About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, May 19, 2006
TT: Friendly skies
I’m out of here. In a few hours I’ll be in Chicago, where Our Girl and I plan to hang out in extenso (we haven’t seen each other since January). Among other things, we’ll be seeing Chicago Shakespeare’s Henry IV marathon and the Court Theatre’s production of Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage, and we might catch a movie or two while we’re at it. Weekend updates are possible but not promised.
I’ll be flying back to New York on Monday, so don’t be surprised if I fail to post anything that day. In fact, blogging next week is likely to be light—I have three back-to-back deadlines, yikes! Didn’t I give you enough to read this week?
I’ll kiss the Girl for you. See you soon.
P.S. If you want to hear OGIC's Actual Speaking Voice, go here.
The 2005-06 Broadway season is now officially over (whew!). In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review the last two new shows I saw, Faith Healer and Shining City:
If Brian Friel isn’t the finest of living playwrights, then he certainly belongs on the shortest possible list of candidates for that supreme honor. We don’t get to see his work often enough in New York, but the season just ended has been bracketed by superlative stagings of two of his strongest scripts. Last summer the Irish Repertory Theatre mounted a perfect production of “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” the 1964 play that put him on the map, and now Broadway has imported the Dublin Gate Theatre’s revival of “Faith Healer,” first seen in this country in 1979.
Unlike the big-name revivals of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” (with David Schwimmer) and “Three Days of Rain” (with Julia Roberts) playing next door on 45th Street, though, “Faith Healer,” which stars Ralph Fiennes and Cherry Jones, is a winner. In fact, I’ll go a giant step further: It’s the best show on Broadway….
I came away humbled by the collective mastery of the artists who are bringing “Faith Healer” to blazing life each night. Gifted as they are, though, it is Brian Friel who deserves the highest praise of all. Once again he has proved art’s power to narrow the fearful gap that separates soul from soul. Like every great writer, he reveals us to one another—and to ourselves.
Contrary to appearances, Irish playwrights are not infallible. I place in evidence Conor McPherson’s “Shining City,” which has just been given its American premiere by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Most of my fellow critics raved about this four-character play, but despite the acting of a crack cast led by the irreproachable Brían F. O’Byrne, last seen on Broadway in “Doubt,” I found “Shining City” tenuous to the point of nullity….
No link. Those who care to read the whole thing (and please do!) can always buy a copy of today’s Journal, or (better yet) go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to the complete text of my review, plus a plenitude of similarly readable stuff.
"'They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris,' chuckled Sir Thomas, who had a large wardrobe of Humour's cast-off clothes.
"'Really! And where do bad Americans go to when they die?' inquired the duchess.
"'They go to America,' murmured Lord Henry.
"Sir Thomas frowned. 'I am afraid that your nephew is prejudiced against that great country,' he said to Lady Agatha. 'I have travelled all over it in cars provided by the directors, who, in such matters, are extremely civil. I assure you that it is an education to visit it.'
"'But must we really see Chicago in order to be educated?' asked Mr. Erskine plaintively. 'I don't feel up to the journey.'"
If you missed last night’s PBS American Masters documentary on Nat King Cole, don’t even think about catching a replay. Not only was the script a dumbed-down, once-over-lightly account of one of the most significant careers in the history of American popular music, but the show contained next to no uninterrupted footage of Cole in performance. In between the snippets was a numbing succession of talking-head interviews with such irrelevant celebrity interlopers as Whoopi Goldberg and Carlos Santana. Rarely have I endured so witless a piece of junk. Avoid it at all costs.
It’s been far too long since I’ve trolled the ’sphere, so here goes:
• Firstly, let me introduce you to Ms. Culturegrrl, the most interesting new blogger to come along in ages. Mr. Modern Art Notes calls her blog “an automatic, daily must read.” I agree.
• Mr. Playgoer compared the Tony and Obie nominations:
Within 12 hours of each other, the alternate (not even parallel) universes of B'way and "theatre" announced their season's honors. Granted the Tony “awards" proper are still to come. But Obies thankfully don't bother with the two-stage process, so their multiple nominations are in fact their awards.
To compare these lists is (as it is every year) an object lesson in the incredible gulf between theatre as experienced by those who practice and follow it devotedly, and those for whom it is well... tourism, frankly. Or hobby, or industry.
Read the whole thing. It’s very tough, and very smart.
Theatre audiences and critics have been conditioned to expect plays to deliver messages, and many good playwrights have mangled their art by bowing down to this condition. One of the problems with the messages delivered by most contemporary plays is that they're predictable and shallow—war is bad, love is good, people should be nice to other people who aren't exactly the same as they are, etc. One of the results of ticket prices being so phenomenally expensive is that audiences expect what they see to give them either a lot of spectacle or some sort of education, though if you've just paid $85 for a seat, what you probably most want is a reinforcing of your current ideas under the guise of education, so that way even if you aren't entertained, at least you feel smart and righteous. (Yes, I'm generalizing horribly.)
Finishing a great novel is one of those voluminous experiences; your heart races as the pages thin, you struggle to move your eyes faster, to soak it all up more quickly. It’s the final lap, and the object is to finish without a drop of energy left. When the last page nears, the temptation to skip sentences, paragraphs, entire pages, pulls like some watery undertow. The final page comes in a rush, the last words arrive like a trampling stampede, there and gone before you can comprehend what’s happened. Unlike the end of a movie or a television series, novel time is fluid; you can repeat sentences, skip around on the page. So maybe you read the last line several times, or read it first and then go back and read the paragraph leading up to it. But at some point it hits you: This thing you’ve lived with for a day, a week, a month—these people and places and words you’ve submitted yourself to—they’re over. There’s nothing left to tell….
When Sauničre pulled down the Caravaggio, the iron gate slammed down and the alarm began to ring. He turned and looked back. The albino was already there, on the other side of the barricade, gun in hand.
It has a Starkly familiar ring, no?
• If you don’t read anything else about the publishing business this week, make a point of reading this.
• Speaking of blind items about interesting art-related statistics, take a look at these, please.
Happy endings are not all alike. In fact, they're not always happy. People have many strange ideas about Hollywood movies, and it's not always clear what folks mean by the term. "Hollywood" often seems to mean any movie in English, not the product of a certain system in a certain factory town. Also "Hollywood" is often pejorative, a shorthand for whatever criticism one cares to imply without examining it.
But one of the strangest cliches to plague us is that Hollywood movies have happy endings. This idea leads to contempt, derision and satire. I recall one witty article that imagined Hollywood remakes of classic stories, such as having a centurion ride up to Calvary and announce that Jesus has been pardoned. He and Mary embrace.
There are probably more happy endings today than in the past, and it's because studio executives live under the burden of this false idea—that Hollywood purveys happy endings. Let's disprove this notion once and for all….
• For those who wonder why I’m always raving about Budd Boetticher’s Westerns, go here for confirmation of my good taste.
• Speaking of good taste, Mr. Girish pays tribute to one of my all-time favorite movies:
The Fabulous Baker Boys changed my life. Sounds like a hoary old cliché, no? But it’s true. I saw it three times the week it opened in 1989, and without ever having touched middle C, walked into a music store and signed up for piano lessons. The piano has been an integral part of my life since; I can’t imagine living without it….
I may have said it before, but if so I’ll say it again: The Fabulous Baker Boys is the only film I’ve ever seen that is true to my own experience of playing music (except that I never got to sleep with anybody who looked even slightly like Michelle Pfeiffer).
• In case you’ve been wondering what Whit Stillman’s been up to since The Last Days of Disco, here’s the answer—in his own inimitable words.
• Courtesy of Mr. Something Old, Nothing New, here’s a fascinating interview with one of the people who puts together DVD box sets of TV shows. Yes, he sounds like a bit of a geekazoid, but so, too, do I….
• Speaking of geekazoidishness, this terrific Washington Postfeature story is the absolute last word on stage blood and its makers.
• Ms. Althouse has been listening to Bob Dylan’s new satellite-radio show, and thinks it brilliant. I can’t wait to rent a car and hear for myself.
• Ms. twang twang twang plays her harp for a brainy audience of Oxfordians, and has an epiphany:
A very clever woman shows it in her face, usually more than a powerfully-minded man. The portraits that line the walls of LMH daily impress this on the students walking by; the first seven minds to penetrate nine hundred years of dreaming ivory towers. Playing the Britten Suite to many such faces today, I suddenly thought, I spend half my life being told to be light, crowd-pleasing, easy on the eye, reassuringly familiar. This is all right (there's a time for everything), but I am never going to apologise for attempting to use the mind I'm lucky enough to have had well-educated, again.
• Mr. Alicublog holds forth on the splendors of demotic speech:
I had a North Carolina girlfriend once, and her mother had no end of lovely expressions. She once referred to spoiled fish as smelling "right boo-booey." Could that be from the French "boue," somehow? In any case I consider myself improved by having heard it. Also by hearing my old Italian landlady say of meeting her husband, "He look at me anna I fell like a pear." And, Texican this, "he got a wild hare," variously "wild hair up his ass"—or "wild hare" up same—never have got that straight….
• Lastly, I thought you might enjoy seeing a picture of my brother. We look nothing alike, nor are we at all similar, but he’s way cool anyway.
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. (For the third week in a row, however, there are no asterisks.)
"A moment occurs (or should occur) when the growing artist is able to bequeath his tricks to his imitators. The mature writer rejects the treasured 'originality' and the darling virtuosities of his apprenticeship in art, as well as the showy sorrows and joys of his apprenticeship to life, often just in time. 'How they live at home in their cozy poems and make long stays in narrow comparisons!' Rilke once said, speaking of the run of versifiers who never change or grow. Once youth's embroidered coat is cast aside, what is left? Only imagination, ripened insight, experience, and the trained sense of language, which are usually enough."
Louise Bogan, review of The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden (1945)
Earlier today I participated in a public meeting of the National Council on the Arts. It was a teleconference chaired from Washington, D.C., by Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The other participants were scattered across the country. I took part in the first half of the meeting via cell phone from the Jackson Hole
on Eighty-Fifth Street and Columbus Avenue, where I was wolfing down the fast-cooling remnants of a medium-rare hamburger that had arrived at my table ten minutes later than I expected. For the second half, I removed my cell phone and myself to a bench in Central Park, basking in the sunshine as the council went about its collective business.
I’m too old to take cell phones for granted. I still remember the first time I received a call from a car phone, back in the days when such things were far from commonplace. Not long after I moved to New York some two decades ago, I made a special point of calling my mother in Smalltown, U.S.A., from a pay phone on a subway platform, and she was impressed. Now I can’t remember the last time I used a pay phone. (In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a phone booth.)
Technology is part wonderful and part terrible, which means it’s really neither. It makes it possible for me to sit in Central Park on a sunny May day and talk to anyone in the world who has a phone. Whether or not that’s a good thing is, of course, another matter.
I recently taped an episode of Radio Deluxe, the new classic-pop radio series hosted by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey. Among many other things, John, Jess, and I listened to and talked about records by Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Mary Foster Conklin, Bing Crosby, Nancy LaMott, Joe Mooney, George Shearing, and Fats Waller (as well as John himself). It’s a nice mix of chat and music, if I do say so myself, and we had a lot of fun putting it together. You’ll even get to hear me sing!
This episode hasn't yet aired on terrestrial radio, but you can already hear it on line in streaming audio. Go here, scroll down until you see my name, then click on the successive links (each segment of the show is a separate mp3 file) and listen.
“Critical Edge,” ArtsJournal’s group blog on the future of criticism in the age of new media, grows livelier by the hour. Here’s a snippet from my latest posting:
Good writing justifies its own existence. If you can find people capable of writing stylish, trenchant reviews of blockbuster movies, by all means hire them and let ’em rip—but don’t settle for anything less. If, on the other hand, you have to choose between publishing mediocre criticism and solid, informative feature writing…well, there’s no choice, least of all nowadays.
Go here to join the fray. The comments section is wide open!
• Our Girl’s second critical commandment, You shall not critique a tulip by wishing it a rose, especially if you grow roses, echoes a widespread sentiment in the cultural quadrant of the ’sphere. I incline to agree, but not always, and only up to a point.
People are forever telling me that a work of art should be “criticized on its own terms.” (Mr. Parabasis, one of my favorite bloggers, got after me a few weeks ago on precisely this count.) Fine—but exactly what does that mean? To extend the metaphor, what if the particular breed of tulip you prefer to cultivate happens to smell like horse manure? Don’t I have a right to point that out, and to suggest that roses might possibly smell better?
I’m not a relativist (surprise, surprise!). I think some works of art are better than others, and I think that issues of quality are of the highest relevance to any criticism worthy of the name. At the same time, I don’t think I get hung up worrying about the dangers of encroaching relativism, nor do I let my unswerving belief in quality prevent me from enjoying the fruits of popular culture. I draw your attention to something I wrote early in the life of this blog:
I don’t think The Long Goodbye is as good a book as The Great Gatsby, and I believe the difference between the two books is hugely important. But I also don’t think it’s absurd to compare them, and I probably re-read one as often as the other.
The point is that I accept the existence of hierarchies of quality without feeling oppressed by them. I have plenty of room in my life for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, for Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong, for George Balanchine and Fred Astaire, and I love them all without confusing their relative merits, much less jumping to the conclusion that all merits are relative.
In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s part of what this blog is all about—a big part.
It still is.
• Just the other day I was listening to Pandora as I blogged. Allison Moorer’s “One On the House” gave way to a single piano chord, and a light instantly flashed in my head: it was Bill Evans playing “Here’s That Rainy Day.” I didn’t have to look at the screen to be sure I was right, any more than I had to think twice in the first place. I knew.
I’ll be the first to admit that there once was a time when I was disgustingly vain about my fastest-ear-in-the-west abilities, but subsequent experience has taught me that the world is full of people who can recognize Bill Evans’ playing as quickly as I can. That says a lot about Evans, but it says even more about the human brain and its stupendous capacities. To be sure, I do happen to know a little bit about a lot of things (including the life and work of the woman
who wrote that line). Put me in a museum without my bifocals and I won’t have any more trouble picking out a Stuart Davis or a Kenneth Noland at a hundred yards than I did spotting Bill Evans. Yet such drop-the-needle aptitude, as I say, borders on the commonplace, and that’s the real story. How is it possible for so many of us to store so much aesthetic information in our heads, and to retrieve it so quickly and unhesitatingly? If that doesn’t strike you as miraculous, then you don’t believe in everyday miracles.
