In today's Wall Street Journal drama column, I review the four shows I saw in California last week, Speed-the-Plow at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, The Four of Us at the Old Globe in San Diego, Life Is a Dream at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, and Hedda Gabler at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco:
Going to Los Angeles to see David Mamet’s snarlingly comic snapshot of the movie business is like going to a sausage factory to make fun of the pigs, and this production pulls no punches. Greg Germann and Jon Tenney come on like buzzsaws as Charlie and Bobby, the up-and-coming studio execs who claim to be proud of their artistic whoredom, while Ms. Silverstone is just right as Karen, the (seemingly) innocent office girl who falls into their clutches….
Itamar Moses made a biggish splash two seasons ago with “Bach in Leipzig,” a historical fantasia in the manner of Tom Stoppard whose cocky virtuosity was all the more impressive in light of the fact that its author was just 28 years old. Now the Old Globe is putting on Mr. Moses’ latest play, “The Four of Us,” a two-man comedy about a pair of twentysomething writers, one of whom (Gideon Banner) is more successful than the other (Sean Dugan). “Nobody gives a damn about a writer and his problems except another writer,” Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker, famously declared. Mr. Moses has proved him wrong, for “The Four of Us” turns out to be a graceful little meditation on friendship and envy, smart and sweet and deftly pointed….
South Coast Repertory is a suburban theater (it’s 45 minutes from downtown Los Angeles when traffic is light, which it usually isn’t) known for having given the first performances of such successful plays as “The Clean House,” “Intimate Apparel,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Wit.” It’s also the West Coast home of Kate Whoriskey, one of America’s most creative young directors. Her latest show is a new translation by Nilo Cruz (“Anna in the Tropics”) of “Life Is a Dream,” Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1635 verse drama about a prince (Daniel Breaker) who doubts the reality of the world he sees around him….
Ms. Whoriskey is a hot name on the regional-theater circuit, but she hasn’t done anything in New York since the 2004 premiere of Lynn Nottage’s “Fabulation” at Playwrights Horizons. Don’t ask me why. Like all of her productions, this one is outrageously imaginative and unfailingly absorbing….
My last “Hedda Gabler” was the Sydney Theatre Company’s sped-up, semi-modernized adaptation, in which Cate Blanchett gave a flamboyant performance that reminded me of Bette Davis on a bumpy night. After seeing that wrong-headed but undeniably exciting production, I couldn’t help but feel that A.C.T.’s plain-Jane version was a bit too respectable for its own good….
No free link. Buy today’s Journal at your neighborhood newsstand, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal so that you can read all of the Journal’s Friday arts coverage, my drama column included. (If you’re already a subscriber, my column is here.)
My “Sightings” column in Saturday's Wall Street Journal is a meditation on the dangers of specialization. Can a critic know so much about his chosen field that he becomes incapable of appreciating the art he experiences? Not usually—but sometimes connoisseurship can get in the way of pleasure. To find out how, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows 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.
"All my life I’ve been harassed by questions: Why is something this way and not another? How do you account for that? This rage to understand, to fill in the blanks, only makes life more banal. If we could only find the courage to leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence."
So what are the chances? Like Terry, I've been stricken with a vicious cold. Like Terry, I can't miss any work this week. Ergo, blogging cedes ground to sleeping this week. I'm about to knock myself out cold with some Theraflu and stay that way as long as the alarm will allow. Talk to you when I can sit up straight again.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, February 28, 2007 | Permanent
TT: Life is unfair
I seem to have caught a cold. No doubt I picked it up last weekend in an airplane cabin, which doesn't make me any happier about it. How could I possibly have gotten sick just when I have to spend the whole day writing about Tom Stoppard for Commentary, followed by a trip to the theater district to see Alfred Molina in Howard Katz? Damn, damn, damn.
Ah, well, the hell with it. In the immortal words of James Burnham, if there's no alternative, there's no problem. Back to work.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 28, 2007 | Permanent
“I am pretty sure that, if you will be quite honest, you will admit that a good rousing sneeze, one that tears open your collar and throws your hair into your eyes, is really one of life’s sensational pleasures.”
Robert Benchley, “Hiccoughing Makes Us Fat”
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 28, 2007 | Permanent
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
TT: In the barrel
As always after a long absence, I find my desk piled high with accumulated work that can't be put off. I spent Monday chipping away at it and expect to spend the rest of the week doing the same. Count on the usual almanac entries and theater-related postings, and Our Girl will hold forth as usual on Wednesday, but otherwise I have no immediate plans to hold forth in this space other than briefly.
Apropos of Monday’s posting about my visit to Los Angeles, a friend who now lives in New York writes:
I'm from California, and had a close college friend who lived in Santa Monica, but other than strolling along the Palisades—the romance of palm trees, and they really are so ridiculous as to have to be romantic—I never really spent any time in LA until a few years ago, the coldest winter, when a close friend and I took off for LA with some sort of pipe dream of leaving everything and moving—really, anywhere. Anywhere that was absolutely elsewhere. And LA, from what we knew (nothing, really), seemed like a pretty good fit.
