About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, June 16, 2006
TT and OGIC: New wrinkle
Look in the right-hand column immediately below the Top Fives and you’ll see that “About Last Night” has just rolled out a fresh feature. In “Out of the Past” we apply the Top Five idea to art that isn’t new. Starting today, you’ll find capsule commentaries on books, movies, records, and other old favorites that we think you might like.
Like the Top Fives, our “Out of the Past” picks will change frequently and without warning, so keep an eye peeled for the latest postings.
I spent Tuesday and Wednesday digging in the Garden of Satchmo, and came home bearing riches galore.
On Tuesday I drove to the Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark, New Jersey, a city in which there appears to be no parking at all. In order to stow my Zipcar, I had to drive all the way up to the roof of a dinky little garage reachable only by ascending a corkscrew ramp located inside a silo. Once I finally got where I was going, though, Dan Morgenstern, a distinguished critic who knew Louis Armstrong when young and now runs the most important jazz library in the world in between writing thoughtful essays about the music he loves, filled my lap with goodies. Among them were the unedited typescript of Armstrong’s autobiography and a thick stack of his letters—real letters, mind you, not photocopies.
Of course I’d seen original Armstrong manuscripts before, but I’d never handled one, much less a king-sized batch of Satch. I got so excited that I worked for six hours straight without bothering to eat lunch or check my messages. That was a medium-sized mistake, as I discovered when I returned home and learned that three editors from The Wall Street Journal had been trying to call me all day. By early evening they were on the verge of jumping to the not-unreasonable conclusion (given my recent medical history) that I’d dropped dead. One of them actually went so far as to call Our Girl in Chicago to find out what hospital I was in, which didn't do anything for her peace of mind.
On Wednesday I went back to the Louis Armstrong Archives to finish going through Armstrong’s Thirties scrapbooks, after which I listened to a half-dozen of the private tape recordings he made after hours. As the Armstrong Archives Web site explains, “Louis Armstrong’s personal tape collection comprises 650 reels of audiotape. When he was hanging out with fans backstage or with friends in a hotel room or with Lucille at home, he loved to set his tape deck to ‘record’ and just let it roll.” Most of the tapes are full of dross, but the good stuff is stupendously revealing, and I’ll be the first Armstrong biographer to have had access to it. (You can listen to selected snippets by going here.) Needless to say, I spent the whole afternoon with my fingers flying and my mouth hanging open.
Today I slept late and met an art-collector friend for lunch, after which we went to an Upper East Side gallery to look at paintings. I walked home through Central Park, where I ran into a film crew shooting on Bow Bridge, surrounded by an ocean of slack-jawed gawkers who apparently had nothing better to do than stand around in the hopes of seeing a movie star or two. Muscling my way through the crowd, I fled to my favorite park bench, only to find it occupied by two noisy conversationalists. I returned to my apartment and curled up on the couch with Maurice Baring’s C (yes, that's the name of it), an undeservedly forgotten novel from which I plan to draw most of next week’s almanac entries. (If you don’t know who Maurice Baring is, go here and let Joseph Epstein fill you in.)
And so to bed. I’m not quite over my cold, but another good night’s sleep should take care of it. On Saturday night I’ll be seeing King Lear with an artist friend whom I adore, and at some point I’ll start writing the sixth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. I’ll be out of town all next week, but I plan to do a modest amount of blogging from my secure undisclosed location somewhere in deepest Connecticut.
Friday again, and today's Wall Street Journal drama column reflects my sharply mixed feelings about Spring Awakening, the very explicit new musical version of Frank Wedekind’s famous 1891 play about teenage sexuality:
Steven Sater has compressed Wedekind’s three-act play into a tight two-act book that is surprisingly faithful to the original, though Mr. Sater’s adaptation is far more sentimental and (fortunately) rather less didactic. The action is set in provincial Germany circa 1890, but the songs are contemporary in style—often unprintably so—and the performers whip wireless mikes out of their pockets and are bathed in neon light whenever they start to sing. The point, I gather, is that nothing much has changed since 1890, and when it comes to puberty, that’s doubtless true enough. “Spring Awakening” is full of self-centered, solipsistic kids who think they’re both unique and misunderstood. I know I felt that way when I was 14.
Is “Spring Awakening” for you? Only if you warm to the idea of spending a whole evening wallowing in teen angst. It also depends on your tolerance for the kind of singer-songwriter pop that runs to languishing tunes and sensitive piano arpeggios. I find it cloying, but I’ll be the first to admit that Mr. Sater (who also wrote the lyrics) has used Duncan Sheik’s music to savvy dramatic effect, greatly aided by the fast-paced direction of Michael Mayer and the sharp performances of the ensemble cast….
My feelings about Neil LaBute’s Some Girl(s) were considerably more clear-cut:
I wanting to admire Neil LaBute, but he keeps writing plays like “Some Girl(s).” Mr. LaBute’s favorite subject is the way men mistreat women, and while he handles it with virtuosity—I can’t think of a more technically adroit playwright—his slickness almost always does him in....
No link, so get thee to a newsstand and pony up a dollar for today’s Journal, or be big and brave and go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you on-the-spot access to the full text of my review, plus many other worthy stories about art and its ancillary activites. (You can also read about money if so inclined.)
"I have not carried out experiments to prove it, but may I suggest that people in the theater and the cinema do not sit in the same way? The theater requires attentiveness, and people must sit up alertly to see what is often a small area of concentration. Whereas in the cinema, the screen looms above us, and many people sink into reclining positions to watch. Some luxurious movie houses have seats that slide back to allow this posture. In the cinema we sometimes put our feet on the back of the row in front, loll across two seats, and damage the upholstery. Would this happen with a lively and commanding presence on the stage, or is it the result of a sort of loneliness in cinemas?"
