johnson is my hero, the man I admire most and from whose life and work I have drawn inspiration throughout my own life—but today I’m with Mr. B. All in the Dances is finished. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't do any more to it. Now it's time to move on to the day’s next task. I have a lot of things to do this afternoon, after which I plan to dine with a friend and go see a movie. Tomorrow will have to take care of itself. It always does.
Six days ago I was putting the finishing touches on a Wall Street Journal drama column. I was bone-tired and still a bit wheezy from my recent illness, and every sentence was a struggle. At length I decided I was done, hit a couple of keys on my iBook and sent the column to my editor, packed a bag, stumbled downstairs, and hailed a cab.
Ten minutes later I was in Grand Central Station, surrounded by cold-eyed soldiers in camouflage outfits. Ten minutes after that I was on a train, surrounded by a dozen brass-voiced construction workers who were chatting in the manner of the towel-snappers in a high-school locker room. The air conditioner was broken and the temperature inside the car was 95 degrees. (I know this because one of the construction workers had a thermometer and was taking bets from his friends on how hot it was.) At first I tried to look at the whole thing as a spiritual exercise, but I gave up at Spuyten Duyvil and spent the next half-hour longing for my fellow passengers to drop dead.
The construction workers bailed out at Peekskill and the car fell blessedly silent. A few minutes later the train pulled into Cold Spring. No sooner had I finished the three-block walk to the Hudson House Inn than I felt the weight of the past three weeks slipping once more from my shoulders. I checked in, took a cold shower and a long nap, and spent the next day and a half doing nothing. Not exactly nothing, of course—you never do "nothing," just as there’s no such thing as "silence" outside of an empty anechoic chamber—but as little as it’s possible for a work-obsessed urbanite to do. I ate five good meals, read a P.G. Wodehouse novel, indulged in a little light channel-surfing, and sat on a park bench by the Hudson River, listening to the birds and crickets and watching the sailboats glide by. Outside of chatting with the very nice women at the front desk and talking to my mother and three friends on my cell phone, I doubt I spoke more than a couple of hundred words aloud.
Come Thursday morning I repacked my bag, walked back up the hill to the train station, and returned in due course to my desk in Manhattan, where 158 e-mails awaited me. Since then I’ve
seen an off-Broadway play
and visited a downtown club, written a set of liner notes for a CD by a band I like, spent a day at the Louis Armstrong House and Archives, watched a movie on TV, listened to my first Ani DiFranco album, and made my last corrections to the second-pass proofs of All in the Dances.
Had these things happened a month ago, I would have hastened to cram them into a breathless "Consumables" posting, but I was persuaded to do otherwise after running across my own obituary on the Web:
Critic Terry Teachout Consumes Too Much Art, Violently Explodes
MANHATTAN – In news that has the arts world reeling, Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout exploded yesterday after consuming too much art.
In New York, art lovers are asking whether the fatal tragedy could have been prevented.
According to one art historian, "Most critics don’t eat art. But it has been known to happen from time to time. What’s surprising in this case is that Teachout actually wrote about his strange proclivities on the Internet."
Teachout’s weblog "About Last Night" featured periodic entries titled "Consumables," in which Teachout listed the art he was consuming. In a recent entry, for example, Teachout admitted to chomping down the "bound galleys" of Robert McCrum’s Wodehouse: A Life, as well as Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time….
At the site of the explosion, men in coveralls have been working tirelessly to clean and sanitize the area. "It was a real mess," said one worker. "I don’t claim to be smart enough to understand much of it, but I’ve found bits of several movie DVRs, the top part of a stand-up bass, two opera librettos, and several pages from Barbara Pym’s A Very Private Eye. All of it was quite chewed up."
I know an omen when I see one, so I’ve decided to cool it, at least for a little while longer. I may write about all the things I’ve done since returning from Cold Spring, or not. Or I might write about some of them. The week ahead is fairly busy (one Wall Street Journal deadline, one Broadway preview, one performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group), and I've promised myself to ramp up to it as gradually as possible instead of following my normal practice and jumping in head first. In any case, there are a lot of other things I want to write about, and a lot of other blogs with which I want to catch up. So we'll see.
Having said all that, I’ll add two things more: I missed you, and it's nice to be back.
"Most biographies are built around a series of abiding questions. They are often the same questions, such as, Did you love her? or Were you happy? or Didn't he know that was a mistake? It is in their nature, and their beauty, that such questions can never be satisfied. There may be answers, but they are usually too many, or too terrific—'Rosebud' is one of those great answers that makes it harder to know the question."