About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, August 18, 2006
TT: Conduct unbecoming
Today’s Wall Street Journal drama column contains good news (about the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey) and bad news (about Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me). In reverse order:
Make way for the first train wreck of the season. “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me” is that most embarrassing of disasters, a toothless spoof of a tired subject. It isn’t exactly stop-press news that we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, and though I suppose the phenomenon is still absurd enough to be milked for fresh laughs, Mr. Short and his collaborators have none to offer. Instead, they spend a squirm-making, intermission-free hour and a half shooting dead fish in a tiny barrel.
“Fame Becomes Me” is a parody of such confessional shows as “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” and “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” (“Another curtain goes up/On a one-man show/Another chance for an ego/To say hello”) in which Mr. Short purports to tell his own tale, hotting up the humdrum facts with a gaudy collection of spurious crises. No, he didn’t toot cocaine and humiliate himself on network TV in the middle of the Oscars, then seek absolution at the Betty Ford Clinic. His target is our prurient interest in the famous folk who do such things, but the satirical lance he wields is so blunt that it never draws blood….
Instead of blowing your hard-earned entertainment dollar on “Fame Becomes Me,” why not see something really good? If you live in New York, you won’t have to go very far to catch the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s exuberant production of “The Rivals,” which is comparable in quality to the splendid revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic 1775 comedy that Lincoln Center Theater put on two seasons ago….
No link. Buy a paper, or go here and get smart.
TT: Dirty laundry (a user's guide)
In my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I consider the case of Günter Grass, the Nobel-winning novelist who recently admitted to (A) having been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II and (B) lying about it for six decades. Grass’ belated admission, coming as it does in the immediate wake of the death of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, has inspired me to draw up a list of five principles worth keeping in mind when sitting in retrospective judgment on major artists who get caught with their moral pants down.
To find out what they are, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
“When I was a child, art seemed like a tunnel to me. At the end of that tunnel I could see light where the world opened up, waiting.”
Jerome Robbins, interview with Robert Kotlowitz (Show, December 1964)
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
• The Lieutenant of Inishmore (black comedy, R, adult subject matter and extremely graphic violence, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
• The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here)
• Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
• Indian Blood (drama, G, reviewed here, closes Sept. 2)
• Pig Farm (comedy, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Sept. 3)
• Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Sept. 3)
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
“I used to think that being mad might be rather fun. Inconvenient, of course, and awful, but quite exciting, with visions and things, and thinking the Russians were after you, and doing marvelous paintings. But it isn’t at all really, not my sort anyway. Nothing ever happens. And the other people are such bores. Those first…weeks I suppose they were, it was like being on holiday in a lousy hotel with it raining all the time and you can’t speak the language and let’s say you’ve lost your glasses and can’t read.”
Kingsley Amis, The Anti-Death League
Around and about the internets (a list prone to updates throughout the day):
• Peter Suderman scratches his head at some critics' favorable comparison of World Trade Center to United 93:
[Slate Senior Editor Bryan] Curtis sums up his feelings about WTC by saying that, in comparison to United 93, Stone’s movie is simply more "bearable," and that’s why he could recommend WTC but not United 93.
This strikes me as exactly wrong. That Stone’s movie is bearable is what is most problematic and most disturbing about it. The day that his movie depicts was unbearable, terrible, gut-wrenching—it’s a day that should never be made “bearable” by the tidy formulas of Hollywood. Greengrass’ movie, indeed, was unbearable, a horror to watch. I’m glad I saw it, but I never want to watch it again. But it was the dread that Greengrass conjured, the impossible, sickening futility of 9/11 that made the movie so effective, so powerful, and so utterly right. Stone’s movie, in its lame adherence to convention, trivializes a day that was not and never will be even remotely conventional. There are many words one might use to describe 9/11 or representations of it, but bearable should never be among them.
• Tyler Green notes that Rockefeller Center is set to get its own Anish Kapoor sculpture. It's pretty, but it's no bean.
• Lizzie Skurnick, aka the Old Hag, talks poetry writing and reading in an interview at Blue Poppy:
I periodically re-memorize "Leda and the Swan", "The More Loving One," and Sir Thomas Wyatt's "They Flee from Me...", because, in my old age, the words do flee from me. Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" I like to recite, especially the first stanza. ("My mother died when I was very young/and my father sold me while yet my tongue" is a great rhyme.) My primary regret is that I was not an English boy born in 1906, forced to memorize reams and reams of poetry while declining Latin verbs. If there is a semi-sadistic teacher with one last Mr. Chips-y semester in him/her, I can pay.
I had a somewhat sadistic fifth-grade public school teacher, actually, who made us memorize everything from "The Walrus and the Carpenter" to the Declaration of Independence to "The Highwayman." He made a little money on the side by selling popsicles after school, but only to the kids who had earned the right to buy one by successfully reciting that day's passage from memory—weird guy, great experience. A few decades later, I'm still memorizing poetry, and I'll memorize a good poem for nothing. (My all-time favorite hockey quote was uttered by the late great Red Wing Sid Abel, who once said "We play hockey for money, but we'll play the Toronto Maple Leafs for nothing.")
• Girish started it:
There are movies we encounter at certain points in our appreciation for the medium that become, almost by accident, little breakthroughs in our viewing life. They may not be great masterpieces—though they well might—but the important thing is that we have the fortune of meeting up with them at just the right juncture in our development. I think of them as “signpost films”: they take a territory that was previously foggy or unmapped to us and they suddenly make us see and learn something revelatory about this art-form that we love. These encounters make us exclaim, “So, that’s what this movie’s doing!” And it’s a lesson we take with us, carry over and apply, to hundreds of other films we will see in the future.
And now they're talking about signpost movies at 2 Blowhards too, and other sites as yet undiscovered by me, I'm sure. This question will bear some thought before I can officially submit my own, but a couple of titles spring to mind right away: Jacques Rivette's Céline et Julie vont en bateau, which made the funkiest use I've ever seen made of Henry James and was the most fun I'd ever had at a French new wave film, admire others though I might; and Three Kings. But I'm mightily tempted to cheat here and just cite the movies of 1999 en masse. That was a signpost year.
(We don't have a comments box but, as always, feel free to email with your own selections.)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, August 16, 2006 | Permanent
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
“‘This is music, you fool,’ said Hunter in his ordinary tone. ‘Worthless by definition. I remember sitting down to listen to a whole piece of it once. Somebody’s symphony in four movements, it was. I couldn’t make out what it was supposed to do for me. It seemed to be inviting me to run about, lie down and go to sleep, rush about, and then run about again. But I didn’t want to do any of that.’
“‘You were using it for the wrong purpose,’ said Dr. Best. ‘Except for martial airs and such, and in a rather different way music for dancing, the art is not concerned with action. It moves us to contemplation, which assists us in resolving our various conflicts. Through harmony we progress toward harmony.’
“‘Well, I didn’t, the time I was telling you about. I progressed in the opposite direction, thank you. That’s another thing I’ve got against it. It introduced me to conflicts I didn’t even know I had.’”
Kingsley Amis, The Anti-Death League
Monday, August 14, 2006
Maybe someday we can live on the moon
Because we can doesn't mean we have to
Rockets may come, astronauts go
Nothing so precious as what we don't know
Erin McKeown, "Life on the Moon"
TT: Just passing through
In case you're curious, I wrote a good-sized chunk of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong last week, and I plan to do the same thing this week. I also have two Wall Street Journal deadlines to hit and five plays to see, one in Connecticut, one in Massachusetts, and three in New York.
Get the idea? See you later. Over to you, OGIC.
TT: Forgotten but not gone
I posted earlier this year about the plight of Richard M. Sudhalter, a distinguished jazz musician and scholar whose health has betrayed him:
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.
Alas, good works don’t always reap financial rewards, and Dick has spent the whole of his long, productive life laboring in important but unrenumerative cultural vineyards. He is the author of such essential works of jazz and popular-music scholarship as Lost Chords and Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael. In addition, he co-wrote Bix: Man and Legend, one of the first truly scholarly jazz biographies, and has played on any number of fine recordings, including two of my favorite jazz albums, The Classic Jazz Quartet: The Complete Recordings and his own Melodies Heard, Melodies Sweet. Needless to say, Dick didn't make a whole lot of money out of any of these undertakings, but he thought they needed doing, so he did them anyway.
The terrible irony of Dick’s condition is that while he can no longer talk intelligibly, he can still read—and write—as well as ever.
What can you do to help?
• If you’re a friend who’s fallen out of touch with Dick, don’t call—send him an e-mail. He’d love to hear from you.
• If you’re an editor, Dick needs work. Don’t be scared off by the fact that he’s unable to talk. Check in with him via e-mail and give him an assignment. You won’t be sorry.
• If you’ve got a few bucks to spare—or more than a few—send him a check. Dick is scheduled to go to the Mayo Clinic in two weeks, and he needs immediate assistance in order to pay for the trip (among many other urgent things).
• If you want to hear what promises to be one of the most exciting jazz concerts of the year, mark your calendar for Sunday, September 10, when Dan Levinson and Randy Sandke will be putting on an all-star benefit concert at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York. The bill includes (among others) Harry Allen, Dan Barrett, Eddie Bert, Bill Crow, Jim Ferguson, Dave Frishberg, Wycliffe Gordon, Marty Grosz, Becky Kilgore, Bill Kirchner, Steve Kuhn, Dan Levinson, Marian McPartland, Joe Muranyi, David Ostwald, Nicki Parrott, Bucky Pizzarelli, Scott Robinson, Randy Sandke, Daryl Sherman, and the Loren Schoenberg Big Band. That’s what I call a big bunch of very heavy hitters.
The address is 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street and the music starts at seven o’clock sharp. Admission is $40, plus whatever else you care to chip in.
To order a ticket to Dick’s benefit concert—or if you simply want to contribute to the cause of keeping him alive—send a check made payable to RICHARD SUDHALTER BENEFIT CONCERT to the following address:
P.O. Box 757
Southold, NY 11971
You can also order tickets online with a credit card by visiting PayPal and using this account:
As I said in June, I don’t make a habit of posting appeals like this, but Dick’s case is special. Even if you aren't familiar with his indispensable work, take my word for it—he deserves your help.
Pass the word.
TT: Ink not included
Having written a biography of H.L. Mencken, who is, like Abraham Lincoln and Dorothy Parker, one of those people who gets credited with having said a great many things he didn’t actually say, I’ve long been suspicious of the provenance of a quote that is almost always attributed to A.J. Liebling, usually in this form: “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” (Not surprisingly, I've also seen it credited to Mencken.) It’s a great line, and it’s the sort of thing Liebling would have said if he’d thought of it—but did he?
I thought of asking the New Yorker-obsessed proprietor of Emdashes if she could shed some light on the matter, but then it hit me that as a happy owner of The Complete New Yorker, I might be able to use that unwieldy but nonetheless invaluable tool in order to pin down the quote. So I popped in a CD-ROM and started clicking away, and within minutes I had the facts in hand.
Sure enough, Liebling really did say it, or something very much like it: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” The remark was a parenthetical throwaway tucked into a “Wayward Press” column called “Do You Belong in Journalism?” published on May 14, 1960, and his subject, it turns out, was the rise of the one-newspaper town.
Here’s part of what he wrote:
A city with one newspaper, or with a morning and evening newspaper under the same ownership, is like a man with only one eye, and often the eye is glass….
What you have in a one-paper town is a privately owned public utility that is Constitutionally exempt from public regulation, which would be a violation of freedom of the press. As to the freedom of the individual journalist in such a town, it corresponds exactly with what the publisher will allow him. He can’t go over to the opposition, because there isn’t any. If he leaves, he ends his usefulness to the town, and probably to the state and region in which it is situated, because he takes with him the story that caused his difference with the management, and in a distant place it will have no value. Under the conditions, there is no point in being quixotic….
In any American city that I know of, to pick up a paper published elsewhere means that you have to go to an out-of-town newsstand, unless you are in a small city that is directly within the circulation zone of a larger one. Even in New York, the out-of-town newsstands are few and hard to find….The news magazines—without going into their quality, which would explode me—carry little news, in the course of a year, of any one particular state or city, and what they do carry is usually furnished by a stringer who works on the local paper. News broadcasts offer even less, because often the newspaper owns the radio station, and because television and radio have been pulling steadily out of the news field and regressing toward the animated penny dreadful.
Plus ça change! God only knows what Liebling would have thought of today’s newsmagazines and network newscasts, but the remainder of his lament has been superannuated virtually beyond recognition by the rise of the Web, which not only brings every newspaper in the United States (including the one in Smalltown, U.S.A.) within the reach of anyone with a computer, but renders moot the most frequently quoted sentence he ever wrote, though it continues to this day to be cited constantly and irrelevantly by backward-looking press critics.