I can’t help but recall this almanac entry from two years ago. The speaker is the great French composer Olivier Messiaen:
I admit that it would never occur to me to ask a question of an electronic brain, chiefly because I’d be incapable of it. The interrogated electronic brain very quickly generates thousands, if not millions, of responses, and among those thousands of millions of responses, only one is right. Rather than bother with an extremely burdensome apparatus and spend months formulating a question, isn’t it quicker to have a stroke of genius and find the right solution right away?
"I too am not getting enough done, and what I do always seems to require so much time and effort. For the past few days, I don't think I've done anything worthwhile. Believe me, to feel this way at my age is quite sad, since each time we begin, we always think we've understood, that we have all the answers, but we're always starting over again from the beginning."
Giorgio Morandi (quoted in Janet Abramowicz, Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence)
This year’s Tony Award nominations were just announced. Here are the major categories. My personal picks are in bold, followed by my predictions:
• BEST PLAY:
Rabbit Hole Shining City The History Boys The Lieutenant of Inishmore
I’m not with the majority on this one: The History Boys is a sure thing.
• BEST MUSICAL:
Jersey Boys The Color Purple The Drowsy Chaperone The Wedding Singer
A tough call. My guess, though, is that Jersey Boys will beat out The Drowsy Chaperone, if only because it’s the only crowd-pleasing superhit of the season that also got good reviews, my furious pan excepted. (The Drowsy Chaperone is doing very well, too, but it’s so idiosyncratic that critics and theater buffs are sharply divided over its merits.)
• BEST REVIVAL OF A PLAY:
Awake and Sing! Faith Healer Seascape The Constant Wife
An easy call: Faith Healer has this category sewed up tight. (Yo, where’s The Odd Couple? Do I detect a whiff of Lane-Broderick-Mantello backlash among the electorate?)
• BEST REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL:
Sweeney Todd The Pajama Game The Threepenny Opera
Oh, wow, beats me. Sweeney Todd was definitely the critics’ choice, but then we all loved The Pajama Game, too. If I had to bet on the winner, I’d probably go for Sweeney Todd, but I wouldn’t put up a whole lot of money either way.
• BEST PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING ACTOR IN A PLAY:
Ralph Fiennes, Faith Healer Richard Griffiths, The History Boys Zeljko Ivanek, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial Oliver Platt, Shining City David Wilmot, The Lieutenant of Inishmore
Probably Fiennes, but Griffiths is a contender, and should be.
• BEST PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING ACTRESS IN A PLAY:
Kate Burton, The Constant Wife Judy Kaye, Souvenir Lisa Kron, Well Cynthia Nixon, Rabbit Hole Lynn Redgrave, The Constant Wife
This is the weakest category overall, though Cynthia Nixon will doubtless win for all sorts of reasons, none of them relevant. (Note the conspicuous absence of J-l-- R-b-rts from the roster.)
• BEST PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL:
Michael Cerveris, Sweeney Todd Harry Connick, Jr., The Pajama Game Stephen Lynch, The Wedding Singer Bob Martin, The Drowsy Chaperone John Lloyd Young, Jersey Boys
No contest—it’s Connick. Sometimes star power counts, and sometimes it should, if not necessarily in this case. (Martin’s performance is delightful, but it’s a non-singing part.)
• BEST PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL:
La Chanze, The Color Purple Sutton Foster, The Drowsy Chaperone Patti LuPone, Sweeney Todd Kelli O’Hara, The Pajama Game Chita Rivera, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life
Everyone was good, the first three nominees exceptionally so. I can see La Chanze winning, if only because none of the voters will want to shut out so successful and Oprah-certified a show, lame though it was. (Me, I would have given it to Nellie McKay for The Threepenny Opera.)
• BEST PERFORMANCE BY A FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL:
Samuel Barnett, The History Boys Domhnall Gleeson, The Lieutenant of Inishmore Ian McDiarmid, Faith Healer Mark Ruffalo, Awake and Sing! Pablo Schreiber, Awake and Sing!
McDiarmid had the better part, but Ruffalo is deserving, too. Not to worry—his time will come.
• BEST PERFORMANCE BY A FEATURED ACTRESS IN A PLAY:
Tyne Daly, Rabbit Hole Frances de la Tour, The History Boys Jane Houdyshell, Well Alison Pill, The Lieutenant of Inishmore Zoë Wanamaker, Awake and Sing!
Houdyshell might as well go ahead and dust off her mantlepiece.
• BEST PERFORMANCE BY A FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL:
Danny Burstein, The Drowsy Chaperone Jim Dale, The Threepenny Opera Victor Dixon, The Color Purple Manoel Felciano, Sweeney Todd Christian Hoff, Jersey Boys
Dale. They've got to give Threepennysomething.
• BEST PERFORMANCE BY A FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL:
Carolee Carmello, Lestat Felicia P. Fields, The Color Purple Beth Leavel, The Drowsy Chaperone Megan Lawrence, The Pajama Game Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, The Color Purple
Lawrence deserves it, and with Fields and Withers-Mendes splitting the vote for The Color Purple, she’ll probably get it.
• BEST DIRECTION OF A PLAY:
Nicholas Hytner, The History Boys Wilson Milam, The Lieutenant of Inishmore Bartlett Sher, Awake and Sing! Daniel Sullivan, Rabbit Hole
Hytner or Milam, probably the former.
• BEST DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL:
John Doyle, Sweeney Todd Kathleen Marshall, The Pajama Game Des McAnuff, Jersey Boys Casey Nicholaw, The Drowsy Chaperone
All are worthy, Doyle most likely, especially if The Pajama Game wins for Best Revival of a Musical.
• BEST CHOREOGRAPHY:
Rob Ashford, The Wedding Singer Donald Byrd, The Color Purple Kathleen Marshall, The Pajama Game Casey Nicholaw, The Drowsy Chaperone
Byrd. (See “Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.”)
• BEST ORIGINAL SCORE (MUSIC AND/OR LYRICS) WRITTEN FOR THE THEATRE:
The Color Purple The Drowsy Chaperone The Wedding Singer The Woman in White
The Drowsy Chaperone, definitely, as a consolation prize for Jersey Boys’ Best Musical win.
• BEST BOOK OF A MUSICAL:
The Wedding Singer Jersey Boys The Drowsy Chaperone The Color Purple
The inexhaustible Teachout on Monday had a few notes about silent movies, and how they don’t speak to him. One of those instances of art that’s lost its language, even though the genre remains. Me, I love the stuff, but I understand the impatience, and sometimes I find myself enjoying the films not as a drama or comedy but an unintentional documentary. What suburban street is that? Is that sapling now a towering oak? Who belongs to those ghostly faces that slide past in the streetcar, and what became of them? Is everything in this image of a city street now gone? Surely inside those windows were men and women going about their lives, chewing on a pencil, digesting a sandwich, worried about a lump or a lover, wishing the person on the phone would shut up so they could use the lav.
It’s like getting a satellite photo of ancient Rome—it would tell us so much, but it would leave out 99 percent of what we really want to know.
But that one percent still tantalizes and teaches, doesn’t it? If nothing else, it tells you what people found funny or sad or shocking….
I think about such things all the time when watching old movies, with or without sound. Even when they’re not especially artful—perhaps especially when they’re not—they are through-a-glass-darkly windows on the past. Every film shot on location, whether in whole or in part, is a home movie in which bits and pieces of history are embedded, and I find myself growing increasingly fascinated by these snippets of lost time. I can’t watch North by Northwest, for instance, without thinking about how Grand Central Station has (and hasn’t) changed, or how the Plaza Hotel will never be again as it was.
This is, I suspect, as much a function of my increasing age as anything else. Just the other day, for instance, Backstage Books sent me a copy of the newly revised and updated edition of James Gavin’s Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. (It'll be out May 31.) The earlier edition was one of my favorite books, but I found this version even more interesting, in part because it’s the first time I’ve read a work of history in which someone I used to know well figures prominently. That sort of thing doesn't start happening to you until you've achieved a certain degree of seniority, and I'm there.
The person I knew was, of course, Nancy LaMott, whose all-too-brief reign as the shooting star of cabaret in Manhattan began a few years after the publication in 1991 of Intimate Nights. Alas, I missed out on the scuffling that Nancy endured so bravely and Gavin describes so vividly. I didn’t meet her until the spring of 1994, by which time she was already singing at Tavern on the Green and the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel. I entered her life just in time for us to become close friends, though, and our friendship endured until her death in December of 1995, a few weeks after the release of her last studio album, Listen to My Heart.
I’ve written about Nancy more than once, both on this blog and in a 1996 essay collected in A Terry Teachout Reader. So far as I know, Intimate Nights is the only other book in which Nancy is mentioned, and it was a strange, almost disorienting sensation to read about her in someone else’s words:
Nancy LaMott seemed like such a delicate bird that one wondered when she might break. A waiflike, all-American blonde, she sang with the earnestness of a lovestruck teenager who was smiling through tears. People wanted to take her in their arms and protect her—especially when they learned that her struggle for recognition coincided with her fight against Crohn’s disease, an intestinal disorder with horribly debilitating side effects. It had struck her in her teens, and would take her life in 1995, when she was forty-three. By then she had recorded six CDs, sung at the White House, and appeared on Regis & Kathie Lee. All this, through her no-frills singing of standards. In LaMott’s [New York] Times obituary, Stephen Holden would remember her as “a singularly unaffected voice…in a field typified by showy histrionics.”
All true, though I never thought of her as “delicate,” perhaps because we shared so many meals. (She knew her way around a kitchen.) Nancy was much tougher than she looked. Still, Gavin has gotten her right in every other particular, which is hugely important, since his revised version of Intimate Nights, which ends in 2005, will undoubtedly replace the first edition as the standard history of cabaret in New York.
It is, as I say, exceedingly strange to read about an old friend in the kind of book that can properly be described as a “standard history,” if only because no book, however detailed, can tell the whole story of a human being. History, like biography, is an attempt to tell that which can only be remembered. I know a great deal more about Nancy than you’ll find in Intimate Nights, including certain things you won’t read in anything I’ve written about her. I might share them with a biographer someday, or I might not. I just watched a PBS documentary
about John Ford and John Wayne, who once made a film together in which one of the characters famously declares that “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I wouldn’t go that far—I am, after all, a serial biographer myself—but I don’t think the public has an absolute right to know everything about anyone, no matter who they were or how important they might have been.
Be that as it may, I’m glad that James Gavin did such a good job of sketching Nancy's essential character, though it goes without saying that I don’t need to read about my old friend in order to bring her immediately to mind. Stephen Sondheim wrote a song about the persistence of memory called, appropriately enough, “Not a Day Goes By.” Nancy recorded it a couple of years before she died, and I listen to her performance from time to time, trying whenever I do to imagine all the years of friendship her death stole from me:
As the days go by,
I keep thinking, “When does it end?
Where’s the day I’ll have started forgetting?”
But I just go on
Thinking and sweating
And cursing and crying
And turning and reaching
And waking and dying
Not a day goes by,
Not a blessed day
But you’re still somewhere part of my life
And you won’t go away.
• I haven’t bought a copy of an ink-on-paper magazine or newspaper.
• I haven’t watched a first-run episode of a TV series.
• I haven’t been to a movie theater (though I’m planning to break my fast by seeing Art School Confidential).
• I haven’t rented a DVD.
• I haven’t read a new novel.
• I haven’t seen a ballet.
• I haven’t been to an orchestra concert.
• I haven’t written a book review.
• I haven’t gone to a party.
• I haven’t visited my home town.
ArtsJournal’s group blog on the future of criticism in the age of new media (about which more here) has already come to a rolling boil. It's even attracting the attention of other bloggers. What’s more, the comments are as interesting as the postings.
I flew the coop last Wednesday morning, having seen too many plays and feeling the urgent need to be somewhere else. By mid-afternoon I was sitting on the terrace of Ecce Bed and Breakfast in Barryville, a microscopic river town not far from the spot where New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania meet. Longtime readers may recall my previous visit to this refuge, located on a wooded bluff some three hundred feet above the Delaware River. It's one of the most relaxing places I know: the scenery is gorgeous, the hosts considerate, the food delicious, the décor not even slightly chintzy. Rarely is a B&B as satisfying as its Web site so enticingly promises, but every time I go to Ecce, it turns out to be even better than advertised.
What did I do there? Just about nothing. I listened to music, I read Alice Goldfarb Marquis’ Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg and Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, I watched a bald eagle swoop lazily over the river, and I drove to Narrowsburg, another small town fifteen minutes up the road, where I ate a superlative dinner at a brand-new restaurant that I commend to your attention. Peter Schott, the chef and owner of Restaurant 15 Main, used to cook in Manhattan but has now set up shop in the country, where he turns out such sumptuous dishes as green garlic soup with frogs' legs and the best gnocchi I’ve ever tasted, the latter accompanied by locally grown, lightly sauteed fiddlehead ferns. Yum. (The 15 Main Web site is still under construction, but should you find yourself anywhere near Narrowsburg, call 845-252-6562 to make a reservation. You won't be sorry.)
I would have been content to spend the rest of the week driving between Barryville and Narrowsburg. Instead I returned to New York on Friday afternoon, unpacked my bags, and headed for Joe’s Pub, where Deidre Rodman
and Steve Swallow
were celebrating the release of Twin Falls, their new CD, with a gig at which they played so beautifully that I wasn’t sorry to have come back home. When not making pellucidly lyrical music with Swallow or her own quintet, Rodman is the pianist for the Lascivious Biddies, about whom I've written from time to time in this space (as well as in my liner notes for their latest CD, Get Lucky). All three of her fellow Biddies showed up to cheer Rodman on, and I was as pleased to see them again as I was to hear her.