It felt just like you said: where was the there? Avenues extended for miles and miles and then a tiny huddle of shops and cafes that the natives thought counted as a neighborhood. I suspect all the action happens indoors. Did you go inside any of the Spanish-style homes? They're laid out in such a luxurious way. Ample square rooms with windows on all sides and the palm trees leaning in. The rents are low. You can have space. I think people don't mind getting in their cars and driving to one another's houses because when they get there, they get to stretch their legs. Here we live in closets, which takes some of the appeal off spending an hour driving around in one.
The one thing, though, I really loved (vain creature that I am) is that whenever we would stop driving and go into some funky cafe, everyone would look up. The neighborhoods, such as they are, are so isolated from one another and at the same time so possible to get to—and people will drive—that anyone walking in the door could be someone you want to know. As a Californian, I loved that. I loved all that misplaced hope....
"Certainly for us of the modern world, with its conflicting claims, its entangled interests, distracted by so many sorrows, so many preoccupations, so bewildering an experience, the problem of unity with ourselves in blitheness and repose, is far harder than it was for the Greek within the simple terms of antique life. Yet, not less than ever, the intellect demands completeness, centrality."
Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance
Not having seen a new movie for the past year and a half, why would I bother? The only impact this year’s award ceremony had on me was that I had an unexpectedly tough time finding a hotel room in Los Angeles last week—it took me three tries.
Which reminds me: Manhattan looked awfully gray when I got back home late Sunday afternoon. Now it looks awfully white. The contrast between the heaps of dirty snow that line the streets of the Upper West Side and the blindingly blue San Diego sky beneath which I walked to the theater on Saturday afternoon was instructive, not to mention depressing. But I still love New York. Really!
“I kissed him, but I never knew him,” Ingrid Bergman is supposed to have said about Humphrey Bogart. That’s sort of how I feel about my first visit to Los Angeles: I spent three days there, but I still don’t quite know what I saw.
Los Angelenos, I gather, are sensitive to stereotypes, especially the ones they come up with themselves. Now I understand why. I saw enough of their home town to know that it would take me a lifetime to see the rest of it, and though one cliché turned out to be painfully self-evident—the traffic is really, truly awful—I can’t say I found any of the others useful. I’ve never seen a city that was more resistant to generalization, not even the one in which I live.
Raymond Chandler famously claimed in The Little Sister that Los Angeles had “no more personality than a paper cup,” but that oft-quoted sideswipe deserves to be cited in context:
“I used to like this town,” I said, just to be saying something and not to be thinking too hard. “A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good hearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum either.…
“Now we get characters like this Steelgrave owning restaurants. We get guys like that fat boy that balled me out back there. We’ve got the big money, the sharp shooters, the percentage workers, the fast-dollar boys, the hoodlums out of New York and Chicago and Detroit—and Cleveland. We’ve got the flash restaurants and night clubs they run, and the hotels and apartment houses they own, and the grifters and con men and female bandits that live in them. The luxury trades, the pansy decorators, the Lesbian dress designers, the riffraff of a big hardboiled city with no more personality than a paper cup….”
So quote Chandler if you will—I do it all the time—but remember that he was expressing the point of view of a grumpy, middle-aged nostalgia merchant who hated Los Angeles in 1949 because it wasn’t Los Angeles in 1919.
A better description of the city as it is now, or at least as it appeared to me last week, is to be found in Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz:
Los Angeles has no true neighborhoods—instead its distinctive cultures stretch out horizontally along specific streets. Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Strip, Mulholland Drive, Olvera Street, Rodeo Drive, La Cienega—these are to Southern California what Greenwich Village and Soho are to New York. They are Los Angeles’ linear neighborhoods, its criss-crossing geometry of local colors. Each of these Southern California streets boasts a unique sensibility, one that defies city limits and zoning laws—a Sepulveda, a La Cienega might cut through a half-dozen separate townships without losing its special aura, although a couple blocks on either side of these thoroughfares city life collapse back into the faceless anonymity of cookie-cutter car culture. Travelers from other parts of the globe, faced with this specifically West Coast phenomenon, can see only urban sprawl—looking for village geography, they miss the stories encrusted alongside the pavement, the flora and fauna of the LA city street.
That’s the Los Angeles I saw, or thought I saw, and it’s so complicated that it’d be presumptous for me to say that I liked or disliked it. How can one affect to like or dislike a place so incorrigibly miscellaneous? Nothing there seems to fit together, just as nothing looks quite like you expect it to look. No sooner did I walk into the lobby of the Geffen Playhouse than I said to Stephanie Steward, the friend who showed me around town, “This place doesn’t look like a theater—it looks like an Italian restaurant.” The truth turned out to be even stranger: it was originally a Masonic clubhouse, just as my fancy boutique hotel had once been a Holiday Inn.