As I wrote in Commentary last year in an essay about culture in the age of blogging, “The day of the information middleman is not yet over, but it is drawing to a close.” With today’s Web-based delivery systems, consumers can get their information wholesale, as well as making and selling it themselves. They need not buy a newspaper or watch the evening news to know what is happening in the world. They need not write for the mainstream media to make their own views known to the public at large. They need not go to a record store to purchase CDs by their favorite artists. They can do it all themselves—not tomorrow, but now.
Liebling’s press criticism is grossly overrated—he was an ideologue who liked to pretend otherwise—but at least he made an effort to attend to the changing realities of the world around him. He certainly wouldn’t have made the mistake of publishing anything as embarrassingly supererogatory as “Amateur Hour,” the recent New Yorker essay about Web-based journalism in which poor Nicholas Lemann spent a couple of thousand words belaboring the obvious, mere days before he applied an axe to the budget for CJR Daily,
the Columbia Journalism Review’s online edition, simultaneously (1) demonstrating that he’s determined to miss the new-media boat and (2) causing the two top editors of CJR Daily to quit in protest. One of Lemann’s ex-employees, Steve Lovelady, laid it on the line in an interview with the New York Times: “Nick has decided to spend the money on a direct-mail campaign for the magazine, in hopes of saving subscription revenue. To me, that sounds like something out of the 19th century. He’s taking the one fresh, smart thing he has and gutting it.”
As for A.J. Liebling, what a difference a half-century makes! Nowadays anyone can own his own press, including a middle-aged old-media fart like me. Needless to say, that doesn’t guarantee that anyone else will read what you “print” on it, much less that you’ll make money doing so, but the fact remains that you're free to use it as you please, and if you have something interesting to say, you might just be surprised how many people will pay attention.
I now spend more time reading blogs than magazines. Maybe it's just me—but I doubt it.
P.S. For the latest last word on the subject of whether most middle-aged old-media farts will ever figure out what blogging is all about, go here and chuckle wryly.
Friday, August 12, 2005
“A schedule broken at will becomes a mere procession of vagaries.”
Rex Stout, Murder by the Book
TT and OGIC: Apologies
ArtsJournal.com has been having severe problems with its server, which prevented us from posting anything until midday and has been more generally slowing us down.
We hope things will be back to normal before long. Until then, bear with us!
TT: The old razzle-dazzle
I drove up to Massachusetts last Sunday to see the Williamstown Theatre Festival's big-budget production of Tom Stoppard's On the Razzle. The night before I went uptown to Harlem to see a free outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Both shows gave me great pleasure, and I've written about them in today's Wall Street Journal drama column.
“On the Razzle” is Mr. Stoppard's English-language adaptation of Johann Nestroy's “Einen jux will er sich machen,” the same 1842 play whose subplot Thornton Wilder borrowed for “The Matchmaker,” which in turn became “Hello, Dolly!” Any way you dish it up, it's a lunatic spree in which Herr Zangler (Michael McKean, lately of “Hairspray” and “A Mighty Wind”), purveyor of expensive foodstuffs, travels to Vienna in search of romance and promptly sticks his head into a noose of comic chaos tied and tightened by his thrill-seeking assistants Weinberl (Robert Stanton) and Christopher (John Lavelle)….
With 22 speaking parts and a hell of a lot of sets, “On the Razzle” is hard to produce save at a festival, and Roger Rees, Williamstown's new artistic director, is to be commended for giving it the deluxe treatment (Neil Patel's décor is Viennese to the hilt). Alas, the near-mathematical exactitude necessary to bring such precisely calculated theatrical craziness to life is not always evident in David Jones' agreeably energetic staging. Visible error is the death of farce, and the matinée I saw suffered from an uncertain scene change, a premature blackout and a certain looseness of timing here and there.
On the other hand, it's churlish to expect perfection out of a festival production of “On the Razzle,” especially so early in its too-short run. I'm sure the show will have tightened up by the time these words see print…
I took the bus up to Riverbank State Park the other night to watch Pulse Ensemble Theatre, augmented by eight neighborhood artists, perform “A Midsummer Night's Dream” in one of the Harlem park's many playgrounds, and the results couldn't have been more engaging.
Alexa Kelly, the director, has given us an urban-style modern-dress staging in which Oberon (Steve Lloyd), Titania (Shirine Babb) and the denizens of their fairy kingdom hail from the Caribbean and frolic to steel-band music. The North Playground of Riverbank Park doubles as a circular amphitheater with three tiers of concrete benches, and Ruben Arana Downs, the designer, has cunningly placed the unit set on top of the playground equipment (shrewd use is made of the sliding board). The acting is variable, but everyone is good enough and a few performers are first-rate, especially Nicole Bowman, who is splendidly lithe and vibrant as Hermia….
No link. To read the whole thing, pick up a copy of today's Journal at your local newsstand and turn to the Weekend Journal section, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will allow you to read my column more or less instantaneously (along with a plenitude of other good stuff).
Thursday, August 11, 2005
"The reader who, instead of being keen to learn, is intent only on finding fault, will simply not learn anything. He likes to criticize."
Arthur Schopenhauer, Manuscript Remains (courtesy of Superfluities)
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• The other night I went to a play in which a very short actress gave a very good performance. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that a great many of the women to whom I've been attracted over the years have ranged in height from five foot zero to five foot three. I once had occasion to mention this fact to a self-styled feminist, who told me that I clearly had an unnatural need to dominate women. (I'm five foot eight.) I sputtered in reply that one of the most attractive women I know is six feet tall, and it later occurred to me that I also happen to like art songs, novellas, small paintings, and cozy little apartments such as the one in which I so contentedly live.
To this list I would now add plays of no more than two hours' length, performed if at all possible without an intermission. (Remember my Drama Critics' Prayer?) One such show that I recently reviewed is Primo, Sir Anthony Sher's one-man dramatization of Primo Levi's Auschwitz memoir. I went to see it with Sarah, and as my review doubtless made clear, I was deeply moved. I actually started crying shortly after we left the theater, and the two of us walked together in silence for a block or so as I struggled without success to regain my composure.
For some reason I glanced across the street at the marquee of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where Sweet Charity is playing. Below it I saw a huge poster on which was emblazoned in jumbo letters the following blurb:
“IT'S A BLAST!”
The Wall Street Journal
I looked at Sarah and pointed silently at the poster. The absurdity of the juxtaposition caused us both to dissolve on the spot into helpless laughter, and we were still laughing when we finally managed to flag a cab and flee the theater district.
Like the man says, life is pandemonium.
• I recently watched a TV documentary called Ken Russell: In Search of the English Folksong. Like all of Russell's films and TV shows, it stank of self-regard, but there was one moment that struck me as especially awful, even for him. At the top of the hour, an unnamed young woman sang Percy Grainger's seraphically beautiful harmonization
of “Brigg Fair,” a folk song that Grainger took down in 1905 from the singing of Joseph Taylor, a seventy-two-year-old Lincolnshire bailiff. The camera then cut to Russell sitting at a table with an old phonograph and a stack of 78s, and I realized that he was about to play one of the rarest records ever made, the 1908 performance of “Brigg Fair” that Taylor recorded at Grainger's urging for the Gramophone Company of London. It was one of a dozen folk songs recorded by Taylor in the studio, the very first time that a “genuine peasant folk-singer” had made commercial recordings. “Nothing could be more refreshing,” Grainger wrote at the time, “than [Taylor's] hale countrified looks and the happy lilt of his cheery voice….though his age was seventy-five, his looks were those of middle age, while his flowing, ringing tenor voice was well nigh as fresh as that of his son.”
I'd long known of the existence of this record (Grainger is one of my favorite composers), but I'd never heard it, and was starting to think I never would. Then, to my amazement and delight, Russell slipped it out of the pile of 78s, placed it on the turntable, and lowered the needle to the spinning shellac surface. From the speakers of my TV set came a century-old sound: It was on the fifth of August, the weather fair and fine/Unto Brigg Fair I did repair, for love I was inclined. I listened with wonder to Joseph Taylor's throaty, ever-so-slightly creaky voice and the fluttering ornaments with which he gracefully decorated the long descending arch of melody. Time was melting away…and then Ken Russell, damn him, started talking. “Bit crackly,” he said midway through the second line. “But, you know, it was recorded on a cylinder.” (Actually, it wasn't.) “Lovely, isn't it?” He kept on prattling to the very end of the song.
Hell isn't hot enough.
• I met a writer friend for lunch yesterday at Café des Artistes. (We used to lunch at less fancy spots, but decided a few months ago that we deserved to live it up.) He's tall, skinny, and a bit of a dandy, and on this occasion he was dressed in a postmodern version of a Tom Wolfe-style ice-cream suit. I, on the other hand, look rather like Roger Ebert, and was wearing one of my Black Outfits. Looking at my friend, I felt as if I were seeing the negative of a self-portrait refracted in a fun-house mirror.
The captain escorted us to a corner table in the back room. “Do you know where we're sitting?” my friend asked me as we looked over our menus. “Peter Jennings' table.” I felt a slight frisson of something or other at the thought of our having taken over the table where the anchorman of World News Tonight once held court. It was, I regret to say, my first and only response to the news of his death. It's been years since I watched any of the nightly network newscasts, and though Jennings was the last anchor with whose program I was at all familiar, the man himself failed to make any lasting impression on me. As a result, the tributes that filled the airwaves and obituary pages on Monday left me feeling much the same way I feel whenever a cabby asks me what team I'm rooting for.
Sometimes I wish I were more in touch with such things, but not often. This isn't to say I'm indifferent to them, merely that I feel no need to keep up with them. Perhaps it's a function of increasing age. At any rate, my lack of interest puts me in mind of this 1949 entry from Somerset Maugham's notebook:
For I am like a passenger waiting for his ship at a war-time port. I do not know on which day it will sail, but I am ready to embark at a moment's notice. I leave the sights of the city unvisited. I do not want to see the fine new speedway along which I shall never drive, nor the grand new theatre, with all its modern appliances, in which I shall never sit. I read the papers and flip the pages of a magazine, but when someone offers to lend me a book I refuse because I may not have time to finish it, and in any case with this journey before me I am not of a mind to interest myself in it. I strike up acquaintances at the bar or the card-table, but I do not try to make friends with people from whom I shall so soon be parted. I am on the wing.
I don't see myself in every word of that entry, thank God: I'm still making new friends, and some of the younger ones are among the best I've ever made. On the other hand, it's been ages since I last made any systematic effort to keep up with, say, pop music. If I should happen by chance (or as a consequence of the prodding of OGIC) to hear and like something new, I'll seek it out and tell others about it, but otherwise I'm content to leave the sounds of today to my younger friends. For I, too, am on the wing, and though I trust the flight will be a long and happy one, I doubt I'll come to the end of it saying, If only I'd gotten around to writing an essay about Death Cab for Cutie!
More and more I question the ultimate value of any criticism whose immediate purpose is not to bring its readers into direct contact with beauty (or shorten the amount of time they spend in contact with ugliness). The purpose of my professional life is to make people happier, and I try not to let myself forget that my way of bringing it about can never be anything more than an imperfect means to a blessed end. C.S. Lewis said it better than I can: “If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him.”
TT and OGIC: New around here, stranger?
If you came here by way of Instapundit, welcome to "About Last Night," a 24/5-to-7 blog (we come and go on weekends) on which Terry Teachout writes about the arts in New York City and elsewhere, assisted by Laura Demanski, who writes from Chicago under the no-longer-a-pseudonym of "Our Girl in Chicago."
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If you're one of the above, we're glad you came. Enjoy. Peruse. Tell all your friends about www.terryteachout.com. And come back tomorrow.
TT: So you want to see a show?
Not surprisingly, people in and out of town are always asking me what plays they should see. For this reason, I've decided to start running on Thursdays a regularly updated list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Avenue Q* (musical)
• Chicago (musical)
• Doubt (drama)
• Fiddler on the Roof (musical, family-friendly)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical)
• Sweet Charity (musical)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, family-friendly)
• Orson's Shadow (drama)
• Philadelphia, Here I Come! (drama, closes 9/25)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, child-friendly)
• Glengarry Glen Ross (drama, Broadway, closes 8/28)
• Primo (one-man show, Broadway, closes Sunday)
• The Skin Game (drama, off Broadway, closes Sunday)
• Sides: The Fear Is Real… (sketch comedy, off Broadway, previews start 8/18)
TT: Words to the wise
A well-placed little bird tells me you can still get tickets to the second and third performances of L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Mark Morris' full-evening modern-dance staging of the Handel oratorio, next Friday, August 19, and Saturday, August 20, at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival. (Thursday's opening is about to sell out.)
If you know anything about Morris, you don't need to hear more than that, but if you're unlucky enough never to have seen L'Allegro, it might be worth my quoting what I wrote about this extraordinary work four years ago in the Washington Post:
“L'Allegro” is a whole world of dance in a single evening, everything from childlike pantomime to knockabout comedy to complex groupings reminiscent of George Balanchine in their control and clarity. I wish Morris' dancers did “L'Allegro” in New York each spring, just like New York City Ballet does Balanchine's “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” so that we could all revel in it as often as we want….