David Thomson, America in the Dark: The Impact of Hollywood Films on American Culture
Jessica Molaskey, with whom I recently shared a microphone, opened last night at the Algonquin. I wasn’t there, but I have vivid and indelible memories of her first Algonquin opening, which I covered
last year in my Washington Post column:
I've had an eye on Jessica Molaskey ever since she sang her first cabaret gig, so I knew what it meant when she made her debut in January at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel—and blew the roof off. I've seen my share of big-deal Algonquin debuts, including Diana Krall's very first Oak Room appearance, and I'm here to tell you:
This one was that good.
Molaskey is a Broadway baby (formerly of "Crazy for You" and "Dream") who, like other musical-comedy artists of her generation, was finding it hard to land decent parts in the dance-driven, rock-flavored shows that now dominate the New York stage. Instead of tearing her hair out, she decided to look for another way to make a living. Molaskey happens to be married to jazz singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli, so she started off sitting in at his New York gigs. Bit by bit she cracked the code of cabaret singing, gradually figuring out how to work a small room. She grew more self-assured with each appearance—and more people started to notice.
At long last, the Algonquin got the message and booked her for a week, backed by her husband on guitar, brother-in-law Martin Pizzarelli on bass, and Larry Goldings, one of Los Angeles's top session men, on piano. Talk about seizing the day: Molaskey tore into her first set as if she'd been singing cabaret in the cradle. Her singing was warmly inviting, her interpretations subtle, her patter super-sly, her pacing infallible. The first-nighters were wowed by her medley of Cy Coleman's "Hey, Look Me Over!" and "Big Spender," which she followed with a string of tried-and-true standards ("Make Believe") and where-have-I-heard-that-before surprises ("Stepsisters' Lament"), and by evening's end it was perfectly obvious that high-end cabaret in Manhattan had found itself a New Face of 2005….
This time around Molaskey will be accompanied by John, Martin, and Larry Fuller on piano (Ray Kennedy’s trio is subbing for the Pizzarelli group on June 22 and 29). The show is called “After Midnight” and features a canny blend of standards (“Glad to Be Unhappy,” “Happy as the Day Is Long”) and new songs by such smart young things as Jason Robert Brown, Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel, and Michael John LaChiusa.
Alas, I can’t make it. I'm still coughing a bit too loudly to be companionable this week, and I'll either be out of town or sitting in an aisle seat during the rest of the run. Go and tell me how terrific it was. I won't mind—much—if you rub it in.
Molaskey will be appearing at the Oak Room through July 1. For more information, go here.
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.
CLOSING NEXT WEEK: • Awake and Sing! (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes June 25)
CLOSING SOON: • Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here, closes July 2)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, reviewed here, closes July 2)
"I now know that if you describe things as better as they are, you are considered to be romantic; if you describe things as worse than they are, you are called a realist; and if you describe things exactly as they are, you are called a satirist."
I spent all of Tuesday rummaging around in the Louis Armstrong files at the Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark. It was a wonderfully absorbing and profitable day, but it wore me out, and by the time I finally made it back to Manhattan I was too tired to do anything but check my e-mail, take a really hot bath, watch a Lawrence Tierney movie, and call my mother in Smalltown, U.S.A.
Yes, I have tales to tell, and no, I’m not going to tell them until later in the week. On Wednesday I’m returning to the Louis Armstrong Archives to wrap up my primary-source research for the sixth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which I intend to start writing on Monday. I’m not quite over the cold that laid me low last weekend, so I’m headed for bed as soon as I publish this posting. Remember, this is the New Me, the one who takes better care of himself, or at least tries to.
See you soon.
P.S. If you don’t know anything about Lawrence Tierney, go here and shudder. I had more or less the same experience described in the first paragraph of the profile to which the link will take you—it happened in a hotel room a couple of years ago—and I’ve never forgotten the impression it made on me.
Finally, somebody out in the ’sphere (thank you, Kate) has posted a link to John Updike’s six rules for book reviewing, which I first read years ago and have been citing admiringly ever since.
I usually make a point of mentioning this one whenever I have occasion to teach a seminar in criticism:
2. Give [the author] enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
I’ve never heard a better piece of book-reviewing advice.
Alas, I no longer buy Updike’s first rule: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” To find out why, go here.
I continue to stand by the others, but Number Two remains my all-time favorite. It's also the one most likely to be forgotten by big-name reviewers, as I had occasion to point out last month. Should you ever catch me breaking it, feel free to send me a rocket!
I just this minute got home from a press preview of Theresa Rebeck's The Water's Edge, and I'm really beat—but on the mend. I remember when I used to come down with colds that would last for a couple of weeks at a time. This one, by contrast, is already giving up the ghost after a mere three days of moderate misery. If I needed yet another reason to keep on doing what the doctor says, which I don't, that would be it.
Be that as it may, I'm not yet up to tossing off a half-dozen posts between now and bedtime, especially since I have to get up first thing Tuesday morning, drive to the Institute of Jazz Studies, and spend the day sifting through the Louis Armstrong file. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to knit up that ravell’d sleeve.
Richard M. Sudhalter, the distinguished trumpeter, biographer, and jazz scholar, needs your help.
Dick (he’s a friend) suffered a stroke three years ago. Though he subsequently recovered from many of its effects, he has now fallen victim to a rare, equally debilitating illness of the nervous system called multiple system atrophy. It’s hitting him hard, and his medical bills are piling up.
Some of Dick’s friends are organizing an all-star benefit concert to help pay his medical expenses. It will be held at seven p.m. on September 10 at St. Peter’s Church in New York City. Mark your calendar—it should be a memorable evening.
In the meantime, though, Dick is scheduled to go to the Mayo Clinic on August 24, and he needs immediate assistance in order to pay for the trip (among many other urgent things).
As you know, I don't make a habit of posting appeals like this, but Dick Sudhalter's case is special. Even if you aren't familiar with his work, take my word for it—he deserves your help.
I've come down with a horrible summer cold, the kind that makes your head feel like a chunk of moist concrete. Though copious consumption of piping-hot fluids has kept me alive, I can't claim much more than that: I had to go see Paper Mill Playhouse's revival of Hello, Dolly! on Saturday night, but all I was good for on Sunday was sitting on the couch and watching old movies.