So what can I tell you about the City of Angels? Only what I saw with my own eyes. I saw two plays, both of them performed by well-established professional theater companies, of which Los Angeles and its environs have a goodly number. I saw Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills, and the Capitol Records building at Hollywood and Vine. I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House and the Getty Museum, the second of which is less a museum than a site—everybody who goes there comes away talking not about the paintings but the view, with good reason. I lunched at Pink’s, California’s most famous hot-dog stand, and dined at the Westwood In-N-Out Burger and Hamburger Mary’s, a West L.A. restaurant and karaoke bar in which I saw Jane Lynch get up and sing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” much to the delight of the jumbo drag queen who introduced her. (That was my only celebrity sighting, unless you count Alicia Silverstone's performance in Speed-the-Plow at the Geffen.) I shopped at Record Surplus, which was like Championship Vinyl on steroids. I went to bed late each night, woke up against my will at five-thirty each morning, and wrote and edited several thousand words of prose in between my various appointments.
By the time I left for San Diego on Saturday morning, I was so tired that I barely knew my name, and I'd seen and done so much that I was no longer capable of taking in anything but the play I flew there to see, Itamar Moses' The Four of Us. All I can tell you about the final stop on my whirlwind tour of the Golden State is that Balboa Park is pretty. The rest will have to wait for my next visit.
As for Los Angeles, I hope to go back there soon, though I don't expect to understand it any better the second time around, or even the third. I’m too old to figure it out. All I can do is relax and enjoy the ride, then go back home and shake my head in puzzlement at its antinomian inexplicabilities. Some things—perhaps most things—are meant to be experienced, not understood.
“Prejudices are useless. Call Los Angeles any dirty name you like—Six Suburbs in Search of a City, Paradise with a Lobotomy, anything—but the fact remains that you are already living in it before you get there.”
Here's a little taste of my next “Sightings” column, which appears biweekly in the “Pursuits” section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:
After Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, the two most widely admired singers in the history of jazz are Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. They were officially canonized by inclusion in “The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz” along with Armstrong, Holiday and Bessie Smith, the only vocalists to be so honored. Their recordings, Fitzgerald’s in particular, continue to this day to be sliced, diced, repackaged and reissued in box sets and best-of-the-best compilations. To publicly suggest that they might have been less than perfect is thus to pin a bull’s-eye on your chest—but I don’t much enjoy listening to either one of them, and never have.
In saying so, I know I’m going up against a wealth of highly credentialed contrary opinion….
As always, there's lots more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.
Friday has arrived, and though I’m elsewhere, Our Girl has kindly consented to post this week’s Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. It’s a double-barreled hallelujah for two new Off Broadway plays, John Patrick Shanley’s Defiance and Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore:
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but John Patrick Shanley has followed up “Doubt,” the best play of the 2004-05 season, with a new play of identical quality, performed to perfection by an equally fine cast.
“Defiance” is going to make a star out of Stephen Lang, whom I last saw in “Beyond Glory,” his riveting one-man show about eight winners of the Medal of Honor. Alas, “Beyond Glory” hasn’t played New York yet (I saw it in Chicago last fall). It belongs here, though, and I have no doubt that some smart producer will bring it to Broadway after seeing Mr. Lang burn up the stage in “Defiance.” Here he plays Lt. Col. Morgan Littlefield, a hard-headed yet unexpectedly idealistic Marine who’s keeping a secret that’s about to blow up in his face, and who can’t see why one not-so-little mistake (don’t ask—it’s better if you go in not knowing) should turn his otherwise blameless career into a handful of ashes....
One terrific follow-up deserves another: Martin McDonagh, who made the same kind of splash with “The Pillowman” that Mr. Shanley did with “Doubt,” is back again with a show that’s fully as impressive. “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” now playing Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater, is a tar-black comedy based on a daring and ingenious conceit: It portrays a cell of murderous Irish terrorists as a gaggle of drunken halfwits who love their pets more than their fellow men. Padraic (David Wilmot), the title character, is a psychopath whose only friend, a black cat named Wee Thomas, has been bludgeoned to death by persons unknown, thus inspiring his irate owner to start killing everyone in sight (“I’m just in the middle of shooting me dad,” he cheerfully remarks at one point)….
No link, so do your duty and shell out a buck for a copy of the Friday Journal. Better yet, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with instant access to the full text of my review, plus plenty more art-related coverage where that came from.
Having grown up in a small Midwestern town in the Sixties, most of my formative cultural experiences came to me via network television. This was one of them:
[Louis] Armstrong's moral wholeness was caught in the words his mother spoke to him on her deathbed in 1927: ''Son, carry on. You're a good boy. You treat everybody right, and everybody white and colored loves you. You have a good heart. You can't miss.'' Thirty-seven years later, I saw him for the first time, singing ''Hello, Dolly'' on ''The Ed Sullivan Show.'' I didn't know who the old man with the ear-to-ear smile was, but I can remember my mother calling me into the living room and saying: ''This man won't be around forever. Someday you'll be glad you saw him.'' That was in 1964, back when the public schools in my hometown were still segregated, two decades after a black man was dragged from our city jail, hauled through the streets at the end of a rope and set afire. Yet even in a place where such a monstrous evil had once been wrought, white people came to love Louis Armstrong—and, just as important, to respect him—not merely for the beauty of the music he made but also for the self-evident goodness of the man who made it.
