About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, January 20, 2006
TT: New life for an old hit
Friday again, and I’m back in The Wall Street Journal, this time with reviews of two shows now playing in Washington, D.C., The Subject Was Roses and Damn Yankees:
Frank D. Gilroy has been in show business for a long time—he goes all the way back to the golden age of live TV drama and, more recently, was a pioneer of independent filmmaking—but it’s a safe bet that when the roll is called up yonder, he’ll be remembered for his play “The Subject Was Roses,” which has just been revived at the Kennedy Center. The sleeper hit of the 1963-64 season, it ran for two years on Broadway and bagged the Triple Crown of theatrical prizes: the best-play Tony, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize….
Revisiting the hit shows of yesteryear is often illuminating, not least because they sometimes prove on further acquaintance to have been more than merely commercial in their appeal. Such is the case with “The Subject Was Roses.” No, it isn’t a deathless masterpiece, but it’s a solid little job of dramatic work, a period piece that has outlived its period, and if the Kennedy Center revival leaves much to be desired, it’s still good enough to be worth seeing….
“Damn Yankees,” now playing at Washington’s Arena Stage, is one of those second-tier musicals of the ’50s that’s stageworthy enough to be revived with some frequency but whose score is too bland to be truly memorable. Even so, this 1955 tale of a paunchy, middle-aged baseball fan who cuts a deal with the devil to help out his beloved Washington Senators (the team, not the politicians) has its fair share of bright spots, and Molly Smith, the company’s artistic director, has given it an exemplary staging-in-the-round…
No link. To read the whole thing (which I heartily recommend), go to the nearest newsstand and spend a dollar on a copy of the Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with instant access to the complete text of my review, together with plenty of other worthy art-related stories.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, January 20, 2006 | Permanent
TT: A hundred books in your pocket
I’m not really here. I’m on my way back from New Haven, where I saw two plays, visited the Yale Art Gallery and ate pizza (shhh!). Our Girl has kindly posted today’s items for me.
I’ll be flying to Chicago tomorrow afternoon to meet the lady in question, mere hours after my biweekly “Sightings” column is published in the “Pursuits” section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal. Here’s a little taste:
The e-book is back. So are the technophobes who swear it’ll never catch on. They were right last time, and they might be right this time, too. Sooner or later, though, they’ll be wrong—and when they are, your life will change.
The word “e-book” is short for “electronic book.” The concept isn’t new—the complete texts of countless classics have long been available on the Web in digitized form. (Seventeen thousand of them can be downloaded for free at www.gutenberg.org.) The catch is that until now, there hasn’t been a user-friendly way to read e-books. Few people enjoy reading book-length documents on a conventional computer screen, and though hand-held e-book readers went on the market six years ago, they were insufficiently convenient to use and failed to interest the book-buying public.
Now Sony has announced plans to market a paperback-sized e-book reader that makes use of E Ink, a new display technology...
As always, there's lots more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, January 20, 2006 | Permanent
We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.
Philip Lopate, "We Who Are Your Closest Friends" (courtesy of Ms. Pratie Place)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, January 20, 2006 | Permanent
Thursday, January 19, 2006
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd* (musical, R, adult situations, strong language, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
• The Woman in White (musical, PG, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• Abigail’s Party (drama, R, adult subject matter, strong language, reviewed here, closes Apr. 8)
• In the Continuum (drama, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here, extended through Feb. 18)
• Mrs. Warren's Profession (drama, PG, adult subject matter, closes Feb. 19, reviewed here)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
• The Trip to Bountiful (drama, G, reviewed here, closes Feb. 19)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 19, 2006 | Permanent
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
”I don’t have an interesting enough life for a memoir—unless I get to fudge and exaggerate and lie. But then that’s fiction.”
Lorrie Moore, interviewed by Angela Pneuman (The Believer, October 2005, courtesy of Maud Newton)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 19, 2006 | Permanent
OGIC: So many books
James Marcus, who writes with a veteran's experience, has the best reflections I've seen on the recently released nominations for this year's National Book Critics Circle awards. Glad to see Mary Gaitskill's Veronica pick up another nomination. I actually received this novel for Christmas and had commenced reading it when it met with an awful fate that I won't detail here except to fleetingly speculate that my cat is secretly in the employ of Pantheon Books. If I was hesitating to buy a second copy, this latest manifestation of apparent critical unanimity in Gaitskill's favor is likely to nudge me off of the fence in the direction of the bookstore. Full disclosure: I worked for the publisher of Gaitskill's first two books, the short story collection Bad Behavior and the novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin (shame about the paperback edition's terrible cover art, by the way), and admired both excessively. When Gaitskill's second book of stories, Because They Wanted To, came along, I found the first few stories disappointing and put it aside, and wondered how partisan my embrace of the previous books had been. Subsequent rereadings proved it to be genuine and deserved, and I awaited the arrival of a second Gaitskill novel in a state of anticipation that is now trebled, at least.
Clearly I am going to replace the book.
But tonight I was placating myself with random snippets of Two Girls, and I found a passage to carry me back to the subject of my most recent post, Henry James, and the "idea of an inner self or, in other words, of concealment":
The boundaries of my inner world did not extend out, but in, so that there was a large area of blank whiteness starting at my most external self and expanding inward until it reached the tiny inner province of dazzling color and activity that it safeguarded, like the force field of clouds and limitless night sky that surrounded the island of Never-Never Land.
Justine Shade, the speaker here, is a sad, solemn woman with a grim past. That she has an inner life so vibrant with "dazzling color and activity" but so deeply buried is an ambivalent wonder. I love Gaitskill's subtle variation on a common way of representing the embattled self: we often imagine a troubled person swaddling herself in the padding of some false persona in order to guard a true, inner self that is breakable, but we—or at least I—almost never imagine that what such a person is foremost protecting is a kind of happiness. With prose that's beautifully unpolished, Gaitskill has a way of showing you what you might already know without realizing it.
Moving along from one lit cabal to another, the entire slate of winter nominees is being revealed, one day at a time, at the Litblog Co-op this week. Entries from nominators Dan Wickett and Sam Golden Rule Jones are already up for your delectation.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, January 18, 2006 | Permanent
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
"Though most of us would not write except for money we would not write any differently for more money."
Evelyn Waugh, Ninety-Two Days
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 18, 2006 | Permanent
TT: Moving right along
I've been missing "About Last Night," which is why I blogged so much yesterday. It felt gooood. Alas, January is my time to travel, not for fun but for my Wall Street Journal drama column: Broadway openings dwindle to near-nonexistence, giving me the opportunity to cram in a few out-of-town shows before the rush resumes. I've already been to Washington, D.C. (about which more on Friday) and am headed for New Haven on Wednesday and Chicago on Saturday. All this notwithstanding, I remain determined to keep a lid on my lurking workaholism. I went to the Jazz Standard last night to hear Julia Dollison, but otherwise I've been sticking close to home in between trips.
No doubt you can guess the punchline: I don't expect to be blogging very much until the middle of next week, though Our Girl and I will likely post a bit during my trip to Chicago. (As always, I'll be her happy houseguest.) In addition, I plan to add several interesting-looking new blogs to "Sites to See" and update the Top Five list semi-regularly, and I'll also continue to post almanac entries whenever I'm in town.
Please don't forget about me while I'm gone! I shall return.
Monday, January 16, 2006
"When the first of August came round, the Professor realized that he had pleasantly trifled away nearly two months at a task which should have taken little more than a week. But he had been doing a good deal besides—something he had never before been able to do.
"St. Peter had always laughed at people who talked about 'day-dreams,' just as he laughed at people who naively confessed that they had 'an imagination.' All his life his mind had behaved in a positive fashion. When he was not at work, or being actively amused, he went to sleep. He had no twilight stage. But now he enjoyed this half-awake loafing with his brain as if it were a new sense, arriving late, like wisdom teeth. He found he could lie on his sand-spit by the lake for hours and watch the seven motionless pines drink up the sun. In the evening, after dinner, he could sit idle and watch the stars, with the same immobility."
Willa Cather, The Professor's House
TT: Entry from an unkept diary
I went to Washington, D.C., last week to see the Kennedy Center’s revival of Frank Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses, mainly because Bill Pullman, one of my favorite not-quite-movie-stars, was in the cast. Recalling his witty, sharply drawn performances in The Last Seduction and Zero Effect, I took for granted that Pullman would be playing the part of the young GI newly returned from World War II, and was surprised to find that he’d been cast as the boy’s father. That’s all wrong, I thought. He’s too young to play the father of a soldier. Then Pullman started talking about himself and I started counting on my fingers, and within a few minutes it hit me that the character he was playing had to be forty-eight or forty-nine years old—my age. No sooner did I return to New York than I looked Pullman up on the Internet Movie Database, where I learned that he was born in 1953.
The perception of age is a tricky business. Most people, for instance, think I’m a good deal younger than I am, and are astonished to learn that I’ve reached the eve of my fiftieth birthday. This is partly because I have a young-looking face, but I suspect it also has a good deal to do with the fact that I never quite got around to embracing adult life: I’m a childless singleton who spends most of his nights on the town and hasn’t held a nine-to-five job for years. You might mistake me for a wastrel if I didn’t work so hard, and you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t know me fairly well.
It is, I suppose, an odd life, and it doesn’t always please me. Sometimes I wish I had a job that I could put behind me at day’s end, or that I were comfortably ensconced in a nice suburban ranch house with a loving wife and a child or two. This dissatisfaction has grown more marked in recent years, though never overwhelmingly so: I know how lucky I am, and how well my catch-as-catch-can lifestyle suits my temperament. The trouble is that it isn’t nearly so well suited to the diminished energies of old age, and more and more I wonder whether I may have doomed myself to the fearful fate of Aesop’s grasshopper, who fell on lean times when he finally outlived his good luck.
Robert Frost wrote a poem warning grasshoppers to change their heedless ways:
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
At least I’ve done one thing to prepare for later disregard: I have an abundance of young friends. Rereading Martin Stannard’s biography of Evelyn Waugh the other day, I came across a remark Waugh made to an interviewer in 1953:
One makes friends up to one’s thirties, quarrels with them between 45 and 55, and makes new ones in the sixties. Between 45 and 55 is an irritable time. In middle age one thinks of the young with distaste as a poor imitation of oneself. When one is older one realises that they are quite different people and they become interesting.
That isn’t quite how I feel—for one thing, it’s been years since I last quarrelled with a friend—but I do think Waugh was right about the nature of the fascination that the young exert on the old. I first started making younger friends around the time I turned forty, and their companionship turned out to be one of the happiest things about the decade that followed. Of course a friend isn’t the same thing as a child or a spouse (or a big fat pension, for that matter). Still, I have a feeling that my young friends will do even more to brighten the next chapter of my odd, interesting life.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been easing my way back into blogging since I got out of the hospital. I’ve also been slow to resume surfing the Web, not because I love it less but because I’m afraid of it. For the recovering workaholic, a computer with a high-speed connection to the Internet is a perpetual temptation to excess, and I’m determined not to succumb. Nevertheless, I’ve started revisiting some of my favorite Web sites in recent days, and I’m struck all over again by how much more interesting they are than most of what I read in the mainstream media.
Here’s some of what I found there:
• Mr. Outer Life dreamed that he was reading his own biography:
My Boswell was nothing if not thorough. But as fact after fact piled up I found it harder and harder to find the me buried beneath. I mean, it’s interesting to note the shoes I wore in sixth grade, or my brand of toothpaste, or the scores I achieved on my SAT, or the friends I was closest to in college, or the books I enjoyed most when I was 32, but after a while it got really distracting, then it got annoying, this fire hose of facts drowning me on every page. I found myself reacting against this, at first trying to forget the facts but after a while simply repeating a mantra to myself, over and over: I am not those shoes, I am not that toothpaste, I am not those scores, I am not those friends, I am not those books….