The good news, of course, is that I have nothing worse than a cold. This is, in fact, the first time I've been sick since I got out of the hospital in December. Lousy as I feel—and I do feel lousy—it’s comforting to know that this bug won’t force me to call an ambulance.
For the moment, though, I don’t feel like doing anything but watching TV and pointing you to my contribution to Coudal Partners’ Field-Tested Books series. (For Our Girl’s contribution, go here.)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go blow my nose. I’ll be back when I’m back.
"War cannot be negated. One must live it or die of it. So it is with the absurd: it is a question of breathing with it, of recognizing its lessons and recovering their flesh. In this regard the absurd joy par excellence is creation. 'Art and nothing but art,' said Nietzsche, 'we have art in order not to die of the truth.'"
Friday again, and I'm not dead yet, though I was having my doubts on Wednesday morning. Nevertheless, I lived to write another Wall Street Journal column, this one about shows in New York (the Broadway revival of Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight!) and Washington, D.C. (Arena Stage's revival of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie).
In a nutshell:
As an actor, Hal Holbrook has two real-life Marks to his credit, Felt and Twain. In a believe-it-or-not coincidence worthy of Ripley, he has revived "Mark Twain Tonight!" just one week after America's front pages carried the news that W. Mark Felt was Deep Throat, the Watergate leaker whom Mr. Holbrook portrayed in the 1976 film of "All the President's Men." You can't buy publicity like that—though Mr. Holbrook doesn't need it anymore. Written in 1954 and last seen on Broadway 28 years ago, "Mark Twain Tonight!" remains to this day the most admired of all one-man biographical shows, and Mr. Holbrook still wears it like a bespoke white suit….
To attempt so demanding a full-evening tour de force is risky business at any age, and I confess to having wondered how well Mr. Holbrook, who is 79, would hold up under the strain. Though he now relies on a wireless microphone, I rejoice to report that he is otherwise better than ever…
We don't get to see much Eugene O'Neill in New York nowadays, so I jumped at the chance to go to Washington and take in Arena Stage's revival of "Anna Christie," a 1920 play that is now best known from the 1930 Hollywood adaptation that was Greta Garbo's first sound film ("Garbo Talks!" read the posters). While the film is surprisingly faithful to O'Neill's script, it's stiff and stagy. Not so Molly Smith's clean-lined, unmannered production, played out on a skeletal unit set by Bill C. Ray that is transformed before your eyes from a waterfront bar to the deck of a coal barge. Except for a couple of improbably decorous fight scenes, Ms. Smith has done her damnedest to make something true out of this whiskery tale of a whore in search of redemption….
No link. Buy a paper or, better yet, go here to subscribe to the online edition of the Journal. That's how I read me.
Sorry, but I'm still way out of whack. No show today or tomorrow—I'm leaving town for a couple of days to get some desperately needed rest. There's something about New York that is positively inimical to recovery from any ailment other than boredom.
"There are three wants which can never be satisfied: that of the rich, who wants something more; that of the sick, who wants something different; and that of the traveller, who says, 'Anywhere but here.'"
The Tony Awards were announced on Sunday night. Here's a list of who won what. If you want to compare it to the predictions I posted on May 11, go here. Bear in mind that my personal preferences, not my predictions, are set in boldface.
I don't get Bill Irwin at all, but otherwise I think I did pretty well for a semi-newcomer….
P.S. I'm still under the weather, but I think I'm starting to get better, which is a good thing, since I have to go see Mark Twain Tonight! (If you hear someone sneezing in an aisle seat this evening, please be kind.)
Have we run out of art? And do we really need any more of it? It's a question I've been thinking about a lot lately (and I'm sure you ask yourself that question on a daily basis). Have we painted all the paintings we need, recorded all the great music, taken all the great photographs, written all the great operas and ballets, etc.?
In other words, is the demand for new art diminishing—not because we are a soulless culture obsessed with celebrity and real estate—but because there's more than enough great stuff out there to consume, and we don't have nearly enough time to enjoy it? There seems to be such a glut of everything artistic these days. In jazz alone, I could go on listening to new and already-heard stuff from the same 1940s and 1950s period until I dropped dead at 100 without running out, and that's jazz alone. Meaning, I really don't need any more jazz to be produced. It's all on disc. I don't need any more cabaret singers singing Cole Porter, or young guys in suits playing Fats Navarro, etc.
Can one argue that we already have all the great works we need and that if the number of artists producing works is declining, the reason has more to do with the fact that artists have nothing more to say that hasn't been said already v. you can't make a living doing it?
Artists, don't fly off the handle. My correspondent (who is also a good friend) is raising a serious question, asked by a person who genuinely loves art but finds himself grappling with the vexing problem of how to allocate that most precious of all unrenewable resources: time.
Remember that no one, not even the wealthiest of connoisseurs, has an unlimited amount of time to spend on art. However wisely or unwisely we allocate them, there are only twenty-four hours in a day. Sooner or later, we have to choose. In order to write my weekly Wall Street Journal column, I see every play that comes to Broadway, and I also do my best to catch what I expect to be the most important off-Broadway and out-of-town openings. Yet even if I did nothing but go to plays, I still wouldn't be able to see all the shows that interested me. Factor in the additional time I spend looking at ballets, operas, and art exhibitions, listening to concerts, going to nightclubs, reading books…but you get the point, right? I make hard cultural choices every day, and the hardest of these is deciding how much of my inescapably limited free time to devote to seeking out new works of art.