The next morning I awoke at nine-thirty and remembered that two museum shows I’d been meaning to see, Goya at the Frick Collection and David Smith at the Guggenheim, were about to close. I threw my clothes on, jumped in a cab, and went straight to the Frick, where I found a line of hopeful art lovers stretching halfway around the block. The word on the street was that I’d have to wait two hours to get in. Not caring to fritter away so pretty a morning in so tiresome a fashion, I walked up Fifth Avenue to the Guggenheim, where I stood in line for fifteen seconds before being admitted.
Needless to say, David Smith isn’t as popular as Goya, nor do I claim to like his welded-metal abstract-expressionist sculptures as much as Goya’s paintings. In fact, I’ve never liked Smith very much at all, but most of my fellow critics think him a master, so I felt obliged to take him on yet again, though I didn’t change my mind this time around. Except for the “Cubis” sculptures, which rarely fail to bowl me over, I continue to find most of Smith’s work a fussy, derivative amalgam of surrealism and ill-digested biomorphism (though I did like Steel Drawing I, one of the smaller pieces in the show, very much). So be it. You can’t like everything that’s good, and you shouldn’t pretend to like anything. In the wise words of Kingsley Amis, “All amateurs must be philistines part of the time. Must be: a greater sin is to be coerced into showing respect when little or none is felt.”
I left the Guggenheim with my bell unrung, crossed Fifth Avenue, and plunged into Central Park, where the Great Lawn was packed with ecstatic children taking advantage of a lovely day. No show tonight! I told myself happily, and took my sweet time strolling home.
If you’ve never heard of Mitchell’s Christian Singers—and most people haven’t—go here to read what an anonymous critic for Time wrote about them in 1939. It is, not surprisingly, more than a little bit condescending, but I bet it'll pique your curiosity anyway.
In my biweekly “Sightings” column, which appeared in the “Pursuits” section of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I played Bill Safire avant la lettre—sort of:
Not long ago I was chatting with three gifted musicians who were looking for a new way to describe what they do. All are widely thought of as “jazz musicians,” even though that venerable phrase is no longer a good fit for the increasingly uncategorizable music they make. Luciana Souza, who came to this country from Brazil, sings everything from bossa nova to American pop standards to her own settings of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda. Maria Schneider leads a big band for which she writes large-scale compositions structured along classical lines into which she weaves flamenco, Latin American music and jazz improvisation. Theo Bleckmann is an uncompromisingly avant-garde vocalist whose latest album, “Las Vegas Rhapsody: The Night They Invented Champagne,” is a collection of show tunes accompanied by the Basel Chamber Orchestra.
How do you sum up such artists in a well-chosen word or two? You don’t—and that’s one of the problems with which they grapple as they try to find an audience for their music. This is why I was so struck when one of the three musicians (I can’t remember who) casually used the phrase “shuffle play” in an attempt to describe the stylistic multiplicity of their work. The others agreed at once: That’s what they do.
I wouldn’t have been nearly as impressed by their on-the-spot consensus were it not for the fact that I’d already heard the same phrase used in the same way by other artists of like inclination. Suddenly it hit me: I’d been watching a new cultural metaphor take shape….
The new music I have in mind isn’t random, but it definitely goes out of its way to take the listener in surprising directions. The Bad Plus, for instance, specializes in bracingly quirky jazz versions of such decidedly unjazzy tunes as Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and the theme from “Chariots of Fire.” Nickel Creek plays bluegrass-flavored music that owes as much to the synthesized technopop of Radiohead as it does to the high, lonesome sound of Bill Monroe. “Observatory,” Julia Dollison’s debut CD, contains songs by Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington and Rufus Wainwright, sung in a richly imaginative, pigeonhole-eluding style that lies somewhere in the no-man’s-land separating jazz from pop.
Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See and Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza are operalike “musicals” whose kaleidoscopic scores reflect their composers’ passions for an extraordinarily wide variety of music. Osvaldo Golijov writes “classical” music into which he stirs Afro-Cuban percussion, gospel-style choral writing, even the keening wail of a klezmer clarinet.
What to call this new kind of music-making? At first glance it resembles postmodernism, but the self-consciously wide-ranging eclecticism of postmodern artists is always tinged with irony, whereas the musicians of whom I’m thinking embrace many different styles in a wholehearted way that has nothing in common with the cool detachment of the postmodernist. Their new approach thus requires a new label, and “shuffle-play music” might be in the early stages of catching on….
No link, so if you want to read the whole thing—of which there’s a good deal more—I suggest you avail yourself of one of these alternatives:
(1) Head for the nearest library, where you'll find a copy of the Saturday Journal and (presumably) a comfy chair.
(2) Subscribe to the Online Journal by going here. Doing so will give you immediate access to the full text of this week's “Sightings” column, plus a plethora of other good stuff.
Douglas McLennan is the resident genius behind ArtsJournal. In addition to providing an indispensable daily digest of English-language news stories and commentaries on the arts, ArtsJournal also hosts “About Last Night” and a dozen other artblogs (all of which you can visit by scrolling down to the bottom module of the right-hand column). Now Doug has put together a special group-discussion blog called “Critical Edge: Critics in a Critical Age.”
Here, in his words, is what "Critical Edge" is all about:
Everyone's a critic. And now that anyone has access to an audience through the internet, our computers have become a cacophony of people with opinions. Clearly not all opinions are equal. Traditionally, the influence of an opinion was closely tied to the venue in which it was published—how widely it was disseminated or how prestigious the publication was thought to be. With a growing flood of opinions available to all, some suggest that the influence of the traditional critic is waning, that the opinions of the many will drown out the power of the few. But in a time when access to information and entertainment and art seems to be growing exponentially, more than ever we need ways to to sort through the mass and get at the "good" stuff. The question is how? Where is the critical authority to come from? Some suggest that new social networking software that ranks community preferences and elevates some opinions over others will supplant the formerly powerful traditional critics. So what is to be the new critical currency? Stripped of traditional legitimacies, how will the most interesting critical voices be heard and have influence?
Doug has put together a wide-ranging list of participants, many of whose names will be familiar to you:
"Critical Edge" is now open for business and will be up and running through Wednesday. To read our collective discussion of the prospects for criticism in the age of the Web, go here and start scrolling.
"I believe the great human change into a new world should be expressed, but I also believe that when the Soviet arbiters say that Hamlet is foolish, they are talking nonsense, and destructive nonsense at that. And I hope the human race will never be purged of those types, who, like Shakespeare, are victims all their mature life of the most dreadful form of morbid jealousy, or of unconscious homosexuals like Hopkins and Housman, or of perfectly batty people, who drive themselves into extreme fits over the fact that the landlady looked at them sideways, like Beethoven. God keep me from a world, even without poverty and human degradation, in which there were no delicate sensibilities that could produce a remark like Margaret, are you grieving; or An expense of spirit in a waste of shame; that could not feel horror over mutability and an excess of joy over the facts of perfectly physical passion, or pity for the maladjusted or horror over the senseless cruel."
Louise Bogan, letter to Rolfe Humphries, July 6, 1935
So here are some ideas for improving theater writing in America:
1) Recognize that the relationship between artist and reviewer is one of exploitation. I think it would be harder for reviewers to be snarky if they remembered that it was the bad play they saw that is putting food on their table, or that they get paid more than I do to trash my work. I am not asking for an end to negative or even harsh criticism, god knows, we need it. But what we need even more than that is considered, intelligent, thoughtful criticism that lays out reasons, arguments, analysis instead of “this sucks.”…
That's all from me for this week. I'm off to the Kennedy Center, there to dine with my maximally cool Washington friend and see Alladeen, a wonderful multi-media show by the Builders Association, a remarkable theatrical group with which I've been semi-obsessed ever since I saw Alladeen a year and a half ago at BAM and reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal:
You may not know it, but when you dial an 800 number to order a fruitcake or gripe about your Internet service provider, your call is often answered by an Indian operator who has been given an American-sounding pseudonym, painstakingly (though not always successfully) taught to shed his native accent, and assigned to help you as best he can for the lowest possible per-call price. Half performance art, half documentary, “Alladeen” tells the story of these deracinated residents of Nowhere, U.S.A., who take calls from halfway around the world without ever having seen the distant land they pretend to inhabit….
Marianne Weems, the director and tutelary spirit of “Alladeen,” claims the show is all about “the social imagination in an age of corporate colonialism.” Not to worry, though: Ms. Weems and her collaborators have turned this PC-speak high concept into a poetic extravaganza that effortlessly blends words, music, film, video art, and the vivid performances of five versatile onstage actors who waft you into the mysterious world of a Bangalore call center.
Here's how much I liked it the first time: I'm going to see it in Washington tonight on my own dime, purely for my pleasure (and that of my friend). How about that?
I'll be back Monday as usual, and blogging, damn it, will be light. I overblogged this week, and I am bruised. I hope you appreciated it! In the meantime, have a nice weekend.
Friday again. My Wall Street Journal drama column again. I'm in a v. good mood, thanks to the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., in which I am well pleased:
In theater as in all other art forms, believe what you see, not what you're told. On paper, Shakespeare Theatre's production of “The Tempest” sounds like the worst kind of politico-intellectual stew, Shakespeare run through the theory mill and turned into a Statement for Our Times. On stage, it's a fantastic procession of sights and sounds that will set your head to spinning. Kate Whoriskey, the director, may fancy herself a purveyor of ideas, but in fact she's something infinitely more precious—a natural-born stage magician….
I can't think why we haven't seen more of her in New York. In fact, I'd like to see her “Tempest” in New York, ideally at the Public Theater, where I'm sure it'd knock everybody sideways. Don't wait for it, though—instead, go to Washington and let yourself be enraptured by the most imaginative Shakespeare production I've seen since Propeller's all-male “Midsummer Night's Dream.”
Lest we forget, there's more than one way to skin a classic. The Irish Repertory Theatre's revival of “She Stoops to Conquer,” which opened last night, is a resolutely unfantastic, straight-down-the-center staging of Oliver Goldsmith's 1773 farce, devoid of the slightest trace of trickery and played on an old-fashioned drawing-room set whose walls are festooned with no less than 65 gloomy-looking paintings (yes, I counted them). The actors and actresses are bedecked in periwigs and petticoats—and the results couldn't be more pleasing….
No link. WillyoujustbuythedamnpaperforGod'ssake? Or go here and stride boldly forward into the Information Age. (Psst—it's a bargain.)
Speaking of sincere, how sincere was Joni Mitchell in "Woodstock"? She didn't attend, and, in fact, she played at the Atlantic City Pop Festival, a few weeks before, and walked off in the middle of her set, after ranting at the audience for failing to pay rapt attention to her. We were milling around, dancing and talking, and acting like a big bunch of hippies. She did not like it one bit. She steered way clear of Woodstock, then wrote a song idealizing it.
"Then can I walk beside you?" she wrote, but the fact is, she didn't want to be anywhere near these people.
"These works have many similarities and many differences." This. Means. Nothing. Absolutely. Nothing. (Insert instructor banging her forehead against the desk here.)
It gets worse….
• Meanwhile, Laura Lippman wraps up her classroom stint for the year:
Another tradition in the last class—another tradition based on once—is reading the worst review I've ever received. Bear in mind, it's not the cruelest, which was also so wrong-headed that it was easy to dismiss. This is a thoughtful, nuanced piece that judged the work, Every Secret Thing, by the very standards I had set for myself—and rated me a dismal failure. The writer is unknown to me; I can neither dismiss her as a fool nor elevate her to god-like authority.
This is the price, I tell my students. If you get lucky enough to publish and make a life as a writer, you will enter a field where anyone—truly anyone, in our Internet age—can make vicious, even personal, assessments. Get used to it. Toughen up. It's a relatively small price to pay for being published….
Mine aren't quite that big, but here's something I used to do in my own last class: when I taught criticism at Rutgers/Newark, I handed out each week a review by a well-known critic of the past without telling the students who wrote it, then asked them to comment on it. The last handout of the semester was one of my own pieces. Kids say the darnedest things....
• Critical Mass offers a cautionary tale for bloggers everywhere, but especially in the academy:
At SMU, a popular adjunct professor has been fired—or, more precisely, "not renewed"—and the word is that her firing had a lot to do with her blog. Elaine Liner has taught writing as an adjunct at SMU for several years; she is also a local theater critic and, until recently, she led an active anonymous life online as the Phantom Professor, an outspoken critic of the academy whose tales of campus life ultimately hit a little too close to home for her colleagues. Though Liner never told anyone at SMU that she was the Phantom Professor, and while she never named names or identified her place of work, her descriptions of SMU's campus culture and her portraits of students and colleagues were accurate enough that people at SMU began to recognize their school, their friends, their teachers, and even themselves, in Liner's words….
Click through this posting to Liner's blog. Yikes!
• Wax Banks earns an entry in my commonplace book:
Blogging has ruined public social events. Now you have to begin by asking “anyone blogging this?” which is like lining up the wait staff at the Stork Club and asking which one is going to phone Winchell tonight. Then you have to request that certain lines of conversation are off the record—in a bar! A bar, with Prince music playing at levels that would liquefy gorilla prostates at fifty paces. No one can hear anything. Finally, you have to leave the party early to write the blog entry, which consists of coy remarks about all the wonderful things you can't reveal. So people just post pictures with people standing around grinning in the harsh wash of a flash, the inky black of the bar behind them.
We are all on the record now….
• Mr. Superfluities serves up a very useful two-kinds-of paradigm:
In so far as it specifically relates to theater, it occurred to me that, on the off-off-Broadway scene, we can divide theater into two distinct disciplines. The first, Barroom Theater, is the stream that emerged from Cafe Cino and its other raucous siblings: energetic, seeking active engagement from the audience, irreverent. This theater swims in popular culture: it yells, it whoops, it prances, it gets drunk, it takes off its top and drops its pants and lets its inhibitions loose. The second, Gallery Theater, is that which was practiced in the Artists' Theater and similar spaces: contemplative, the performance an object to be observed rather than an activity in which one became engaged, similarly irreverent but somewhat detached from its function as entertainment (though still, we might put it in our intellectualized way, “amusing”).