Now that ABC, CBS, and NBC have lost their once-central position in American culture, I find myself recalling with intense nostalgia the TV shows that did so much to introduce me to the world beyond the city limits of Smalltown, U.S.A. These are the ones I remember best:
• NBC’s 1960 color telecast of Jerome Robbins’ musical version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard, was shot on videotape and rerun annually for a few seasons thereafter (I probably didn’t get around to seeing it until 1962 or so). It was a rarity that has since become rarer still: a TV version of a Broadway show that reproduced the original production with complete accuracy. Years later Robbins restaged “I’m Flying” for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, and I was astonished by how clearly I remembered the number, in which Martin and the Darling children fly around the stage. Not long after that, the videotape was digitally restored and released, first on videocassette and then on DVD. I can see why it made so powerful an impression on me: it’s one of Robbins’ most perfectly realized pieces of theatrical work.
• I can’t remember when I first started watching Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on CBS, but it must have been some time in the early Sixties. I found them enthralling, and still do. As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal when they were first released on home video:
Leonard Bernstein spent an enormous amount of time and energy using TV, the ultimate middlebrow medium, to introduce ordinary Americans to the wonders of classical music. He taught a generation of children, myself among them, to love Bach, Beethoven, Brahms—and Copland.
No small part of his influence derived from the fact that the Young People’s Concerts were broadcast on CBS. Back in 1958, there were only three networks, and the FCC obliged them to devote a certain amount of time to high culture. Yet even without government oversight, I suspect they would have found time for Bernstein, because they were run by men who believed they had an obligation to offer their customers a not-so-occasional taste of something more elevating than “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I doubt that Ed Sullivan cared much for Maria Callas or Edward Villella, but that didn’t stop him from putting them on his show, along with Louis Armstrong and the original cast of “West Side Story.” All was grist for the middlebrow mill.
• My first exposure to great art was in 1964, when NBC broadcast a documentary called The Louvre: A Golden Prison. I don’t remember it clearly—I was only six when The Louvre aired—but the fact that I remember it at all suggests that I must have been paying pretty close attention.
• In 1966, near the end of the long-gone days when the three networks still aired high-culture programs on Sunday afternoons, I saw a telecast of a recital at which David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter played the Brahms D Minor Violin Sonata, Op. 108. (This must have been the show I saw.) It was because of Oistrakh’s playing that I took up the violin. Eight years later, I played the first movement of the D Minor Sonata in a music contest and got a “1” from the judges.
• CBS telecast Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! in 1967. Last summer Holbrook brought the show back to Broadway, and I reviewed it for the Journal:
Though Mr. Holbrook has based his self-directed interepretation on published reports of Clemens’ platform mannerisms—the ice-cream suit, the cigar that wouldn’t stay lit, the deadpan facetiousness and long, long pauses that gave the impression that he was making the whole thing up on the spot—his Mark Twain is no museum piece. Indeed, it scarcely seems like a performance at all. From the moment he steps on stage, you simply take for granted that Twain himself is up there talking to you, cracking sly jokes about the vanity of human wishes and the perpetual follies of “the political acrobats running for office.”
Like most theatergoers of my generation, I first saw “Mark Twain Tonight!” on TV. CBS aired it in prime time in 1967 (the telecast is now available on DVD from Kultur), and my youthful memories of the show remain indelibly vivid, far more so than the only existing film footage of Samuel Clemens, a tantalizingly brief clip shot by Thomas Edison in 1909 and viewable on the Web at www.hannibal.net/twain. No doubt in large part because Mr. Holbrook had to create his own characterization without the aid of film or sound recordings, it has the kind of thickly layered imaginative detail that no mere impersonator could summon up….
Talk about life coming full circle!
• The following year CBS aired a Carnegie Hall recital by Vladimir Horowitz in prime time. I was staggered by it—as well I should have been, since it was the first piano recital I ever saw. So far as I know, this concert has never been released on video (or repeated on TV, for that matter). The soundtrack of the telecast, however, is available on CD, and a quick listen shows that I had pretty damn good taste when I was twelve.
The three networks basically gave up on high culture after the founding in 1967 of PBS (which we didn’t get in Smalltown, U.S.A.). Forty years later, PBS has done the same thing, more or less. You can still find a certain amount of high-culture programming on cable TV, but you have to go looking for it, and it doesn’t have anything like the same impact that Horowitz had when he played Chopin, Scarlatti, Schumann, and Scriabin in prime time—and did so with the imprimatur of CBS, back when that still meant something.
Is life better in today’s radically decentralized world of entertainment-when-you-want-it? Maybe. Probably. But I still miss Peter Pan.
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
BROADWAY: • Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Bridge & Tunnel* (solo show, PG, some adult subject matter and strong language, reviewed here, extended through July 9)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
• The Pajama Game (musical, G, reviewed here, closes June 18)
• Sweeney Todd* (musical, R, adult situations, strong language, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
I got a very good report from the cardiologist yesterday. He's entirely pleased with my progress to date and wants me to keep it up. That's my plan.