Since then the Mark Morris Dance Group has taken to performing L'Allegro fairly regularly at Mostly Mozart, though never often enough to suit me. Needless to say, I'll be there—you come, too.
All performances are at eight p.m. at the New York State Theater. For more information, go here.
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
“Well, I read a lot. I'm no intellectual, you understand, but I like Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Hemingway, John P. Marquand, Louis Auchincloss, and Georges Simenon. He really understands character."
Bing Crosby (in conversation with Nat Hentoff, 1976)
I haven't quite gotten over the stresses and strains (both good and bad) of the past three weeks, and as a result I find I don't have anything especially original to say this morning! Instead of blathering randomly, I'll leave the blogging to the following well-chosen assortment of my esteemed friends and colleagues. Go get 'em, tigers:
• The adorable Ms. Maccers shares a few “things I have learnt while aging.” Some pertinent excerpts:
You will always lose the ones you love the most
Those you hate
Hang around ad infinitem
Taunting you for your failure to kick their arses years ago
Eat red fruit
Small dogs are gay
And so is my ex
Living alone will become a comfort and then a shield
ALWAYS sell the jewelry…
Ooh, yikes! (But she does have a point or two, or three.)
• The indispensable Mr. Something Old, Nothing New reports in extenso on the contents of the forthcoming third volume of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection. Money quote:
I would say, overall, that this is the best selection of cartoons yet, and certainly the most varied….
• Listen up, OGIC: Mr. Wax Banks has some smart things to say about one of your favorite flicks:
The Insider is an adult movie: though it carries a moral message, it's not simply two and a half hours of moralizing (though I've got to point out that no one lights a single cigarette in this long movie about Big Tobacco—an odd atmospheric choice by Mann). We should be grateful for grownup artists who take on subjects worthy of their talent….
O.K., I give up, I'll watch the damn thing the next time I come to Chicago. Really.
• While we're at it, Mr. Superfluities is no less smart about a major TT-OGIC fave:
Though many swear by the delightful Waiting for Guffman and enjoy All About Eve's wallow in thespian bitchiness, I've found no movie to be quite as accurate and inspiring about theater work than Mike Leigh's 1999 Topsy-Turvy, concerning the creation and premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan's masterpiece The Mikado. In many ways an unusual film for Leigh, who's best known for his semi-improvised films and plays about contemporary British culture, Topsy-Turvy is nonetheless very much in the Leigh tradition of showing everyday work and frustration, even though there often doesn't seem to be much point beyond the ability to endure. Here, though, that everyday work and frustration is located in the artistic community of the theater. In fact, those parts of Topsy-Turvy that many people find boring—mostly the scenes of endless (sometimes fruitless) rehearsal, worry over potentially disastrous financial arrangements and constant professional bickering—seem to me the most fascinating and true-to-life….
• Dizzy Gillespie's estate is being auctioned off next month. Here's the online catalogue. Browse and marvel.
• Mr. Manhattan Transfer rhapsodizes on the joys of summer in New York:
Opera in the park, with bits of cheese and chilled Sancerre in plastic cups. Lingering lunches in shaded sidewalk bistros. Rooftop parties overserving beer out of garbage cans filled with ice and sand. Sunrise whiskeys with bartenders in the Rockaways. Girls in short skirts with beads of sweat on the small of their backs. Falling asleep on the lawn alongside the Hudson River. Aperitifs at A60. Midday movies to escape the humidity. Seared tuna salad and buffalo mozzarella and three pinot grigio lunches. The song of the summer. Pretending the subway doesn't exist….
• Sarah (all others are imitations), who in my humble opinion is one of the nicest things about summer in New York, has some thoughtful and thought-provoking things to say about reviewers who court conflicts of interest:
How transparent should reviewers be? What constitutes a conflict of interest? These are things I think about constantly…
In a perfect world, a reviewer could completely divorce his or her feelings about a book from everything else. Put it in a vacuum. Isolate it from the larger context of a genre, a literary oeuvre, whatever. And make sure that he or she is only judged by the words appearing on the page.
But of course, that's not the case. In the mystery world, I think reviewers can be divided into two categories: those that mingle, and those that do not. It's a no-brainer as to which one I belong to; I don't believe I would have been able to write any review whatsoever had I not already been an active fan, participating on various internet message boards. And even when there are times when I wish I could drop back, I can't—nor do I particularly want to. Also, here on the blog, I can be as subjective as I like—the URL does bear my name, after all.
Yet it makes things difficult, especially in regards to my column. Luckily I only have five books a month to review, and so in theory, I can endeavor to pick books by people I've never met, never exchanged an email, never socialized with in any way, shape or form. But with every book I view for potential inclusion, I have to ask if there could be any sort of bias involved…
Read the whole thing.
• Here's a vivid and revealing interview with my favorite classical singer, Anne Sofie von Otter, who just turned fifty and doesn't seem too terribly weirded out about it:
She has confessed to being "reserved" and a "control freak,” and is a little wary of interviews. Or perhaps she is bored by them—by familiar questions of how she began singing and what her favourite operatic roles are. "Some interviewers are like zombies," she says. "You want to slap them." Having just stepped off a plane, I feel zombie-like and hurriedly suggest the photographer goes first—planting the uncomplaining Von Otter next to trees, on soaking benches, and dangerously near the edge of the lake—while I rethink my questions….
God, but I love that woman. (If you don't yet know what all the fuss is about, buy this CD and be enlightened.)
• Ms. Killin' time being lazy went to see Philadelphia, Here I Come! (which I've been plugging at frequent intervals) and reports back on a disquieting aspect of the show that I failed to notice:
I went to see the show because I know a cast member and I know a crew member—and while I know that almost every waiter in the City is also an actor, it was clear that the audience wasn't made up of "friends of...". Rather, the average age of the audience was 60. Granted, it was a summer Saturday matinee, but still—60? Not great if a theater company wants to survive. The audience needs a median age of 40-ish—difficult to do in these times. Part of that is the rise in ticket prices. I understand that theaters have to pay Equity salaries and IATSE salaries and rent and rental for costumes/props and royalties and other salaries and all that. But it does keep audiences—young, necessary audiences—away….
• Finally, Howard Kissel, my opposite number at the New York Daily News, tossed off a nifty little feature about what it's like to see The Producers, The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera, and Chicago from the cheap seats. I wish I'd written it….
• …just as I wish I'd written this utterly characteristic Galley Cat lead:
I'm not sure I could imagine any combination I'd dislike more than Jonathan Safran Foer and opera….
In the immortal word of James Joyce, mkgnao!
TT: They just don't get it (a continuing series)
Today's unintentionally revealing old-media quote comes from Dante Chinni, writing in the Christian Science Monitor on “journalism's fear and loathing of blogs”:
To be a serious blogger—one who can devote his time and energy to the job—one needs to make a name for himself, sell ad space, and get paid.
Hear that, all you hopelessly unserious amateur artbloggers who have a life? You're nothing. Nothing. (As opposed to, say, the author of “a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.”)
Here's what the shuffle-play key of iTunes served up to me this evening:
• Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic, Mahler Fifth Symphony (fourth movement)
• Eighth Blackbird, Moravec Time Gallery (fourth movement)
• Pee Wee Russell, “The Last Time I Saw Chicago”
• Artie Shaw, “St. James Infirmary”
• Fred Astaire, “Night and Day”
• Joseph Szigeti and Nikita Magaloff, Handel D Major Violin Sonata (first movement)
• Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan, “Blight of the Fumblebee”
• Artur Schnabel, Beethoven Piano Sonata, Op. 109 (last movement)
• Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, Bartók Concerto for Orchestra (second movement)
• The Police, “Omegaman”
• Marc-André Hamelin, Grainger Country Gardens
• Nancy LaMott, “Good Thing Going/Not a Day Goes By”
• The Who, “I Can See for Miles”
• Ignace Jan Paderewski, Chopin Mazurka, Op. 17/4
• Glenn Miller, “St. Louis Blues” (live)
• Frank Sinatra and the Hollywood String Quartet, “Love Locked Out”
• Fats Waller, “Smarty”
• Talking Heads, “Houses in Motion”
Tuesday, August 9, 2005
The difficult part of love
Is being selfish enough,
Is having the blind persistence
To upset an existence
Just for your own sake.
What cheek it must take.
And then the unselfish side—
How can you be satisfied,
Putting someone else first
So that you come off worst?
My life is for me.
As well ignore gravity.
Still, vicious or virtuous,
Love suits most of us.
Only the bleeder found
Selfish this wrong way round
Is ever wholly rebuffed,
And he can get stuffed.
Philip Larkin, "Love"
TT: They just don't get it (a continuing series)
Today's unintentionally revealing old-media quote comes from Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, courtesy of Romenesko:
The first thing newspapers need to be able to do successfully is to be able to separate themselves from other news media, from broadcast TV and so on, to establish the idea in the mind of readers that newspapers are the most authoritative and accurate source of news.
Tie that man to a tenure track!
TT: Next thing you know, I'll be eating right
Having spent Monday morning and afternoon doing as I pleased, and part of the evening working on my reviewing calendar, I now find myself faced with two mutually exclusive options:
(A) Stay up late and blog, get up first thing Tuesday and write my drama column for Friday's Journal, and spend the rest of the day in a sleep-deprived haze.
(A) Go to bed at a reasonable hour.
See you Wednesday!
Monday, August 8, 2005
“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, “El Dorado”
TT: Words to the wise (cont'd)
The Irish Repertory Theatre's production of Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! has just been extended from Sept. 4 to Sept. 25. The uniformly enthusiastic reviews included mine in The Wall Street Journal:
If I had to choose a single company to stand for all that is best and most characteristic about theater in New York, it might just be the Irish Repertory Theatre. Founded in 1988 and located on a dowdy block far from the dazzle of Broadway, it specializes in "Irish and Irish-American theatre presented with a native understanding," acted on a thumbnail-size stage awkwardly tucked into one corner of an L-shaped auditorium and produced with the kind of care and intelligence no amount of money can buy....
"An artist should be world-wide in his thinking, but implacably national once he begins to create." So said Maurice Ravel, whose music is at once quintessentially French and universally intelligible. By the same token, "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" is as Irish as a peat fire, but you don't have to know anything about County Donegal to recognize Mr. Friel's characters. No matter where you come from, you grew up with them. They are as real as family—just like this glorious production of a great play.
For more information, go here.
TT: The dreamlife of critics
The last three weeks…where did they go? I've flown halfway across the country, written four pieces, seen six plays, read nine books, given a lecture, talked on the radio, and driven all over Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania in a pair of rented cars. On top of all this, I watched my mother recover from a major operation (and nursed her through a series of drug-induced hallucinations that seem to have frightened her far less than they did me). Now I'm back home again, with no deadlines to hit until tomorrow morning and no performances to see until Wednesday night. I slept in today, the first time I've managed that feat in well over a month. Later on I plan to tinker with my reviewing schedule, wander over to the gym, dine at Good Enough to Eat, watch a little TV, and straighten the pictures in the Teachout Museum. That sounds like a good day, don't you think?
You know all about my two weeks in Smalltown, U.S.A. I returned from there Friday before last and resumed my usual post-travel frenzy of literary activity, cramming in two visits to the theater, both of them deeply satisfying (see the first of this week's Top Fives for words to the wise). Come Wednesday, a little later in the day than I'd planned, I filed my last piece, picked up a Zipcar,
and began a much-anticipated three-day holiday by plunging headlong into New Jersey traffic. It was the first time I'd gotten caught on the fringes of a weekday rush hour, an experience I hope never to repeat. The good news is that my car was equipped with a satellite radio, so I spent the unexpectedly long drive sampling the myriad offerings of XM Radio, with which I was much impressed.
In due course I escaped from the interstate and made my way to Bridgeton House, the inn on the Delaware River where I recently spent a contented night sitting in a rocking chair and watching a thunderstorm from a screened balcony. Alas, the elements weren't as cooperative this time around, but I liked the inn no less well, and I've decided to make it one of my regular getaway spots.
On Thursday I drove through the Delaware Water Gap to Barryville, a tiny Catskills village just across the New York-Pennsylvania border. A friend of mine has been spending the past month teaching gymnastics at a summer camp outside of town, and I figured she wouldn't mind being taken out to dinner after a hard day on the trampoline, so I decided to spend the night somewhere in the general vicinity of her shop. A quick search of the Web having previously led me to Ecce Bed and Breakfast, conveniently located a couple of miles down the road from camp, I made a reservation, showed up at the appointed hour, and was duly escorted to an elegantly appointed bedroom in a house perched on the edge of a bluff three hundred feet above the Delaware River. For once, the Web site understates the case: my room had a huge picture window, and I've never seen a more spectacular view. After a sumptuous dinner of fresh trout, I brought my friend back to the inn so that she could see for herself,
and we spent what was left of the evening sitting on the balcony, listening to the enveloping sounds of a warm summer night in the Catskills, chatting companionably about nothing in particular as the light died out of the sky, and wondering if there were a more beautiful place anywhere in the world.