There are vices and virtues to each, of course. As wildly entertaining as Barroom Theater is, it unfortunately tends to pander to its audience's desire for distraction. There's a garrulous “love me, pity me” feel that you get from drunks in the same venue; and speaking of drunks, it's hard to keep their attention, and you have to reach for more spectacular and more vacuous effects just to dissuade their eyes from wandering. On the other hand, Gallery Theater is an insider's game, frequently self-absorbed, self-important and cliquish, and visual art has a tendency to slavish distillation whereas performing art tends to “celebrate” the performative experience (that is, to make lots and lots of noise and shine flashlights into the audience's faces; but most audiences like that, for it makes them feel important)….
You can't blame people as individuals for not liking the music you think they should like. Or at least you can't blame them without understanding why they feel the way they do. This becomes quite a conundrum, I think, because abstract expressionist painters (whose style might be more or less analogous to atonal modernist music) have a much easier time with the public. People like their work. As I've mentioned many times in many contexts, there were lines around the block when MoMA had a Jackson Pollock show. So why doesn't music work that way?
• While we're on the subject, guess who said this?
Then there are two developments in music itself that have their origins primarily in the West but that for a long time have affected the whole of mankind in the world culture that is being formed. Modern so-called "classical" music has maneuvered itself, with some exceptions, into an elitist ghetto, which only specialists may enter—and even they do so with what may sometimes be mixed feelings. The music of the masses has broken loose from this and treads a very different path….
(Stop waving your hand, Alex Ross, I know you know.)
• Quotations from Chairman Wayne (Shorter, that is), courtesy of JazzPortraits:
“Miles [Davis] turns around to me this one time," recalls the 71-year-old New Jersey jazz giant, "and he says, 'Wayne, do you ever get tired of playing music that sounds like music?'. Then before I answer, he says 'I know what you mean'. We were on the same page….
“Miles would say, 'You see how Humphrey Bogart walked in that movie? How John Wayne threw that punch? You see how Marlon Brando played with Eva Marie Saint's glove in On the Waterfront?' Miles would say to the young student, 'Play that'."
Twenty-five hours of Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts" have now been released on DVD. The news should not be taken lightly. It should rather be taken as a cue to order copies immediately. As a boon to home schoolers and to parents concerned with the state, where it still exists, of music education today (drumming for credit, anyone?), these DVDs will be invaluable. Just about anyone—adults and children alike—will find a great deal to take away from the episodes. Bernstein's convincing theories on the connection of folk music to national style are just one example (Episode 9: "Folk Music in the Concert Hall"). The series also includes complete performances of Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" (Episode 11: "Happy Birthday, Igor Stravinsky"), Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 (Episode 19: "A Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich"), and Aaron Copland guest conducting part of his own Symphony No. 3 (Episode 2: "What is American Music?")….
I remember quite a few of these televised concerts from my childhood. I revisited some of them in adulthood, and my memories were right on the money—they were, and are, wonderful.
• I have a title for Catherine Seipp's first essay collection. She should call it Du côté de chezWalt:
Speaking of memory, my first trip to Disneyland, at age eight, was what first made me ponder the puzzling relationship between memory and reality. Is it better (I thought, as I lay awake in bed for hours that night after we got home) to be on the bobsleds, which only lasts a couple of minutes—or to remember having been on the bobsleds, which lasts forever? If you could go on the bobsleds 100 times, but your memory each time would vanish as soon as you were done, is that really more fun than to go on them only once but remember the experience always?...
• Finally, Supermaud explores a linguistic conundrum:
But at lunch the other day, a friend who hails from D.C. but has a Louisiana mama reminded me of one of the Deep South's most beloved, multi-purpose, and deadly expressions: "bless her heart."
In its most innocuous usage, the phrase is intended to express empathy and understanding, as in: "Why, you've been traveling all day. You must be exhausted, bless your heart. Why don't you go lie down until it's time for dinner?"
But like most things Southern (except sweet tea), the expression has a dark side. Basically, you can say the most slanderous thing you can think of, as long as it's accompanied with a lingering, mournful "bless her heart."…
Or “bless her little heart,” as we used to say in Smalltown, U.S.A.
"It matters very little to me whether people believe one thing or another. Life is short, even for those who live to a ripe old age, and we must live for the few who know and appreciate us, who judge and absolve us, and for whom we have the same affection and indulgence. The rest I look upon as a mere crowd, lively or sad, loyal or corrupt, from whom there is nothing to be expected but fleeting emotions either pleasant or unpleasant, which leave no trace behind them."
I don't know what got into me yesterday and today, but I'm blogged out. Really. And I'm going to stop. No more blogging until Friday. I swear. If I post anything else today, look the other way and pretend you didn't see it.
Till tomorrow. Really.
(Oh, er, one more thing: the Top Fives have been updated. It's O.K. to look at those.)
I just received the Summer 2005 edition of The Sondheim Review (not yet on line), which contains an interview with Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and—surprise, surprise!—a self-confessed Stephen Sondheim fanatic. Says Whedon: “What Sondheim has to say is the most honest, perceptive expression of the human experience that I know.”
Here's an excerpt:
Whedon's parents introduced him to Sondheim's musicals when he was a child, and he believes shows like Company and A Little Night Music were formative in the development of his creative vision, one that's “existential and bleak,” though shot through with acts of devotion, courage and faith….
If childhood seems a strange time to be exposed to the bitterness and disappointment of early-'70s Sondheim, Whedon counters that it accurately reflected the family experience of his early years. “Sondheim wasn't someone you would go to if you wanted to be told that everything was perfect. Neither were my parents, for that matter—all concerned were greatly relieved when they got divorced. I told my therapist that I knew all of Follies by the age of nine; she said, 'We have our work cut out for us.'”
If you're really good, OGIC, I'll bring a copy of the magazine with me to Chicago next weekend....
Someone's been sending me peanuts—the styrofoam kind, to be exact. These malign little chunks of plastic and air may well be the best possible thing with which to pack a box containing a framed work of art, but they also have a sneaky way of insinuating themselves into every corner of the room in which the box in question is opened, which is what happened yesterday afternoon when I took delivery of a well-sealed carton containing the latest addition to the Teachout Museum, a lithograph by Jules Olitski. No sooner did I pry it open than whoom! The whole living room was ankle-deep in white peanuts.
Time out for a little backstory. After I delivered the first two chapters of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong to Harcourt last week, I figured I owed myself a present in return for all that hard work, so I started looking around for a new piece of art. I ran across Olitski's 1995 lithograph Forward Edge in an online auction the very next day, and fell in love at first sight.
By coincidence—or not—I'd only just become seriously interested in Olitski, who prior to that time had been little more than a name to me. To be sure, I'd been wanting for some time to acquire a piece by an important color-field painter to go with my copy of Helen Frankenthaler's Grey Fireworks, but I already had my eye on Circle I-6, a 1978 Kenneth Noland monoprint. Alas, I never did manage to track down an affordable copy (affordable by me, that is), so instead of going off half-cocked and buying something simply to be buying something, I sat tight and waited for inspiration.
Three weeks ago, Ann Freedman of Knoedler & Company
sent me a copy of Jules Olitski: Six Decades, the catalogue of a small-scale retrospective in Miami curated by Karen Wilkin, one of my favorite art critics. (It's up through the end of May, should you happen to be in the vicinity.) The first paragraph caught me off guard:
Jules Olitski celebrated his eightieth birthday, in 2002, by exhibiting a series of recent paintings titled With Love and Disregard. The no-holds-barred canvases were so surprising, muscular, and energetic that the uninitiated could have been forgiven for thinking they were the work of an extravagantly gifted, fearless newcomer….Only a lifetime of making and thinking about paintings could generate work at once so obviously indifferent to ordinary notions of beauty (and that much maligned idea, taste) and so confident. Art historians call this kind of brilliant, assured inventiveness in the work of long-lived artists who continue to challenge themselves “late style.”
As always, Wilkin had backed up her provocative words with a shrewd and illuminating choice of paintings, and as I flipped through the catalogue, I felt myself getting onto Olitski's wavelength for the first time. By the time I was done, I resolved to add him to the Teachout Museum at the earliest opportunity—which came, improbably enough, just two weeks later.
Even in electronic reproduction, Forward Edge took my breath away, and two years of intensive collecting have taught me to trust that kind of immediate, unhesitating response. I put in an absentee bid, then left town for a wedding. No sooner did I get back to New York than I found that Forward Edge had been knocked down to me for well under my top price.
Further proof that my decision to buy Forward Edge was in tune with the will of the universe came when I hung it yesterday afternoon. I'd planned to spend most of the evening moving things around, but I hit the sweet spot on the very first try. It was as though my living room had been waiting patiently for the arrival of something of whose existence I was hitherto unaware. (I guess it is like falling in love, isn't it?) Now I can't wait to show off the Teachout Museum to the next person who comes calling. For the moment, though, I mean to spend as much time as possible curled up on my couch, basking in the subtly altered mixture of harmonies that fills the air of my home.
Art is good. Life is good. I could do without all those damn peanuts, though.
“Tony's voice seemed to come from a long way off. There was a weight on Charles again, the same old weight, and it was heavier after that brief moment of freedom. In spite of all those years, in spite of all his striving, it was remarkable how little pleasure he took in final fulfillment. He was a vice-president of the Stuyvesant Bank. It was what he had dreamed of long ago and yet it was not the true texture of early dreams. The whole thing was contrived, as he had said to Nancy, an inevitable result, a strangely hollow climax. It had obviously been written in the stars, bound to happen, and he could not have changed a line of it, being what he was, and Nancy would be pleased, but it was not what he had dreamed.
“'Well, Tony,' he said, 'I guess that means I can send Junior to Exeter,' and Tony Burton was asking why Exeter? He would not send any boy of his to Exeter.
“They were on a different basis already, now that he was a vice-president. Automatically, his thoughts were running along new lines, well-trained, mechanically perfect thoughts, estimating a new situation. There would be no trouble with the directors. There were only five vice-presidents at the Stuyvesant, all of the others older than he, most of them close to the retirement age, like Tony Burton himself. For a moment he thought of Mr. Laurence Lovell on Johnson Street but Mr. Lovell would not have understood, or Jessica either, how far he had gone or what it meant to be a vice-president of the Stuyvesant Bank. Nancy would understand. Nancy had more ambition for him than he had for himself. Nancy would be very proud. They would sell the house at Sycamore Park and get a larger place. They would resign from the Oak Knoll Club. And then there was the sailboat. It had its compensations but it was not what he had dreamed.”
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley today won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play of the 2004-2005 season. The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh received the award for best foreign play. No award was given for best musical. The selections were made at the 69th annual voting meeting of the organization today at the offices of USA Today in Manhattan. Edward Albee, a three-time NYDCC winner, will present the Circle's award for best play at a cocktail reception to be held on Tuesday, May 24, at the Algonquin Hotel where the Circle was founded in 1935....
Founded in 1935, the Circle is comprised of 21 drama critics from daily newspapers, magazines, and wire services based in the New York metropolitan area. Michael Sommers of The Star-Ledger/Newhouse Newspapers is the president of the organization. The New York Drama Critics' Circle Award is the nation's second oldest theatre award, after the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
In addition to Mr. Sommers, the members of the New York Drama Critics' Circle are Clive Barnes of the New York Post; David Cote of Time Out New York; Gordon Cox of Newsday; Michael Feingold of the Village Voice; Robert Feldberg of the Bergen Record; Adam Feldman of Time Out New York; Elysa Gardner of USA Today; John Heilpern of The New York Observer; Howard Kissel of the Daily News; Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press; Jacques le Sourd of Gannett Newspapers; Ken Mandelbaum of Broadway.com; Jeremy McCarter, The New York Sun; David Rooney of Variety; Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter; David Sheward of Back Stage; John Simon of New York; Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal; Linda Winer of Newsday; and Richard Zoglin of Time.
Your "Entries from an Unkept Diary" for today
reminds me that I
want to thank you for helping me seem somewhat cool to my 22-year-old
daughter. I have passed on my CD's of The Lascivious Biddies and Erin
McKeown (which I discovered from ALN) to load on her ipod and she lent
me the Garden State soundtrack. Your young friends not only keep you up
to speed but through you help an even older geezer find musical
connections to his daughter. I gave up rock in the mid seventies and
listened mostly to classical music and more recently to jazz (I have
discovered some outstanding female jazz vocalists thanks to you) but
finding out about some of the recent eclectic and alternative music out
there is great fun. Thanks!
John Simon, who has been theatre critic at New York magazine for newly 40 years, has been dismissed from that position, the critic told Playbill.com.
"I expected it," he said May 10, when asked if New York editor Adam Moss' decision took him by surprise. "Then again, my birthday is coming up, so I didn't think it was a very good birthday present."
Jeremy McCarter, theatre critic for the New York Sun, was named as Simon's replacement. McCarter's first review for New York will appear June 1.
Simon is known equally for his considerable erudition, his longevity as a critic (he is 79) and his vituperative style. His stinging reviews—particularly his sometimes vicious appraisals of performers' physical appearances—have periodically raised calls in the theatre community for his removal.
The timing of the firing is somewhat ironic. This fall, Applause Books will publish three volumes of Simon's collected works: one on his theatre writing, one on music, one on film.
Simon also said he's not ready to lay down the pen. "I still feel quite chipper. I don't feel my writing has somehow faded. If I felt tired, I'd stop, but I don't feel that way.”
I'm sorry to see this happen. As the saying goes, John Simon has forgotten more about theater than I'll ever know. For all the controversies he stirred up over the years, he was and is a critic of the very first rank, not least because of his ability to place what he sees on stage in so wide and deeply informed a cultural context. Even when I disagree with him, I take no one else's opinions as seriously.
Simon's departure from New York will be news. It should be.
I have an interesting chore ahead of me this afternoon. I'll be attending my first meeting as a newly elected member of the New York Drama Critics' Circle, which is not a social club: we convene each May to vote on the annual Drama Critics' Circle awards, which will be announced May 24 at a bash to be held at the Algonquin, with Edward Albee as our special guest. Don't expect any blogging about our double-secret conclave, though, unless a fistfight breaks out, in which case I'm on it like a bonnet.