• Lileks holds forth on Christmas songs:
They’re playing Christmas songs at the coffee shop now; the staff informs me that the selection consists of the same four songs played over and over again, but by different artists. I wouldn’t doubt it. There are only four songs, really—religious, secular songs sung like religious songs, happy upbeat modern tunes, and modern krep in which Grandma is run over by a reindeer or the various members of the family gather to rock around the Christmas tree….
This is nostalgia for some—it’s nostalgia for me, for that matter; I remember these versions from my childhood, although I never liked it—but you have to remember that it was nostalgia then, inasmuch as it refers to the “Currier and Ives” versions of the seasons that people already lamented losing. But that’s Christmas; a mass consensual illusion that the holiday existed in some perfect state, and that this state can be replicated again if we find the right combination of lights, ornaments, songs, nutmeg candles, Pottery Barn CD compilations, pine-scented infusers, kicky shoes and brie spreaders….
• My favorite blogger is in a didactic mood:
There are only three syllables in the word, but oh, they are such dangerous syllables. Pianist. Do you say it pompously, snobbishly, in a way that emphasizes the first syllable as if the word were three sixteenth notes placed squarely on beat one? "You're a PI-an-ist?" This sounds haughty and condescending to my ears—I do not, after all, play a PI-an-o—but I always smile forgivingly and reiterate, "yes, I am a pianist," as blandly and evenly as possible. In "notational" terms, out of three sixteenths, I tend to make the first a pick-up, saying the word "piano" and yielding to the "ist" four-fifths of the way through. (Sixteenth - bar line - two sixteenths.) Bleating like a lamb through the middle syllable (essentially giving it the full value of an eighth note) is another sloppy mispronunciation; though when accompanied by rolled eyes and lots of laughter, it's also the perfect way for partying pi-AAN-ists to make fun of themselves.…
• Richard Lawrence Cohen sums up art in a nutshell:
I once knew a man who commanded himself to write a sonnet every day for a year. He liked to say that God told him to. For a long time he wouldn’t show his sacred verses to anyone. At last he put them in a book and gave a reading, and I bought a copy.
The poems were skillfully done and showed a hard-earned knowledge of technique. They were full of smart soundplay and allusion and showed great sensitivity to the insensitivity of being male. He wrote about how strong his father was and how his wife had hurt him and how weak his father was and what a coarse, innocent teenager he had been. He wrote about eBay and iPod in meters Dryden had known. Every poem made me feel I had to tell him how good it was.
But of course there was something missing and he knew it. No need for anyone to say it. It wasn’t anything I could advise him to put in. To do that, I would have had to know where to find it. It was—let me try to think—it was that these were the poems any American man our age would have written if he could write poems. And while it was nice to see those things said with assonance and alliteration and half-rhyme and flexible rhythm, none of the lines was more beautiful than we had a right to ask. Which is, of course, what we have a right to ask….
• Jeannine Kellogg is similarly observant about the dilemma of the modern-day singleton:
All the media images bombarding us everyday imply that most everyone in the world is in love or falling in love. Yet there are many singles internet sites that offer to you the love of millions of singles at your keyboard fingertips. So if love or lust is so prevalent and so easily attained, then why are there millions on the internet paying so much money to search for it?
Our tax forms, insurance forms, employment forms, all ask us if we are “single” or “married.” It is our culture’s great delineator; those of us in love and those of us not. A friend said to me that she hated being asked by coworkers, parent’s friends, and married women, if she was single. When she answers, it’s as though she’s contracted a new incurable personality virus. At which point, the inquirer squints and winces and knows not what else to say. For her, an older single woman, the label of single sometimes just feels like a label adhered to the leftovers….
• Ms. A Glass of Chianti, who hails from Fort Worth, Texas, reads a knuckleheaded art review in the local newspaper and finds herself reflecting on the perpetual problem of where to live:
It's not just art, of course. There's not a culture of reading. People read, of course, they just tend not to read things that aren't written by the new pastor of whatever megachurch recently expanded. The books are great; they teach people how to be more involved with their families and churches and communities and how to make God the center of their life... all of the things that really matter. People go to church on Sunday here. Ask any teacher and he will tell you that there is a lot of pressure not to assign homework that's due on Thursday (as Wednesday is "church night" for most youth groups here).
Now, all of this isn't to say that there's nothing to see here. There's a ton, but there isn't anyone with whom to talk about it. On the one hand, an empty gallery makes viewing art much easier but on the other, you kind of start wondering what's wrong with you that you're all alone yet again. So, if it's not a cultural wasteland, but people aren't really engaged in the "high culture," why might this be?...
As a small-town Missourian turned big-city aesthete, I often find myself pondering such questions. So did Willa Cather, who wrote about them with great subtlety and sympathy in many of her novels and short stories, never more penetratingly than in "A Wagner Matinée" (go here and scroll down for the complete text).
• Who said this? “When a man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”
If you answered “G.K. Chesterton,” you’re wrong.
• And who said this? “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."
If you answered “Abraham Lincoln,” you’re wrong again.
• Fisk University is deaccessioning (i.e., selling off) the two best paintings in its art gallery, a Marsden Hartley and a Georgia O’Keeffe. Mr. Modern Art Notes is on the case:
Comments by Fisk officials indicate a certain cluelessness: "It was a very difficult decision to come to," Fisk prez Hazel O'Leary told The Tennessean. "But I've been here 18 months now and in that time I've come to understand the challenges of the 21st century as a business person."
Uh, Hazel, you're a university president, not a business person….
• Mr. DVD Savant is smart about Airplane!:
It's like we've been taking these old pictures semi-seriously for decades without realizing that they're hilarious, and Airplane! shows us a new way of looking at them. It's not disrespectful of the old movies because people who know the old movies are painfully aware of how they were made. Journeymen actors showed up with their scripts memorized, men like Lloyd Bridges, Richard Denning, Dana Andrews, Frank Lovejoy, Arthur Franz. The reason they were hired is that they could dish out long passages of exposition and make it understood. These guys' stock in trade was unflappability: A truck could drive through the stage wall and they'd probably continue in perfect character until they heard the word "cut." And it takes skill to pump out those flat, stern exposition lines full of earnest import. These are the people that work hard being second-banana functionaries in big films while the stars hog the good lines and get all the attention with their egotistical “motivation difficulties.”…
• Mr. Something Old, Nothing New breaks into the print media (about time, too) with a characteristically pithy essay about the postmodern sitcom:
The creators of today's sitcoms are always looking for ways to indicate there's sweetness and light amidst the dark jokes and funny flashbacks.The first episode of My Name is Earl ended with a hugely sentimental speech in which a character thanked Earl for boosting his self-esteem. Even Arrested Development, with its stories of mutilation and drugging, always has a scene where two characters learn a lesson and make an emotional connection—the creator, Mitchell Hurwitz, calls it the "hug at the end." (In one episode, the lead character tells his son "there's nobody I love more than you in this whole world," a line that would never have survived the edit at Friends, let alone Seinfeld.) The new sitcoms want to be hip and experimental, but they also want to make us love the characters and root for them to make those connections….
• Lastly, here’s a Web site containing the complete texts of forty dispatches by World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle (courtesy of Cathy Siepp). If you don’t know Pyle’s work, read this column, filed from Normandy immediately after D-Day:
The strong, swirling tides of the Normandy coastline shift the contours of the sandy beach as they move in and out. They carry soldiers' bodies out to sea, and later they return them. They cover the corpses of heroes with sand, and then in their whims they uncover them.
As I plowed out over the wet sand of the beach on that first day ashore, I walked around what seemed to be a couple of pieces of driftwood sticking out of the sand. But they weren't driftwood.
They were a soldier's two feet. He was completely covered by the shifting sands except for his feet. The toes of his GI shoes pointed toward the land he had come so far to see, and which he saw so briefly….
A word to the wise: most of Pyle’s best columns are reprinted in the Library of America's Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938-1944 and Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1944-1946, both of which belong on the bookshelves of anyone interested in great journalism.
TT: Another word to the wise
Julia Dollison, who sang with Maria Schneider’s big band last week, is in town to promote her first CD, Observatory. To that end she’ll be performing tonight at the Jazz Standard, accompanied by Ben Monder on guitar, Matt Clohesy on bass, and Ted Poor on drums, the same band heard on the album.
Regular visitors to this blog won’t need further instructions, but if you’re just now joining us, here’s an excerpt from the liner notes I wrote for Observatory:
”There’s this singer I want you to meet. She’s really, really good.” I must hear at least three variations per month on that tired old theme, but when Maria Schneider spoke those words to me five years ago, I took them seriously. What kind of jazz singer, I asked myself, would be interesting enough to catch the ear of the outstanding big-band composer of her generation?
Here’s the answer.
It starts with the voice: warm, airy, dappled with summer sunshine, technically bulletproof from top to bottom….Such voices are born, not made, and Julia Dollison has one. Yet she never coasts on her chops. Instead, she sings like a horn player in love with lyrics, the way Lester Young knew all the words to every ballad he played. Her solos are pointed and meaningful, little musical stories that take you to places you’ve never been.
Then comes the style, an alchemical blend of jazz and pop that makes Harold Arlen and Rufus Wainwright sound not like strange bedfellows but the oldest of friends. Don’t call it “fusion,” though: that might smack of calculation, and there’s nothing calculated about Julia’s singing. She grew up listening to all kinds of music, and now she just sings what she hears, naturally and unselfconsciously….
Two sets, at 7:30 and 9:30. For more information, go here and scroll down.
Friday, January 14, 2005
"At the beginning of the season, when she was not singing often, she had gone one afternoon to hear Paderewski's recital. In front of her sat an old German couple, evidently poor people who had made sacrifices to pay for their excellent seats. Their intelligent enjoyment of the music, and their friendliness with each other, had interested her more than anything on the programme. When the pianist began a lovely melody in the first movement of the Beethoven D minor sonata, the old lady put out her plump hand and touched her husband's sleeve and they looked at each other in recognition. They both wore glasses, but such a look! Like forget-me-notes, and so full of happy recollections. Thea wanted to put her arms around them and ask them how they had been able to keep a feeling like that, like a nosegay in a glass of water."
Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark
TT: Invisible women
Friday again, and I’m in The Wall Street Journal with reviews of two off-Broadway plays, Heather Raffo’s Nine Parts of Desire and Noël Coward’s After the Ball.
Nine Parts of Desire is nothing short of extraordinary:
How do we know what we think we know about life in Iraq? After the re-election of George W. Bush, the continued fighting there was the top news story of 2004, yet the agenda-driven, visually oriented accounts of the mainstream media had little to say about the everyday existence of the Iraqi people, and told us next to nothing about their feelings and fears. It is as though we were waging a war in a land populated by stick figures—which may help to explain why it is an artist who has done what so few reporters have even thought to do, and done it with a persuasiveness that fewer still could hope to rival.
Heather Raffo, the Iraqi-American playwright and performer of “Nine Parts of Desire,” directed by Joanna Settle and now playing Off Broadway at Manhattan Ensemble Theater, brings us closer to the inner life of Iraq than a thousand slick-surfaced TV reports. Yet her beautifully shaped one-woman play is a play, not a stodgily earnest piece of documentary theater, and therein lies its singular force and compulsion: It is persuasive precisely because it is beautiful.