On this high note, I'm blowing town for a few days, and taking off a few more days after that. Our Girl will be publishing my posts for Thursday and Friday while I go see Carolina Ballet down in Raleigh. Next week I mean to do no blogging other than the daily almanac and my usual theater-related posts on Thursday and Friday. I think I've earned a break, don't you?
Thanks to all who sent messages of encouragement. They meant a lot.
This is an essay I wrote a decade ago for a magazine that never got around to publishing it. The piece subsequently disappeared into the bowels of my computer, and I forgot about it until the other day, when I was cleaning out a file and stumbled across it. I thought you might possibly enjoy reading it.
* * *
The trouble with good advice is that nobody ever takes it. Kind friends warned me that a book tour is the only thing more humiliating than falling in love with someone who likes you back, but that didn't stop me from hitting the road and watching every single word they said come true. The TV people hadn't read my book; the newspaper reporters had, and hated it. As for the in-store appearances, the worst one was in a small town where I did an early-morning guest shot on the local radio station, then went to the mall and sat for five straight hours without signing a single copy.
But I did get to go to Kansas City, the place where I went to college and, later, spent four sweet-and-sour years playing jazz at night and waiting on customers in a bank during the day. I'm always glad to be in to Kansas City, and this time was no different, book tour or no book tour. I had lots of friends to call. I knew where to get good barbecue. And I could still pick up the Kansas City Star, turn to the weekly arts calendar, look at the jazz section and recognize nearly every name in it. I'd heard most of the musicians in town, jammed with many of them, written about some of them, worked with more than a few of them. I played my very first gig in Kansas City, which is something you don't forget, even if it goes well. And so it was that I ate a huge dinner at Italian Gardens, unfolded the Star, turned to the entertainment section, and ran my finger down the listings until I found the name I was looking for: Carol Comer.
Carol and I go back. I covered most of the Women's Jazz Festivals she put together in the '70s; I played bass at countless jam sessions where she bashed away at an electric piano and sang standards in a low, husky, set-’em-up-Joe baritone etched by hard use and chain smoking. I loved her strong, rumpled face, her bowl-cut mop of graying hair, her flip attitude that didn't fool anyone. I hadn't seen her for ten years, and now she was singing at a restaurant on the south side of town, and that was where I wanted to be. So I paid the check, got in the rented car and started driving, and after an hour or so I pulled into the parking lot of a shopping center deep in the heart of suburbia, just off one of the highways that ring Kansas City.
I've been here before, I thought. Not the restaurant, but the neighborhood. As soon as I got out of the car, I remembered: this was where my old girlfriend Debbie used to live. Across the street and around the corner was the house where she grew up, the place to which I returned her in the days when we were going out as often as I could scrape together enough money to buy enough gas to drive across town and back again. The past billowed up around me, tinting the crisp autumn night. I thought about other nights I had spent driving around this part of town, looking for the country clubs where I played dance dates with Bob Simes, the pianist who taught me all the standards I hadn't already learned off my father's 78s. A decade and more slid off my shoulders. I felt if I were still a boy, and still a musician.
The restaurant was just another yuppie-chow joint, run by some cockeyed optimist hopeful that a little music on weekends would make the customers drink more. I knew the jazz policy here would last three months at most, after which Carol would have to start carting her piano to private parties again and looking for another decent job, perhaps even a real jazz gig at a place where the customers knew better than to request “Feelings” or “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” I got to play maybe half a dozen real jazz gigs, most of them one-nighters, in the whole of my career. I remember them all, especially an Oldsmobile dealers' convention where everybody in the ballroom was falling-down drunk and we got up on the bandstand and blew twenty smoking choruses of “Sister Sadie,” wondering when somebody would sober up enough to ask if we knew “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”
That evening stands out in my memory for two other reasons: it was the only time I ever played a four-piece job with Mike White, who was then the best tenor sax man in Kansas City, and it was my last gig. After that night, I never again played bass in public for money. Instead, I went off to New York to become a writer, while Carol stayed in Kansas City and sang her songs. I have never doubted, not even for a moment, that I did the right thing. Yet rarely does a day go by when I don't wonder what my life would have been like had I stayed in Kansas City and kept on playing bass. Gerry Mulligan once wrote a song called “I Know, Don't Know How.” That's the story of my life: I am, and am not, a musician. I used to be a musician, and once a musician, always a musician. But now I keep my bass in the closet, which means that I am no longer a musician, because I no longer play music.
I was reflecting on this paradox for the millionth time when Carol walked in, spotted me, came straight to my table and gave me the mother of all bear hugs. Another player, a guitarist, was on her heels. As he tuned up, Carol switched on her piano and started noodling. Then I saw, propped up in the corner of the bandstand, an electric bass. I looked around in vain for a bass player. And it came to me in a flash: Carol is going to ask me to sit in during the second set.