By then it was clear to me that Ecce is not your usual bed-and-breakfast. It was started a year ago by a couple of Wall Street businessmen who heard the chimes at midnight and decided to change their lives before it was too late. Perhaps not surprisingly, the tone and décor of their five-room inn are considerably more urbane than those of the comfy, chintzy country retreats where I typically spend my nights on the road. (I certainly can't think of another B-&-B that has pencil-signed Hirschfeld lithographs of Carol Channing and Lucille Ball hanging proudly in the upstairs hall!) At the same time, Ecce lacks nothing in the way of country comforts—there's even a hammock—and my baked spinach omelet, served on a deck overlooking the river, was wonderfully tasty. As I reluctantly pulled out of the parking lot after breakfast, I resolved to come back again as soon as possible.
I spent most of Friday driving up scenic byways and down narrow country lanes, eventually arriving at yet another Catskills village, High Falls, where I checked into Captain Schoonmaker's Bed and Breakfast, a Revolutionary War-era stone house located next to a soul-soothing trout stream and waterfall. I passed a peaceful night in the carriage house, then reported to the dining room at eight for the best breakfast I've ever eaten in my life. (Sorry, Mom.) The eggs were newly laid by the inn's own hens, the sausage was made by a local butcher, the waffles were stuffed with fresh fruit, and for once I couldn't clean my plate, though I did my best and a little bit more.
By then I was feeling the emollient effects of three work-free days in a row, and the thought of returning to New York was almost too sad to bear. Alas, my car was due back at ten-thirty that morning, so I hit the road after breakfast, tuned in Frank's Place on the satellite radio, and let Jonathan Schwartz serenade me as I rolled down the parkway, over the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge, and back into my everyday life. That same night Maud and I went to Harlem to see an outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Riverbank State Park, and I spent most of Sunday driving to and from Massachusetts to catch Tom Stoppard's On the Razzle at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (read all about it on Friday).
Now I'm sitting at my desk, plugged into the Web and entangled yet again in the busy life of a singleton at large in the big city. My travels seem like last night's dreams, half-recalled and not quite real. Was it really only four days ago that I sat on a deck far above the Delaware River, listening to the crickets chirp? I wouldn't live anywhere else but New York City—I couldn't—but I know very well what I'm missing by doing so, and right at this moment I miss it more than I can say.
UPDATE: One of my very favorite bloggers has similar things on her mind....
Sunday, August 7, 2005
"There has always been the kind of critic that views the musical as being the intellectual brothel. They can go and see the girls and the pretty legs; they don't want to be bothered by the story. They don't want to be asked to feel anything. They want to go and get their jollies."
Alan Jay Lerner (quoted in Donald Knox, The Magic Factory)
OGIC: Fortune cookie
My dearest Girl,
I wrote a Letter for you yesterday expecting to have seen your mother. I shall be selfish enough to send it though I know it may give you a little pain, because I wish you to see how unhappy I am for love of you, and endeavour as much as I can to entice you to give up your whole heart to me whose whole existence hangs upon you. You could not step or move an eyelid but it would shoot to my heart—I am greedy of you—Do not think of any thing but me. Do not live as if I was not existing—Do not forget me—But have I any right to say you forget me? Perhaps you think of me all day. Have I any right to wish you to be unhappy for me? You would forgive me for wishing it, if you knew the extreme passion I have that you should love me—and for you to love me as I do you, you must think of no one but me, much less write that sentence. Yesterday and this morning I have been haunted with a sweet vision—I have seen you the whole time in your shepherdess dress. How my senses have ached at it! How my heart has been devoted to it! How my eyes have been full of Tears at it! Indeed I think a real Love is enough to occupy the wildest heart—Your going to town alone, when I heard of it was a shock to me—yet I expected it—promise me you will not for some time, till I get better. Promise me this and fill the paper full of the most endearing names. If you cannot do so with good will, do my Love tell me—say what you think—confess if your heart is too much fasten'd on the world. Perhaps then I may see you at a greater distance, I may not be able to appropriate you so closely to myself. Were you to loose a favorite bird from the cage, how would your eyes ache after it as long as it was in sight; when out of sight you would recover a little. Perhaps if you would, if it is so, confess to me how many things are necessary to you besides me, I might be happier, by being less tantaliz'd. Well may you exclaim, how selfish, how cruel, not to let me enjoy my youth! to wish me to be unhappy! You must be so if you love me—upon my Soul I can be contented with nothing else. If you could really what is call'd enjoy yourself at a Party—if you can smile in peoples faces, and wish them to admire you now, you never have nor ever will love me—I see life in nothing but the certainty of your Love—convince me of it my sweetest. If I am not somehow convinc'd I shall die of agony. If we love we must not live as other men and women do—I cannot brook the wolfsbane of fashion and foppery and tattle. You must be mine to die upon the rack if I want you. I do not pretend to say I have more feeling than my fellows—but I wish you seriously to look over my letters kind and unkind and consider whether the Person who wrote them can be able to endure much longer the agonies and uncertainties which you are so peculiarly made to create—My recovery of bodily health will be of no benefit to me if you are not all mine when I am well. For god's sake save me—or tell me my passion is of too awful a nature for you. Again God bless you.
No—my sweet Fanny—I am wrong. I do not want you to be unhappy—and yet I do, I must while there is so sweet a Beauty—my loveliest my darling! Good bye! I kiss you—O the torments!
John Keats, letter to Fanny Brawne, May 1820
OGIC: Hunger artists
Mitchissmo has such a good and evocative post on break-ups (via Manhattan Transfer, thanks kindly), it almost makes you long for one. Sure, they make you feel flayed alive and stabbed through the heart, but at least they make you unmistakably feel...still, emphasis on the almost.
Break ups fascinate me. Break ups are like one of those hallways from a 1980s music video: a black and white tunnel in slanted perspective, full of misshapen closed doors, a red ball bouncing away into the distance. Despite the obvious clichéd meanings you know surround you, everything still feels heavy and of great import. It all means something, man.
Don’t get me wrong; I despise break ups. In fact, as time goes on I can barely bring myself to the first date in fear of the last one.
Yep. And Allison Moorer has a thoroughly devastating song about just this on Miss Fortune: "Mark My Word." The lyrics don't seem like much on their own, but when she sings it, it'll kill you. The speaker is at the outset of a relationship she wants, and all she can feel is preemptive sorrow and even bitterness. Helplessly and certainly, she's killing the affair before it can find its legs. I always thought of that speaker as simply battered into tragic fatalism, but Mitchissmo's post makes me think she may be harboring a masochistic fascination—one that even the best optimists among us can surely relate to in some corner of our wounded souls.
Back to Mitchissmo:
As we get older our break ups get more intense precisely because life has shown us that goodbyes are often of a certain permanence. There is no going back, no matter what one’s intentions are. Of course, break ups are not deaths, but they are deaths of a kind. They are emotional goodbyes, ones that we often try to control in a variety of outlandish ways: sending near funereal bouquets of flowers, crafting the most poetic or well structured email or, better yet, drafting an analog letter so well put and fail-safe it rivals a legal brief. Such actions aim to redirect the sinking ship to new, safe waters. However—and not that I know anything about this—with every effort, it may even push fate along. All of this is why break ups are a good source of comedy and death is, well, not so much. Man and his efforts to defeat Fate is always funny.
The end of a relationship hurts like nothing else because, among other reasons, the object of desire is still out there (alive!). Ah yes, the slow turning from something here to something there, from something present to something past, and the gut wrenching feeling of knowing that it’s happening. That door in the slanted hallway is slamming, and don’t count on it opening again, buddy boy.
So good it hurts. (And I have totally written that letter. It was masterful.)
Friday, August 13, 2004
OGIC: The unjading of OG (an interminable series)
Fireworks fit roughly into the same category as famous tourist attractions for me. I never think they will be interesting, and even go out of my way to avoid them. Occasionally I do get roped into seeing them, however, and then I wonder what the hell I was thinking, because they tend to be wonderful. When, as a twelfth-grader in Paris who thought she knew everything and was too cool for most of it, I was dragged reluctantly to the Eiffel Tower—which I knew would be touristy and lame, and besides, I had seen a million pictures—I couldn't believe how dwarfingly gorgeous it was. Way beyond what a picture could convey. (I preferred being on the ground, gazing up, to being on top looking down, though).
This recurring subplot of my life recurred again last night, when I went with a gaggle of friends to see the league-leading Chicago White Sox play Seattle (on what had to be the nicest evening of this year or any other to attend a ball game). Win or lose, the Sox show fireworks after the game on Saturday nights. Sometimes I can hear them from my South Side apartment.
Last night's game chugged along at a brisk pace. Around the seventh inning, I remembered about the obligatory fireworks and groaned silently to myself. So mundane. So tiresome. Hopefully my friends wouldn't want to stick around. Seen one fireworks display, seen 'em all.
That's as may be, but some experiences don't depend on novelty. Five seconds into it, I was rapt. By the end I was grinning like an idiot. Next time fireworks are in the offing I'll roll my eyes and groan—and with any luck, someone will tell me to sit down, shut up, and enjoy the spectacle.
TT: Sub standards
I’m in today’s Wall Street Journal, this week with a report on my recent visits to three long-running Broadway musicals, The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, and Movin’ Out. I was curious to see how they’d look and sound after such long runs—especially in the summer, when Broadway shows are typically hit by a plague of cast changes and substitute performers. The results, not surprisingly, were mixed.
The Lion King looked best:
One reason why it’s so solid after all these years is that Julie Taymor’s puppet-driven staging doesn’t require world-class acting to make its effect. It’s less a traditional musical than a pageant, and at its best it’s a transportingly beautiful one. The catch is that none of the current principals are especially good singers, meaning that many of the solo numbers fall flat. This underlines the only other weakness of "The Lion King," which is that it is two shows, not one. The bold stage pictures and thrilling African-style choral numbers that make it so powerfully original sit uneasily alongside the juvenile fart jokes and insipid Elton John-Tim Rice ballads that make it so painfully Disneyesque. Even at its most cartoonish, "The Lion King" is worth seeing—very much so—but the producers should think about bringing in some new blood….
Mamma Mia! is also in great shape, if you can stand the show:
Broadway debutante Jenny Fellner and Broadway veteran Dee Hoty, the stars of the current cast, are terrific (Ms. Fellner charmed my socks off), and the rest of the company backs them up with improbable enthusiasm. Whether that’s enough to put a smile on your face depends on your tolerance for camped-up dance routines set to artificially flavored bubblegum rock. Mine, I learned, is low.
I had similar problems with Movin’ Out:
"Movin’ Out," the Billy Joel-Twyla Tharp all-dance "musical" (the only performers who sing are the members of the onstage band), also benefits from the energetic dancing of its excellent ensemble, which includes several members of the original cast, most notably Ashley Tuttle, an American Ballet Theatre ballerina who is delightful in the nice-girl role. I was warned in advance that I’d be seeing the usual summertime miscellany of subs and alternates, but whoever they were, they hoofed their hearts out.
The band, alas, has clearly performed Mr. Joel’s greatest hits several hundred times too many and is now on automatic pilot—competent but robotic. As for the choreography, it looks like every other kids-at-the-gym dance that Ms. Tharp has choreographed over the past three decades, and the vestigial plot, in which three New Jersey boys go off to Vietnam and learn about life’s cruelty, merely serves to make the proceedings more pretentious….
No link. For further theater-related opinionizing (including playgoing advice for visiting Republicans and their families), you can (A) buy today’s Journal or (B) subscribe to the online edition by going here. Both options are excellent.
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
"Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French."
P.G. Wodehouse, The Luck of the Bodkins
TT: One last thought before parting
Are bloggers legally responsible for the postings that appear in their comments sections? So far as I know, this question has yet to go to court, but I won't be at all surprised if it ends up there sooner rather than later, and when it does, you'll feel the earth move.
I've said it before, but I want to say it again, this time with a slightly different spin: if you blog, educate yourself about libel law. Blogging is no longer a hobby for wonks. It's a full-fledged form of electronic journalism. We've made the big time, much faster than most of us ever expected...and that's when the lawyers come calling.
I hope blogging will always remain spontaneous and unpredictable. But it's perfectly possible to be spontaneous and unpredictable without making yourself vulnerable to a libel suit by a litigious jerk with money to burn. Believe me, you don't want to go down in history as a test case.
That's my word to the wise for the day. I now resume radio silence.
TT: A day off (and its aftermath)
I have what in Vicwardian times was quaintly known as "a weak chest," meaning not that my figure is less than Greek (though it is, it is!) but that respiratory ailments are harder on me than on most people. When I get a cold, it has a way of sticking around, and it didn’t help that I hit the road for Massachusetts and Washington a few days after coming down with my most recent one. As a result, it didn’t go away, and soon I was laid low again. So I did something I normally find almost impossible to do: I took last Wednesday off. I didn’t write, didn’t blog, didn’t set foot out of my apartment, not even to go downstairs and pick up the mail. Surrounded by the temptation to work, I succeeded in putting it behind me for a whole day, and the better part of two more besides.