When it comes to theater, of course, the choice is to some extent made for me. In a sense, every theatrical production is “new,” even a revival of Hamlet. And while I suppose you could spend your whole playgoing life doing nothing but attending performances of the classics, that'd still leave you with plenty of nights off. Not so the other art forms, especially those that are physically embodied (like painting) or can be reproduced mechanically (like music). With them, you can spend your days living exclusively in the past, and it goes without saying, or should, that such an existence can be wholly fulfilling. If I had to spend the rest of my life with Rembrandt, Schubert, and Flannery O'Connor, who's to say it would somehow be less satisfactory than a life spent with Cy Twombly, Philip Glass, and Jane Smiley? Not me.
None of this, however, means that there is no case to be made for the new. On the contrary, one of the most important parts of my work as a critic is to make that case, to seek out exciting new works of art and write about them so evocatively that my readers feel moved to go out and experience them at first hand. I'm not talking about eat-your-spinach modern art, either. I don't like that any more than most people do. Late modernism in all its painfully earnest guises was a concerted assault on the sensibilities, one that persuaded a generation of unhappy audiences to shun the new—but those days, as the kids say, are soooo over. In the past year, I've written about such accessible, immediately involving new works of art as Jane Freilicher's My Cubism, Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza, Agnčs Jaoui's Look at Me,
Pat Metheny's The Way Up, Paul Moravec's Tempest Fantasy, Mark Morris' Rock of Ages, and Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow. The collective existence of works like these is the strongest possible argument against the mistaken notion that “artists have nothing more to say that hasn't been said already.” Each of them has something fresh to say—not necessarily innovative, but new. And while you may not end up enjoying all of them, I can promise that each one will meet you halfway. You don't even have to seek them out: I've already done that. All you have to do is buy a ticket, then show up in an attentive frame of mind, open to the possibility of pleasure.
Aside from everything else, there's no substitute for the galvanizing experience of being present at the creation of a new work of art that might possibly end up being great. Nothing is so thrilling as making up your own mind instead of waiting for posterity to do it for you. Just as important, though, taking a chance on new art is the price we pay for a healthy culture, one in which talented artists don't have to wait on tables. Those who decline to pay it are the cultural equivalent of rentiers, aesthetic remittance men who live off the accumulated capital of the past without contributing anything of their own.
We can't all make art, but we can at least place a bet from time to time on those who dare to do so. No matter how busy you may be, I really don't think it's too much to ask.
"There is a crucial distinction to be made between innovation and originality. The second, unlike the first, can never break with what preceded it: to be original, an artist must also belong to the tradition from which he departs. To put it another way, he must violate the expectations of his audience, but he must also, in countless ways, uphold and endorse them."
A summer cold started creeping up on me at dinner on Saturday night, and now it has camped out in every soggy pore of my miserable body. I have but two consolations:
• My schedule is unexpectedly clear: I have no performances to see until Tuesday night and no deadlines to hit until Wednesday morning.
• My very first iPod (!) arrived in the mail on Saturday, and I'd already poured eighteen gigabytes of music into it by the time I started sneezing and dribbling.
Alas, I feel too crappy to do any of the serious blogging I'd planned for today. Outside of a brief street-level expedition to buy more Kleenex, I spent the whole of Saturday huddled in my loft, reading old Parkernovels and shuffling randomly through the 2,800 songs currently inhabiting my iPod. That's about all I'm good for at present, and I'll be doing more of the same today.
If you haven't looked at the right-hand column in the past few days, it's full of new stuff. Otherwise, I promise to resume posting as soon as I'm up to it, but I'm not sure when that will be. Maybe Monday. Maybe next Monday....
"I am pretty sure that, if you will be quite honest, you will admit that a good rousing sneeze, one that tears open your collar and throws your hair into your eyes, is really one of life’s sensational pleasures."
"In the year 1891, Manet and Seurat were already dead; Pissarro, Monet and Renoir were at the height of their powers; Cézanne had opened yet another world. Sunday at La Grande Jatte and le Déjeuner dans le Bois, la Musique aux Tuileries, les Dames dans un Jardin, the ochre farms and tawny hills of Aix were there, on canvas, hung, looked at—to be seen by anybody who would learn to see. And so were the shimmering trees, the sun-speckled paths, the fluffy fields, the light, the dancing air, the water—But were they seen? Were they walked, were they lived in? Did ladies come out into the garden in the morning holding a silver tea-pot? did flesh-and-blood governesses advance towards one waist-high in corn and poppies, clutching a bunch of blossoms? did young men dip their hands into the pool and young women laugh in swings? Did gentlemen really put their top-hats on the grass?
"For the age of the Impressionists was also still the age of decorum and pomposity, of mahogany and the basement kitchen, the over-stuffed interior and the stucco villa; an age that venerated old, rich, malicious women and the clever banker; when places of public entertainment were large, pilastered and vulgar, and anyone who was neither a sportsman, poor, nor very young, sat down on a stiff-backed chair three times a day eating an endless meal indoors."
My review of Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down appears in today's Baltimore Sun. I didn't like the novel very much at all:
Nick Hornby's first couple of novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy, installed him as part of the pop-culture firmament. He did three things very well in those books: He established ownership of a character type with wide appeal, the overgrown, callow, but well-meaning fanboy; he built protagonists with ample room to grow; and he wrote in an up-to-the-minute conversational style that proved screenplay-ready. In fact, the film versions in both cases made the books themselves seem almost dispensable.
As a recipe, this looked foolproof. Hornby's best novels aren't high art, but they are well-made stories that droves of readers have identified with. While he deserves credit for attempting to transcend that recipe in his next novels, How to Be Good and the newly released A Long Way Down, the results suggest that he shouldn't throw away the cookbook just yet...
Busy as usual—I’m still playing catch-up after my sick week—but at least everything I’m doing is worthwhile in one way or another. Most recently:
• Last night I sawNew York City Ballet dance what is known to balletomanes as "the Greek program": a triple bill of George Balanchine’s Apollo, Orpheus, and Agon, each one set to a commissioned score by Igor Stravinsky. The company doesn’t dance the Greek program very often, and it’s always an event. I brought a jazz musician who’s just getting into ballet at my behest. He’d already seen Apollo, which he finds a bit puzzling, but he couldn’t say enough good things about Orpheus and Agon. (Neither can I.)