Coincidentally, this year's Tony nominations were announced yesterday. (For a complete list, go here.) According to Jesse McKinley of the New York Times, the big story
was who didn't get asked to the party:
In the competition for leading actor in a play, Denzel Washington, appearing at the Belasco as Brutus in "Julius Caesar," was left off the list, as was Jeff Goldblum, who plays a curious cop in Martin McDonagh's dark comedy "The Pillowman." In the leading-actress category, meanwhile, Jessica Lange was passed over for her performance as the mother in a revival of "The Glass Menagerie," and Natasha Richardson was overlooked for her work in another Tennessee Williams revival, "A Streetcar Named Desire."
None of this, of course, was at all surprising to anyone who keeps a reasonably close eye on theater in New York. The real surprises will come when the awards are handed out on June 5. In the meantime, I thought it might be amusing to do a little preliminary handicapping, so here are my personal picks for the major prizes, accompanied by a smattering of cynical who's-really-gonna-win commentary ŕ la Addison DeWitt, who is soooo not my mentor:
BEST PLAY • Michael Frayn, Democracy • John Patrick Shanley, Doubt • August Wilson, Gem of the Ocean • Martin McDonagh, The Pillowman
In addition to being my own favorite, Doubt is also a fairly safe bet to win, though The Pillowman is a definite contender, while Democracy has the pseudo-intellectual Anglophile vote sewed up tight. Normally August Wilson would be a prime candidate as well, but my guess is that Radio Golf, the last installment in his ten-play cycle about blacks in America, will win the best-play prize if and when it finally makes it to Broadway (and regardless of whether it's any good).
BEST MUSICAL • Dirty Rotten Scoundrels • The Light in the Piazza • Monty Python's Spamalot • The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
No contest, alas. Like the Oscars, the Tonys are very respectful of success (if not wholly subservient to it, as Denzel Washington just learned), and Spamalot, lame though it is, had a 99.7% attendance rate last week. The Light in the Piazza and Putnam County Spelling Bee are far more deserving, but they'll split the good-taste vote down the middle.
BEST BOOK OF A MUSICAL • Jeffrey Lane, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels • Craig Lucas, The Light in the Piazza • Eric Idle, Monty Python's Spamalot • Rachel Sheinkin, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Idle probably has it in the bag, for the reason specified above. Everybody loves Sheinkin's delightful book for Putnam County Spelling Bee, though, so don't count her out quite yet.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE • David Yazbek, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels • Adam Guettel, The Light in the Piazza • John Du Prez and Eric Idle, Monty Python's Spamalot • William Finn, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
I'm pretty sure my pick will also be the winner—this one is Adam Guettel's consolation prize.
BEST REVIVAL OF A PLAY • Edward Albee, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? • David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross • Ernest Thompson, On Golden Pond • Reginald Rose, Twelve Angry Men
A tough call, though it shouldn't be: Twelve Angry Men is a good revival of a fair play, On Golden Pond a pretty good revival of a bad play, and Virginia Woolf an uneven revival of a great play.
BEST REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL • La Cage aux Folles • Pacific Overtures • Sweet Charity
Your guess is as good as mine. Pacific Overtures deserves the prize, but Sweet Charity needs it in order to stay open, and I wouldn't be heartbroken if it won.
BEST SPECIAL THEATRICAL EVENT • Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance! • Laugh Whore • 700 Sundays • Whoopi: The 20th Anniversary Show
Another safe call, since Billy Crystal has been coining money with 700 Sundays. Too bad: Mario Cantone's Laugh Whore made me laugh harder than anything else I saw on Broadway all season.
BEST LEADING ACTOR IN A PLAY • Philip Bosco, Twelve Angry Men • Billy Crudup, The Pillowman • Bill Irwin, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? • James Earl Jones, On Golden Pond • Brían F. O'Byrne, Doubt
O'Byrne is brilliant and everyone in town knows it, but Jones (who's pretty damned good himself) will rack up most of the bravo-old-pro vote. We'll see.
BEST LEADING ACTRESS IN A PLAY • Cherry Jones, Doubt • Laura Linney, Sight Unseen • Mary-Louise Parker, Reckless • Phylicia Rashad, Gem of the Ocean • Kathleen Turner, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Cherry Jones, by a mile.
BEST LEADING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL • Hank Azaria, Monty Python's Spamalot • Gary Beach, La Cage aux Folles • Norbert Leo Butz, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels • Tim Curry, Monty Python's Spamalot • John Lithgow, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
I smell another consolation prize coming: Norbert Leo Butz got huge, well-deserved buzz.
BEST LEADING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL • Christina Applegate, Sweet Charity • Victoria Clark, The Light in the Piazza • Erin Dilly, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang • Sutton Foster, Little Women, The Musical • Sherie Rene Scott, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
A shoo-in. Victoria Clark is taking this one home, as well she should, though Foster and Scott were also excellent, while Applegate was seriously underrated by the critics (this one not included!).
BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A PLAY • Alan Alda, Glengarry Glen Ross • Gordon Clapp, Glengarry Glen Ross • David Harbour, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? • Liev Schreiber, Glengarry Glen Ross • Michael Stuhlbarg, The Pillowman
Liev Schreiber ought to win, but he can't possibly come out on top with two other Glengarry Glen Ross actors nominated in the same category. David Harbour was very fine in Virginia Woolf, and I see him as the difference-splitting choice.
BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A PLAY • Mireille Enos, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? • Heather Goldenhersh, Doubt • Dana Ivey, The Rivals • Adriane Lenox, Doubt • Amy Ryan, A Streetcar Named Desire
If Ryan doesn't get it, I'll stand in Times Square at high noon the next day and yell Stellaaaaaa! until curtain time. Had she not been nominated, though, I would have loved to see the prize go to Heather Goldenhersh, who has great things ahead of her.
BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL • Dan Fogler, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee • Marc Kudisch, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang • Michael McGrath, Monty Python's Spamalot • Matthew Morrison, The Light in the Piazza
• Christopher Sieber, Monty Python's Spamalot
I think Fogler might just pull this one off. On the other hand, why in hell wasn't David Hyde Pierce nominated? His performance of “You Can't Succeed on Broadway (If You Don't Have Any Jews)” was the only thing about Spamalot that did rate a prize.
BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL • Joanna Gleason, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels • Celia Keenan-Bolger, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee • Jan Maxwell, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang • Kelli O'Hara, The Light in the Piazza • Sara Ramirez, Monty Python's Spamalot
The second toughest call of the night, but Keenan-Bolger's sweetly wistful performance has a decent shot.
BEST DIRECTION OF A PLAY • John Crowley, The Pillowman • Scott Ellis, Twelve Angry Men • Doug Hughes, Doubt • Joe Mantello, Glengarry Glen Ross
The toughest call of the night, and rightly so. I'll be happy no matter who gets it.
BEST DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL • James Lapine, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee • Mike Nichols, Monty Python's Spamalot • Jack O'Brien, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels • Bartlett Sher, The Light in the Piazza
I'd bet next month's rent on Nichols, who isn't undeserving, having done an exemplary job of turd-polishing on Spamalot. Nevertheless, James Lapine's staging of Putnam County Spelling Bee is masterly, and I'l be sorry when he loses, as he will. (Incidentally, Walter Bobbie should have been nominated for Sweet Charity, possibly in place of Bartlett Sher.)
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen of the “About Last Night” Academy of Theatrical Kibitzers. Let the teasing commence first thing on the morning of June 6….
At dinner last night I was served by a friendly brunette with a girl-next-door face who looked oddly familiar to me. Midway through the meal, the coin dropped, and I said to her, "Forgive me for staring, but you look just like an actress who got nominated for a Tony this morning."
"Who?" she asked.
"Celia Keenan-Bolger, for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."
A complicated expression flashed across her pretty features. "Oh, I know," she said. "I do look like her. And I was up for that part, too, for the longest time. I so wanted it!"
I just got back from the New York State Theater, where I saw New York City Ballet dance An American in Paris, Christopher Wheeldon's new George Gershwin ballet. I'll have more to say about it later on, both here and in my Washington Post column, but here's something I want to mention right now: I must have heard An American in Paris at least a hundred times, and it still makes me smile. Premiered in 1928, it remains to this day as fresh as tomorrow morning's dandelions.
Not only is An American in Paris an irresistible evocation of Paris in the Twenties, but it's the most fully realized of Gershwin's concert works, a perfect little piece of musical carpentry. No other popular composer, not even Duke Ellington (especially not Ellington, but that's another posting), made the leap into large-scale form with such cool confidence. As Irving Berlin truly said, "George Gershwin is the only song writer I know who became a composer," and this is the piece in which he first brought off the trick. Rhapsody in Blue, composed in 1924, is only slightly better organized than a medley, while the Concerto in F of 1925, though it holds together far better, is still a bit naďve, structurally speaking. Then, three years later, boom! Where on earth did a busy Broadway composer find the time to crack the code of organically developed musical form? Like all acts of genius, it's a mystery, and a miracle.
An American in Paris has been recorded at least as many times as I've heard it, but I'll always have a soft spot for the 1929 premiere recording by Nathaniel Shilkret and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, a no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase interpretation jauntily played by a smallish band of first-string studio musicians, on which you can hear the actual taxi horns that Gershwin brought back from Paris (as well as a celesta solo played by the composer himself). This fragrant period piece is available as part of Historic Gershwin Recordings, a two-CD set that also includes the very first recording of Rhapsody in Blue, made in 1924 by Gershwin and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. If you don't have it, get it.
"The critics' circle was in session when he arrived. They met in the Asshole Room of the Hotel Asshole, as far as Max was concerned. His mind tasted quite foul now, and spewed little bits of garbage into his mouth. He had better not talk too much tonight. He had not written his review, and he felt guilty and hungover about that; not, as he had hoped, roguish and liberated. They sat at a long baize-covered table with various-colored potions in front of them, looking, to Max's yellow eye, like wizards, alchemists, dwarfs.
"They were talking, his fatheaded circle, about the admission of new members. Jack Flashman, wise guy emeritus at the other news magazine, was on the agenda. 'Frankly,' said Isabel Nutley of Women's Thoughts, 'I don't think he quite comes up to our standards.' 'If we had any standards at all, half of you wouldn't be here,' growled the tireless Bruffin. 'Gentlemen, gentlemen,' said the chairman. 'I don't know—who writes the stuff on that magazine anyway? How can you tell? Flashman may be dead, for all we know.' 'He's a gossip writer, for Christsake. What does he know about the theater?' 'What do any of you know about the theater?' 'Gentlemen, gentlemen.' 'Frankly, if Flashman gets in, I quit. I can't stand the guy.' 'That's too damn bad, we'll miss you, honey, but Flashman happens to write for a very important magazine. You can't just ignore it.' 'What's wrong with gossip writing? Most of you don't even reach that level.' 'Gentlemen.'
"As he looked at their small maniac faces round the table, fighting like cannibals over a dead missionary's pants, Max thought, What you need around here is nothing less than a spiritual rebirth. Let me bring it to you! Let me start the ball rolling. But their eyes were crazed, myopic, their voices high and fanatical; they operated out of little glass bowls, and no one could come in.
"'What do you say, Max?'
"'I say, why not?' Max said with staring eyes. 'Why should any man carry through life the stain of being rejected by this damn fool society?'"
I know it is far more fashionable these days to bash the ipod than to praise it. But I love mine, and I don't use it in any of the ways that seem to be so obnoxious to people. The earbuds drive me crazy, and I find it unsettling in any case to walk down the street less than fully aware of my surroundings (I was never big on the Walkman either). So for the first year and a half of my pod ownership, I basically used it only in the car with an FM transmitter. This doesn't work in the city, meaning that the only times I used my bauble were on road trips to Detroit, when, on top of playing my favorite music, it drowned out the whining of the cat in the box in the back. Then last Christmas I requested and received a neat little speaker system, thereby increasing my ipod use probably tenfold.
Until today, these were the only two ways I used the ipod with any regularity. Today, however, I found a third good use for it: to help me get through an unpleasant visit to the dentist on the occasion of my first filling in twenty years. In this context, I was well pleased with my toy. But my experience does raise the question: what's the best music to have a tooth filled by?
I adopted a strategy of trial and error: I set the ipod to shuffle, positioned my thumb near the forward button, and resolved to skip or not skip songs according to the principle of utter impulsiveness. And I skipped almost everything, which may just have been nervous energy. But out of all the songs the shuffler served up, what most pleased me was music from Sufjan Stevens's Greetings from Michigan, the Great Lakes State (thanks, Cinetrix). It soothed without stultifying, and was just the thing. Turns out, however, that today's dental drills put their 1985 counterparts to shame, and the whole ordeal lasted barely long enough to be called an ordeal at all, or even to necessitate the services of the itranquilizer. Still good to know that Stevens does the trick, though.
• I was channel-surfing the other night and ran across Auto Focus, Paul Schrader's biopic about the unsolved murder of Bob Crane, the star of Hogan's Heroes. I didn't see it when it came out in 2002, so I watched the first part out of curiosity. At first I was struck by the concept—a straight-arrow radio host stumbles into sitcom stardom, learns that he can have pretty much anything he wants for the asking, and turns into a full-fledged sex addict—but within a half-hour or so I found myself growing bored. The problem, as is so often the case with fictionalized biography, is that life and art aren't the same thing. No matter how many liberties you take with the life of Bob Crane, you're still stuck in the end with a man who was either dull or ultimately unknowable, neither of which makes for an engrossing narrative.
One of the best examples I know of a work of narrative art based on a real-life model is Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, a novel about a southern politician who at first glance closely resembles Huey Long. What sets All the King's Men apart from lesser works in the same genre is that Willie Stark isn't Huey Long, but a made-up character based on Huey Long. For the most part, his life, both interior and exterior, has been imagined, not adapted, which is one of the reasons why All the King's Men is a great novel, not a clever roman ŕ clef.