The room began to fill up with familiar faces as the music got going. Some were musicians, off for the night and stopping by to hear Carol and have a beer; others were civilians I used to see around town, the hardcore jazz buffs who came to everything. They all waved as they sat down. They remembered when I used to write about jazz for the Star and play it on weekends, utterly oblivious to any possible conflict of interest. The first set ended, and people started to crowd around my little table to say hello. Carol pushed her way through, grinning like a fool.
“So how the hell are you, anyway?” she growled. “I hear you wrote a book.”
“Oh, Jesus, Carol, I'm beat to the socks, you know how it is, if I have to get on a plane once more….”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Hey, there's a bass over there in the corner. You want to sit in? I'm getting tired of working my left hand so goddamn hard.”
“Thanks, Carol, I'd love to, but…” But the truth is that I don't play anymore, Carol, I haven't touched a bass in years, it wouldn't be fun for either one of us, maybe some other time. Long pause. Deep breath. “But promise me one thing—don't make me take any solos.”
How could I say no? How many times in your life do you get to turn the skies back, to take the road not taken, if only for an hour or two? Even if I fell flat on my face in front of a roomful of people, even if I couldn't remember the bridge to “Don't Blame Me,” I knew I was going to get up there and play.
The literature of jazz is about the musicians who kept on playing until the day they died. The reality is different. For every Charlie Parker or Johnny Hodges, there are a thousand second alto players who spent six months on the road with Les Brown and now sell life insurance. There is nothing mysterious about them: they are the journeymen of jazz. The real enigmas are the virtuosos who quit at the top of their form, the Artie Shaws and Shorty Rogers and Dodo Marmarosas. They were the ones I could never figure out back when I was making music all day and most of the night and coming back for more the next day and the day after that. And yet good people are always quitting. Not long after I graduated from college, my viola teacher moved to Texas and went into the real-estate business. He'd been the principal violist of the Kansas City Philharmonic. I felt as if he were a deserter, a traitor to the cause.
As for me, I stopped playing when I decided that I wrote better than I played. Not that I saw my retirement as a turning point. I didn't understand then that I was quitting for good. Even though I must have known on some level that I would probably not make my living as a musician, it never occurred to me that there might come a time when I wouldn't play at all. Yet that was exactly what happened. I moved to New York and took a magazine job, and all at once my playing days were a thing of the increasingly remote past.
At first, my new life was too crowded for second thoughts, however tentative. But I began at length to feel an ache in my heart that couldn't be soothed merely by sitting in clubs and listening to other people play. I missed the act of spinning what James Lincoln Collier aptly calls “the ribbon of sound” that comes out of a jazzman as he improvises, floating blissfully in the eternal present. I missed the near-sensual pleasure of negotiating the changes of a ballad like “Body and Soul” or “Lush Life,” of knowing all the different ways of moving from chord to chord and choosing among them with ecstatic deliberation. I missed the feeling of being in the middle of a rhythm section on a good night, when every note you play is right and the beat becomes a great glowing presence that fills you with warmth and buoys you up. I also missed the culture of jazz, that endlessly tolerant late-night world of scuffling, easy camaraderie and wry jokes unintelligible to the outsider. It was the only club to which I had ever belonged, and it suited me right down to the ground.
So I dragged out my bass one evening and tried playing along with a few favorite records, and it just didn't work. The sounds that came out were all wrong. My ears remembered the clean, supple way I had played after years of practice and months of steady gigging, but my hands didn't. I simply couldn't play well enough to please myself, much less anybody else. I sighed, returned my bass to the bedroom closet and resigned myself to the inevitable.
In time, I even stopped writing about jazz, except for a dreamlike week-long interlude when I went out on the road with Woody Herman's band for a magazine piece. That was a fluke—or so I thought. But the piece grew and grew and turned into a book about growing up in the Midwest, which contained two chapters about my short, happy life as a jazzman. I found a publisher and signed a contract, and the next thing I knew, I was tuning up somebody else's bass in a restaurant in Overland Park, Kansas, nervously wondering what tune Carol Comer would call first. There are no coincidences.
I wish I could tell you exactly what happened next, but most of it is a blur. I do remember that I ended up playing two whole sets, and that I had lipstick on my collar when I got back to the hotel, because there was a lot of hugging and kissing after the last set. I also remember that Carol, glad though she was to see me, made no allowances for my rustiness. If I couldn't cut it, that was my problem: every tub, as they say in jazz, stands on its own bottom. She played her usual set, leaving me to stagger through some tricky turnarounds. (Lou Levy, Peggy Lee's old pianist, has a toast suitable to such occasions: “Here's to all the guys who died coming out of the bridge of ‘Sophisticated Lady.’” Thanks a lot, pal.) Then she called a blues, “Centerpiece,” and I finally settled down and found the groove. Grace descended and things began to swing, and suddenly it was all over and everybody was clapping, and I was crying.
Even as it was unfolding, I knew my evening with Carol was a unique experience, not to be repeated on pain of disillusion. I didn't sell my bass after I got back to New York, but I haven't gotten it out of the closet, either, and I don't plan to any time soon. As Crash Davis says to Annie Savoy at the end of Bull Durham, I hit my dinger and I hung it up.