What do you do when you’re too sick to go out but not sick enough to sleep around the clock? Me, I like to reread familiar biographies, and this time around I opted for Peter Heyworth’s Otto Klemperer, His Life and Times: 1933-1973, the second volume of one of the few really first-rate biographies of an orchestral conductor. I’m sure it won’t strike most of you as promising sickroom fare, but Klemperer’s life was unusually interesting. In addition to being a great conductor (as this 1955 recording of Beethoven’s "Eroica" Symphony makes surpassingly clear), he was a full-blown manic depressive who converted from Judaism to Catholicism and back again, which makes for quite a tale. On top of all that, Klemperer is also the answer to one of the all-time great trivia questions, for his son Werner grew up to become an actor who carved his name into the tablets of history by playing the part of Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes. A refugee from Nazism who had a well-developed sense of irony, Otto lived long enough to see Hogan’s Heroes and find it amusing.
Rereading Heyworth’s book, I ran across this wonderful letter sent to Klemperer by Arnold Schoenberg, who may well have been the most arrogant person who ever lived. "After Klemperer had failed to accept an invitation to visit him," Heyworth writes, "Schoenberg wrote a letter of rebuke." Here it is:
I find it inappropriate that the extent or our meetrings should be determined by you…Anyone should consider it a pleasure as well as an honour if I enjoy seeing him often…Do not suppose that I am not aware of the gratitude I owe you for your many successful efforts concerning my material affairs. I am very conscious of that, do not and shall not forget it, and will seize every available opportunity to express my thanks practically. But my sense of order tells me..that every Kulturmensch [that is, "civilized person"] owes me tribute for my cultural achievements.
Isn’t that a hoot?
When I feel really lousy, so much so that I’m not even up to the challenge of letting my eyes glide passively over the pages of a thrice-read book, I stick to movies. Last Wednesday night, for instance, I watched Howard Hawks’ Red River, which I know well and love, and Only Angels Have Wings, which I’d never seen. Both of them hit the spot. I suspect there’s something about Hawks’ combination of exquisite cinematic craft and charmingly adolescent pseudo-stoicism that appeals strongly to a middle-aged man with a runny nose.
My day of rest was blissful, and it put me back on the slow road to recovery. But I knew well—too well—that so long as I stayed at home, my obsessive attitude toward work would sooner or later trip me up. Instead, I decided to do something even smarter and get out of town. I'd had such a good time on my first trip to Cold Spring that I figured I might as well do it again, so I called the Hudson House Inn and made a reservation. As soon as I sign off on this week's Wall Street Journal theater column, I’ll be catching the next train north from Grand Central Station, and I won’t be back until Thursday afternoon. A two-day break may not sound like much to you, but it’s a big deal to me, so wish me luck at relaxing.
And so...goodbye. I have a rendezvous with a park bench by the Hudson River. See you around.
TT: Start here
A reader writes:
Could you please name five jazz CDs the beginning listener should own?
Another reader writes:
I have loved watching dance over the years, but have almost no idea of what goes where and why. Could you please recommend four or five books that might give me a formal and historical introduction to the art?
I love e-mail like this, and I never get tired of answering it.
To Reader No. 1, here are five CDs containing music that I listen to often, all of it jazz but otherwise extremely varied in style:
• The Essential Louis Armstrong (Sony). A brand-new two-CD set by the greatest of all jazz musicians, not perfectly chosen but full of good things and easy to find.
• Duke Ellington, Masterpieces 1926-1949 (Proper). An unusually low-priced four-CD imported box set that contains most of Ellington’s best pre-LP recordings.
• Ken Burns Jazz Collection: The Definitive Charlie Parker (Sony). An exceptionally good single-disc introduction to bebop’s key figure.
• Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Sony). The most popular and influential jazz album of the Fifties.
• Pat Metheny, Bright Size Life (ECM). One of the earliest and most successful attempts to "fuse" jazz and rock. It still sounds fresh.
If you don’t like any of these recordings, you probably won’t like jazz.
Reader No. 2 should read these books, in this order:
• Robert Greskovic, Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet (Hyperion). The best introductory book about ballet ever written, by the much-admired dance critic of The Wall Street Journal.
• Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (Yale). A comprehensive, well-written, impeccably reliable history of ballet and modern dance.
• Edwin Denby, Dance Writings and Poetry (Yale). The only available collection of writings by the most important dance critic of the century.
• Writing in the Dark, Dancing in The New Yorker: An Arlene Croce Reader (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A superbly edited one-volume collection of reviews by the outstanding dance critic of the postwar era.
And, if I do say so myself:
• Terry Teachout, All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine (Harcourt). A short book about the greatest of all choreographers, written specifically for those who have either just discovered Balanchine’s ballets or are eager to do so. It’s out in November.
Speaking of All in the Dances, I just wrote and e-mailed to Harcourt, my publisher, a draft of the "flap copy," publisher-speak for the description of the book and its author that will appear on the dust jacket. Here’s what I wrote:
Martha Graham said that watching George Balanchine choreograph a ballet was like "watching light pass through a prism. The music passes through him, and in the same natural yet marvelous way that a prism refracts light, he refracts music into dance." Twenty years after his death, the ruthless, enigmatic founder of New York City Ballet still dominates the world of dance. He worked with Serge Diaghilev—and Sam Goldwyn. He made ballets to the music of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky—and to "The Stars and Stripes Forever." A Russian émigré who fell hopelessly in love with American culture, his four marriages and countless affairs (all of them with beautiful young ballerinas) became tabloid fodder. Though he turned ballet into a truly modern art, his plotless, seemingly abstract dances were as romantic as the genius who made them. "Put a man and a girl on the stage and there is already a story," Balanchine said. "A man and two girls, there’s already a plot." In clear, elegant prose, Terry Teachout tells the dramatic story of the greatest choreographer of the 20th century—and explains why his ballets will be even more significant in the century to come.
I always feel a little squirmy about writing my own flap copy, but I think it’s important enough to do myself, though I usually ask my publishers to send a preliminary draft. This time, they sent me 85 words, which I expanded and rewrote completely except for the part about "clear, elegant prose," which was their phrase, not mine. Of course I hope All in the Dances is written clearly and elegantly, but it’s not for me to say. Still, I thought it moderate enough to let pass. Flap copy is unsigned, and as Dr. Johnson wisely pointed out, "In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath."
Presumably this draft will go through the wringer in San Diego and be sent back to me for revision. If not, it’ll be poured into the layout for the dust jacket, which I should be seeing and approving some time in the next few days. Once that’s done, there’s nothing left to do but lock up the photo insert.
Have I said eeeeek yet?
Monday, August 9, 2004
TT: Guest almanac
"Journalist Murray Sayle reputedly said there were only three kinds of pieces: 1) 'We name the guilty man'; 2) 'Arrow points to defective part'; and 3) 'Everything you knew about X is wrong.’"
Mickey Kaus, Kausfiles (Aug. 9, 2004)
TT: Speaking of reviewers
Supermaud has a review in this week’s Washington Post Book World. It’s really, really good.
(I do, however, have a question: why didn’t she mention her blog in the reviewer’s bio?)
TT: Reality check
Just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose the following:
I’m the editor of an important book-review supplement. You’re a well-known professional writer of good repute. I commission a review of a controversial book from you. You submit a piece that is extremely strident in tone (but not obscene or actionably libelous) and with whose political implications I disagree very strongly. What should I do?
Here are some possible answers:
(A) Kill the review without further discussion.
(B) Rewrite and publish the review without consulting you.
(C) Insist that you rewrite the review to bring it into line with my views.
(D) Insist that you rewrite the review, leaving the opinions intact but toning down the rhetoric considerably.
(E) Sit on the review for two months, then run it in the back of the book.
(F) Run the review on time and feature it prominently, but with a disclaimer stating that it does not represent my views.
(G) Run the review on time and feature it prominently.
These things happen. They’ve all happened to me at one time or another. But if you answered anything but (G), you have no business being a book-review editor. Period. End of discussion. And if I did anything but (G), my guess is that you’d post a violent anti-me rant on your blog (assuming you had a blog) before the sun went down, accusing me of censorship, prior restraint, and every other awful thing you could think of.
Of course I’m talking about Leon Wieseltier’s review
of Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint in this week’s New York Times Book Review. And Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Book Review, is an old friend of mine (with whom I have not discussed this matter), meaning that you’re perfectly welcome to disregard anything I have to say in light of that disclosure. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the First Commandment of Book-Review Editing is that a review commissioned from a professional writer should be published essentially as is, unless it’s actionably libelous or incompetently written (by which I mean "written," not "argued"). To kill, rewrite, or request the revision of a review because you disagree with what it says smacks of censorship, perhaps not de jure but certainly de facto, and compromises the integrity of your publication.
Like him or not—and I don’t, to put it mildly—Leon Wieseltier is a distinguished editor and writer who runs one of the most admired book-review sections in the magazine business. If you ask him to review a book for you, it’s on the assumption that you’ll run what he writes. If I asked any of you to review a book for me, it would be on the same assumption.
I’m not defending Checkpoint, which I haven’t read. I’m not defending Wieseltier, whose writing I don’t admire, meaning that I wouldn’t have asked him to review Checkpoint in the first place. I'm not defending Wieseltier's review, which I thought inadequately argued to the point of unseriousness (I think Beatrice gets this just right). I’m not holding forth on the complexity of life in the bloody crossroads (though I think it’s worth pointing out that a novelist who writes novels with political content invites political comment—you can't have it both ways). I’m just trying, not for the first time, to explain how the book-review business works, and to encourage the many bloggers who are understandably angry about Wieseltier’s review to ask themselves some searching questions about how they think it ought to work.
Start with this one: how would you feel if you thought a review of yours had been killed because of the political views you expressed in it? Or if the editor excused his decision to kill the review by telling you, "I don't feel that you've made your case"?
Then try this one: if you were the editor of a magazine, how would you feel if your readers took it for granted that you agreed with every word printed in it?
UPDATE: The Elegant Variation responds:
I don't think a single blogger is taking issue with Wieseltier because he evinces political ideas we might disagree with. We object because he didn't fulfill his brief as a book reviewer. (If his piece had appeared in The Week in Review, I doubt you'd have heard a peep about it.) Let me pose yet another counter-scenario - I manage to land a NYTBR freelance gig and, reviewing a controversial novel, I hand in, word-for-word, the piece in question. What do you think my future as a reviewer would look like?
Of course I see what Mark means, but it’s beside my point: when you ask professional writers to review books for you, you should print what they write, whether you like it or not. I suspect that a lot of people who are weighing in on this issue think otherwise, and I wonder if they realize how slippery a slope they’re standing on.
Here’s some of what I picked up in the course of the past week’s Web surfing:
• I’m a Stephen Sondheim fan, but not a buff or cultist (there’s a difference). Something Old, Nothing New is very funny on the latter:
The term "Sondheim-Firster" was a term I invented to describe the sort of person who likes Stephen Sondheim but doesn't really like musicals. Some of the qualifications for Sondheim-Firster status were:
- Loves SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and PASSION above all other musicals. Lukewarm about COMPANY and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Thinks INTO THE WOODS is kind of a sellout. Hasn't seen A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM….
- Approvingly calls any Sondheim song "dissonant," whether it is or not….
- Ends a discussion of any Sondheim musical with the phrase "audiences weren't ready for it."…
- Evaluates *any* pre-1970 musical, including Sondheim's, by saying that it has "hints of what was to come later."
- Kind of bored by FOLLIES -- too many show tunes in it -- but knows it must be good because it makes middle-aged people uncomfortable.
I know the type.
I am always suspicious of writers who are able to compose finely honed reflections on their first days somewhere new and far away — in elaborate travelogs or journals or carefully crafted daybooks. Not that I’m a great stickler for accuracy, but the minute accounts of the strange, the fabulous, the new so often smack of disingenuous forms of writerly wish fulfillment. If there was any truth in their descriptions, their journals would more likely read:
Day 1 — Tired.
Day 2 — Still tired.
Day 3 — Overwhelmed.
Or is that just me?
• Alex took thoughtful note of my posting on the orange alert:
Terry Teachout asks some heavy questions about the point or pointlessness of writing about art in a dangerous time, and answers them movingly. What would I do if only a day remained? It doesn't do my mood much good to contemplate such questions, but at some point or another I would reach for Brahms' Intermezzos Opus 117, and in particular the first, which since age seventeen or so has been the music closest to my heart. Some years ago Radu Lupu made an irreplaceable recording of Brahms' late piano music. It offers something more than beauty — it gives sympathy, compassion, companionship. Other than that, I'd want to get out of the house and leave art behind. When, on September 11, I left the building from which I'd watched the terror unfold and joined the endless crowd of people walking up Seventh Avenue, I felt one of the most powerful emotions of my life, which was the feeling of belonging to a mass. Strange how seldom our so-called mass culture provides such a feeling. Even the rowdiest entertainments return us to the suburbs of solitude, our disconnectedness rushing back in.