So why don't more artists do the same thing? The answer, I realized as I watched Auto Focus, was put with devastating terseness in a review by Edwin Denby of Seventh Symphony, a ballet by Leonide Massine set to Beeethoven's Seventh Symphony: “Like a cigarette company, he is using famous names to advertise his wares.”
I can't say it any better than that.
• As I listened to one of the bands that played at the wedding I attended last weekend, I leaned over to a friend and said, “The Eighties, woh, I missed out on all that.” To which she crisply replied, “Consider yourself lucky.”
I don't know about that, but I do know that I heard very little pop music between the early Eighties and the mid-Nineties, when Our Girl in Chicago took me in hand and made sure I had some knowledge of what was going on out there. Thanks to her unceasing efforts, as well as iMusic and the soundtracks of certain indie flicks and TV shows, I'm no longer completely at sea when my youngest friends make casual reference to the music they like. I was chatting the other day with a twenty-four-year-old woman who asked me out of the blue if I'd ever heard of Zero 7. “Oh, 'In the Waiting Line,' right?” I replied. She looked at me strangely, as if my gray hair had suddenly turned brown. Seized by a pang of integrity, I added, “Don't worry—I heard it on the soundtrack of Garden State. But I do like it!” We both laughed, no doubt for different reasons.
Be that as it may, I'm not at all sure that it was seemly for me to have recognized the Violent Femmes' “Blister in the Sun” when the wedding band played it on Saturday, much less to have been aware that Erin McKeown was surely thinking of it when she wrote “Queen of Quiet,” the first track on Distillation. I mean, I've already had my midlife crisis, right? Nor does it help that the only reason why I recognized it was that it plays over the credits of Grosse Pointe Blank, which just happens to be one of my favorite Nineties movies….
O.K., enough. When you're in a hole, stop digging. I am a middle-aged litterateur of taste, distinction, and elegance, and I wouldn't know Chan Marshall if I bumped into her on the street. I could definitely pick Ani DiFranco out of a lineup, though. (After all, she's a Righteous Babe!)
I upended the mailbag yesterday, and here's some of what fell out:
• “I get my news from the Internet exclusively now. I graze, I move from site to site, follow links to interesting stories, etc. And I haven't watched a major network news show in 15 years—when the Dan Rather flapdoodle about the forged memo hit the net and I got to see some pix of Dan, I was shocked—Jesus, he looks old and ugly. Then I realized, I hadn't seen his mug since 1990. Yeah, it is a revolution, and I am glad to see it. But I do miss the act of picking up a paper every day and reading it on the train to work.”
• “I'd appreciate help completing the following sentence: 'If you like Duke Ellington's Never No Lament
and Count Basie's The Atomic Mr. Basie, you'll love ----- .' Also, what are the quintessential Louis Armstrong recordings to get my nascent jazz collection moving in that direction?”
The second question is easy. If you don't have any Armstrong, start with Sony's The Essential Louis Armstrong, a two-CD set containing 37 tracks, most of which are in fact either essential Armstrong or close to it.
As for the first question, I know where my correspondent is coming from, but I'm not sure where—or how far—he wants to go. That being the case, I'll point in opposite directions. For a taste of one of the classic big bands of the Thirties at its hottest, try Benny Goodman's On the Air (1937-1938). For a taste of state-of-the-art big-band music circa right this minute, try Bob Brookmeyer's Get Well Soon. No promises, but both CDs are personal favorites of mine.
• “I am too lazy to go back to your post to find the exact wording, but if memory serves me even reasonably well, you wrote
that recently you had a difficult time enjoying breakfast because a rather harsh voice was distracting you in the extreme. Years ago I met a man who was introducing me to the gustatory joys of sushi. Up until that time I guess I had a preconceived notion that I wouldn't enjoy the food. He then said rather wisely, at least I thought it wise, 'Don't let your head get in the way of your stomach.' The words hit me over the head like a jackhammer through concrete….So, Mr. Teachout, keep writing your wonderful blog, and don't let your ears get in the way of your stomach.”
That's good advice, and like all good advice, it's easier heard than taken. Nevertheless, I'll do my damnedest.
• “I have quite recently become enamored of your blog, but when today you mentioned
having been in New York for twenty years (thus allowing me to extrapolate your actual age), I was puzzled despite myself. I know you're not in your twenties anymore, but somehow I cannot shake the feeling that I'm reading the reflections of a young man-about-town in his native New York. I will attribute this to the freshness and vitality of your observations and commentary even after years spent critiquing the arts. Kudos to you and Our Girl for an enlightening blog that still manages to be far from a chore to read. It's a rare find in the arts world.”
• “Consider this quote: 'No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey's, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge...when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now' (Colson Whitehead, The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen
Parts). And congratulations on your remarkable career!”
• “I am on the cusp of sixty and can advise you that the nostalgia attacks continue unexpected and acute.”
Thanks to you all for the kind words—and the warning.
I've made a pretty good start at answering all my accumulated blogmail. Thanks for your patience!
The unceasing task of keeping my in-basket empty has been complicated of late by the fact that the "About Last Night" e-mailbox is growing increasingly full of spam and press releases (same difference, mostly), not to mention the usual solicitations for stamina-enhancing products, poorly spelled fundraising appeals from somewhere in Africa, and messages written in Oriental characters of one kind or another, all of which are, er, Greek to me. As a result, the personal e-mail I want to read is getting harder and harder to pluck from the commercial foliage.
If you're a real live human being who reads this blog, please keep on writing. Your mail will be found, opened, read, and answered sooner or later, unless it's in Korean or has a subject header hinting at a breakthrough in the problem of, shall we say, puissance.
If, on the other hand, you're a publicist, I should warn you that I delete press releases sent to "About Last Night" without reading them. Publicists should write to me at my personal e-mail address. (Those publicists who don't know what it is probably shouldn't be writing to me at all, but that's another story.)
P.S. Our Girl has her own mailbox, to which you should write directly if you want to comment on a posting whose title begins with "OGIC." The e-mail buttons for both boxes can be found in the top module of the right-hand column.
I spent Friday and Saturday at a rustic resort in the Catskills, totally out of touch with the world (no cell phone, no computer). On Saturday I read a Shakespeare sonnet at a wedding that took place in a green meadow by a running brook, then partied the night away with a queen-sized gaggle of musicians led by the Lascivious Biddies (one of whom was the bride in question, the other three serving as her bridesmaids). I'm not sure refreshed is the exact word for the way I felt come Sunday morning, but I sure was happy.
As always, life intrudes on such finite interludes of bliss, so I arose, breakfasted with a bunch of equally happy, equally bleary-eyed people, hopped in my rented car, drove back to Manhattan, and went straight to a revival of She Stoops to Conquer, about which more Friday. Then I had dinner, returned home, unpacked my bag, chatted on the phone with Our Girl in Chicago, and realized that I was still suffering from the aftereffects of recently having written close to 20,000 words. I prescribed for myself a good night's sleep, followed by a day of very moderate literary endeavor, i.e., none. I might even take a walk!
Full-scale activities resume on Tuesday and continue through the week: deadlines (one compulsory, one self-imposed), performances (four plays, one night at the ballet), appointments of various kinds, yet another trip to Washington, and, as always, blogging. Even when I'm gone, you're not forgotten.
Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda Wingfield in the original 1945 production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is the most vividly remembered piece of acting ever to have taken place on an American stage. Yet nothing remains of it but memories and a few still photographs—some of which can be seen here—since Taylor made no sound films save for the brief screen test included in Broadway: The Golden Age (a documentary you've absolutely got to see, assuming you haven't already). The greatness of her acting is thus like the greatness of Nijinsky's dancing: all who saw her agree on it, but the rest of us must take it on faith.
After reading that Times story, I did a bit of fugitive Googling, and found something that sent my jaw dropping floorward. It's from the Web site of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which is where Taylor's private papers ended up. I was looking at the HRCRC's description of its Taylor collection when I stumbled onto this statement:
A number of published works and recordings were transferred to the HRHRC book collection….Taylor's recordings, mostly 78 RPM, include The Glass Menagerie (1945); a 1939 WJZ radio broadcast of Peg O' My Heart; Among My Souvenirs (1943); a segment of We The People (1945); a Rudy Vallee radio program (1939); and a very early 1913 voice recording trial done of Laurette Taylor in New York.
Excuse me? Am I the last to learn that that there is a sound recording of some portion of Taylor's legendary performance in The Glass Menagerie? Or is its existence not widely known to scholars of American theater in general and Tennessee Williams' work in particular?
If anybody out there in the blogosphere knows anything at all about this recording, starting with whether or not it really exists, I'd like to hear from you. And if you happen to live in Austin and have access to it (assuming it does in fact exist), I'd really like to hear from you.
“Many false conceptions are held concerning the nature of tedium. In general it is thought that the interestingness and novelty of the time-content are what 'make the time pass'; that is to say, shorten it; whereas monotony and emptiness check and restrain its flow. That is only true with reservations. Vacuity, monotony, have, indeed, the property of lingering out the moment and the hour and of making them tiresome. But they are capable of contracting and dissipating the larger, the very large time-units, to the point of reducing them to nothing at all. And conversely, a full and interesting content can put wings to the hour and the day; yet it will lend to the general passage of time a weightiness, a breadth and solidity which cause the eventful years to flow more slowly than those poor, bare, empty ones over which the wind passes and they are gone. Thus what we call tedium is rather an abnormal shortening of the time consequent upon monotony. Great spaces of time passed in unbroken uniformity tend to shrink together in a way to make the heart stop beating for fear; when one day is like all the others, then they are all like one; complete uniformity would make the longest life seem short, and as though it had stolen away from us unawares. Habituation is a falling asleep or fatiguing of the sense of time; which explains why young years pass slowly, while later life flings itself faster and faster upon its course. We are aware that the intercalation of periods of change and novelty is the only means by which we can refresh our sense of time, strengthen, retard, and rejuvenate it, and therewith renew our perception of life itself.”
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (courtesy of Paul Moravec)
An alert reader tipped me off that I should include links to the paintings Randall Jarrell writes about in the poem below, and he's absolutely right. I'm about to add them to the original post, and I list them here, too:
I've been thinking of doing some serious winnowing of my book collection, which is slowly but surely taking over the space in which I live. Today, however, was one of those days when I'm reminded of why I hesitate. Unsatisfied with what images I could find online of the van der Goes painting (the Web Museum image linked above is quite good, but I missed it in my earlier Google Image search), I scanned my art books shelf and came up with the big, beautiful Art Treasures of the Uffizi & Pitti, which contains a crisp, gorgeous color plate of the central panel. It was definitely a moment when the hulking mass of bound paper in here looked, for a blessed second, like a library of my own, a collection containing wonders I didn't know I had. What else is in here? When will I stumble on it, and on what unforeseen quest? It's the upside of owning almost twice as many books as you've read. So maybe, I'm now thinking, the object isn't so much to get rid of books as to get to know them a little better.
With the coming of The Cod (who talks exactly like he blogs, by the way), food bloggery has regained the luster it had lost, for me at least, when Julie/Julia went offline to become a book. Ever the eager Me-Tooist, I'm fixing to jump on this bandwagon. I'll wisely leave the Art of Cooking to Mr. Cod, however, and content myself with its M.F.K.-approved sister art, the Art of Eating. Well, or, um…in this case the Art of Drinking. Close enough for you?
Which is all preamble to saying that, thanks to my good friends here (at least I want to be their friend), I have discovered a brilliant wine that I'd never heard of before last week. It comes from Austria, of all places, and is my new favorite wine, especially with the warm weather seemingly locked into place now. The varietal is Grüner Veltliner. The glass I had at Lula Cafe tasted like the coldest, crispest, tartest apple you've ever stuck a straw in. There is occasionally a new thing under the sun, or at least a newly exported thing. When I get my first paycheck, I'm buying a case.
Also, in case you don't know, the food at Lula is delish.
If you're in Chicago, you can read my essay on the identity crisis that sometimes comes of being both a newspaper book critic and a book blogger in this week's Chicago Reader. It's not available online, alas.
This week's edition of the Reader is one of their twice-yearly book issues. It also contains a story about blogger Wendy McClure, whose book was just published; a look at the adventures of running Oak Park's indie bookstore The Book Table; a small army of mini-reviews, including a handful by Bookslut; and a lot more. The Spring and Fall Book Specials are really the Reader at its best. They always do a bang-up job with it, so I was delighted to be asked to contribute.
I might be getting a link from the Reader soon to a pdf file of my story. If that doesn't materialize, I'll post some excerpts over the next week.
Friday was the 91st anniversary of Randall Jarrell's birth. I'm crazy about his sole novel, Pictures from an Institution, which has provided me and Terry with more than a few fortune cookies and almanacs: see, for instance, one,
six. (If Pictures isn't the single most quoted novel on this website, it must be a close second.) And Jarrell's poetry is a reliable pleasure. The following poem belongs to a favorite subgenre of mine, poetry about painting, along with Browning's dramatic monologues "Andrea del Sarto" and "Fra Lippo Lippi," Williams's "Pictures from Bruegel," and Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" (to which Jarrell's poem responds). Enjoy.
* * *
The Old and the New Masters
About suffering, about adoration, the old masters
Disagree. When someone suffers, no one else eats
Or walks or opens the window—no one breathes
As the sufferers watch the sufferer.
In St. Sebastian Mourned by St. Irene
The flame of one torch is the only light.
All the eyes except the maidservant's (she weeps
And covers them with a cloth) are fixed on the shaft
Set in his chest like a column; St. Irene's
Hands are spread in the gesture of the Madonna,
Revealing, accepting, what she does not understand.
Her hands say: "Lo! Behold!"
Beside her a monk's hooded head is bowed, his hands
Are put together in the work of mourning.
It is as if they were still looking at the lance
Piercing the side of Christ, nailed on his cross.
The same nails pierce all their hands and feet, the same
Thin blood, mixed with water, trickles from their sides.
The taste of vinegar is on every tongue
That gasps, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
They watch, they are, the one thing in the world.
So, earlier, everything is pointed
In van der Goes' Nativity, toward the naked
Shining baby, like the needle of a compass.