As for me, this was the first time I’d been to NYCB since turning in the manuscript of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, and it happens that I’ll be devoting most of the weekend to copyediting queries and my own final revisions, so it was nice to spend an evening with Mr. B just before settling down to polish the book I wrote about him.
• After I got home, I watched Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, a film I hadn’t seen since its theatrical release five years ago. (A friend of mine has a refrigerator magnet that says, "Time Flies, Whether You're Having Fun or Not.") Unlike Sexy Beast, another indie flick of the same vintage that I recently viewed and found rather less impressive than my memories of it (though Ben Kingsley is every bit as good as I’d thought), The Limey holds up and then some. A devastating neo-noir look at what the Sixties wrought, it's the only film of Soderbergh’s since sex, lies, and videotape that’s made me think there’s more to him than his reputation.
• I’ve been reading Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler. It’s an extreme rarity, an academic biography about an American popular musician that is both lucidly written and critically convincing. Published in 1979, it remains one of the very best books of its kind.
• I managed to rearrange my schedule and take Wednesday night off, and spent it rehanging the Teachout Museum in order to make room for a new acquisition, Fairfield Porter’s Ocean I. (Click on the link and scroll down to see a reproduction of the print in its two-color second state—I bought a copy of the first state, printed in three colors.) This ended up being quite an exhausting and comical process, since I had to schlep a heavy box containing the Porter down a long city block, drag it up two flights of stairs, then spend an hour or so rearranging the collection accordingly. Remember how hot it was on Wednesday? Well, I have high ceilings, and it was really hot up there. Consequently, I spent the better part of two hours sweating like an art-loving hog, perched on a rickety ladder in a highly advanced state of undress, which sort of suggests a porno movie for perverts with a sense of humor. On the other hand, the Teachout Museum now looks even more beautiful, so I guess it was worth it, right?
• Now playing on iTunes: Bill Frisell’s arrangement for solo acoustic guitar of "My Man’s Gone Now," available on Ghost Town. It’s perfect—cool, spare, pensive. I wish he’d make a whole album just like that.
Address Unknown is a two-man show starring Jim Dale and William Atherton, both of whom make the most of a fairly obvious script:
Adapted from a 1938 short story that made a big splash long, long ago, "Address Unknown" is a "Love Letters"-type epistolary play about Max Eisenstein (Mr. Dale), a Jewish art dealer in San Francisco, and Martin Schulse (Mr. Atherton), his Gentile partner and friend, who moves back to Germany in 1932 and promptly develops a massive crush on Hitler. Factor in the title and you can probably figure out most of the rest yourself (I did), not excluding the tricky "surprise" ending, which is strictly from O. Henry. What makes it all work are Messrs. Dale and Atherton, two old pros who act their parts to the hilt, ably enabled by the neat direction of Frank Dunlop and the flawless set (half streamlined, half gemütlich) of James Youmans.
The only thing I couldn’t figure out was why the audience at the preview I saw gasped so loudly when Martin declared that "the Jewish race is a sore spot to any nation that harbors it." Could anybody in a New York theater have been surprised to hear such talk from a new-minted Nazi? Has our historical memory grown that dim? Or was it simply that Mr. Atherton had dug so deeply into his role as to make Martin seem freshly and frighteningly real? Maybe "Address Unknown" isn’t quite as dated as I’d thought….
About The Joys of Sex I had nothing good to say:
Despite the on-stage presence of an awesome assortment of what I shall politely refer to here as rubber and electrical goods, "The Joys of Sex" is in point of fact an innocuous Upper West Side domestic farce about Howard and Stephs Nolton (Ron Bohmer and Stephanie Kurtzuba), a young married couple who are unable to have children, apparently because Stephs is also unable to have an orgasm, a fact she has hitherto failed to disclose to her unwitting spouse. Enter April (Jenelle Lynn Randall), a wistful slut who moves into the Noltons’ building, thereby piquing the interest of Howard and his best friend Brian (David Josefsberg), a nebbish who can’t get a girl. Wan hijinks ensue, among which are interspersed such dull ditties as "Intercourse on the Internet" and "I Need It Bad." All four parties pair off predictably and live happily ever after. Curtain, not a split-second too soon….
No link. Buy a Journal. Price: one dollar. It never ceases to amaze me how many people think The Wall Street Journal is all about money, when in fact it has superior arts coverage across the board. Find out for yourself.
The hoopla over the final episodes of Frasier and Friends reminded me that it’s been a long time since I’ve watched any TV series at all regularly. I stopped following The Sopranos after 9/11, and no subsequent program has replaced it in my affections. Our Girl got me interested in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, but I saw most of that show in large chunks, not week by week. These days, the only thing I watch on TV is movies.
I’m sure this says more about me than it does about television, though I do think it says something about television. In one of the essays reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader, "The Myth of ‘Classic’ TV," I talk about what I consider to be an inescapable artistic limitation of series TV:
As Philip Larkin observed, much of the pleasure of reading A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume serial novel, "resides in the small reminiscential effects Mr. Powell’s grip on his by now enormous cast enables him to bring off." But even the longest novels are portable and can be picked up and put down at will, thus making it far easier to invest the necessarily large amounts of time needed to read them. Not so TV shows: you can’t watch them in the subway, and though the VCR makes it possible to view an episode at your leisure, it isn’t very rewarding to do so in ten-minute chunks. In order to appreciate an hour-long drama, you have to consume it in a single sitting.
As it happens, only thirteen episodes of The Sopranos are aired each season, and the series is expected to have a fairly limited run. More typical is St. Elsewhere, which ran for 137 consecutive episodes, each of which grew organically out of its predecessors. Such long-running series can only be experienced serially, which for all practical purposes means during their original runs; once they cease to air each week in regular time slots, they cease to be readily available as total artistic experiences, and thus can no longer acquire new viewers, or be re-experienced by old ones. This is why there is no such thing as a "classic" TV series: we never see any series enough times to know whether its overall quality justifies the multiple viewings which are the hallmark of classic status. (Needless to say, I’m not talking about those fanatical cultists who have seen each episode of Star Trek a hundred times and can recite the dialogue from memory. To them, my heartfelt advice is: get a life.)