Ms. Raffo’s enigmatic title is explained in her epigraph, a maxim of Ali ibn Abu Taleb, founder of the Shia sect and fourth leader of the Islamic world after Mohammed: “God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” The nine characters she portrays are based on a large and diverse group of real-life women—a doctor, a painter who ran the Saddam Art Center, a left-wing political exile living in London, a young girl who loves the music of ‘N Sync—whom she interviewed over the past decade…We believe in their reality because Ms. Raffo inhabits each one so fully, both as actor and as author, and because we never feel, not even for a moment, that she is making them tell us what we—or she—want to hear.
After the Ball isn’t that good, but I really liked it:
We don’t get much Noël Coward in Manhattan, so it’s a pleasure to point you to the Irish Repertory Theatre’s vest-pocket Off Broadway production of “After the Ball,” one of the Master’s least well-known musicals. Originally produced in London in 1954, this is, amazingly enough, its American premiere, and the Irish Rep, despite the cruel limitations of its L-shaped house and miniature stage, has made the most of the tools at hand, turning a lavish operetta into an intimate entertainment that gives much satisfaction.
“After the Ball” is a musical version of Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” an epigram-encrusted melodrama about a Woman with a Secret (it’s the play in which Wilde famously defined a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”). Coward kept the epigrams and added a batch of songs, mostly sentimental ballads à la “Bitter Sweet” rather than the crisply pointed comic numbers for which he is best remembered as a songwriter. Not all of them come from of his top drawer, but more than enough are good enough, and one, the droll “Something on a Tray,” is (or ought to be) a Coward standard….
No link—the Journal doesn’t give my stuff away for free. To read the whole thing (of which there’s plenty more), buy today’s paper at your neighborhood newsstand, or go here to subscribe to the online version of the Journal. It’s worth it.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, January 14, 2005 | Permanent
Thursday, January 13, 2005
“True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another person's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.”
John Paul II, Evangelium vitae (courtesy of Eve Tushnet)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, January 14, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Blogs today
• Giving me pleasure.
• Giving me pause.
• Giving me the giggles:
When I was an editor, there was a freelance writer working for the paper who had a strange inability to jump to the chase. If you assigned him a piece on, say, a gallery opening of an artist/blacksmith around town, he’d feel compelled to use the lede of his article to elucidate the history of iron through the ages, pausing with reverence at the moment when man first harnessed the power of fire, until, about word 1200, just as you were thinking, “F--k, I never knew that about smelting,” he’d get to an actual review of the exhibit.
Funny thing is, I sympathize completely with both editrice Carrie and that unidentified writer.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 13, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Maeotian Boeotian frog concert, heh heh heh
That last fortune cookie bears some explaining. I've been leafing through Yale University Press's new Swinburne collection all morning, grateful for the review copy that arrived from YUP (a one-time OGIC employer) unbidden. I've never been able to crack the code that might grant me appreciation, perhaps even enjoyment, of Swinburne's difficult poetry. He's long sat, face to the wall, with George Meredith in the dimly-lit corner this Victorianist reserves for barely-readable Victorians. And yet I've secretly felt all along that the fault must be mine, that if I work hard enough at it I might actually come to love their work. Well, Meredith's anyway.
So this week arrives the new Yale Swinburne volume, co-edited by the redoubtable Jerome McGann, which includes excerpts from the poet's criticism. There are considerations of Baudelaire, Byron, Arnold, Blake, and Charlotte and Emily Brontë. This, I realize, could be my way in to Swinburne. I love reading what famous writers thought of other famous writers, especially their contemporaries. In the piece on Charlotte B., where Brontë represents genius, and George Eliot is trotted out into the ring to duke it out with her as the representative of intellect, I just know I'm getting a fortune cookie out of the fisticuffs. (As you can divine from the cookie, though, in this match the fix is most definitely in.)
I found the cookie, as you see, in Swinburne's championing of genius as self-correcting and alert, which has the further implication that mere intellect is distracted by self-love and puffery. But it's clear enough that I should have ended before the paragraph break. I had in fact gone so far as to close the quotation marks there, but as I read on, wide-eyed, Swinburne went so spectacularly off the rails with his Serbonian bog of blundering presumption (can you picture the good Miss Mary Ann Evans slogging through it?) that I couldn't resist extending the cookie. My apologies. Sometimes lunacy can be so picturesque.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 13, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"That great genius is liable to great error the world has ever been willing, if not more than willing, to admit; that great genius not equally balanced by great intellect is not one half as liable to go one half as wrong as intellect unequally counterpoised by genius, is a truth less popular and less familiar, but neither less important nor less indisputable. That Charlotte Brontë, a woman of the first order of genius, could go very wrong indeed, there are whole scenes and entire characters in her work which afford more than ample proof. But George Eliot, a woman of the first order of intellect, has once and again shown how much further and more steadily and more hopelessly and more irretrievably and more intolerably wrong it is possible for mere intellect to go than it ever can be possible for mere genius…
"Where genius takes one false step in the twilight and draws back by instinct, intelligence once misguided will take a thousand without the slightest diffidence; will put its best foot foremost in the pitchy darkness, step out gallantly through all brakes and quagmires till stuck fast up to the middle, and higher yet, in some blind Serbonian bog of blundering presumption, and thence will not improbably strike up a psalm of hoarse thanksgiving or shrill self-gratulation, to be echoed from afar by the thousand marshy throats of a Maeotian or Boeotian frog concert, for the grace here given it to have set a triumphant foot on the solid rock, and planted a steady flagstaff on the summits of supreme and unsurpassable success."
Charles Algernon Swinburne, "A Note on Charlotte Brontë" (1877)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 13, 2005 | Permanent
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
“Life is a great mystery. Is everybody a different person when they are with somebody else?”
Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy (courtesy of Eve Tushnet)
OGIC: Three poker books
As far as I'm concerned, the whole poker craze has been milked way past dry and needs to go away. Love the game, love McManus, but fake celebrities playing with fake money on Bravo? No game is interesting enough to prop that up.
However, the media milking has had at least one solid-gold benefit: ushering back into print A. Alvarez's 1983 book on the World Series of Poker, The Biggest Game in Town. Originally published as a two-part essay in The New Yorker, Alvarez's book first came to my attention in 1992. The book had gone out of print, and I had to order the New Yorker back issues in order to read it. Sadly, these got lost somewhere between Manhattan and Chicago when I moved the following year.
How thrilled I was, then, to learn that Chronicle Books has brought back The Biggest Game in book form. They also happen to have done so, as is their wont, in great style—the new trade paper edition is lovingly and bewitchingly designed, from the stylized tumbling poker chips on the front cover to the pretty club-heart, spade-diamond patterns gracing the endpapers. It's so nice to see a book this good get the really head-turning production it deserves.
Alvarez, best known for his literary criticism and his friendship with Sylvia Plath, ranges as widely in his interests as any writer I can think of, and writes better than most of them. In addition to poetry, fiction, and criticism, he has books on suicide, divorce, sleep, and North Sea oil rigs. His indelible portrait of the WSOP and its setting, Benny Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, is a historical portrait now that the casino (and the tournament) have new corporate owners. The Horseshoe will never again be as Alvarez described it: "down-home," family-owned, "shabby, ill-lit, and crowded at all hours," with patriarch Benny holding court in a restaurant upstairs and one of his sons always visible down on the floor, running things while chatting up the dealers and players all the while. Now that the Horseshoe's body has been snatched by Harrah's, Alvarez's book has documentary as well as literary value. It also pioneered a literary sub-sub-genre that has turned out to have surprising legs. It observes a critical distance from its subject, however, that most poker narratives are helpless to maintain in the face of the game's seductiveness. This is what makes it essential, and what makes it of interest even to readers who couldn't care less about poker but would walk a mile for a perfect sentence.
Representative quotation: "The casinos lie out there on the baked earth like extravagant toys discarded on a beach, their signs looping, beckoning, spiraling, and fizzing recklessly, as in that moment of glory just before the batteries run down."
Another poker book that fell out of print for several years is back in circulation: Anthony Holden's comparatively workmanlike but compulsively readable Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player. Big Deal is sort of the competent but comparatively dull older brother to Jim McManus's flashily virtuosic Positively Fifth Street, which steals its predecessor's concept but buffs it to such a high gloss that nobody much remembers the original. Like McManus, Holden is a professional writer and amateur player who finagled his way into the granddaddy game and then chronicled the experience. Alvarez appears in these pages as a character, the dean of the nominally friendly Tuesday night game in London where Holden cuts his teeth before storming Las Vegas. This is a book for people who have gobbled up Alvarez and McManus and still hunger for more of the same. If not as artful as Biggest Game nor as gripping as Fifth Street, Holden's book is a fun ramble.
Representative quotation: "This event is the only one in the poker calendar which has the pros visibly on edge, anxious about their reputations, wondering if this could at last be their year. At Table Eight, Seat One, sat the most apprehensive of the lot—a lone, pallid Briton whose life had been building towards this moment for as long as he could remember. At this moment all his long and careful months of psychological preparation flew straight out the air-conditioning vents. He was a hopeless bundle of nerves, unsure of his tactics, confused about odds and outs, wondering what had possessed him to put himself through this ordeal."
If Alvarez's and Holden's books never would have been reprinted without ESPN airing the WSOP in prime time and Positively Fifth Street taking off the way it did, Katy Lederer's Poker Face: A Girlhood among Gamblers is a book that might never have been written at all. Lederer is little sister to two of the best and best-known poker players in the world. She dabbled in the game herself after college and probably had the native talent to go pro, but became a poet instead of a player. Her life story shuttles from the fusty private school in New Hampshire where her father taught English to poetry seminars at Berkeley to the gleaming McMansion on the outskirts of Vegas where her brother and mother ran a sports book in between poker nights. These are the raw materials of an amazing book. Poker Face, unfortunately, is not that book.
That's not to say it isn't worth reading. Lederer is a good writer and a brave one; it can't have been easy to portray her family as unflatteringly as she sometimes does. But the book is full of promising moments and beginnings of insights that pass into the ether, maddeningly underexplored. A tough editor clearly could have done wonders for the book simply by pressing Lederer to say more—more about everything—and to work harder to unearth the connections between, for instance, the board games her family constantly played for fun and the casino games they later played for profit. Or between the allure of Vegas and the pull of writing. Or, to get at the heart of the matter, between these people's gambling talent, their gambling compulsion, and their failure as a family.
I won't tell you not to read Poker Face, even though it disappointed me medium-deeply. Its ingredients are fascinating even if sadly undercooked. I think I'd actually have enjoyed it enormously if I hadn't felt haunted by the greatish book it might have been.
Representative quotation: "My brother kept asking me what I thought, how I liked [Las Vegas], and I beamed. Polished and proud, he was unafraid of anything. I was unafraid of anything. I stood at the brink of the casino floor, the lights and dings of the slot machines ringing in my ears, the cranks of roulette wheels spinning and spinning. It was the first time in my life that I didn't feel lied to."
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, January 12, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Soon to be elsewhere
Nothing more from me until Monday—I’m going to Washington to review a play, and I don’t plan to bring my iBook with me. Our Girl will keep you occupied until I come back, and I’ll try to remember to have her post my weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser on Friday morning.
Have a nice weekend. I plan to.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 12, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• A kind but candid friend once told me that I was “pathetically undomestic,” which seems about right. Among other things, I can never remember from one bottle to the next how to use a corkscrew (which may be a blessing in disguise), nor have I any other kitchen-related skills beyond the primeval. But my worst moments come at the rare intervals when I feel obliged out of common decency to change the sheets in my loft. Even when I slept in an ordinary bed, I was never capable of correctly aligning a contour sheet without a minimum of three preliminary tries—and that was when I had patterned sheets. Upon moving to my present loft-equipped apartment two years ago, I switched to black sheets, thinking they’d look more stylish. They did and do, but if you were to see me thrashing around up there, trying without success to figure out which corner to grab first, you wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Middle-aged bachelorhood is no joke.