This isn't to say I will never make music again. In fact, I make it nearly every day, if only for a few minutes. I like to sit down at the piano between paragraphs and fake a chorus or two, and sometimes I knock off for a half-hour or so and put in a little mock-serious practice. But it's purely for my own pleasure: there is no beast in view, and I was never more than a part-time piano player to begin with. In golf, there are duffers; in chess, patzers. I'm a piano patzer. Stealing licks off Bill Evans records is the extent of my latter-day performing career, and it’ll have to do. The real thing has come and gone.
Instead of playing music, I write about it, and I am a better critic for knowing how it feels to be on the bandstand. I'm never tempted to score off a player just to make myself look good. I understand the miracle of getting the curtain up every night. I also understand the power of an amateur's passion: it is the seed from which great audiences grow. That is something I didn't know until long after I threw away my union card and joined the ranks of the amateurs. They also serve who only sit and listen.
Somebody asked me once if I were a frustrated musician. “No,” I said, “I'm a fulfilled writer.” But that doesn't mean I never think about what might have been, much less what used to be. The way I feel about having once been a musician is not unlike the way some reformed alcoholics feel about booze. They know they can't live with it anymore, but they also know how much they liked it, and they remember, as clearly as if it were this morning, how good that last drink tasted. I remember, too.
Happy paczki day! Ah, to be in Hamtramck on Mardi Gras...
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 28, 2006 | Permanent
OGIC: Minor oddity
Ken Follett's 1978 spy novel The Eye of the Needle contains the following:
"His name is Frederick Bloggs, and he gets annoyed if you make jokes about it."
Color me puzzled. I can see why being named Bloggs might be joke-worthy in 2006. But in 1940, when the novel is set? What gives? Your suggestions/insights invited. Also, sorry I've been away; fresh content from my corner is on the way no later than Wednesday morning.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 28, 2006 | Permanent
TT: Here's hoping
I'm off to the cardiologist's office. Wish me luck!
See you all tomorrow, one way or the other (or somewhere in between, most likely).
Warhol is credited with saying (and I paraphrase): The most sincere form of art appreciation is writing a check. Of course Andy would think that—being an artist—but I'm not so sure that's as true today as it was when Andy offered it. The "art" of collecting has evolved since then, and writing a check doesn't seem as sincere in some ways as it had been. When I start to think about how it's changed, the parallel that keeps coming to mind is the practice of fishing. Collectors used to spend the time getting to know the work, the artist, the movement, etc., much as a person with his/her fishing pole had to learn what weight of the line is needed, what bait is best, and what conditions are most ideal to land that big one. Collecting for some folks today is more akin to trawling. Sure, you have to toss out all that seaweed and release the occassional dolphin, but the sheer volume of your haul guarantees something in your net will be worth the effort….
I offer a corollary based on my own experience as a small-time collector: Richer isn’t (always) better.
• Mr. Anecdotal Evidence shares a lovely memory. It seems he ran into the great jazz pianist Dave McKenna on the street of a town in upstate New York the day after filing a review of his opening night at a local club:
Next morning, driving to the office, I passed McKenna walking up Erie Boulevard. He was wearing very white, unlaced sneakers, and he walked as though the sidewalk had been sprinkled with tacks. I stopped, he climbed in and asked me to take him to a nearby convenience store where he wanted to buy newspapers to check on his beloved Sox. Back in the car, four or five papers in his lap, McKenna asked if my review was in that morning’s edition. I told him where to find it, and had the uniquely uncomfortable experience of watching the subject of a review I had written read it while seated three feet away from me. He took his time reading, grunted a couple of times, cleared his throat and exploded into a laugh that I can remember immediately describing, in the writing compartment of my mind, as Rabelaisian….
(For what it’s worth, this is my favorite McKenna album.)
• Ms. Household Opera waxes ecstatic over an experience I take for granted, and shouldn’t:
The gods of seat-assignment must have been smiling, because I was in the third row of seats almost directly in front of the stage. I love watching musicians' faces as they play. It's a sight I don't get to see often enough, given how many concerts and operas I've seen from the upper reaches of the balcony. By the end of the evening, I felt as if I knew everyone in the orchestra.
And then there was Magdalena Kožená. To see someone sing at that close range is startling. You're not looking at a remote figure under the spotlights. You're almost near enough to touch another person whose voice seems almost too big to really be issuing from her. You wonder where it all comes from, this braided liquid current of song that contracts to an almost-whisper at some moments and then expands to fill the whole auditorium….
That’s the great thing about amateur criticism—it’s alive. I think I’m pretty good about staying fresh to the familiar, but even I had temporarily forgotten how privileged I am to sit in such fantastic seats every time I go to the theater (though my seatmates not infrequently remind me, which helps). To hear an orchestra from up close—especially if you’ve never played in one—is an experience everyone should have, though it may have the unintended consequence of rendering you dissatisfied with your stereo system….