The different orders and sizes of the world:
The angels like Little People, perched in the rafters
Or hovering in mid-air like hummingbirds;
The shepherds, so big and crude, so plainly adoring;
The medium-sized donor, his little family,
And their big patron saints; the Virgin who kneels
Before her child in worship; the Magi out in the hills
With their camels—they ask directions, and have pointed out
By a man kneeling, the true way; the ox
And the donkey, two heads in the manger
So much greater than a human head, who also adore;
Even the offerings, a sheaf of wheat,
A jar and a glass of flowers, are absolutely still
In natural concentration, as they take their part
In the salvation of the natural world.
The time of the world concentrates
On this one instant: far off in the rocks
You can see Mary and Joseph and their donkey
Coming to Bethlehem; on the grassy hillside
Where their flocks are grazing, the shepherds gesticulate
In wonder at the star; and so many hundreds
Of years in the future, the donor, his wife,
And their children are kneeling, looking: everything
That was or will be in the world is fixed
On its small, helpless, human center.
After a while the masters show the crucifixion
In one corner of the canvas: the men come to see
What is important, see that it is not important.
The new masters paint a subject as they please,
And Veronese is prosecuted by the Inquisition
For the dogs playing at the feet of Christ,
The earth is a planet among galaxies.
Later Christ disappears, the dogs disappear: in abstract
Understanding, without adoration, the last master puts
Colors on canvas, a picture of the universe
In which a bright spot somewhere in the corner
Is the small radioactive planet men called Earth.
I kept my promise—I shut off the iBook at eleven o’clock last night and didn’t boot up again until after breakfast. Nor will I blog a single word this coming weekend. To all those who wrote to cheer me on in my newfound resolve, many thanks.
Now, on to yesterday’s art:
• I sawThe Two and Only, Jay Johnson’s one-man show about his life as a ventriloquist, which I’ll be reviewing in next week’s Wall Street Journal.
• I spent a good chunk of the afternoon looking at a pair of shows currently up at one of my favorite Upper East Side art spots, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries (20 E. 79th St., through June 25). Downstairs is a delightful single-room display of early paintings by Corot. Upstairs is "Constable’s Skies," a museum-quality exhibition consisting of two dozen cloud studies and finished paintings by John Constable, including several museum loans. Salander-O’Reilly is billing it as "the first sky studies show by John Constable in the United States," which I think is right. In any case, it’s a dazzler. The paintings of clouds made by Constable in 1821 and 1822 rank high among his most compelling works, all the more so because so many of them seem to border on abstraction. (In fact, they’re so literally representational that Constable actually inscribed the date, time of day, and weather conditions on the backs of the canvases.)
I almost hate to blog about "Constable’s Skies," since Our Girl is a huge Constable fan who will be royally vexed by its presence in New York, she being stuck in Chicago for the immediate future. The good news is that there’s an excellent catalogue, though so far it hasn’t yet turned up on amazon.com. When it does, I’ll post a link.
• I’m rereading Charlton Heston’s In the Arena: An Autobiography. Kindly omit boggling: In the Arena is one of the very few books by a movie star that is both intelligent and well-written. (Heston wrote it without benefit of a ghost, I might add—you can tell by the literary idiosyncrasies, including a decidedly shaky grasp of the Theory of the Parenthesis). Not only does Heston shed considerable light on the complex craft of film acting, but he was a class-A raconteur who dishes up polished anecdotes at every possible opportunity. Here’s one of my favorites, a story about Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, in which Heston played a Ringling Bros. manager:
DeMille and the circus was a marriage made in movie heaven. He picked up his Oscar for Best Picture the following spring, and I got an enormous boost in my career. When I went into his office the next morning to congratulate him, he said, "Chuck, you’ve gotten some fine personal notices for this picture, but I want to read you one that may be the best review you’ll ever get in your life."
He then read me a letter from a man who was enchanted with the picture. DeMille had caught not only the look but the feel of the circus perfectly. The cast was wonderful, especially Jimmy Stewart as the clown. Betty Hutton had never been better, nor had Cornel Wilde. "And I was amazed," the writer concluded, "at how well the circus manager did in there with the real actors."
Isn’t that a wonderful story?
• Now playing on iTunes: Bill Evans’ recording of Alex North’s "Love Theme from Spartacus," a track from Conversations with Myself, the 1963 album on which Evans plays three pianos simultaneously, two of them overdubbed. (Somehow it seemed appropriate—I’m currently reading the Ben-Hur chapter of In the Arena.)
"Love Theme from Spartacus," by the way, was my introduction to Evans, back when I was a junior in high school, and I’ll never forget the shock of hearing the exquisitely commingled arpeggios with which it begins. This is the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard, I said to myself, and though I’ve heard a lot more music since then, I doubt I’ve heard anything more beautiful.
On which note I’m off in search of further adventures. See you Monday.
As those who know me are all too well aware, I harbor a number of variously morbid notions about work, the worst one being that I feel obliged to do it all the time. A blog is a dangerously efficient way to feed these notions, which is why I finally came to my senses and decided to stop posting on weekends. That, however, was only a start. On Wednesday night, I began Phase Two of my personal program of blog-related mental hygeine: I shut off my computer at 10:45 and didn't turn it on again until Thursday morning. I've learned from experience that when I come home from a performance and go straight to my iBook, I invariably end up blogging, surfing, and e-mailing until two or three in the morning, a habit incompatible with long life. So I went cold turkey on Wednesday, and I'm doing the same thing today. The postings you're reading now were written late Thursday afternoon and stored for publication on Friday. From now on, this computer is going to sleep no later than eleven o'clock each night, followed by its owner.
Needless to say, this may mean...oh, hell, I don't have to explain myself, right? Repeat after me: The computer is my enemy. That's my new mantra. Most likely I'll post something or other every weekday, but it may not be waiting for you first thing in the morning. Instead, I'm going to blog when I blog, and you'll read it when you read it, and we'll both be happier. Cool?
It’s Friday, so I’m in The Wall Street Journal, reporting on revivals of two oft-reworked shows. The first is Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, about which I had mostly but not entirely negative things to say:
Tony Kushner’s "Homebody/Kabul," now playing through May 30 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAM Harvey Theater, runs for four hours (with two intermissions) and starts off with an hour-long monologue. That’s too damn long, even for an especially well-made play, which "Homebody/Kabul" isn’t. It is, in fact, three or four plays, none of them well made or mutually compatible, scrambled together into a rambling torrent of verbiage that goes on and on and on.
Would that a machete had been applied to Mr. Kushner’s much-revised script, for somewhere amid the domestic melodrama and arch drawing-room comedy is a strong, serious, intellectually challenging play about Islamic fundamentalism and its discontents, one in which the author of "Angels in America" contrives to steer cleer of the agree-with-me-or-burn-in-hell hysterics that are his number-one dramaturgical vice. Alas, his number-two vice, as "Angels in America" proved and "Homebody/Kabul" demonstrates yet again, is that he has no sense of proportion….
The second was the New York Philharmonic’s semi-staged concert version (now closed, alas) of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which I loved, not least for its Cunegonde:
I was overjoyed to learn that the New York Philharmonic was presenting a semi-staged concert version directed by Lonny Price ("Master Harold…and the boys") and featuring a mixed cast of Broadway stars and opera singers. Might this perhaps be the perfectly gauged compromise that hitherto had eluded "Candide" buffs? Not quite—but almost.
Kristin Chenoweth, who took a week off from "Wicked" to appear in "Candide," was the best of all possible Cunegondes, not excluding Barbara Cook, who created the role. Cunegonde, Candide’s shopworn sweetheart, is far beyond the reach of ordinary musical-comedy singers, for "Glitter and Be Gay," her big number, is an all-stops-out coloratura aria requiring a rock-solid high E flat. I knew the diminutive Ms. Chenoweth had operatic training, but it never occurred to me that her high notes would have survived years of Broadway belting, much less that she could still nail them with the brilliance and panache of a full-time opera star. Add to that her impish charm and switchblade-sharp timing and…well, let’s just say I’m no longer capable of being surprised by the amazing Ms. Chenoweth. After "Glitter and Be Gay," I wouldn’t have boggled if she’d picked up the baton and conducted the second act….
No link. To read the whole thing, buy the paper. That’s what I do every Friday!
My art engine has finally turned over after a week-long stall. Here’s what’s I’ve been up to:
• I hung the Teachout Museum’s latest acquisition, Neil Welliver’s Night Scene, a thirteen-color woodcut (my first) made in 1982. I spent a pleasant hour yesterday afternoon standing on a rickety ladder, juggling three other prints in order to find exactly the right spot for "Night Scene." Figuring out where to hang a piece of art is half the fun of owning it. (Well, maybe not half, but you know what I mean.)
As it happens, I already own one Welliver print, an unsigned lithograph called "Canada Geese," so I rehung that one in my sleeping loft, which strikes me as the very height of low-budget luxury!
Gaddis’ book is solid and informative, but I’m struck by a major failure of interpretation on his part: he doesn’t seem to have understood that the common thread running through many, perhaps most of Chick Austin’s innovations, from Four Saints to his twin passions for the neo-romanticists and seventeenth-century baroque art, was his taste for camp. (I’m not absolutely sure, but I don’t think the word "camp" appears anywhere in Magician of the Modern.) This strikes me as close to inexcusable, especially given the fact that his book is reasonably frank about Austin’s bisexuality. While you certainly don't have to be gay to grasp such matters—I’m as straight as a stick—it’s hard to imagine a homosexual writer making the same mistake.
• I’ve taken of late to viewing movies in half-hour chunks of in-between time, a practice facilitated by my digital video recorder. Last night I finished watching Howard Zieff’s Hearts of the West, a sweet little spoof of the "B" westerns of the Thirties. Jeff Bridges, the star, looked impossibly youthful in 1975. It's hard to imagine that he would someday metamorphose into the Mitchumesque star of noir-flavored films like The Fabulous Baker Boys (which I adore).
• Today I’m nibbling at They Live by Night, Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film version of Edward Anderson’s Depression-era novel Thieves Like Us. It was Ray’s first movie, the only one of his major films I hadn’t seen (it’s not available on DVD, and I’m not sure there was ever a VHS version, either—thank you, Turner Classic Movies!). More as I make my way through it, but I’m already dazzled by Ray’s pioneering use of a helicopter to film the opening sequence. It's excitingly rough and jumpy, nothing like the slick, swoopy aerial cinematography to which we’ve long since become accustomed.
• Now playing on iTunes: Bill Evans’ 1977 trio version of "You Must Believe in Spring," newly reissued on CD. Mmmm.
Enough for now. Alex Ross will be knocking on my door at any moment for a private view of the Teachout Museum. This reminds me to remind you that Alex now has a Web site, The Rest Is Noise, which I added to the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column last night. It’s not quite a blog (though it seems to be evolving into one willy-nilly), but it does contain links to Alex's New Yorker essays on music, which I never fail to find provocative and stimulating.
After lunch, it’s back to the grindstone (I’m in the process of updating my playgoing schedule for the next couple of months), after which I’ll be heading down to the Atlantic Theater to see Jay Johnson’s The Two and Only, a one-man play by and about a ventriloquist, which I suppose means that it’s really a two-man play, right? Either way, you’ll be reading about it in The Wall Street Journal at some point in the near future.
In the meantime, enjoy the weather—I see warm sunshine out my office window, and hope to experience it at first hand sooner or later!
It’s not exactly news that I’m no great fan of Tony Kushner and his public utterances, theatrical or otherwise, but sometimes we do find ourselves on the same page. On Tuesday Kushner gave a speech at a conference of the League of American Theatres and Producers. Most of it was variously silly and self-righteous, as is Kushner’s wont, but toward the end he delivered himself of this paragraph:
My little niece, Ciara, who lives in Vienna, has listened all her young life to opera, my brother is first horn of the Vienna Symphoniker and so Ciara has heard, since she was embryonic, great operas, Wagner, Verdi, Massenet, Schonberg, Tchaikovsky. But recently the Vienna Symphoniker played West Side Story. Now we sing Tony and maria duets together, Ciara and I – she’s six, she lives in Vienna, she knows nothing of New York nor of American racial strife nor, as is appropriate for any six year old, much about strife period, so why did West Side Story get inside her so instantaneously, and why is she now running about singing My Fair Lady and Oklahoma? I remembered the early and overwhelmingly powerful spell these shows cast when, an adult, I watched the New York Philharmonic do a concert version of Sweeney Todd for Mr. Sondheim’s 70th birthday, and feeling the entire audience of jaded, battle-weary adult New Yorkers levitate out of their seats borne aloft on a cloud of compound vapor in which terror and glee and sheer sensual delight were indescribably and perfectly blended – it was ecstasy, pure and simple, and we’ve all felt it, in the presence of great musical theater – at six or at six hundred, it is instantly recognizable, Bacchic joy, and as close to irresistible and universal as anything other than Shakespeare or Mozart….
I was at the same performance, and that’s exactly what it felt like.
(Read the whole thing here—but don’t expect miracles!)
Ever since I got back from Monticello the other day, I’ve been thinking about American presidents who could write—not just competently, but with real distinction. The list is very short, and though it has some unexpected names on it (did you know that Calvin Coolidge was a classicist?), I doubt many people would question the presence of Abraham Lincoln at its head. Rhetorically speaking, Lincoln was America's Churchill, and so it’s not altogether surprising that I felt the urge to reread David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, by common consent the greatest of modern Lincoln biographies, though I confess to still getting pleasure out of the one-volume abridgement of Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln, albeit for rather different reasons. (Interestingly, Donald isn’t snobbish about Sandburg’s much-maligned book, which he correctly describes as "the most imaginative and humanly flavorful of all the [Lincoln] biographies.")
One of the passages in Lincoln that struck me most forcibly when I first read it in 1995 was Donald’s description of the writing of the First Inaugural Address. It seems that Lincoln had help—quite substantial help, in fact—in drafting the unforgettable last paragraph of that immortal speech. William Seward, soon to become Lincoln’s secretary of state, told the president-elect that he needed to "meet and remove prejudice and passion in the South, and despondency and fear in the East," and suggested the following lines:
I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren….The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.