• Similarly thoughtful reflections on TV talk from Shades of Gray (Umbrae Canarum):
What are we to expect from timed, limited, and narrow discussions on the television? Can we expect a serious, and deep, dialogue on any issue that will serendipitously end when a commercial break is required? Or is it more like what one anticipates in a WWE match - a choreographed conflict, with its ups-and-downs, its upsets and sure-things, always completed just in time for this message from "Old Spice"?
Perhaps it is no big thing. And yet, these are the types of shows that are (supposedly) "smart" television. Get away from O'Reilly - think of any other roundtable style program. If it does not degenerate into a shouting match, filled with the quick soundbite tidbits, the sheer lack of time prevents anything more than a superficial consideration of the ideas on the table. Can deep thinking, can true understanding, come from this sort of thing?…
Is there an avenue for the type of conversation that truly is enlightening? I don't know. Especially now, it seems often more the result of dumb luck (or divine providence, depending on your view) that a discussion can come about among the learned, concerned for the good, the true, the beautiful. In previous centuries, where literacy was lacking for many, perhaps these types of dialogues came about more easily, since the number actually able to discuss in an educated way was smaller. Now, we are almost all to a person half-educated, trying to speak the same way, or have chattering pundits speak for us.
But therein lies the problem. What appears to be the avenue for true intellectual discussion seems destroyed by increased literacy and education. There is no way to go back to before. Indeed, I doubt few if any of us would want to go back to such a time. So what now? Perhaps, as time goes on, those who are in love with the Intellect (as Barzun would define it) will find ways. What those ways would be, my imagination is lacking.
One word: radio. It’s not perfect, but in the past couple of years I’ve taken part in a number of radio interviews and conversations that were both pleasurable and stimulating. Especially in this new age of streaming audio, I have a good feeling about the future of radio as a creative medium.
• Thanks to Gnostical Turpitude, I learned that the Guardian ran an interesting profile of Paul Fussell, one that confirmed my longstanding impression of him as a person whom I’d rather read than meet (his vanity is forever peeping through). Nevertheless, Fussell tossed off any number of observant remarks to his interlocutor, as when he observed that H.L. Mencken, once his favorite satirist, was "deficient in the tragic sense." Into those five words are packed much of what it took me a whole book
• Caroline, or Change, which I loathed and panned (much to its dyspeptic author’s displeasure), is closing on Broadway after an unexpectedly short run. One of the show’s money men explains why:
Rocco Landesman, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters and a producer of "Caroline," said the show's advance sales took a precipitous drop at the end of August.
"The week of the convention would be absolutely disastrous for us to keep open," he said. "The Republicans are going to be occupied with the convention, and anyone who's not a Republican is going to be out of town."
Ah, yes, the celebrated Mr. Anyone, first cousin to Ms. Everyone I Know. In fact, a recent poll indicated that only 10% of New Yorkers plan to be out of town during the Republican convention. To Mr. Landesman, the rest of us peasants are presumably chopped liver—which may help to explain why Caroline, or Change is closing.
• Finally, Lileks pays a visit to Starbucks:
I was behind a fellow who had ten years on me; he was schooled in the old ways of joe. He placed his order thus:
"A cup of coffee, black."
"Room for cream?"
I was next. What would I like?
"I’d like a medium coffee," I said, since I’ll be gol-durned if I ever say "venti" to these people. I’ll give them Beijing for Peking, Hindu for Hindoo, but medium will be Medium until the day I die. "Black."
"Room for cream?"
Kids today. They don’t know. They’ve lost the lingo. When you’ve established that the nature of your coffee is BLACK, cream no longer enters into the picture. Ever. But you could walk up and say "Blorg chulavista spaz mocha" and she’d ask "Room for cream?" It’s the script. Hidden cameras record her every word. They beat her with burlap sacks stuffed with beans if she doesn’t say the words.
I’m perfectly willing to admit (albeit through clenched teeth) that the self-conscious avoidance of affectation is itself an affectation. In any case, I’ve never been much of a coffee drinker, and you’re not likely to see me stroll into a Starbucks save for the purpose of ordering a mocha frappucino, a drink the mere uttering of whose name makes me cringe with embarrassment. Nevertheless, I know the Old Ways of Joe from black-and-white movies, and if you should ever hear me use Italian to specify the size of a drink in any country other than Italy, you’ll know the pod people have paid me a visit.
TT: Words to the wise
The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s "Dark Streets and Vast Horizons: The American Vision of Anthony Mann" opens Wednesday at the Walter Reade Theater and runs through Aug. 29. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool film buff, that’s all I’ll need to tell you (in fact, you’ll already know about it). If not, here’s part of what the Film Society’s Web site has to say about Mann:
Anthony Mann, born Emil Anton Bundesmann, began his career in show business on the New York stage, first as a child actor, then as a production manager, and finally as a director. He was brought to Hollywood by David O. Selznick, and he shot many of the screen tests for Gone with the Wind and Rebecca. He left Selznick in the mid-40s and began his movie-directing career making a series of visually distinctive B pictures, each one more inventive than the next. Of his film noirs of the late 40s, most of them made with the great cameraman John Alton, Manny Farber wrote: "The films of this tin-can de Sade have a Germanic rigor, a caterpillar intimacy, and an original dictionary of ways in which to punish the human body." You can lose yourself in the velvety shadows of those films, and in their beautifully, almost geometrically precise action. Then, in the early 50s, Mann went outdoors with James Stewart and quietly altered the Western genre. Until they quarrelled during the production of Night Passage in 1957, Mann and Stewart made eight marvelous films together, the last seven in a row. The best of them introduced a new frankness to American cinema, thanks to the boldness of Stewart's often dangerously neurotic characterizations, and to the almost supernatural acuity of Mann's eye for the great outdoors….
To which I’d add only that it was Mann, not Alfred Hitchcock, who first put Jimmy Stewart in touch with the dark side of the force, making it possible for him to draw on the near-paralyzing fear he had known as a pilot in World War II and thereby adding a dangerous, disturbing edge to his already accomplished acting. The Stewart you see in Winchester ’73 (and, to a lesser extent, in the last reel of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) is the Stewart of whom Hitchcock would later make such fruitful use in Vertigo.
Mann’s Westerns are seen quite regularly on cable TV, but not such earlier exercises in film noir at its hardest and toughest as Raw Deal, which have to be sought out on DVD, usually in blurred, flimsy prints. In any case, you have no idea what you’ve been missing if you’ve never seen a classic Western in a theater. Now that the Film Society of Lincoln Center is finally screening all of Mann’s major work, I plan to go as often as my schedule permits. I've never seen any of these films on a large screen, nor have I ever seen a decent print of any of Mann's pre-Stewart films. I can't wait.
• The Naked Spur (1955, with Stewart and Robert Ryan), Aug. 11 and 13
• Bend of the River (1952, with Stewart), Aug. 11 and 12
• The Man from Laramie (1955, with Stewart), Aug. 12, 14, and 16
• Winchester ’73 (1950, with Stewart and Dan Duryea), Aug. 14
• T-Men (1947, with Dennis O’Keefe), Aug. 21 and 24
• Raw Deal (1948, with O’Keefe and Raymond Burr), Aug. 22 and 24
• Man of the West (1959, with Gary Cooper), Aug. 27 and 29
• Men in War (1957, with Ryan), Aug. 27
For more information, go here.
Saturday, August 16, 2003
"Music, as long as it exists, will always take its departure from the major triad and return to it. The musician cannot escape it any more than the painter his primary colors, or the architect his three dimensions. In composition, the triad or its direct extensions can never be avoided for more than a short time without completely confusing the listener. If the whim of an architect should produce a building in which all those parts which are normally vertical and horizontal (the floors, the walls and the ceilings) were at an oblique angle, a visitor would not tarry long in this perhaps 'interesting' but useless structure. It is the force of gravity, and no will of ours, that makes us adjust ourselves horizontally and vertically. In the world of tones, the triad corresponds to the force of gravity. It serves as our constant guiding point, our unit of measure, even in those sections of compositions which avoid it."
Paul Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition (1937, trans. Arthur Mendel)
Friday, August 15, 2003
Come back on August 25!
"About Last Night" is taking a well-deserved one-week vacation.
While I'm gone, please feel free to read last week's postings, browse the archives, or peruse anything that catches your eye in the right-hand column. (You can also visit artsjournal.com, my host, by clicking on the logo at the top of this page.)
In addition, I'll have a drama column in the August 22 issue of The Wall Street Journal, covering four additional shows from the New York International Fringe Festival.
Enjoy...and don't forget to come back on Monday, August 25.
Lights, camera...whoops, no lights!
A funny thing happened on the way to the theater yesterday afternoon. I was sitting at my desk, sending one last e-mail before I departed for a Fringe Festival performance of a musical about Robert Blake, when the lights quivered, dimmed, and died. Figuring the power on my Upper West Side block had gone out, I put my shoes on, walked downstairs in the dark, caught a cab…and realized by the time we’d gone 20 blocks that it wasn’t just my neighborhood. Assuming that there wouldn’t be any shows to see that day, I told the cabby to turn around.
Eighteen hours later, here I am, very sweaty and insufficiently slept but otherwise none the worse for wear. The power’s back on in my neighborhood, some of the restaurants are open, and I’m in the process of figuring out what to do next. I was supposed to see Les Ballets Trockaderos de Monte Carlo, the drag ballet troupe, outdoors at Lincoln Center this evening, but I don’t know whether that performance will be taking place, or any others. I listened to a wind-up radio last night, so I have some idea of what’s been going on, but I only just managed to get back onto the Internet. It’s a strange feeling, being out of touch in an age when we make a fetish out of being in touch. If it weren’t so damned hot, I’d say I kind of liked it.
In any case, I plan to remain out of touch, but for another reason. I’m leaving tomorrow (I hope!) for a week’s vacation, both from New York and from "About Last Night," and I won’t be taking my laptop with me, either. I need to rest up before the fall season starts. I’ll be back in the driver’s seat on Monday, August 25, and this page will remain visible and viewable in my absence, meaning that you can explore the archives and check out all the goodies in the right-hand column.
Don’t think I’m leaving you in the lurch. Would I do that? Here’s today’s list of topics, from penultimate to antepenultimate: (1) Blacked-out bloggers. (2) Dispatches from the Fringe. (3) CinemaScope and its discontents. (4) Whatever happened to Community Concerts? (5) The latest almanac entry.
For those of you who’ve written in the last couple of days, don’t be worried if all you’ve gotten back in return is an automated do-not-adjust-your-set message. It took a bit longer than any of us expected for artsjournal.com and its associated blogs, including this one, to recover from the chaos-inducing effects of the recent hack attack that left us temporarily paralyzed. (In case you're wondering, that also explains the ratty appearance of "About Last Night" all day yesterday and earlier this morning. Maybe that stupid kid in New Jersey turned off the power before the cops caught him!) Not surprisingly, I haven’t been able to answer all my e-mail, and I won’t even try to empty the bag until I get back. Like I said, be patient—your time will come.
See you on August 25!
Great posts on the blackout from Lileks (of course) and Megan McArdle (who blogs as
More as it unfolds, but now I've got to go write next Friday's drama column for The Wall Street Journal. The fun never stops around here....
Out of the blue
In this morning’s Journal, I report on the first weekend of the New York International Fringe Festival, which is presenting 202 shows in 21 off-off-Broadway houses through August 24. (At least I’m supposed to have done that—I haven’t yet seen a paper this morning, though I assume it was published normally.) Here’s what I wrote about one of the plays I saw:
Saturday, 1:45 p.m. Mr. Miyagi’s Theatre Company, about which I knew nothing whatsoever prior to laying eyes on its bargain-basement press release two weeks ago, has put together a deliciously knowing revue of sketches about what it’s like to take part in a really, really bad audition. "Sides: The Fear Is Real" (the title refers to the script handouts given to performers who try out for a role in a play, film or TV show) includes every imaginable audition-related horror story. Awful actors, puffed-up playwrights, sexually frustrated directors—you name it, "Sides" spoofs it, all in an hour and 15 minutes of high-speed, whip-smart comedy. Cindy Cheung is wildly loony as Cass, the worst casting director in the history of Hollywood, and her five colleagues are fully as sharp. This one’s ready for prime time….
To read about other Fringe plays (as well as my report on Melanie Griffith’s performance as Roxie Hart in the Broadway revival of Chicago, already covered here on Wednesday by guest blogger Demolition Angel), pick up a copy of today’s Journal. The "Weekend Journal" section, where I hang out on Fridays, is full of excellent things.