Despite the growing popularity of DVD box sets devoted to TV series of the past, I basically stand by that passage. Nevertheless, it doesn’t explain why my own interest in series TV has dried up so completely. It was only a couple of weeks ago that the real reason hit me. I was reflecting on my loss of interest in The Sopranos when a different question formed in my mind: When was the last time I read a new novel? It took a moment for me to come up with the answer: I read Ed Lin’s Waylaid back in February. So what have I been doing instead? Ever since I became the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, I’ve been seeing two or three plays a week, which appears to satisfy most of my interior demand for plot-driven narrative. When I’m not watching a play or a film, I now find I’d just as soon go to the ballet, look at paintings, or listen to music. And what do these latter art forms have in common? They’re not narrative-driven, at least not in the way that novels and dramatic TV series require you to follow a verbally articulated story line as it unfolds through time. I get enough of that at the office.
I don’t mean to make this sound any more significant than it is, but I do think it’s worth mentioning. As an aesthete with an unusually wide-ranging experience of the arts, I’m struck by the way in which my artistic interests fluctuate over time. Right now, for instance, I probably spend more time thinking about theater and the visual arts than, say, classical music, and I definitely devote far more time to them than to prose fiction. Six months from now, of course, I’ll probably feel differently. Back in January, I wrote in this space about how music had lost its savor for me, a development I found puzzling and a bit troubling:
I've spent the better part of my life up to my ears (so to speak) in music of all kinds. After literature, music was my first art form, and it remains the one I know most intimately. I "speak" it as naturally as I speak English. I write a lengthy essay about musical matters nearly every month for Commentary. That's why it feels strange to find the spring no longer flowing. It's as if I've become alienated from myself, in much the same way that the victim of a stroke might feel he was no longer himself. I'm not all here.
Ivy Compton-Burnett, the English novelist, told a friend late in life that she could no longer read Jane Austen with pleasure, not because her admiration for Austen had lessened but because she'd read her novels so many times that she had them virtually by heart, and hence could no longer be surprised by them. When I read that, I wondered: is it really possible to exhaust a masterpiece? Much less an entire art form? I can't imagine being unable to hear anything new in Falstaff or the Mozart G Minor Symphony, though I suppose it could happen. And as for a person who came to feel that music or painting or poetry had nothing more to say to him, he'd be in dire straits indeed. Such a terrible prospect puts me in mind of one of Dr. Johnson's most famous utterances: "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." The arts are like that. To be tired of them is to be tired of life.
Needless to say, I'm not tired of life—far from it—and even though I do seem to be tired of music, I know the time will come when I fall in love with it all over again….
So I did. And no doubt I’ll look up one fine day and notice that I’m telling everybody I know about some young novelist whose work I’ve yet to encounter, in much the same way that I can’t stop thinking about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories, about which I’m preparing to write a long essay. But for the moment I’m off novels, and definitely off series TV.
The first of these developments is almost certainly temporary. I’m not so sure about the second. When Our Girl told me what happened on the season finale of The Sopranos, I was mildly interested—perhaps even a bit more than mildly—but it never occurred to me to catch up on all the episodes I’d missed. (In fact, I don’t even subscribe to HBO anymore.) Could it be that I’m through with series TV for good? I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s not that I’m a snob about TV. The problem is that I no longer care for the idea of committing myself to weekly installments of anything as repetitive as a dramatic series. I suppose it’d be melodramatic to say that life’s too short to spend it watching the same set of characters each week—but melodramatic or not, I think that might be the best way to explain be how I’m feeling these days. For the moment, anyway.
"All that I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three, I learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty, I shall have made still more progress. At ninety, I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at 100, I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage; and when I am 110, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive."
As I returned home last night from seeing (and hearing) the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Bad Plus give the premiere of Violet Cavern, Morris’ new dance, at the BAM Opera House, I thought—not for the first time—that I really couldn’t live anywhere but New York. Fortunately, I know better, and sometimes I don’t even need to be reminded.
When I first got the idea for "About Last Night" some four or five years ago, I had a rather different venture in mind than the one you see before you now. I was rooting around for foundation support with which to launch an arts blog in collaboration with an existing print-media magazine, a venture to which I proposed to devote roughly a third of my time (and for which I would have been paid accordingly). It would have started out as a solo effort, but the original plan was for "About Last Night" to gradually take on other writers, developing over time into a full-fledged Web-based magazine on the arts in America. Accordingly, part of the money I sought was earmarked for a travel budget that would have made it possible for me to report on performances in cities other than New York.
A funny thing happened on the way to this pipe dream—several funny things, in fact. The one I least expected was that blogging would evolve in a completely different direction, in the process supplanting the conventional magazine model with which so many people who were then getting interested in the Web were then obsessed. For better and worse, individual blogs appear to be the way of the near future, though I also suspect that Web-based "newspapers" will soon start to become major media players. Still, I think the idea of a travel budget made and continues to make sense, not least because serious arts coverage in traditional media outlets is fast drying up. Time was when the weekly newsmagazines used to send their staff critics (and yes, they had staff critics) to performances all over the country. I got in on the tail end of that corporate largesse during my brief tenure as the classical music and dance critic of Time, but even then it was painfully obvious that truly national arts coverage was in the process of withering away, at Time and elsewhere.
This is bad news precisely because New York City and the arts are not consubstantial. It’s true that many of the good things that happen in the provinces—and I don’t use that term pejoratively—eventually make their way to Manhattan and its environs. But there are plenty of exceptions, enough that it would be perfectly possible for me to get out of town fifty-two weeks a year and see something fine each week.