• I got a cardboard tube in the mail the other day containing the official presidential commission appointing me to the National Council on the Arts. No, it’s not calligraphed on sheepskin, but it’s still pretty damned impressive, and wonderfully quaint-looking to boot. I took it straight to my framer, even though I don’t have a proper place to hang it (presidential commissions are a lot bigger than, say, your average college diploma). I want to hang it in plain sight of all my guests, but would I really be willing to take down a piece of art for the sole purpose of assuaging my vanity?
Perhaps this is a character test in disguise.
• A friend of mine writes to tell me that I was “courageous” to have praised
Kathie Lee Gifford’s new musical. This made me laugh. “Courage” is when you stare down a crazy man with a gun in a dark alley. It doesn’t take “courage” to disagree with the conventional critical wisdom, especially when you don’t hang out with theater people, which I mostly don’t. I know a grand total of two actors and three drama critics, none of whom is likely to pull a switchblade on me for having rather liked Kathie Lee’s show. (O.K., maybe John Simon.)
No doubt it helps that my publishers stand so solidly behind me. When Paul Gigot, the editorial-page editor of The Wall Street Journal, asked me to become the paper’s drama critic, I warned him that some of the things I wrote would be likely to bring heat. “That’s what we had in mind,” he replied. From that day to this, I’ve never been asked to water down a review prior to publication, nor has the paper’s management ever criticized me retrospectively for any opinion I’ve seen fit to express on the drama page. That kind of backing makes it easy to be “courageous.”
• I was listening to music on my iBook as I dressed for the theater this evening, and the whim of the shuffle key served up the “Mort de Mélisande” from Fauré’s incidental music
for Pelléas et Mélisande as I pulled on my pants. It’s one of the saddest pieces of music I know, and I listened to it in complete stillness, moved afresh by its darkly laconic majesty. As I always do, I thought of Emeralds, the ballet George Balanchine made to a half-dozen pieces of orchestral music by Fauré, which ends with this particular movement. I knew the music long before I’d heard of the ballet, but once I saw Emeralds I could never again hear Pelléas without seeing Balanchine’s steps in my mind’s eye.
I wrote about the end of Emeralds in All in the Dances:
In 1976, he added a coda to “Emeralds,” a pas de sept in which the principal dancers of the ballet enact the stately sorrow of the incidental music Gabriel Fauré composed to accompany the death of Mélisande in Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande. At the very end, the ballerinas slip into the wings, vanishing like mist burned off by the morning sun, while their deserted cavaliers, left alone on the stage, sink down on one knee and gesture skyward in salute to...what? He never said.
Ever since I wrote that paragraph, I also think of my own words whenever I hear the “Mort de Mélisande.” This is, to put it mildly, more than a little bit impertinent: I don’t have it in me to write anything worthy of that music, much less the corresponding moment in Emeralds. Still, I did the best I could, and as a result words, music, and moment are now fused in my memory, impertinently but inescapably. That’s the writer’s curse: we can’t help but “see” the world through our own words, instead of using our eyes and ears. The problem is that words are never good enough.
• I have three friends who speak English with unmistakably foreign accents, and I love to listen to them talk, no matter how aimlessly or trivially. Is that childish of me? I used to think it had something to do with the fact that I’m both insufficiently traveled and a hopeless monoglot, exactly the sort of person who’s a sucker for an accent. But, then, there are American accents that I find especially winsome, as well as others that make me feel as if someone were rooting around in my ear with a rat-tail file. Could it be that some accents are more musical than others? Or is it all nothing more than a matter of individual taste? I myself speak in a penny-plain Missouri accent that has been flattened out to the point of nondescriptness by long residence in Manhattan, yet many people claim to find my speaking voice attractive. Go figure.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 12, 2005 | Permanent
Tuesday, January 11, 2005
"Those who go from the bedazzlement and vertigo of Leaves of Grass to the laborious perusal of any of the pious biographies of its author always feel cheated. In the greyish, mediocre pages of those works, they hunt for the vagabond demigod revealed in the poetry and are astonished not to find him."
Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions (courtesy of Doug Ramsey)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 12, 2005 | Permanent
TT: On your mark, get set
Sometime in the middle of Saturday night, I figured out how I wanted to start my Louis Armstrong biography. I’ve been more or less ready to write for the past month or two, but inspiration refused to flow, which in my case usually means that I haven’t yet answered some fundamental question of form. I had roughly the same problem (as you may recall) when I started writing All in the Dances a year ago, and no sooner did I correct my false start than I was off and sprinting. I’m hoping for the same results this year: I’d like to wrap up the prologue and complete a working draft of the first chapter by April 1 at the latest.
I thought about telling you the specific details of my early-morning inspiration, but I’m afraid to jinx myself, so I won't, at least not yet. We’ll see how it takes shape over the next few weeks. I’ll know I’m on the right track if the opening section of the prologue falls into place easily and uneventfully, and should that happen I might open the bag and give you a peek inside.
Somebody asked me the other day if I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block. It’s a subject that interests me greatly, so much so that I actually gave thought a number of years ago to writing a book about it. My answer was that long years of writing to inflexible deadlines had knocked most of the psychological self-indulgence out of me, making it possible for me to compose on command, but that I still experienced on occasion many of the anxieties associated with writer’s block, only sped up. It’s sort of like David Ives’ one-act play about fruit flies: I’m perfectly capable of going through all the usual pre-compositional horrors, but they rarely last for more than a day. For me, the big problem is when I simply don’t want to sit down and write, which is usually. Writing a first draft isn’t pleasurable to me (as opposed to editing, which I enjoy).
Be that as it may, I’m ready to get going in earnest. Igor Stravinsky, who wrote most of his music to commission, once said that when he knew how long a piece was supposed to be, he got excited. I know what he meant. I’ve been thinking about Louis for months, waiting patiently for the coin to drop in my head, and now it seems to have happened. The first sentence hasn’t come to me yet (that's the next step), but at least I know the approximate shape of the container into which I plan to pour the story of his eventful life. At last, I’m excited.
“Be at the northwest corner of Madison and 38th at eight o’clock sharp,” the voice on the answering machine said. “Wear black.” I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to respond to so peremptory a summons, but the voice was familiar and the occasion was an appointment, so I donned my Black Outfit, jumped in a cab, and proceeded as instructed to the rendezvous point.
Time out for a little backstory: I’m a passionate fan of the Lascivious Biddies, the New York-based jazz-pop combo for whose recently released debut CD, Get Lucky, I wrote the liner notes. (They’re also pioneer podcasters—go here to hear.) They’d been wanting to take me to dinner to celebrate the release of Get Lucky, so they told me to keep Monday night open and wait for further instructions. The instructions arrived by phone this afternoon, and at eight o’clock sharp I was met on the aforementioned corner by a black-clad Biddie who whispered the secret word in my ear, took me by the arm, and led me a half-block west to…a karaoke bar.
Unlikely as it may sound, seeing as how I’m a New York artblogger and all, I’d never been to a karaoke bar. The closest I’d come was reading Maud’s blog and seeing Lost in Translation. So not only was I being thrust into a new milieu, but my guides were a quartet of professional musicians who all happened to be karaoke buffs. The results were, to put it mildly, a hoot and a half, though it took me a little while to catch on. As I watched the lyrics to “Bette Davis Eyes” flash on the screen, I asked, “But…where’s the music?” (I was the best sight-singer in my freshman music-theory class.) Once the hysterical laughter died down, the Biddies agreed unanimously that this was the geekiest remark ever made in a karaoke bar, and we started flipping through the songbook, looking for songs to sing. The book itself was a monument to kitsch—an encyclopedia-sized list of every cheesy top-40 song released in the past quarter-century—and as for the videos, all I can say is that I was spellbound by their surrealistic awfulness.
The Biddies, it turns out, are way serious about karaoke (they even have girl-group dance routines worked out for their favorite songs), and their savoir-faire inevitably attracted the attention of the other patrons, none of whom appeared to suspect that there were ringers in their midst. One cheerful fellow sloshed up to our table and said, “You guys are really good—didja know that?” My companions smiled demurely.
It was made known to me in due course that I wouldn’t be allowed to go home without at least participating in a group sing, so when Lee Ann Westover called for “Moon River,” I chimed in with a discreet harmony line. As if by prearrangement, the rest of the band abruptly fell silent, and as I switched hastily to the lead, it hit me that the song was playing in C major, Andy Williams’ key, suitable only for very high baritones. Middle age having turned me into a low bass, alarming things started to happen as I sang We’re after the same rainbow’s end. Fortunately, I’d had sake with my sushi, and I joined in the chorus of catcalls that greeted my bloodcurdling attempt at a high D. This loosened me up no end, and I even went so far as to join in the chorus to “Do You Know the Way to San José?” a little later on.
As we parted, the Biddies assured me that I was welcome to join them whenever I liked, and we made tentative plans to celebrate my forty-ninth birthday at the same bar on February 6. I’m not sure the world is quite ready to hear me raise my voice in song again—but, then, the world isn’t invited.
Monday, January 10, 2005
“Subtlety chases the obvious in a never-ending spiral and never quite catches it.”
Rex Stout, The Silent Speaker
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"It is a sad fact of human relations that unqualified adulation often produces from the adored one contempt and a kick in the chops."
Heather Mac Donald in Slate
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 10, 2005 | Permanent
Maccers and I went to hear Audra McDonald on Friday at the Rose Theater, the gorgeous fifth-floor centerpiece of Lincoln Center’s new Columbus Circle performing-arts complex. No sooner did we get off the elevator than I spotted a pair of musician friends in the lobby, who hastened to tell us that McDonald had canceled Thursday’s concert, which was supposed to have been the official opening night of this year’s American Songbook series. Sure enough, McDonald came on stage, perched herself gingerly on a high stool, and told the audience that her daughter gave her a case of intestinal flu that had knocked her flat the night before.
To our amazement and relief, she got through the whole program, and though she mostly sang sitting down, sipping gingerly from a bottle of Gatorade, she sounded just like herself. The only other apparent sign of distress I could detect was that she sang a bit flat from time to time, which was perfectly forgivable under the circumstances. Otherwise she performed very much in the manner to which she has long since accustomed us, one that I admiringly described a couple of years ago in a New York Times profile:
Ms. McDonald is a true theatrical singer, trained to bounce her voice off the back wall, be it in a Broadway house or a concert hall. Such performers are never at their best in nightclubs, though Ms. McDonald (who listens mostly to jazz in her spare time) can and does function fairly comfortably in cabarets like Joe’s Pub…
Her tangy soprano and powerfully evocative way with words are as effective on record as in concert. (Listen to the way she bites into the most savage quatrain Lorenz Hart ever wrote, from “I Wish I Were in Love Again”: “When love congeals/It soon reveals/The faint aroma of performing seals,/The double-crossing of a pair of heels.”) Happy Songs
(Nonesuch), in fact, is as close to perfect as an album of standards performed by a theatrical singer can possibly be. The only thing it lacks is intimacy. Yes, Ms. McDonald scales down her vocal gestures with self-effacing skill, steering clear of the italicized exaggeration that makes queen-sized personalities such as Betty Buckley all but unlistenable on record. But even in a soft-spoken ballad like “I Must Have That Man,” she sings as though she is on stage, playing to an attentive crowd.
Not surprisingly, that is where she feels most at home. “I had a great time at Joe’s Pub,” she said, “and I don’t want to diminish the importance of that kind of place to me—you can really get into the words there, be completely vulnerable and naked—but you can’t do everything you want to do in that kind of environment.”