Lincoln rewrote them as follows:
I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies….The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
To compare these two versions is to receive an invaluable lesson in the difference between a good idea and a great piece of writing. Even so, anyone ignorant of American history who saw both versions set up in parallel columns would very likely suspect the second writer of having plagiarized the first one. Without doubt, the coda of the First Inaugural wouldn't have existed had Seward not supplied Lincoln with his preliminary draft—yet what Lincoln did to Seward's clunky prose cannot be dismissed as mere editing. If I may borrow an example from the world of jazz, it’s more like what Gil Evans did to the slow movement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez
when he "arranged" Sketches of Spain for Miles Davis. Evans’ version of Concierto de Aranjuez is not an "original" composition in the normal meaning of the word. It is based explicitly on Rodrigo’s music. Yet it is pure Gil Evans, so completely transformed as to have become an independent composition, one arguably superior to its source material. So who’s the composer?
Real editing, even at its best, is a different thing entirely, though the difference can be subtle to the point of tenuity. I worked as a magazine and newspaper editor for many years before becoming a full-time freelance writer, and on one never-to-be-forgotten occasion I edited a piece so extensively that had it been a screenplay, I would have received an on-screen credit. When the piece won a major magazine award a few months later, I smiled wryly, as did my colleagues, yet it never occurred to any of us to blow the whistle on the writer. He "wrote" the piece, and that, so far as we were concerned, was that.
One reason why I kept my mouth shut is that I’ve been the beneficiary of superior editing on innumerable occasions, never that extensive but at times...well, quite substantial. At the time of the original publication of one of the best essays in A Terry Teachout Reader, I received a letter of praise from a well-known author who singled out for particular comment a sentence I hadn’t written. To be sure, it had been implicit in my draft, but I didn’t make it fully manifest: my editor did the job for me, and I gladly accepted his contribution. That sentence now appears in the Teachout Reader without benefit of asterisk or footnote. It’s taken for granted that I wrote it, and I don’t propose to blow the whistle on myself now. That’s what good editors do—they make your stuff better by any means necessary, and they keep their mouths shut about it.
I remembered that sentence of "mine" when I read the two drafts of the last paragraph of Lincoln’s First Inaugural. It amuses me to know that Lincoln relied so heavily on Seward’s contribution—yet I'm awed by the use he made of it. Does that knowledge lessen my admiration for Lincoln the writer and rhetorician? If anything, it makes me admire him all the more. As T.S. Eliot wrote in The Sacred Wood, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion."
I’m neither a poet nor a Lincoln, but I’m a good enough critic to know the carpentry of a great writer when I see it—even if he borrowed the lumber from someone else’s yard.
Now on this out of season afternoon
Day schools which cater for the sort of boy
Whose parents go by Pullman once a month
To do a show in town, pour out their young
Into the sharply red October light.
Here were The Drive and Buckhurst Road converge
I watch the rival gangs and am myself
A schoolboy once again in shivering shorts.
I see the dust of sherbet on the chin
Of Andrew Knox well-dress’d, well-born, well-fed,
Even at nine a perfect gentleman,
Willie Buchanan waiting at his side—
Another Scot, eruptions on his skin.
I hear Jack Drayton whistling from the fence
Which hides the copper domes of "Cooch Behar".
That was the signal. So there’s no escape.
A race for Willow Way and jump the hedge
Behind the Granville Bowling Club? Too late.
They’ll catch me coming out in Seapink Lane.
Across the Garden of Remembrance? No,
That would be blasphemy and bring bad luck.
Well then, I’m for it. Andrew’s at me first,
He pinions me in that especial grip
His brother learned in Kobe from a Jap
(No chance for me against the Japanese).
Willie arrives and winds me with a punch
Plum in the tummy, grips the other arm.
"You’re to be booted. Hold him steady, chaps!"
A wait for taking aim. Oh trees and sky!
Then crack against the column of my spine,
Blackness and breathlessness and sick with pain
I stumble on the asphalt. Off they go
Away, away, thank God, and out of sight
So that I lie quite still and climb to sense
Too out of breath and strength to make a sound.
Now over Polegate vastly sets the sun;
Dark rise the Downs from darker looking elms,
And out of Southern railway trains to tea
Run happy boys down various Station Roads,
Satchels of homework jogging on their backs,
So trivial and so healthy in the shade
Of these enormous Downs. And when they’re home,
When the Post-Toasties mixed with Golden Shred
Make for the kiddies such a scrumptious feast,
Does Mum, the Persil-user, still believe
That there’s no Devil and that youth is bliss?
As certain as the sun behind the Downs
And quite as plain to see, the Devil walks.
Sir John Betjeman, "Original Sin on the Sussex Coast"
This is real time: I just got back from Brooklyn, where I saw the opening night of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul at BAM Harvey. It runs for four hours (don't believe the sign in the lobby that says three hours and 40 minutes), and the subway ride home took something just under forever.
Bedtime now, review in the morning. I'll try to get something good up later in the day. Remember what I said about champagne and roses? Well, it ain't!
David Bowman, author of the well-titled book Let the Dog Drive, has checked in to say that I should drive (gladly), and to set me straight: the emphasis is equally on "dog" and "drive." As I told him, I more or less realized that, but still found it fun to imagine contexts in which one would say "Let the dog drive," or alternatively, "Let the dog drive." He adds that "Jim Harrison suggested to me that the sequel should be titled Let the Dog Drive Further."
Meanwhile, Lizzie says the book has good word-of-mouth, and in her comments Bowman tells the story behind the novel's Joan Didion blurb. I'm adding his book to my queue.
A reminder for those of you joining us late: this is a four-handed blog, and the other two hands belong to the pseudonymous Our Girl in Chicago, who has returned to the blogosphere after a much-lamented absence. The headlines for her posts begin with "OGIC" (just as mine begin with "TT").
Our Girl also has her very own mailbox, and you can write to her directly by going to the top module of the right-hand column, scrolling down to WRITE US, and clicking on her e-mail address, which is directly below mine. I don't mind reading her mail, but it's ever so much nicer when she gets it straight from you!
A further reminder: if you don't want your incoming letters to get tossed out with the spam, make sure to include an intelligible subject line, i.e., "Your Dumb Post About Subject Lines" or "You're All Wet About Raymond Chandler." Blank subject lines, "Hi Terry!," or emoticons unaccompanied by text tend not to get opened (unless I'm feeling lucky).
We return you now to my irregularly scheduled bedtime.
"I feel now that gastronomical perfection can be reached in these combinations: one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hill side; two people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good restaurant; six people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good home.
"Three or four people sometimes attain perfection either in public or in private, but they must be very congenial, else the conversation, both spoken and unsaid, which is so essential a counterpoint to the meal’s harmony, will turn dull and forced. Usually six people act as whets, or goads, in this byplay and make the whole more casual, if, perhaps, less significant.
"The six sould be capable of decent social behavior: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should they be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could put poison on the plates all must eat from. A good combination would be one married couple, for warm composure; one less firmly established, to add a note of investigation to the talk; and two strangers of either sex, upon whom the better-acquainted diners could sharpen their questioning wits."
Alas, I consumed no art today, other than that which hangs on my walls. Instead, I spent the day taking part in a teleconference of farflung judges for an Award to Be Named Later, answering accumulated e-mail, working on my schedule for May and June, and nibbling away at a stack of all the other pesky little chores that make up a full-time freelancer's life. Believe me, it ain't always champagne, roses, and opening nights.
I'm posting earlier than usual so that I can end my lengthy day with a half-hour or so of a Gary Cooper movie, Anthony Mann's Man of the West, but I may not even bother with that. I have to get up first thing in the morning to write a record review, and what appeals most at the moment is at least eight hours' worth of preliminary sleep.
In the interests of preserving my sanity, I've decided to stop blogging on Saturdays and Sundays. Most other artbloggers (as well as a good many warbloggers) stick to a weekday schedule, and I've decided to go with the flow. OGIC can do whatever she wants, but I myself will henceforth stand mute between Friday evening and Monday morning.
It goes without saying that you'll still be able to visit "About Last Night" 24/7, and those of you in the habit of catching up with us on the weekends need not change your reading habits. Just don't expect anything fresh!
As always, thanks for reading us and writing to us. We're still having fun.
"Among Venice's spells is one of peculiar potency: the power to awaken the philistine dozing in the sceptic's breast. People of this kind—dry, prose people of superior intelligence—object to feeling what they are supposed to feel, in the presence of marvels. They wish to feel something else. The extreme of this position is to feel nothing. Such a case was Stendhal's: Venice left him cold. He was there only a short time and departed with barely a comment to pursue an intrigue in Padua. Another lover of Italy, D. H. Lawrence (on one side of his nature, a debunker, a plain home-truth teller like Ruskin before him), put down his first reaction in a poem: 'Abhorrent green, slippery city, Whose Doges were old and had ancient eyes….' And Gibbon 'was afforded some hours of astonishment and some days of disgust by the spectacle of Venice.'"
Favorite titles are streaming in from readers, in some cases with annotation:
No, But I Saw the Movie
Dewey Defeats Truman
Memories of the Ford Administration
Some Tame Gazelle
We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (attention-getting, of course, but also good because sadness and outrage and helplessness seem built right into the title...) The Artificial Nigger (bracing, can't not read it after that) Bend Sinister (a mysteriously evocative title, with good Nabokovian euphony) All's Well That Ends Well
The Scarlet Letter
Dude, Where's My Country?
Mystery Train (so good, it's been a song and book and movie title) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
A Kiss to Build a Dream On
And, my new favorite: Let the Dog Drive. Just one question: is the emphasis on "Dog" or "Drive"?
Meanwhile, the originator of the question, Eve Tushnet, has risen to my challenge and named her top five titles:
I'm going to use the same core criterion I used for the "43 favorite movies" list: stickiness. These are five titles I will never be able to get out of my head—titles that shape the way I view the world.
5 EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE
4 GONE WITH THE WIND
3 THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA
2 THE OCTOBER PEOPLE
1 A WINTER'S TALE
As someone who has always been terrible with titles, I feel it's only fair to give terrible titles a nod here, too. They're rarer than you might suppose. The vast majority of book titles are just lukewarm water, serviceable and forgettable. To attain true offensiveness, they almost have to get cute on you, as with my sole (for now) nominee, the true book Castration: An Abbreviated History of Manhood, by Gary Taylor. If I were him, I'd blame the publisher.
In the Financial Times, Simon Kuper writes about his weekly soccer game and its weekly aftermath:
For 90 minutes I lumber around kicking people and shouting, at the end of which we have usually lost.
Then I spend the whole week thinking about it. Myself and some of the people close to me are currently going through big things—marriage, divorce, cancer, memory loss—but often, while someone is going on to me about one of the aforesaid, I find myself thinking: "Was my pass bad, or was it Carlos's fault for not coming towards the ball?"
If someone who unduly obsesses over their own athletic performance like this is a goof—
Wodehouse even has a word for my condition. He calls it being a "goof." "'A Goof' . . . One of those unfortunate beings who have allowed the noblest of sports to cut into their souls, like some malignant growth. The goof, you have to understand, is not like you and me. He broods. He becomes morbid. His goofery unfits him for the battles of life."
—what do you call someone who unduly obsesses over the athletic performance of complete strangers?
O.K., here’s the truth: I went to Washington, D.C., sans laptop, following the advice of a famous film cop and doing as little as possible. I didn’t see any plays and didn’t go to any concerts. (In fact, I didn’t listen to any music at all for four straight days, which may be a New World Record.) Instead, I had breakfast with Mr. Modern Art Notes and took in a bunch of paintings. Specifically:
• I finally, finallysaw "Discovering Milton Avery" at the Phillips Collection. More later, but I found it fabulous. Check it out, soonest.
• I also went for the first time to the Freer Gallery, where I consumed a lot of Whistlers, none of which caused me to change my mind about the old boy’s work (elegant but etiolated), and began what I suspect will be a lengthy process of getting a solid grip on Asian art (which I like very much but about which I know as yet only slightly more than nothing).
• I spent most of Saturday visitingMonticello, which I’d never before seen. Again, more later, but I’ll say now that the house, fascinating though it was, didn’t exactly make me warm to Thomas Jefferson as a man….
(Incidentally, I returned to find in my mailbox the bound galleys of the Library of America’s forthcoming three-volume set of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories, about which you can expect to hear at regular intervals in the months ahead.)
• Now playing on iTunes: nothing. I’m headed for bed momentarily. The coming week doesn’t look too terribly oppressive, so brace yourself for bloggery—my right arm is tanned and I’m rested and ready.
P.S. Fresh Top Fives will be rolled out all this week, starting now. Look and see.
Thanks to Sarah (who accompanied it with some greatly appreciated praise of her own), I returned from my Secure Undisclosed Location to find Victoria A. Brownworth’s review of A Terry Teachout Reader, published in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun:
Teachout's engaging style and diversity of tastes means there is something for everyone in this book as he covers subjects from Elvis Presley to John Steinbeck (the newly adopted darling of the Oprah book club) to the end of vinyl to the horrific lynching of an African-American man in the town he grew up in. For those who enjoy criticism, this Reader is a book to savor, get angry with and reflect upon.
If Teachout has one consistent topic it is genius - great (Louis Armstrong), middling (Dawn Powell) and small (Randolph Scott) - and the majority of pieces collected here - essays, profiles, reviews - reflect that attraction. One charming trait of Teachout the cultural critic is he appears to genuinely want his readers to enjoy what he enjoys (those who read criticism know how rare that is in a critic) or at the very least understand why he so enjoys it….
"I send you a criticism on my three volumes, which, I confess, gave me a great deal of pleasure; pray return it to me. I have not the smallest idea who wrote it; but it is evidently written (my own vanity apart) by a very sensible man, and a good writer. Whether I have done what he says I have done, and am what he says I am, I do not know; but he has justly stated what I always aimed at, and what I wished to be."
Sydney Smith, letter to "Mrs. Grote," July 16, 1839
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