The good news is that I do manage to get out of town with some regularity, frequently to Washington, D.C., and occasionally to other places as well. Earlier this year, for instance, I went to Washington specifically to see the Phillips Collection’s Milton Avery retrospective, an important show that never left home. The Phillips was the first museum to acquire Avery’s paintings, and by the time of Duncan Phillips’ death it owned a dozen-odd oils and works on paper, to my knowledge the largest single cache of Averys in any museum in the world. It showed them all in "Discovering Milton Avery," together with works owned by the violinist Louis Kaufman, the very first person ever to buy an Avery painting, plus a sprinkling of pieces from other institutions. "Discovering Milton Avery" didn’t quite add up to a full-scale blockbuster retrospective, but in a way it was even better—more concentrated and personal—and speaking as the happy owner of an Avery drypoint, I can assure you that I found it as exciting as any museum show I’ve seen in ages.
Not long before my visit to the Phillips, I contrived to fly down to Raleigh, N.C., again for a specific purpose: I wanted to watch Carolina Ballet dance Robert Weiss’s staged version of Handel’s Messiah, a ballet about which I’d been hearing good things for the past couple of years but had never previously been able to see. I departed for Raleigh two days after turning in the manuscript of my George Balanchine biography—a nice coincidence, since Weiss danced for Balanchine at New York City Ballet—and even though I was desperately busy, I was able to stay in town long enough to see two complete performances of Messiah in a single day. I’m glad I did. I’ve been writing enthusiastically about Weiss’ dances ever since he founded Carolina Ballet in 1997, but I think it’s possible that his Messiah is the best thing he’s done to date, which is saying something. It’s a masterly fusion of storytelling and abstraction (the first part is set in a London cathedral, while the last section is a plotless "white ballet" ŕ la Les Sylphides) whose cumulative impact, especially when accompanied by a live chorus, is colossal.
Again, Messiah isn’t the only large-scale Handel ballet I’ve seen in recent years. Mark Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, which has played New York more than once, is generally regarded as a masterpiece, a view with which I concur. Though it took me two performances to get on Morris’ wavelength, I now believe it to be one of the greatest dances to be made since the death of Balanchine—but I also think Messiah is comparable in quality to L’Allegro. Alas, you’ll just have to take my word for it, since Weiss’s company rarely tours (though it damned well should) and Messiah has yet to be seen in this country outside the state of North Carolina. So much the worse for New York—and all the more reason why serious critics need to blow town as often as they can. Repeat after me, fellow Manhattanites: New York is not America. Some of us think it is, but it isn’t. And because the traditional media have largely abdicated their responsibility to cover the arts in America, we’re left with a severely distorted perspective on what’s happening elsewhere.
For my part, I intend to grasp at every possible opportunity to report to you, here and elsewhere, about such regional delights as Messiah and "Discovering Milton Avery." I’m headed for Washington next week (courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, which continues, thank God, to take seriously its status as a national newspaper) to see Ballett Frankfurt and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Kennedy Center. In addition, I’m in the process of planning a couple of other out-of-town trips in the second half of the summer. I wish I could make more such trips, and perhaps someday I’ll be able to do so. As I’ve said before in this space, I believe serious arts coverage in America is now in the process of migrating to the Web. That’s part of why I started "About Last Night": I love New York, I really do, but I also want to see what you see.
Maybe one of these days some smart publisher will pay me to rent a car and drive from coast to coast, Charles Kuralt-style, blogging on the arts along the way and later spinning my reports into a book. Any takers?
UPDATE:Sarah writes with the perfect title: Another Opening, Another Show. Now if only she can get me a book deal!
"So few authors have brains enough or literary gift enough to keep their own end up in journalism that I am tempted to define
'journalism' as 'a term of contempt applied by writers who are not read to writers who are.'"
After all of my foaming at the mouth a few months ago about Shirley Hazzard's amazing novel named after the phenomenon, it would be downright churlish of me not to note today's nonfictional Transit of Venus.
Sigh. Just as I was getting ready to dive back into blogging last week, I was felled by an evil bug not unlike the one that took Terry out a couple of weeks ago. I spent the entire weekend trying to sleep it off, missing out on brunch, damn it all, with The Elegant Variation, who was in town doing a bang-up job covering Book Expo. The bug is still hanging around. Posting from my corner will resume this week, but I'll be easing myself back in one toe at a time [hack, cough].
"Before interviewing Gamelin I knew that I would have to document myself on his views, his past, and enough of his technical background and jargon to make him feel that I knew what he was talking about. The preparation is the same whether you are going to interview a diplomat, a jockey, or an ichthyologist. From the man's past you learn what questions are likely to stimulate a response; after he gets going you say just enough to let him know you appreciate what he is saying and to make him want to talk more. Everybody with any sense talks a kind of shorthand; if you make a man stop to explain everything he will soon quit on you, like a horse that you alternately spur and curb. It is all in one of Sam Langford's principles of prize fighting: 'Make him lead.' Only instead of countering to your subject's chin you keep him leading. Once I asked Sam what he did when the other man wouldn't lead, and he said, 'I run him out of the ring.' This is a recourse not open to the interviewer."
Expect no blogging (except for a fresh almanac entry). I've got a deadline-packed morning and afternoon followed by an early curtain in Brooklyn, so I probably won't have any time to write for the site. Apologies.
In case you haven't noticed, there's lots of fresh stuff in the right-hand column, including several new Top Fives and a link to my "Second City" column in Sunday's Washington Post, in which I survey the arts in New York. Take a look.
• I saw two new off-Broadway shows, Address Unknown and The Joys of Sex, both of which will likely be popping up in my Wall Street Journal drama column at some point in the not-too-distant future.
• In addition, I paid my first visit to Le Jazz Au Bar, a very fancy new midtown jazz club, where I heard René Marie, a most interesting singer about whom I plan to write in my Washington Post column next month. Until then, you can go here to read a review of her Au Bar engagement by a colleague whom I respect greatly (though I don’t always agree with him!).