I had Saturday off, and how did I spend it? I went to a Broadway show, naturally. To be specific, I went to the Ambassador Theatre to see Chicago, this time as a civilian instead of a critic. I love Chicago, and I adore the current Broadway revival, among the most brilliantly effective productions of a dance-driven musical to have graced the Great White Way. Unfortunately, my previous visit to the Ambassador Theatre had left a bad taste in my mouth, as I duly reported in The Wall Street Journal:
I taxied up to the Ambassador Theatre to see Melanie Griffith play Roxie Hart in “Chicago.” This 1996 revival, smartly directed by Walter Bobbie and flashily choreographed by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse, the show’s creator, got an added jolt of publicity when Rob Marshall’s lively film version of the most cynical musical ever to open on Broadway became a runaway hit. The insertion of a medium-sized movie star into so long-running a production is doubtless intended to rope in Broadway novices who’ve never heard of Fosse, much less Ms. Reinking. (It can’t hurt that Antonio Banderas, Ms. Griffith’s husband, is appearing just across the street in “Nine.”)
Alas, “Chicago”’s new star is sucker bait: Ms. Griffith sings like a cat with a cold, dances like a junior-high cheerleader and reads her lines like a cross between Jennifer Tilly and Betty Boop. She was so bad, in fact, that I felt embarrassed for the rest of the otherwise solid cast…If I were Melanie Griffith, I’d blush at the thought of sharing a stage with such consummate professionals. I guess being a movie star means never having to say you’re sorry.
I’d been wanting to go back to Chicago ever since Griffith moved on, but when I tried to include it in a Journal column I wrote last summer about long-running musicals, I ran into an unexpected roadblock:
If I had to guess, I’d say that most vacationing out-of-towners who take in a Broadway show probably do so in the summer. Unfortunately, that can be the worst time of year for playgoing. Actors go on vacations, too, and it’s in the summertime that you’re most likely to get stuck with understudies, second-stringers and temporary substitutes for the stars who lit up the sky on opening night. Nobody tells you that at the box office, though, nor are your hundred-dollar tickets plastered with stickers warning the inexperienced theatergoer that many hits go creaky in the knees after a year or so. That’s why Broadway producers don’t like critics to drop in on routine performances of long-running shows. When I inquired the other day about revisiting “Chicago,” for example, the publicist turned me down flat. “Too many understudies right now,” he told me….
A couple of weeks ago, a reader of “About Last Night” told me that Chicago was looking especially good these days, so I bit the bullet and went, not as the Big Bad Drama Critic of The Wall Street Journal but strictly as a regular guy who felt like catching a Saturday matinee on his day off. This time around, Roxie was being played by Tracy Shayne, an old Broadway hand (she's had long runs as a replacement in A Chorus Line, Les Miz, and Phantom) who was subbing for the vacationing Charlotte d’Amboise. I’d never heard of her, but my correspondent assured me that she was terrific, so I decided to see for myself, and you know what? She was terrific. Shayne is a tough little pixie, professional to the hilt and a pure pleasure to watch, who knows exactly what Roxie Hart is all about. Not only is she a superb dancer, but she's also a damned fine singer with a well-placed, vividly tinted voice (I think she ought to try her hand at cabaret). Good singing is a commodity that can no longer be taken for granted on Broadway, least of all now that slightly faded Hollywood stars are in demand to take over the lead roles of hit shows in need of a box-office boost. Lauren Hutton, for example, is excellent in Wonderful Town, but her singing is no better than good enough. I can think of worse things—starting with Melanie Griffith—but I can’t tell you what a relief it was to hear a major musical-comedy role sung really, really well, from the first note to the last.
Chicago would have been worth seeing (and hearing) just for Tracy Shayne, but I was no less happily surprised by the overall quality of the show, all the more so because the role of Velma Kelly was played by an understudy, Donna Marie Asbury, another dancer-who-can-really-sing who got her bumpy start as one of the fresh-faced kids in the ill-fated original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Asbury gave a strong performance, as did the rest of the cast, and I went home as happy as I could be, even though I hadn’t seen a single star all afternoon.
One of my favorite pieces in the Teachout Museum is “Composition,” a 1962 color serigraph by Stuart Davis. Most of Davis’ prints are way too rich for my blood, but I was able to afford “Composition” because it was published in a large edition of 500 copies, and because Davis died before he could sign any of them. Now one of those unsigned prints hangs over my bookshelves, crisp and jazzy and deeply satisfying to behold. Am I any less delighted to own it because it isn’t signed? I don’t think so. Of course I’d be pleased if it were, but I buy prints because I want to look at them, not for their investment value.
I thought of "Composition" as I rode the subway home last Saturday afternoon. Why is it that so many people need the imprimatur of a big name in order to enjoy a Broadway show? No doubt it has a lot to do with the staggeringly high price of theater tickets, which has a way of corrupting our aesthetic responses: if you’re paying $100 for an orchestra seat, you want to see somebody famous up there, even if she isn’t any good. You want, so to speak, to see the signature.
I won’t pretend that I’m entirely immune to this temptation. Whenever I show off my copy of John Marin’s “Downtown. The El,” I always point out that it’s pencil-signed in the margin, the same way I’ve been known to brag about having seen certain big-name performers in the flesh. Nevertheless, I’m fairly pure-hearted when it comes to art, and just as I treasure my unsigned copy of Stuart Davis’ “Composition,” so, too, did I have the time of my life seeing Tracy Shayne in Chicago, even though I didn’t know who she was before I got to the Ambassador Theatre. Whoever she is, she’s a trouper, like Audra McDonald, and that’s what theater is all about. The world is full of wonderful artists who never become rich or famous, who do what they do simply because they love it with all their hearts. God bless them, every one.
TT: The year in review
These questions have been bouncing around the blogosphere (I got them from Household Opera).
Here goes nothing:
1. What did you do in 2004 that you’d never done before? (A) I took a spontaneous vacation. (B) I let the White House sic the FBI on me.
2. Did you keep your New Year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year? I’ve never been one to make New Year's resolutions—my mind doesn’t work that way.
3. Did anyone close to you give birth? Yes, and now I’m a sometime babysitter as a result (I guess that belongs under #1, too).
4. Did anyone close to you die? No.
5. What countries did you visit? None—I was too busy.
6. What would you like to have in 2005 that you lacked in 2004? (A) A romance. (B) A Morandi etching. (I'd gladly settle for either, but I'm not hanging by my thumbs.)
7. What date from 2004 will remain etched upon your memory? None. I’ve never been good at remembering dates—I always have to look them up. The last one I remember is the one we all remember.
8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? The publication of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine and A Terry Teachout Reader. I haven't had many two-book years!
9. What was your biggest failure? I promised myself that I’d try my hand at watercolor in 2004. I bought a starter set in September, but I have yet to moisten a brush.
10. Did you suffer illness or injury? Just the flu.
11. What was the best thing you bought? Max Beerbohm’s 1913 caricature of Percy Grainger.
12. Whose behavior merited celebration? Answering that question is what I do for a living. Spend an hour trolling through the “About Last Night” archives and you can answer it for yourself.
13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed? Ditto.
14. Where did most of your money go? Art and taxes (which beats death and taxes).
15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? I can’t even begin to list all the things that fill the bill—I seem to spend my life in a perpetual state of arousal.
16. What song/album will always remind you of 2004? (A) Song: Diana Krall’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow.” (B) Album: Luciana Souza’s Neruda.
17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
• Happier or sadder? Somewhat happier.
• Thinner or fatter? About the same.
• Richer or poorer? Definitely poorer, but mainly because of the Teachout Museum, so I’m not complaining.
18. What do you wish you’d done more of? Taking the night off.
19. What do you wish you’d done less of? Sitting through plays by...oh, never mind, I gave him a hard enough time last year.
20. How will you be spending Christmas? Go here for retrospective details.
21. Who did you spend the most time on the phone with? Our Girl in Chicago.
22. Did you fall in love in 2004? No (sigh).
23. How many one-night stands in this last year? None. That’s soooo not my thing.
24. What was your favorite TV program? I don’t see enough TV to answer this question (unless you count the What’s My Line? kinescopes I watch every night on the Game Show Network).
25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year? So far as I know, I don’t really hate anyone (that’s also not my thing).
26. What was the best book(s) you read? The Library of America’s Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories.
27. What was your greatest musical discovery? Erin McKeown.
28. What did you want and get? A new friend.
29. What did you want and not get? None of your business.
30. What were your favorite films of this year? Sideways, The Incredibles, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Triplets of Belleville, and Garden State (sorry to be so obvious).
31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you? I had dinner at Café Luxembourg with three gorgeous women who helped me celebrate my forty-eighth birthday in high style.
32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? See #6.
33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2004? I upgraded my haircut and bought my very first all-black outfit.
34. What kept you sane? Art and my friends, not necessarily in that order.
35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? Elastigirl.
36. What political issue stirred you the most? Not on this blog, you don't.
37. Who did you miss? Nancy LaMott.
38. Who was the best new person you met? (A) A fellow blogger who must, alas, remain nameless. (B) The person referred to in #28.
39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2004. My name is Terry, and I’m a workaholic.
40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year. (A) Carolyn Leigh's "I Walk a Little Faster": Can’t begin to see my future shine as yet,/No sign as yet/You’re mine as yet./Rushing toward a face I can’t define as yet,/Keep bumping into walls,/Taking lots of falls. (B) Ani DiFranco's "Superhero": And every pop song on the radio/Is suddenly speaking to me/Art may imitate life/But life imitates TV.
Saturday, January 17, 2004
"We must look and look and look till we live in the painting and for a fleeting moment become identified with it. If we do not succeed in loving what through the ages has been loved, it is useless to lie ourselves into believing that we do. A good rough test is whether we feel that it is reconciling us with life."
Bernard Berenson (quoted in Meryle Secrest, Duveen: A Life in Art)
TT: The two commandments
(1) If you like this site, tell your friends.
(2) If you have an arts blog, tell your readers.
TT: I prefer not to
I read Our Girl's first posting about Word Wars with interest, in part because I'm the exact opposite of the people portrayed in the film. I've been deeply immersed in the world of words my whole life long. I started playing with my mother's portable typewriter as a child. I really did read the dictionary for pleasure. I launched my first periodical, a mimeographed newspaper, in junior high school, and God only knows how many millions of words I've published since then. Yet I've never been one for wordplay, perhaps because I'm no good at it. Be it Scrabble, Boggle, or Wheel of Fortune, I invariably come up short, a deficiency that never fails to surprise friends who take it for granted that I excel at such games.
In fact, I've never been much of a game player of any kind, except for a year or two in high school when I survived a short-lived obsession with chess. Video games don't even interest me: I've never owned one, or run one on any of my computers. On the other hand, I'm a near-perfect speller and always have been, and so I watched Spellbound with rapt attention, having competed in the National Spelling Bee as a boy. I actually got as far as the Missouri semi-finals, where I misspelled "perspicacious" (a word of which I'd never previously heard, and which I've since made a point of never using in print), thereby losing to a young lady named, if memory serves, Sally Shoemaker. I wonder what happened to her.
It's handy to spell well, especially if you're an editor, but I doubt it's evidence of anything more than an oddly turned chromosome. It certainly doesn't prove that you're smart or creative. When I first examined H.L. Mencken's personal library in preparation for writing The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, I looked at the presentation copy of This Side of Paradise inscribed to him by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and my proofreader's eye immediately noticed a misspelled word in the inscription. The resulting feeling of superiority lasted for about a second and a half. Which would you prefer: to be able to spell perfectly, or to be able to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Alas, my spelling abilities mark the outer limit of my gifts in the area of pure wordplay, which doubtless says something about the limitations of my pure brainpower. Not only am I no good at Scrabble, but I've never been able to learn a second language, and I'm only fair at math. My heart sinks whenever I run across math whizzes or natural polyglots, for their very existence is an affront to my pride: they do things I can't even dream of doing, simply by virtue of superior equipment.