Next Friday’s Journal will contain more Fringe reviews. In the meantime, go here to check curtain times and order tickets.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center is presenting a series called "The Whole Wide World: Fifty Years of Widescreen Moviemaking," starting today (well, maybe not!) and running through Sept. 4 at the Walter Reade Theatre, next door to the Juilliard School. I recently received an e-mail about the series containing this sentence: "The inauguration of CinemaScope 50 years ago changed the way we look at movies." Literally speaking, of course, that’s true—movies do look different because of the invention of CinemaScope and the other widescreen processes that followed it—but did that change the way we look at them? And while we’re at it, was "Scope" (as film buffs love to refer to CinemaScope in lobby conversations, thus signifying their coolness) really such a great idea?
Like most art-related questions, this one isn’t as simple as it looks. Pre-Scope directors were mostly dubious about the various widescreen formats, which were introduced after World War II in order to help Hollywood compete with TV, the thought being that bigger pictures would tempt more Americans off their couches and back into their neighborhood movie houses. Older directors feared the loss of intimacy that would come from larger screens, and they were right to do so, as you can see by watching any of a hundred films shot in the Fifties by clueless directors who didn’t know what to do with all that extra space. In addition—though the inventors of CinemaScope couldn’t possibly have foreseen it—widescreen movies can’t be shown in their original form on a TV screen, whose "aspect ratio" closely resembles that of pre-Scope movies. Instead, the studios had to create special "pan-and-scan" prints of widescreen movies to be shown on TV, in which large chunks of the action simply vanished, letterbox viewing not yet having been contemplated. (For a viewer’s guide to aspect ratios, go here.)
In time, some older filmmakers got used to wider screens, while younger ones took the additional space for granted—which doesn’t necessarily mean they made good use of it. In examining the roster of widescreen films being shown at Walter Reade, I was struck by how few of them I’d go across the street to see. Yes, I’ll be glad to catch Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life, partly because James Mason is so good in it (I love his dark-brown Yorkshire accent) and partly because, like most of Ray’s films, it has yet to surface on DVD. But…Two-Lane Blacktop? El Cid? The Girl Can’t Help It? Aliens? Whenever I see schedules like this, I think to myself, film buffs are such geeks, by which I that whatever it is about movies that interests them, it isn’t their artfulness.
I told a friend of mine at lunch the other day that I thought the day would come when the producers of smart movies aimed at older viewers (i.e., anyone over 21) would bypass theatrical release altogether and market such films in more or less the same way novels are sold in bookstores. If that happens, I’ll be sorry to spend less time in theaters. The enveloping experience of watching a good film in a big, dark room—and in the company of a rapt audience—is unique and irreplaceable. Alas, it’s already been replaced, at least for most of us who love classic films. How many of the great movies of the past have you seen in a theater? Not many, I suspect, especially if you’re under 40 and don’t live in a film-friendly city like New York or Chicago
Naturally, watching a movie at home has its own advantages, if you have a good TV and it’s the right movie. But there’s a catch: in a world where most people watch serious movies at home, the widescreen films of the past are destined to lose much of their impact. It happens that I’d never seen The Bridge on the River Kwai before I rented the DVD last month, and though it made an impression on me, I’m sure that impression was diminished drastically by the fact that I watched it on a letterboxed TV screen, not in a theater.
Is it possible that widescreen filmmaking will be seen in the very long run as an aberration—even a mistake? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time a "superior" technology turned out to be an artistic dead end.
A reader sent me this excerpt from Piano Notes, a book by the pianist-author Charles Rosen:
Before one played a new piece in London, Berlin, or New York, it used to be possible to try out the program for a small audience. (Composers, of course, prefer that a premiere of their work be held in an important city with proper press coverage.) It is not, as one might think, easier to play in a small town than in a large capital, and the stage-fright that is magnified by playing a new work is more or less the same wherever the recital takes place. But confidence increases naturally with successive performances. The concert series that used to be held in hundreds of small communities is dying out. It is not that the public for them is diminishing, but it has not grown as rapidly as the public for rock concerts, and does not attract investment. Above all, the expenses of travel and publicity have mounted almost catastrophically. Only in large cities is the public concert still a normal constituent of social life.
I know what Rosen is talking about, though more from what an economist might call the demand-side point of view. I grew up in a small Missouri town that had its own Community Concerts series back in the Seventies, and was located just 30 miles from a larger town that had a more ambitious series of the same kind. As a result, I got to hear live performances by artists of quality (including David Bar-Illan, the Beaux Arts Trio, and the St. Louis Symphony) at a relatively early age, and the experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Such small-town performances, alas, are a thing of the rapidly receding past, as is classical music on commercial TV. It now seems barely believable to me that I first saw Vladimir Horowitz in a Carnegie Hall recital telecast in prime time on CBS.
All of which makes me wonder: would I have become interested in classical music had I not been exposed to it in such a way? I like to think so. I mean, I didn’t start looking at paintings until long after I moved to New York. In the church of art, there is always room for late vocations—but earlier is better, and in large parts of America that’s no longer an option.
Dark thoughts for the day before a vacation, I supppose. (No pun intended—I wrote that line before the power went out!) But if we don’t think them, who will?
Thursday, August 14, 2003
"It is perfectly correct to disregard all the bad reviews one gets, but only if at the same time, one diregards the good ones as well."
André Previn, No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood
Breaking the sound barrier
Howdy, friends. "About Last Night" here, the arts blog that does the impossible, meaning that I churn it out while simultaneously living the hectic life of a working critic in New York City. This week, for instance, I’m covering the New York International Fringe Festival for The Wall Street Journal, and I went to three plays yesterday. Three plays. Ouch! You’ll read about them in next Friday’s paper (my first report from the Fringe runs tomorrow). But I didn’t forget about you, and thanks in part to one of my invaluable guest bloggers, Our Girl in Chicago, I offer the following list of toothsome topics, from subversive to reactionary: (1) Joan Acocella up, Hilton Als down. (2) Whither AM radio goest, so goeth the common culture. (3) One man’s playlist. (4) The latest almanac entry.
No, we didn’t get hacked again, though the page looked a little peculiar this morning—our server is still cleaning up the mess from earlier in the week. (By the way, do you know who shut us down? A New Jersey teenager. The cops caught him.) All the more reason for you to go right out and tell ten friends about www.terryteachout.com. August is the cruellest month—many of my readers go off on vacation, without benefit of laptops. Now’s the time to introduce somebody new to "About Last Night," the 24/7 arts blog. Don’t let me be lonely tomorrow.
Goings on about town
Our Girl in Chicago writes:
The back of the book in this week’s New Yorker is a real roller coaster. It leads off with a typically smart review-essay by Joan Acocella about recent scholarly infighting over the historical origins of childhood. An Acocella byline is always good news. Here, she distills the lumpish books under review into their "good parts," conducting a brisk tour of the most relevant and striking historical ground they cover. She’s an even-tempered, fuss-free giant slayer:
A good deal of our intellectual life in the past half century has been ruled by the following pattern: First, a French person, with great brilliance and little regard for standards of evidence, promulgates a theory overturning dearly held beliefs.
As one who exceeded her own recommended lifetime allotment of academic writing some time ago, I say: Joan, you had me at "a French person." Flip a few pages, though, and the unsuspecting reader, knocked off guard by Acocella’s wit, seems to have strayed into an upmarket edition of FHM. Richard Avedon's creepy photo of a smirking, haphazardly clothed Chan Marshall, leader of the band Cat Power, stages the accompanying article's tagline in a laughably literal-minded way: "Cat Power demands attention, then resists it."
But at least the Avedon photo, for all its raincoat-flasher aesthetic, has a couple of things going for it. One, lots of fans don't really know what Marshall looks like. (When I saw Cat Power perform in Chicago this past March, it was maddening that the stage was unlit and her hair flopped over her face.) Two, the Hilton Als piece that goes with the picture is worse.
Cat Power's music
is ravishingly abstract. Marshall's famous voice is at once disaffected and melodramatic, the instrumentation spare, the effect like strong weather for the psyche. Als' piece seems to aspire to the same enigmatically profound condition. The problem is that Marshall is an artist, while Als is merely a critic—and not a very good one, either. After drawing out Cat Power's classic blues roots in a reasonable enough middle section, he staggers from one undercooked metaphor to another, calling Marshall in the space of one column a cowboy, a preacher, and "a fluid version of Liberty standing guard over the Harbor." To all of which, and much more, I can only say, "Huh?"
Yes, Marshall may be unprofessional and off-putting. She may also may be this generation's incarnation of the untamable spirit of rock and roll. (It’d be pretty surprising, though, if the faux scandal of a naughty glossy photo in The New Yorker did anything but puncture the latter image.) But whatever she is or isn’t, her great music deserves better—and smarter.
Something for everyone
I wish I could take it for granted that you read Lileks before breakfast, but since some of you probably don’t, allow me to draw the attention of the benighted to yesterday’s "Bleat," in which (among various other things) the indispensable James Lileks confesses to having developed a midlife taste for the country music he hated as a boy:
On the odd chance I shoot a home video that needs a song about an impotent Vietnam war vet imploring his wife not to go to town and do some hooking, I also ripped "Ruby" by Kenny Rogers. "If I could move I’d get my gun and put her in the ground." Cheery! Socially relevant! Once you realize that they usually followed this song with "Candy Man" by Sammy Davis Jr., you’ll know what a strange stew AM radio used to be.
That’s so quintessentially Lileksian (an adjective waiting to happen). I love his sharp turns—all of a sudden he swerves from Seventies country to the long-lost world of unformatted AM radio, where you really could hear a little bit of everything in the course of a day’s listening, from Paul Harvey to Top Forty to "Desafinado" and "Take Five."
Excuse me for a momentary lapse into being an intellectual, but the drying-up of unformatted radio is yet another sign of the fast-growing fragmentation of American culture. Time was when there were mass-media "meeting places" where you could get a quick taste of life outside your cultural niche, no matter which niche you happened to inhabit. Time and Life used to fulfill that function. So did TV variety programs like The Ed Sulllivan Show. So, to a surprising extent, did commercial radio.
And now? Well, I’m trying to do something similar, in my Web-based, eggheady way, but I suspect that to the marketers, who see the world through category-colored glasses, we "About Last Night" types are our own little niche—the niche of people who like to peer into other people’s niches. Call us The Eclectics. The Unpredictables. Slap a label on us and sell us our very own brand of designer beer.
Won't you turn that bebop down?
I usually listen to music while I’m editing—my iBook contains an iTunes player onto which I have loaded 2,646 songs to date—and I thought it might amuse you to know the ones I played as I polished up today’s blog:
(1) The Beatles, "Lovely Rita" (I love Paul McCartney’s swoopy bass line)
(2) Pat Metheny, "A Lot of Livin’ to Do"
(3) Earl Hines, "Love Me Tonight"
(4) Buddy Rich, "Love for Sale" (dig that single-stroke roll at the end!)
(5) Dwight Yoakam, "Long White Cadillac"
(6) Woody Herman and His Woodchoppers, "Lost Weekend"
(7) Glenn Miller and His Army Air Force Band, "Flying Home"
(8) Elvis Costello, "Pump It Up"
(9) Bobbie Gentry, "Ode to Billie Joe"
(10) Steely Dan, "Monkey in Your Soul"
Wednesday, August 13, 2003
"The number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves is very small indeed."
Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Critic
None the worse for wear
As those of you who design Web sites could see, "About Last Night" looked the least little bit untidy yesterday afternoon, and you may also have wondered why I didn't post anything new that morning.
Here's the scoop. According to artsjournal.com, my host, the company that runs our content management system was on the receiving end of a Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDOS). In plain English, this means that sociopathic Webheads were hacking into the system and screwing us up, just for fun. Their hijinks shut me down completely yesterday, and I still have a few minor repairs to make, but at least "About Last Night" is up and running again. Everything should be back to normal fairly shortly (he said, with a sickly smile plastered across his pasty-white face).
All in all, Monday and Tuesday were Two of Those Days. I spent far too much time in taxis, racing from theater to theater and coming home just long enough to change shirts (New York is disgustingly humid this week). But no matter how hectic things got, "About Last Night" was rarely far from my mind. Fortunately, one of my guest bloggers, Demolition Angel, was kind enough to shoulder some of today’s load, thereby making it possible for me to get a more or less normal night’s sleep. Between us, we cooked up the following list of topics, from causal to coincidental: (1) Melanie Griffith, Broadway star? Puh-leeze. (2) One great composer deserves another. (3) Riffling through the mailbag. (4) The latest almanac entry.
Incidentally, this site racked up well over 1,500 page views on Monday—more even than last Wednesday, when my Wall Street Journal column
about Andy Warhol’s 75th birthday brought in a sizable spurt of new visitors. Keep that curve sloping upwards by telling a friend about www.terryteachout.com.
Don’t do it tomorrow. Don’t do it later today. Do it now. The fate of the West is in your hands.