• I read a few more Isaac Bashevis Singer stories in preparation for my upcoming Commentary essay. I’ve been taking my time with the three hefty volumes of the Library of America’s soon-to-be-published edition of Singer’s stories, not because I find him slow going but because I’m enjoying the stories so much that I want to prolong the pleasure.
• Now playing on iTunes: Sidney Bechet’s splendidly raucous 1932 recording of "Maple Leaf Rag," a performance perfectly suited to jump-starting a sleepy blogger on a warm Monday morning in Manhattan. (You can listen to it via RealAudio here
or buy the CD here.)
Incidentally, you can read my latest Washington Post column, which was published yesterday, by going to the "Second City" module of the right-hand column and clicking on the link for June.
The famously Web-savvy Felix Salmon wanted to see what my new Max Beerbohm caricature
looked like, so he figured out the name of the Dallas auction house from which I bought it, made a few magic passes in cyberspace, and came up with a URL that led him straight to an on-line photograph. If you’re curious, go here and gaze enviously. (Bear in mind, though, that I ended up paying well under the listed hammer price—I don’t have that kind of money to throw around on art, thank you very much!)
Over the weekend I treated myself to a used copy of Rupert Hart Davis’ Catalogue of the Caricatures of Max Beerbohm, a book I’ve always wanted to own but never got around to buying. Now that I own a Beerbohm, it struck me that the time had also come to add Max’s catalogue raisonné to my art library—and to find out what, if anything, it had to say about the latest addition to the Teachout Museum. I wasn’t disappointed. Sure enough, my Max is duly listed on page 69:
PERCY GRAINGER 1882-1961 Australian pianist and folk-song expert
631 [Mr Percy Grainger]
‘The group of ladies listening to Mr Percy Grainger…is a wonderful ensemble,’ Edward Marsh in ‘The Blue Review’, May 1913.
EXHIB L.G. 1913
So there it was in black and white: my Max is officially known in the world of Beerbohmiana as "Hart-Davis 631." It was publicly exhibited at the Leicester Galleries, Max’s London dealer, in 1913, and mentioned in a review of the show by Eddie Marsh, one of those semi-eminent Edwardian litterateurs who is constantly popping up in books, diaries, memoirs, and letters of the period. Presumably some even less eminent Edwardian bought it from the Leicester Galleries, for "Mr. Percy Grainger" has never been reproduced, nor was Hart-Davis able to establish its ownership as of 1972, the year he published his catalogue; it was invisible to Beerbohm scholars between 1913 and last week, when it came into my possession.
I felt a little shiver of excitement as I looked at the entry for Hart-Davis 631. My Max may not be famous, but it nonetheless has an official existence, of which I am now a part. If a younger scholar should someday take it upon himself to update the catalogue, he will add "OWNER Terry Teachout" to the entry for Hart-Davis 631. I find that a pleasant prospect. Even if The Skeptic
and the Teachout Reader should crumble irrevocably into dust, I will live forever as a footnote to the lives of two men far greater than myself: not only did I rediscover the manuscript of A Second Mencken Chrestomathy among H.L. Mencken's private papers and edit it for publication, but I was the first recorded owner of Hart-Davis 631.
Having become a historical figure, albeit of the most minor sort, I thought it would be fitting to pay tribute to a few of the other owners of the 2,093 Beerbohm caricatures catalogued by Rupert Hart-Davis, all of whose names are listed alphabetically in an index. Who were these shadowy figures? Aside from the various institutional owners, a few, I discovered, were men and women of repute: John Betjeman, Winston Churchill, Alastair Cooke, Anthony Powell, Rebecca West, Thornton Wilder. Most, though, failed to leave their footprints on the sands of time. Where are you, Douglass Debevoise, owner of Hart-Davis 1632, an untitled, unsigned three-quarter-length profile of G.S. Street, a now-forgotten English journalist and writer whose personality and features inspired Max to draw him two dozen times? Google is silent about you. Are you alive? If so, did you dispose of your Max, or is it still hanging on your wall? If not, who owns it now? And who were you, Mr. Debevoise? An art lover? A journalist? A politician? What inspired you to purchase a Max? Did you suspect at the time that your ownership of Hart-Davis 1632 would prove to be your only claim on posterity? (Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:/Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.)
Max himself was fascinated by the unpredictable workings of posterity. He wrote a short story called "Enoch Soames" (it’s in Seven Men, and you can also read it on line here) whose title character, an ungifted author of the Naughty Nineties, longed desperately to know whether and how he would be remembered a hundred years hence. Accordingly, poor Enoch sold his soul to the Devil in return for a day trip to the British Museum in 1997, where he could satisfy his curiosity. Alas, he found only one reference to "Soames, Enoch," in a book that described him as—horror of horrors—an imaginary character in a story by Max Beerbohm! Despairing, he returned to the present and promptly vanished, presumably to fulfill his end of the bargain.
I pulled Seven Men off my shelf the other day and reread "Enoch Soames," asking myself as I did whether Douglass Debevoise, Lysandros Caftanzoglu, Lewis P. Renateau, or any of the other forgotten folk whose names figure in A Catalogue of the Caricatures of Max Beerbohm had also read it. Perhaps they did. Perhaps they chuckled at Enoch’s pitiful presumption and the completeness with which he received his demonic comeuppance, little knowing that posterity would treat them with similar callousness.
I chuckled, too, not least because I know that posterity almost certainly has the same fate in store for me. Few biographers and fewer critics long outlive their own time, and I doubt I’ll be one of them. More likely I will go down in history as the first known owner of Hart-Davis 631, and in 2104 some art historian specializing in the Edwardian era will click on that entry in a computerized catalogue raisonné, scratch his head, and say, "Who was that fellow with the odd name? Did it ever occur to him that the only thing he’d be remembered for was having owned a Max Beerbohm caricature and edited an H.L. Mencken anthology?" Indeed it did—and let it be said, if not necessarily remembered, that the prospect made me smile.