Life is unfair, and I know I have gifts that others envy. I had a friend in high school who was completely tone-deaf—he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, as the saying goes—and who was desperately jealous of my musical talent. I wouldn't trade my musicality for anything (though I'd hate to have to choose between going deaf and going blind). But what would I give to be able to speak and read French fluently? A year off my life? The little finger of my right hand? Probably neither, but certainly something of value, were the Devil to drop by one evening and suggest a little deal. I might, for instance, agree never to read The Great Gatsby again in return for the ability to read Proust in the original. Maybe.
One thing's sure, though: I wouldn't give up anything at all in order to be able to play competition-level Scrabble. Somewhere in Rex Stout's Death of a Dude, Nero Wolfe says that he prefers using words to playing with them. Me, too—but don't ask me to swear that my concurrence isn't faintly tinged with envy. I'm too honest for that.
Friday, January 16, 2004
"Sentimentality is feeling about nothing. Sentiment, on the same hand, is what people who are scared of feeling describe as sentimentality."
Hans Keller, "The Sentimental Violin"
TT: Good idea of the week
From Eve Tushnet:
LISTENING TO GEORGE JONES, "SHE THINKS I STILL CARE." Somebody make Chan Marshall cover this.
I’d buy it. I must have played that song three times a night for two years back when I was in a country band, and I still love it. (For the original recording, go here.)
TT: O.K., maybe we are like Heathers
For further proof that We Happy Few are no better than a bunch of 10-year-old girls giggling on the playground—and that includes me—go here. (I’m writing in Our Girl, by the way.)
Maybe that stuffy lady
from the Washington Post was on to something….
OGIC: Words on film, part one
Scrabble has always struck me as one of the more incendiary of your basic roster of living room games. In my experience, conditions can get toasty. One’s normally liberal sense of humor can be tested, bent, and sometimes broken. The ice cubes and olives (in a properly lubricated game) can fly.
If Scrabble can bring out the beast in the most domesticated, pleasure-seeking players, what about those who play for fame and cold cash? They do exist, you know. If you don’t, my friends Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo want (with a little help from a smart film distributor or cable channel) to show you. I suspect the title of their documentary about the world of knock-out, drag-down Scrabble—Word Wars—will seem intuitively right to anyone who has played much so-called friendly Scrabble at all. The film reaches its first public audience this weekend. Out of 540 films submitted, Word Wars was one of 16 selected to compete in the documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival, which kicked off yesterday.
I saw an early trailer for Word Wars in 2002, and it looked to me like a happy marriage of the respective virtues of Spellbound and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control—two movies I adored. If you’ve read Stefan Fatsis’s excellent book Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, you’ll understand why I bring up Errol Morris’s film. As characters, the perennial championship contenders in Scrabble fall in the general ballpark of those charming yet ever-so-slightly unnerving fellows in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, who display such feverish involvement in their curious lines of work, and somewhat less interest in other matters.
Word Freak falls into that Subculture-Exposed genre that produces so many middling, midlist, paint-by-numbers books (many of which, I hasten to add, are very good reads). But it rises to the top of its category by virtue of Fatsis’s good writing, and two pieces of luck. First, Fatsis turned out to have enough talent for the game to partly break out of his journalist role and compete very seriously. Second, the major players were, to a man, great characters: fascinating meetings of utter brilliance (in the game) and willful social marginality (outside of it). The more you read, the less this seems accidental. Dominating this game takes, aside from labor, a pretty beautiful mind.
Getting back to Word Wars, the documentary originated with Eric, a compulsive and talented anagrammer (throw him “sharecrop” and you get a fast “horsecrap” back) whose path reversed the one Fatsis had followed. Eric first entered this demimonde years ago as a competitor, wandered away from it for a time, and came back later with a camera. (Eric is a minor character in Fatsis’s book, where he reveals his favorite anagram, “eleven + two” = “twelve + one.” Believe it.)
”I was a wordplay lover in college,” Eric says, “but I realized that if you want to be a champion, you have to devote your life to memorizing words. That made me give up, but as I got to know the players I realized I wanted to capture the whole milieu on film. I was around when Stefan was researching Word Freak and I thought, someone should have a camera here.”
When Eric decided that the world’s best Scrabble players could and should be a cinematic subject, he called Julian, his college pal and a twelve-year veteran of the film industry. Julian’s résumé includes work as Assistant Director on Boiler Room, Real Women Have Curves, and Three Seasons. Himself a word games devotee, Julian didn’t have to think hard before he signed on.
Even so, the member of the team with almost all of the hands-on filmmaking experience had his doubts. “I read Word Freak as a primer, then met the principals when we started filming,” Julian recalls. "My first impressions were that this was a colorful world that would lead to a good character study. At the beginning the characters were all I saw that was going to make the film interesting. As far as the plot, the game itself, I played the skeptic at first. But as we watched the competition unfold, I gradually realized that, if presented in a certain way, it could be more interesting than watching paint dry.”
A first challenge was deciding which of the Scrabble circuit’s hundred-odd “hardcore regulars” to track on their way to the 2002 National Championship in San Diego, which the filmmakers envisioned as the climactic event of the movie. This turned out to be a process of elimination employing various criteria and a little bit of faith. “It was kind of a horse race,” says Eric. “We wanted people who were cinematically interesting. We needed a set of people who would interact with each other a lot, which ruled out anyone from the lower divisions. We definitely wanted people who had a chance to win. And the four people we followed, in fact, turned out to be some of the main characters in Stefan’s book.”
If you’ve read Word Freak, you know that the guys (and they are, at the highest level, almost all guys) who excel at this game can be sad or strange figures, or both. So were the kids in Spellbound, some of whom reminded me of whole years of my adolescence that I would have been happy to leave forgotten. But the Spellbound kids (like me) were works in progress, and cute—something not necessarily true of the Scrabble crowd. “Some characters were happy to be on camera,” Eric says, “but others could be a little prickly. Theirs are not easeful, comfortable lives, so sometimes things got a little touchy. One player, who did not end up in the movie, we visited in a ward for the criminally insane.”
So (moving along), what about Spellbound? I saw the spelling bee sleeper a couple of times last year, and found it pretty extraordinary—especially the vivid, efficient, and above all empathetic sketches of the kids’ home lives, which brought forth some unlikely sentimental favorites to follow, fingers crossed, through the bee. Did Eric and Julian think Spellbound’s dark-horse success last summer would help their project, or would it crowd them out of the presumably modest-sized niche for word-game documentaries?
Here, on this burning question, endeth this installment of our story. Check in Monday for the second half, which will answer this question and more: What are the prospects for getting more documentaries into general release? Where do tournament Scrabble players cut their teeth? (I’ll give you a hint, it ain’t your living room with a cocktail.) Short of catching the next plane to Utah, what are the prospects for all of us getting to see Word Wars?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, January 16, 2004 | Permanent
Thursday, January 15, 2004
TT: If you build it, they will laugh
I caught up with recent off- and off-off-Broadway shows in my theater column for this morning’s Wall Street Journal. I raved about Private Jokes, Public Places:
The funniest new play to hit New York in months… has taken up residence in the least likely of venues: Oren Safdie’s "Private Jokes, Public Places," a comedy about architecture now being performed downtown at (wait for it) the Theater at the Center for Architecture. Implausible as it may sound, Mr. Safdie has done the impossible: He’s written an unpretentiously witty play of ideas about some of the most pretentious ideas known to man.
Since 9/11, Americans have been exposed to more up-to-the-second designs for high-profile buildings—most of them bad, some downright hideous—than at any other time in recent memory. What kind of thinking, if any, goes into these white megaelephants? Mr. Safdie, a student of architecture at Columbia University turned struggling playwright (and, not coincidentally, the son of celebrity architect Moshe Safdie), has drawn on personal experience to answer that question….
As for Aunt Dan and Lemon, well, here’s the lead:
The word "transgressive" was not yet chic when Wallace Shawn’s "Aunt Dan and Lemon" was first produced in 1985, but it could have been coined to describe this vomitous piece of blather, which has been revived by the New Group in a production directed by Scott Elliott and running through Jan. 31 at the Harold Clurman Theater.
Like most works of art (I use the term loosely) that are praised as transgressive by easily impressed critics, "Aunt Dan and Lemon" is actually anything but. To be sure, Mr. Shawn dabbles in theatrical shock tactics, but stripped of its gratuitous nudity and violence, his play is a one-sided piece of sucker bait that will offend only those thin-skinned right-wingers who take unkindly to being portrayed as capital-F fascists by a smug left-winger….
No link, so to read the whole thing (including brief mentions of The Beard of Avon and Anna Bella Eema), pick up a copy of this morning’s Journal, turn to the "Weekend Journal" section and keep flipping pages until you find me. I’m there, together with other good things.
TT: Just in case you were wondering
I think maybe my musical juices are flowing again. It started when Luciana Souza sent me a CD-R of the rough mix of her next album, a beautiful song cycle on poems by Pablo Neruda. Then I read a Wall Street Journal piece about a new bluegrass CD, Del McCoury's It's Just the Night, which was so interesting that I went right out and bought the album. (I'm a great fan of McCoury's.) That broke the logjam. Now I'm listening to Fats Waller's "Baby Brown" on my iBook, soon to be followed by Elgar's Cockaigne. After that, who knows?
Where there is sound, there is hope.
P.S. The Elgar was way cool. I believe I'll write a piece about him for Commentary.
I found the following note in my e-mailbox this morning:
Perverse as it will seem to you, I have always liked jury duty, as a great escape. My last stint began on 9/11, and we were evacuated just in time for me to see the second tower collapse.
I also found the weather forecast for Thursday, printed in capital letters and sounding very much like a message in a fortune cookie: TRAVEL IS STRONGLY DISCOURAGED THIS MORNING. Opening the blinds, I saw five inches of freshly fallen snow. I bundled up, headed downstairs, and started to make my way from the Upper West Side to the courthouse at 111 Centre Street. It was nine a.m., an hour before I was scheduled to report for my second day of jury duty.
No subway line goes directly from my neighborhood to Centre Street, and I didn’t care to walk halfway across town from the Canal Street station to the courthouse in eight-degree weather, so I trudged four blocks north to the nearest bus stop, figuring to take a crosstown bus through Central Park to the Lexington Avenue subway line, board a southbound express train, and change for the local at Fourteenth Street, emerging just two blocks from the courthouse. (If you live anywhere but New York, that itinerary will give you a taste of the travel-related decisions we carless Manhattanites make every day.) On paper, it was a brilliant plan, but it started to break down almost immediately under the pressure of real life, as such plans are wont to do on snowy winter mornings.
The trouble began at the bus stop, where I found a jam-packed crosstown bus that turned away a dozen or so shivering passengers and drove off. It was followed by two empty out-of-service buses, followed in turn by a bus into which the rest of us crammed ourselves. As anyone who has boarded a New York bus at rush hour will know, I use the word "crammed" literally: the last few people who forced themselves through the open door shoved me three-quarters of the way into the lap of a well-dressed woman. The going was slow and got slower, and by the time I reached Lexington Avenue, a half-hour had crawled by, most of which I spent staring at a "Poetry in Motion" placard on which was printed the last stanza of Matthew Arnold’s "Dover Beach," surely an odd choice for the purpose of diverting bored commuters. I amused myself by imagining ignorant armies clashing by night on the M86 crosstown bus, though it struck me that a line or two from Joseph Conrad might have been even better suited to the occasion. I couldn’t decide whether to opt for "The horror! The horror!" or "Exterminate all the brutes!"