Demolition Angel writes from New York:
The producers of Chicago ought to be ashamed of themselves for hiring Melanie Griffith to step into the role of foxy Roxie Hart. Indeed, Griffith is a triple threat: she can’t sing, she can’t dance, and she can’t act. She’s hot, though, and when she first appears on stage, it seems for a fleeting moment as if Roxie had been created just for her. But no sooner does the time come—all too quickly—for her to sing the first note of her first number, performed as she holds onto a ladder, than Griffith proves incapable of hiding her fear of…what? Heights? The audience? The next sound that might come out of her mouth? The fear only gets worse when she has to start dealing with Ann Reinking’s Bob Fosse-style choreography, tough stuff even for real dancers.
Is that all there is? By no means. Brent Barrett as Billy Flynn and Camille Saviola as Mama are striking and energetic and—well, talented. The ensemble is still sexy, and "Cell Block Tango" is funnier than ever. Deidre Goodwin is back as Velma Kelly, and though she’s not much of an actress and lacks the finesse and nuance supplied in spades by Bebe Neuwirth, her powerful pipes and even more powerful body help her bring off the role. But by the final dance number, trimmed within an inch of its life so that Griffith can stagger through it, our erstwhile blonde bombshell looks like a deer in the headlights, hoping the big oncoming vehicle will swerve around her instead of knocking her flat. No such luck.
Sometimes I like to go country dancing and watch (or be) the tipsy chick trying to follow a line dance for the first time. It’s fun, and the effort of doing something new is brave—but watching Melanie Griffith make that same effort isn’t worth the price of a Broadway ticket.
It’s worth noting that in the four weeks since "About Last Night" first went live, I haven’t felt the need to recommend a single new classical CD to you. That says something about the increasingly desperate state of the classical recording industry. Still, good things do find their way to my desk from time to time, and "good" isn’t nearly strong enough a word to describe the latest release from BBC Records, a 1971 broadcast of the Mozart Requiem conducted by Benjamin Britten.
In addition to being one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, Britten was also an extraordinarily gifted pianist and conductor. But even though he made many commercial recordings for Decca/London, they were mostly (though not always) of his own music. Fortunately, the BBC also taped dozens of concerts in which Britten can be heard performing the music of his favorite composers, and this one ranks right up there with his unforgettable BBC broadcasts of the Mahler Fourth and Shostakovich Fourteenth Symphonies. Not that he does anything obviously startling. As always with Britten the performer, the insights are contained within an essentially traditional interpretative framework—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there in abundance. His approach to the Mozart Requiem is both weighty and rhythmically forceful, with sonorities built from the bass line upward (an approach typical of many other composer-performers as well). The result is at once fresh and "centric," so to speak.
The recording was made at a 1971 performance by the the Aldeburgh Festival Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra, and four of Britten’s favorite solo singers. It’s well sung and well played, with slightly congested but otherwise serviceable sound—none of which matters in the least. If you had a chance to hear Felix Mendelssohn conduct Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, you wouldn’t pass it up because the organ was out of tune, would you?
Should you require additional persuasion (and you shouldn’t), the filler is a half-hour interview in which Britten talks about such subjects as the process of composing, opera on TV, and his reluctance to teach. It’s worth the price of the album all by itself.
On your mind
Here are some letters I’ve received in the past couple of weeks:
- With reference to your correspondent who noted the New Yorkiness of your site: First, New York is, and will remain, the center of the arts in this country, so we need for you to have that vantage point to remind us of the virtues of Blossom Dearie and to make us aware of artists we might otherwise never encounter. And anyway, what do Joel McCrea and Eddie Stubbs have to do with New York? Your blog is the new first-thing-in-the-morning for my wife and me, and we live in Roanoke, Virginia, for heaven's sake!
- I invite your suggestions for a prettier neologism with which to replace "blog." I suggest "ediary" (from, obviously, e for electronic and diary for, um, diary), but—and here's what makes it elegant—pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, as in apiary or breviary. I also thought of "idiary" (for Internet diary) but it somehow seems to imply low intelligence on the part of the blogger. Another suggestion is "enchaineton"—an online version of feuilleton (since feuilleton is "little leaf" for the French, and enchainement is what they call a web).
- I'd like to see critics of Broadway shows make judgments on the intelligibility of the words we are supposed to be hearing. If you compare the old South Pacific vs. what we have now, there is a world of difference. Clear-as-a-bell to mumbling. Is everyone lazy?
- Imagine my amazement when I entered the world of Blog as a result of reading your Andy Warhol column. I read every blog word (really) and that's not what I'm supposed to be doing at work! I am a piano teacher by choice, but a secretary by circumstance. I really prefer teaching piano, but the income doesn't support the household of one daughter and 2 cats (down from 6). I continue to teach in the evening and on Saturday, but that's not where the big bucks are! Thank you for your entertaining diary and keep it up! Best wishes from Viewer No. 1399 in California.
- I remember Warhol and the effect he had on people from my 60's college days. Every now and then, someone who is very articulate says something that expresses what you would like to have said to the world—and it makes your day.
Your letters make my day. Please keep on writing.
Monday, August 11, 2003
"One is justified in leaning towards severity in the laying down of principles, but should nearly always incline to indulgence in the application of them."
Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism
The joint is jumping
"About Last Night" is one month old today. Champagne will be served tonight at an undisclosed location.
Is anybody still in New York? I sure am—I’m covering the New York International Fringe Festival for The Wall Street Journal (about which more below), and I’ve seen six plays since you last heard from me, so don’t be surprised if I sound a little testy from time to time. You’ll read about my theatrical adventures throughout the coming week, as well as various other things I’ve seen, heard, done, and thought. Meanwhile, here are today’s topics, from fade-in to blackout: (1) Give your waitress a really big tip today—she’s probably an actor. (2) What to do when friends make art. (3) Another round of "In the Bag." (4) The latest almanac entry.
This is to give you fair warning that www.terryteachout.com, meaning me, will be out of town next week, far beyond the reach of e-mail. I’ll be posting through Friday, after which the shop shuts down, not to reopen again until the morning of Monday, August 25. (You’ll be able to visit the archives and use "Sites to See" to visit other arts blogs during my absence.)
I need the rest—but I’m still having fun.
P.S. If you’re an early riser, my apologies for getting today’s postings up so late—the server was down.
Hope in a black box
A drama critic who spends most of his evenings covering Broadway and off-Broadway openings tends to forget that most of the plays being staged in New York on any given night are performed in tiny little theaters consisting of a ratty lobby, a smallish rectangular performance space whose ceiling, walls, and floor are painted black (hence the name "black-box theater"), and an even smaller backstage area (often indistinguishable from the hall). Such places are typically situated on blocks so unfashionable that you look twice at your appointment book to be sure you’ve come to the right place. Then you climb up a flight or three of stairs, settle into a creaky old theater seat, and wait to see what happens next. Often it’s painfully earnest. Sometimes it’s downright awful. Every once in a while, though, the black box turns into a time machine in which you spend an hour or two exploring a parallel universe of the imagination, and when the lights come up again, you remember why you love theater, and why the waitress who served you brunch in between callbacks loves it, too.
The New York International Fringe Festival, which is currently presenting 200-odd plays in 21 off-off-Broadway houses scattered throughout lower Manhattan (it runs through Aug. 24), is dedicated to the proposition that there’s more to theater than Beauty and the Beast. More than a few of the plays are stinkers, and my guess is that most are no better than adequate. But some are remarkable, while even the worst ones can be oddly touching, in part because you can smell the hope oozing out of the pores of the actors on stage (if you want to call it that—many black-box theaters are so small that the word "stage" loses its meaning).
I went down to the East Village the other day to see a Fringe play that I more or less picked out of a hat. I didn’t know anything about the playwrights or the company, but something about the press release tickled my fancy, and I wanted to see at least one show not on account of The Buzz but simply because it sounded interesting. So I requested a pair of press seats, and when the appointed hour arrived, I boarded the subway and made my way to the theater. I had to change trains twice—not a good sign.
Once I got there, the sidewalk was crowded with chattering playgoers, some coming, others going. The theater itself, somewhat to my surprise, was air-conditioned, but in every other way it conformed to my darkest expectations. The program was a single photocopied sheet, the set a half-dozen folding chairs, and it didn’t take much eavesdropping before I figured out that the house was packed with friends and family of the cast members (including small children), all of whom laughed and clapped at every possible opportunity (especially the small children).
Sounds awful, no? Fooled you. Fooled me. I loved the show, and not just because the homely surroundings made me feel sympathetic, either. Just the opposite: I sat in my lumpy seat for five minutes waiting for the lights to go down, muttering to myself, Oh, man, this is going to be crappy. But no more than a minute after the play started, I started saying, Oh, wow, this is really good!
Do I come to a performance with expectations? Of course. How could I not? I’ve been a critic for a quarter-century, and in that time I’ve learned not to bet too heavily against the odds. More often than not, you can judge a book by its cover. But I’ve also learned to leave myself open to the possibility that the odds might be wrong this time around, and when I hear that telltale click in your head and realize that something I expected to be bad is actually good…well, it’s just about the best feeling I know.
I went to two other plays that day, one of which was lousy and the other fine. I got rained on all night, spent a couple of hours sweating in a sauna-hot theater, and came home soaked to the skin. It didn’t matter. I knew that come week’s end, I was going to write a review that would make a gaggle of struggling young actors very, very happy. Rave reviews don’t necessarily make much difference in the hard life of a performer. (I once wrote a glowing profile for the Sunday New York Times of a singer who was all set to open in a theater-district cabaret…on September 12, 2001. Needless to say, she didn’t get much bounce from that piece.) Still, they don’t hurt, especially when they come from out of the blue. Which is one of the reasons—and one of the best ones—why I do what I do.
A reader writes:
All of yr. posts where you talk abt. hanging out w/ musicians and painters raise the specter of the critic who's friendly w/ those he writes abt. I imagine I know where you stand on this, that it doesn't change how you write abt. them, but it could make for an interesting discussion.
Sure could. It’s a tricky business, being in the world of art but not of it…but wait a minute. I’m not a priest, right? Nope, just a freelance journalist, and one who believes deeply that anyone who tries to write about art without knowing artists is going to make a rotten job of it.
At the same time, I should point out that I’m not at present a regular working performance critic in any field other than theater. Speaking in my official capacity as drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, I can assure you that I know a grand total of two (2) actors, both of whom are among my closest friends and both of whom I knew long before I hooked up with the Journal. I’ve never mentioned either one in my drama column.
Beyond that, I make no promises, nor should you expect me to. Many of my other friends are artists working in other media. I have occasion to write about some of them from time to time, and the fact that I know them personally does change what I write—for the better. Because I know certain artists well and have talked to them at length about their art, I understand it more fully, and can explain it more intelligently. In the process, I also learn more about the worlds in which they work, and that makes my writing more nuanced and comprehending. (My writing is probably also affected in much the same way by the fact that I myself used to be a professional musician once upon a time.)
I might add that it seems to me perfectly natural for a person who writes about the arts to befriend artists whom he admires, so long as they’re nice. Needless to say, this isn’t always the case, though it turns out to be true surprisingly often. Three or four of my best friends are artists whom I got to know in the course of writing about them, and they’re very nice.
(In case you’re wondering, the thought occasionally crosses my mind that this niceness might in certain cases have something to do with the fact that I’ve written nice things about the artists in question. Yes, it’s happened once or twice, and it stings when you realize you’ve been snookered, but that goes with the territory. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I’ve gained a whole lot more than I’ve lost.)
Does any of this affect my writing for the worse? Maybe. But in the end, you must judge me not by some abstract theory about my work, but by the work itself. Do you tend to agree with what I write? Even if you don’t, do you find it illuminating? If so, then it doesn’t really matter whether I happen to know the people who made the works of art I recommend, does it? A lot of readers, after all, seem to think I’m a trustworthy critic, and the reason why they do is because their experience has taught them to trust my taste. I’ve worked hard at building that trust. It’s my capital. I wouldn’t dream of squandering it by writing a favorable review of a bad work of art by a good friend. I never have, and I never will.
One more thing: I teach a course in criticism at Rutgers/Newark University, in which I spend a few minutes early in the semester talking about conflicts of interest. Rule No. 1 of arts journalism, I tell my students, goes like this: "Never sleep with anybody you write about." That gets their attention—especially since I put it more bluntly than that.
Either way, it’s a good rule to live by.
In the bag
Time once again to play "In the Bag," my version of the old desert-island game—with a twist. In this variant, the emphasis is on immediate and arbitrary preference. You can put five works of art into your bag before departing for the proverbial desert island, and you have to decide right now. No dithering—the enemy is at the front door, lasers blazing. No posturing—you have to say the first five things that pop into your head. What do you stuff in the bag?
As of this moment, here are my picks:
BOOK: Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies, a Love Story
MUSIC: Maurice Ravel, String Quartet in F Major
PAINTING: Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Basket of Wild Strawberries
SONG: Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, I Wonder What Became of Me (as sung by Joe Mooney)
FILM: William Wyler, The Heiress
Over to you.
"We followed Jo as she marched out of the room with that fanaticism known only to an overachiever, one who lives with the eternal fear that some lurking underachiever will, in a flash of brilliance, achieve more."
Samuel Shem, The House of God