I got off the bus and inched my way down the snow-encrusted stairs to the subway. As I approached the turnstile, I ran into a mob of irate passengers who told me through clenched teeth that the downtown express trains weren’t running. I barely caught the next local, which pulled into my station a half-hour later. From there I slithered atop the icy sidewalks to 111 Centre Street, where I lined up to file through the security checkpoint, then waited 10 minutes for an elevator. I finally reached the jury room at 10:20, just as the clerk started calling the roll.
Much to my surprise, the atmosphere in the waiting room was light—almost festive—and several of the people around me were actually chatting. A pleasant–looking woman asked me about the paperback I had pulled out of my shoulder bag, Bernard Taper’s biography of George Balanchine, and assured me in return that her book, The Da Vinci Code, was excellent. I scanned the room to see what others were reading, and though most of the books on display were Ken Follett-type thrillers, a few of my fellow citizens were grappling with more ambitious fare. The woman on my right was reading The Piano Tuner, and the man just behind me had his nose in the International Herald Tribune. In the front row, a dignified-looking matron with hair done up in neat cornrows knitted away at an orange afghan, waiting patiently for the clerk’s summons.
It never came. For the second day in a row, no judge anywhere in the courthouse called for a fresh panel of jurors. We were sent to lunch 45 minutes ahead of schedule, and I ran for the elevators and slid across the street to a very good Vietnamese restaurant, where I lunched with a friend who works at WNYC, whose studios are a few blocks south of the courthouse. Not long after my return, the waiting-room chatter sputtered, fizzled, and died out, replaced by a thick, resentful silence. I opened up The Wall Street Journal and buried myself in a review of a Hans Hofmann retrospective at the Naples Museum of Art, trying without success to imagine a more complete inversion of my immediate situation than strolling through a Florida museum, looking at brightly colored canvases by one of my favorite painters.
Somehow, another hour passed. Then, without warning, the cheerfully cynical red-faced man who had given us our orientation lecture the previous morning popped out of the clerks’ office and announced that we could all pick up our certificates of jury service, after which we would be exempt from further service for four years. I expected at least a few cheers, but nobody made a sound. Instead, we made our way one by one to the desk, picked up our certificates, and left.
I treated myself to a cab—I’d already spent plenty of time on buses and subways—and as the driver pulled onto the West Side Highway, I realized, much to my surprise, that I felt strangely disappointed. It happens that I’ve never actually served on a jury. (I was empaneled in a civil case a few years ago, but the plaintiffs settled as soon as the attorneys finished their opening statements.) In spite of my exasperation at having made the trek to Centre Street in sub-freezing temperatures, I must have been looking forward, consciously or not, to the prospect of finally sitting in judgment on a defendant. But my short-lived pique was gone by the time the cab pulled up to my building, and a half-minute later I was back in my nice warm apartment, my civic duty done until 2008. The great escape was over.
TT: Professional courtesy
The shockingly beautiful Our Girl informs me that
(1) her computer is belching smoke, preventing her from posting, but
(2) she’s got some good stuff in the works, and
(3) you’ll see it as soon as the glue dries.
(4) She promises to answer her e-mail soon.
So do I, only I’ve been making the same promise for the past couple of weeks.
No doubt OGIC will make good on her promise—she’s that kind of girl. As for me, well, I'm not any kind of girl.
Wednesday, January 14, 2004
I took a musician friend to see New York City Ballet last night. On the program were two of George Balanchine's masterpieces, Apollo (whose score is by Igor Stravinsky) and Concerto Barocco (set to the Bach Two-Violin Concerto). I learned long ago not to expect miracles out of the NYCB pit orchestra, but I was shocked by what I heard. The playing of the string section in both pieces was ill-tuned and inaccurate, and in the case of Concerto Barocco the performance, particularly in the first movement, was so rhythmically uncertain as to adversely affect the quality of the dancing on stage. Dancers can't do their job when they're not sure what tempo to take.
My friend was appalled. I was embarrassed.
Musical standards at New York City Ballet have rarely been much better than mediocre at any time since I started looking at the company 17 years ago. A few years ago the orchestra actually dared to go on strike, in the process inspiring a joke that circulated widely among New York musicians and dancegoers: "The worst orchestra in town just went on strike. What do they want? Fewer rehearsals." (That was actually pretty close to the truth.) Fortunately, the strike failed, in the process giving NYCB sufficient leverage to pry a more favorable contract out of the orchestra. The company then hired Andrea Quinn, an excellent conductor, as its new music director, and within months the musical side of its performances had improved noticeably.
I haven't been looking at NYCB as regularly as usual for the past couple of years (I was preoccupied with finishing and promoting my Mencken biography), but now that I'm writing a brief life of Balanchine, I've been making a point of going more often. Last week and this, I noticed that the orchestra had fallen back into its old habits—not consistently, but often enough to be alarming.
Most dance critics don't have musical training. A few, in fact, are downright unmusical—I'll name no names, but New York balletomanes know who they are—while others know when an orchestra sounds bad but are understandably reluctant to say so in print because of their lack of musical knowledge. Hence the work of the New York City Ballet Orchestra and its conducting staff (whose role in the current crisis should not be overlooked) almost always goes unmentioned in reviews. Like George Balanchine, I'm a trained musician, so I considered it my personal responsibility to speak out about NYCB's low orchestral standards when I was covering the company for the New York Daily News. I also talked about the problem with other critics, and encouraged them to do likewise, with some success.
Again, I'm not saying that the orchestra always plays badly. It sounded pretty good last week in Prokofiev's score for The Prodigal Son. On the other hand, the performance of Mendelssohn's Scotch Symphony on the same program fell well below any acceptable standard of musical quality, and what I heard last night was even worse. It grieves me that a company whose founder knew music from the inside out should be forcing its audiences to listen to such unprofessional performances. It also makes me angry.
New York City Ballet is celebrating the centennial of George Balanchine's birth this year. I think that's a highly appropriate occasion for his company to clean its musical house.
TT: Get with the program
I've written in the past about the American Film Theatre and its role in my life. The series has been cropping up lately all over the place–at Lincoln Center a year or two ago, through Kino Video's DVD release of the entire series–but now it's coming to a TV set near you as well.
Saturday night at 9:00 pm EST the cable network Trio will begin to run the AFT series in its entirety
through the next few months, starting with Tony Richardson's 1973 film of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. The film stars Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Joseph Cotten and Lee Remick.
From Chekhov through Genet, Ionesco and John Osbourne, the series provides a refresher course in a huge swathe of twentieth-century European and American theater. Now look, people: I've urged the series on you for weeks now, and here's the opportunity to watch it for free on your TV set. It doesn't get any easier than this. That's the American Film Theatre on Trio starting Saturday night at 9:00 pm. What more can I possibly say?
I couldn’t have put it better.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 14, 2004 | Permanent
TT: While I'm at it
In case you haven’t noticed, "Sites to See," the "About Last Night" blogroll in the right-hand column, is constantly changing—well, maybe not constantly, but fairly frequently. Our Girl and I both keep an eye out for interesting new arts-related sites (though sometimes the relationship is tenuous), and add them to the blogroll on a provisional basis whenever they’ve amassed enough of a track record to look promising. Sometimes they don’t pan out and we drop them (silently), but the best ones become permanent fixtures. The most recent additions are Artsfeed, Beatrice, Boomer Deathwatch, Danger Blog!, Return of the Reluctant, …something slant, Superfluities, and Symphony X.
If we were more conscientious (read: anal), we’d draw them to your attention on a regular basis. In fact, OGIC and I know we don’t do nearly enough link-driven posts, and we plan to do something about it someday, just like I plan to empty the mailbox once I get done with jury duty. (I swear!) For the moment, though, I simply suggest that you make a point of trolling "Sites to See" every week or so. Chances are you’ll find something new, or be reminded of something old that slipped your mind.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 14, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Democracy observed
I woke up at 6:20 this morning, ten minutes ahead of the alarm. I started to roll over and go back to sleep, the way I usually do. Then I remembered why I’d set the alarm: I had to report downtown for jury duty in two hours.
Writers who work at home gradually become sealed off from some of the common experiences that unite people with nine-to-five jobs. One of them is getting up in the morning. I’m out most nights attending performances, after which I generally stay up reading or writing until two a.m., my normal lights-out hour. The only time I get up as early as 6:30 is when I have a plane to catch—more often than not, I arise between nine and ten—and I can’t remember the last time I rode a subway at rush hour. I did both those things today, and didn’t much care for either, though the C train wasn’t especially crowded at 7:45, and I was able to sit down all the way to Canal Street.
It was cold in Manhattan today—15 degrees—and the wind pelted me in the face as I made the longish crosstown walk from my subway stop to Centre Street, trudging past dingy storefronts to the edge of Chinatown, where the faces and signs suddenly changed as if somebody had thumbed a button. My destination, 111 Centre Street, was a nondescript medium-rise distinguished only by the homemade 9/11 memorials inside and out. It looks gray and tired. The elevators are slow.
I reached the jury room precisely at 8:30, the time printed on my summons. It’s dingy, too, a windowless rectangular box lit with fluorescent fixtures and full of not-quite-comfortable chairs upholstered in institutional blue. In addition to the main waiting room, there are two smaller rooms off to the side, a TV room and a room full of carrels where people with laptops can work while waiting to be called. As I entered, an orientation video was playing on three TV monitors, the same one I saw the last time I served on a jury, Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer mouthing banalities about the justice system with uplifting faux-Copland music blasting away in the background. I got there just in time to see the funny parts, a reenactment of a medieval trial by ordeal in which the officers of the court throw the defendant into a river to see if he floats, followed by a couple of clips from old episodes of Perry Mason intended to illustrate what most trials aren’t like. About half the seats in the waiting room were already full, and most of the occupants appeared to be watching the video, or at least facing the monitors. Their faces were closed, non-committal, and sallow. (Nobody looks good under fluorescent light.) I wondered how many of them knew who Perry Mason was. Up until I boarded the subway this morning, my attitude toward the prospect of serving on a jury had been sour and resigned, pretty much what you’d expect of a busy New Yorker with deadlines to hit. During the ride to Canal Street, my civic-duty juices started to flow. By the time the video was over, they’d dried up again, and stayed that way.
A door opened and out stepped a jury clerk, a middle-aged, red-faced gent with a dis-is-a-bad-ideer accent who told us that we were there to hear criminal cases and walked us through the day’s routine. His manner was friendly, no-nonsense, cynical but not disagreeable. He explained that we’d be released if we hadn’t been empaneled on a jury after three days, adding that things had been so slow during the first part of the week that the jurors were sent home at the end of the second day. He dealt briskly but mercifully with a half-dozen questions, one belligerent and most of the rest inattentive, after which he was joined by a chipper, cheerful woman who helped him collect our summonses.
I took a closer look at my fellow citizens as they lined up at the desk. One woman caught my eye—she had the long neck and slender frame of a dancer—but the rest were mostly nondescript, except for the usual sprinkling of freaks, morons, malcontents, and grotesques likely to be found in any random sample of New Yorkers. One of the latter stumbled back to his chair, opened the bottom button of his shirt, exposing his pale belly, and started snoring at once. I’ve never doubted that democracy was a good thing, but like so many good things, it often looks better from a distance.
A few self-important folk pulled out cell phones and started placing calls, ignoring the clerk’s explicit instruction not to use them in the waiting room. Everybody else produced newspapers or books and began to read. I checked out the magazine rack, passed over a copy of Newsweek with Lance Ito on the cover, then settled down with Patrick O’Brian’s The Wine-Dark Sea. For the next two hours, nothing happened. Nobody in the room struck up a conversation with anybody else. A dozen or so people signed out to go get coffee, returning in due course. The rest of us sat in silence, waiting vainly to be called. At 12:15 we were released for lunch, 45 minutes ahead of schedule, but it was too cold to search the neighborhood for interesting places to eat, and most of us had drifted back into the waiting room well before two o’clock.
The afternoon was as uneventful as the morning. At one point I stood to stretch my legs and look at my fellow jurors, and noticed that I was the only person in the room who was standing up. Everyone else was reading or napping. No one was smiling. I’ve never seen so many people look so bored. This must be what it feels like to be a stand-up comedian in hell, I thought.
The red-faced clerk reappeared at 3:15. "O.K., the fun’s over," he said over the microphone. "Everybody go home. Be back here at ten a.m. sharp." The waiting room emptied out within seconds, and 45 minutes later I was home, wondering whether tomorrow would be as stupefyingly dull as today. Would it be worth carrying my laptop all the way to Centre Street? I checked the weather forecast for Thursday morning—four to six inches of snow—and sighed.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 14, 2004 | Permanent
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
TT: The dread day
Jury duty today. I have to set my alarm at 6:30 in order to be there by 8:30. Believe me, that is not my usual getting-up time. (In the immortal words of the bon vivant, I don't finish throwing up until 10 at the earliest.) I spent Tuesday writing like a crazy man, hence no blogging, and OGIC is also in dire work-related straits. God only know when one of us will have time to write something.
I'm going to the ballet to see Balanchine's Apollo and Concerto Barocco tonight, but I'll try to at least give you a snapshot of my daily service when I get home in the afternoon, assuming I get home in the afternoon. In the meantime, read some of those other cool blogs in the right-hand column. Not only are TMFTML and Old Hag really dirty this week, but Maud is back!
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 14, 2004 | Permanent
Monday, January 12, 2004
TT: Still at work
I spent Sunday and Monday writing (and attending two performances, about which more later), and now I'm preoccupied with my Friday drama column for The Wall Street Journal, which I have to file, move, and close by the end of business on Tuesday so that I can report for jury duty Wednesday with a clear conscience. Jury duty, arrgh!
On the other hand, you obviously didn't miss me, since Our Girl's postings (plus a couple of fortuitous big-traffic links) racked up some 1,700 page views, a more-than-nice number for Monday. So I'll try to post something on Tuesday, but if I don't, I'm sure you'll be more than adequately taken care of. Sniffle.
As for what jury duty (did I say arrgh?) will do to my schedule for the rest of the week, well, I don't even want to talk about it. Or think about it. I hope they have the good sense to bounce me as quickly as possible. I have a book to write and a blog to...blog? Does one blog a blog? Or keep a blog? Or tend a blog? Beats me.
We won't talk about the backed-up e-mail, either, but I promise you that I'll read and reply to every single piece, eventually, except for the spam from Nigeria. Really. Truly. Madly. Deeply.
OGIC: Anybody wanna host a poker tournament?
Somewhere out there, Jim McManus is shedding a tear. So is OGIC. So should anyone who never experienced Benny Binion's Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas in person. Where else could you play dollar blackjack, have the cards lobbed cheerfully at your head, and get a great bowl of homemade gumbo at the honest-to-god lunch counter into the bargain?
Maybe Binion's will re-open, but it's hard to be optimistic. In retrospect I see that when they removed the million-dollar cash-horseshoe display, it was the beginning of the end.
UPDATE: The second link above, to a Los Angeles Times story, requires registration. This better news story does not.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 12, 2004 | Permanent
Over at Golden Rule Jones, Sam takes notice of the 75th anniversary of I. A. Richards' Practical Criticism, more than a bit of a relic as far as literary critical methods go, but excellent as a primer in close reading, and, sad to say, always good for some mirth at the expense of Richards' guinea pig students. Richards' book records what happened when the author, a Cambridge professor, removed identifying information from a set of poems that were all over the map in terms of quality, and asked his students to evaluate them. He is withering about the students' reactions, which generally fell precisely opposite his own and the canon's. Christina Rossetti, Donne, and Hopkins, if memory serves, are some of the literary lights that were unceremoniously snuffed out in the students' judgment, while several pieces of doggerel were declared classics. Richards applies a high hand in diagnosing these failures of reading, and the results can be hilarious (and very good training).
George Orwell read Richards' book in 1944, and wrote of the experience:
But still, some of the comments recorded by Dr. Richards are startling. They go to show that many people who would describe themselves as lovers of poetry have no more notion of distinguishing between a good poem and a bad one than a dog has of arithmetic.
Flipping back to the present, Haypenny Magazine is working the Richardsian angle with "Actual Comments Overheard in a Poetry Workshop" by Steve Caldes. (Link via Maud, who's back!)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 12, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Wouldn't it be nice...
…if every organ of criticism took the trouble of laying out its priorities, prejudices, and understanding of its mission? The Atlantic has done just that in its January/February issue, and the results are extremely interesting and gratifying. They bespeak an accountability that is refreshing to see. And aside from the wonderful High Principle of it all, the specific principles noted by Benjamin Schwarz lean toward the bracingly blunt. Last I checked, no content from this issue was yet available online, so here are some cullings:
We assume that our readers look to this section as a critical organ rather than a news source—which means that unlike, say, The New York Times Book Review, we don't have to cover the waterfront. For example, we chose not to review Pat Barker's latest, because although she's an important novelist we admire, her most recent book happens to be very far from her best effort. Its review, we reasoned, would be unfavorable but, since it would also point to her obvious talent, would hardly be an evisceration; in other words, it would almost necessarily be equivocal and boring (that good novelists so often produce less than stellar novels largely accounts for the fact that fiction reviews are so often politely qualified and, well, dull).
So true, although somebody has to review such novels (hello, NYTBR), and the Atlantic's rationalization is of little help to those stuck with the task of establishing this presumed critical consesnsus in an interesting and readable way. Still, they're right that some portion of the high number of dull book reviews out there are dull because they are responsible. In an ideal world, even reviews of middling books would be fascinating, but this task takes a special kind of ingenuity from a special kind of critic—a fairly rare commodity that most of us would probably rather see spent on books that are really occasions, or are objects of genuine controversy—and that, frankly, very few reviewers are paid well enough to be able to muster, even if that special kind of critic is lurking somewhere in them.
One aesthetic penchant does militate in favor of British writers specifically: we prefer wit, wryness, and detachment to zeal. Whereas didactic blather and a pedantic spirit still infect too much American fiction, we find that British authors often write with the kind of insouciant precision we prize (as does an American writer such as Lorrie Moore).
Not a characterization of American fiction that I much recognize, but still, it's good to know where the book review editors stand. Better to own the prejudice than to pretend it doesn't exist. And finally:
We run fewer than the predictable number of reviews of books on politics, public policy, and current affairs. This is partly because we assiduously cover these areas in other parts of the magazine, but mostly because a very high proportion of these titles are just godawful.
Not to put too fine a point on it or anything.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 12, 2004 | Permanent
Sunday, January 11, 2004
TT: Hooray for me!
I just finished writing the first chapter of my Balanchine book, and now am headed for bed. Lots of accumulated work-for-money to do tomorrow, so don't expect any staggeringly brilliant postings, but I promise to give you something worth reading on Tuesday, if not Monday night.
In the meantime, Our Girl's rocking! So back to work for me. Read her instead.
"'Do you consider love the strongest emotion?' he asked.
"'Do you know a stronger?'
Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus
TT: If we do say so ourselves
My mother taught me not to blow my own horn, but I just ran across a recent on-line reference
to this blog that I wanted to pass along:
For a brilliantly informed and non-academic approach to culture, Terry Teachout is the guy. He's the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and the music critic for Commentary, but no, he is not what you might expect from someone who regularly contributes to both those magazines. He is tremendously well-informed, and tremendously interested in the world. In the course of a week, his subjects will range from recent architecture to obscure plays and ballets to classic cartoons to how high tech changes Middle America's experience of culture, and then on beyond that. In his range of interests and enjoyments, he keeps goading me (in a good-natured way) to broaden my own horizons.
I’m posting that snippet of praise (by blogger Bruce Baugh) because it sums up with enviable precision what I try to do in this space. It’s nice to think that I’m hitting the mark, at least some of the time. Thanks much, Mr. Baugh, whoever and wherever you are.
OGIC: Reading around
Colby has a nice appreciation of Harvey Pekar, occasioned by the approach of the Oscars, where Pekar may well be an incongruous presence:
Mr. Pekar was inspired in the 1960s by a chance meeting with R. Crumb, the future dean of "underground comics," who was then drawing greeting cards for a living in Cleveland. They met to trade old records, but when Mr. Crumb showed Mr. Pekar the quirky adult comics he was doing on the side, Pekar's imagination caught fire. Crumb's work, he noticed, was intellectual and satirical, but not realistic. Why couldn't you have a "straight" comic book with a tone like Dreiser's, or Celine's, or Balzac's? Thus was born American Splendor. Naturalism was coming to the comics page.
Meanwhile, in case anyone reading this site is for some reason still not regularly reading that site, Michael Blowhard takes l'affaire King-Hazzard in an interesting new direction, comparing how book people and movie people treat the relationship between art and trash. He does not find the book people's way most productive, to put it mildly. Here are some out-takes:
In the world of books trash and art still don't ride in the same section of the bus; the books mindset—at least the respectable-publishing mindset—is still segregationist. If the movie-world view is all about the vital connections between art and trash, and about how each is the lifeblood of the other, the book person's imagination is taken up with the neverending struggle of art, talent and brains to do triumph over the forces of money, hustle and fame.
Also, of course, the simple fact is that, for many people, books equal school, while movies represent weekends, vacation, time off, romance and sex. And so living the books life becomes for many an attempt to continue living life as though in school. Here 's a Robert Birnbaum interview with the Boston Globe book reviewer Gail Caldwell . It's an excellent interview, and Caldwell's an excellent reviewer who does a first-class job. That said, what kind of person does she strike you as? She seems to me to be a born student, ever eager to sink her arms into her next assignment.
I find the gestalt of the book world oppressive; it gives me a pain and it makes me grumpy. I find the movie-person's view of the arts much more congenial, whatever quarrels I may have with it. And I'm often left wondering: how can books people say of themselves that they love books when they look down their noses at 90% of the books that get published? They disdain not just Stephen King but also self-help books, visual books, and trash biographies; they relish little more than an intense discussion about what's a "real book" and what's not. (My staggeringly original response to this tiresome issue: They're all books, for god's sake.) IMHO, what books people love isn't books; what they love is their own standards, and their fantasies about what literature should be.
I think that crime writers are, on the whole, better fiction writers than lit-fiction writers are. For one thing, they've got more respect for their readers' pleasure; for another, they're less bound up in their egos.
As usual at 2 Blowhards, the comments move the discussion forward vigorously. Speaking as a "book person" who has some difficulty observing this particular generic boundary, I find Michael's comments compelling in the extreme.
Finally, Salon picks Brian Hall's I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company as one of its best books of the year:
Hall tells the epic story of the Lewis and Clark expedition from a variety of perspectives, but it's Lewis and Sacagawea who steal the show. This is a historical novel that's unflinchingly honest but doesn't serve a political agenda. It describes the arc of a grand and thrilling journey, but views the progress through the halting, thwarted, damaged psyches of those who make it, one complicated step at a time. Sacagawea is a stifled philosopher, scarred by losses greater than any of her companions can imagine—if they ever bothered to try. Lewis is valiant, depressed, infatuated with the wilderness and his co-captain and tormented by the impossible demands placed on him by his president and, especially, himself. Hall's portraits of these travelers are never less than utterly convincing and his sense of the strangely fruitful intersection of great deeds and human failings is unforgettable.
Somehow this book slipped under my radar, which is surprising because I thought Hall's tour de force The Saskiad was one of the best American novels published in the last ten years.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Sunday, January 11, 2004 | Permanent