• Mr. Superfluities, who is culling his library, reflects on the approach of the iBook:
I sense that the children growing up around me today won't have the same problem, even if they're as enamored of the written word as I am. They will have their iBooks (saving them money on grossly expensive textbooks so that they can spend more on tuition, or on drinking, at college), like they have their iPods for the music that endlessly accompanies their lives now, one book ("text" is probably the more appropriate word) scrolling down after another on their plasticene touchscreens. And if they download interesting books that they never get around to reading (as they download music that they never get around to hearing), they'll be no different from me. Despite these hundreds of books surrounding me this morning, it's true, I've not read most of them. In this I'm in a great tradition, though. Walter Benjamin reminds me of an anecdote about Anatole France. A visitor (a "philistine," Benjamin coyly says) to France once admired his extraordinarily full library and, in wonder, asked, as all of us bibliophiles are asked, "And you have read all those books, Monsieur France?" France responded, "Not one-tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sčvres china every day?"…
Read the whole thing, please.
• Finally, Alex Ross has a link to a madly funny “Twelve-Tone Greatest Hits” infomercial you absolutely must hear.
All of which leads me to ask: is the performance of classical music an intellectual activity? Did the breadth of Glenn Gould's culture make him a better interpreter of Bach? I wonder. I've known a lot of musicians in my time, some of whom were damned smart and some of whom were (ahem) less so, and I rarely noticed any clear-cut relationship between what went into their heads and what came out of their fingers or mouths. (In my more limited experience, the same is true of dancers and painters.) I'm not saying that a stupid person can become a successful musician, but I'm not so sure that having read T.S. Eliot equips you to play Beethoven's Op. 111 well. It certainly didn't help Gould….
As I prepare for a follow-up visit to my cardiologist tomorrow, I find in my mailbox this message from a reader:
Cheer up! There's an obituary in today's Los Angeles Times for a woman who died of congestive heart failure—at the age of 115!
Born on September 13, 1890 in Mississippi; married for 72 (!) years
(1922-1994); never hospitalized in her life until she was 106
(gallstones); could still read the newspaper and sign her name at 114;
survived by her 96-year-old son.
Let's see: Hilary Hahn will be 27 this year. So, if you live to be 115,
you could review a concert of hers in 2071—when she's 91!
(Of course, there's several "ifs" included in that last sentence.)
Er, there sure are. And of course I’m anxious to hear what the doctor says—how could I not be? Nevertheless, I’m feeling pretty optimistic, not least because I’ve now lost thirty-one pounds since congestive heart failure sent me to the hospital a little more than two months ago, and have also changed my life in countless other beneficial ways.
All of which reminds me that I never cease to be amazed by the long list of important people born well over a century ago who lived long enough to have their voices recorded for posterity. (Yes, I know where I’m going with this—wait for it.) A few of these recordings have been released on CD in recent years, and these are three of the best collections currently in print:
• About a Hundred Years: A History of Sound Recording (Symposium) contains spoken-word and musical recordings by Sarah Bernhardt, Johannes Brahms, Winston Churchill, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Edison, Mahatma Gandhi, Joseph Joachim, Scott Joplin, Lenin, John Philip Sousa, and Leo Tolstoy, plus a battlefield recording of a World War I gas bombardment made in 1918.
Alas, precious few record companies have thought it worth their while to transfer historic spoken-word recordings to CD—which is where the Web comes in. The BBC, for instance, has a page on its Web site containing links to interviews from its vast archives to which anyone can listen via streaming audio. The selection is spotty, even erratic, but it does include a handful of celebrated figures of the relatively distant past, including Yeats, Gandhi, Le Corbusier, Noël Coward, Walter Gropius, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Speer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Evelyn Waugh, and Virginia Woolf.
For the rest, you have to go searching for yourself, and it takes patience. Most of the time you’ll come up empty-handed, but every once in a while you hit the jackpot, as I did on Friday. For once I had a free evening—no plays, no concerts, nothing but an early dinner with a friend. I decided to spend part of my night off trolling the Web for sonic curiosities, and I found two spectacular ones.
The first was a 1923 recording by Rudyard Kipling. He’s reading an excerpt from a poem called “France,” and though the poem itself is an occasional piece of no great interest, I was struck by how cultivated his voice sounded. I suppose I must have been expecting something more closely suited to the plebeian cadences of “Danny Deever.”
Even more astonishing, though, was an aircheck of the brief speech Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., gave at the end of a radio tribute broadcast live by CBS on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. Holmes was still sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1931—he retired the following year—and so far as I know, this was the one and only time he went before a microphone.
Justice Holmes was the most eloquent jurist this country has yet produced, and it goes without saying that he rose to the near-final occasion (he died in 1935) with infinite grace:
In this symposium my part is only to sit in silence. To express one's feelings as the end draws nigh is too intimate a task.
But I may mention one thought that comes to me as a listener-in. The riders in a race do not stop short when they reach the goal. There is a little finishing canter before coming to a standstill. There is time to hear the kind voices of friends and to say to oneself: "The work is done."
But just as one says that, the answer comes: "The race is over, but the work never is done while the power to work remains."
The canter that brings you to a standstill need not be only coming to rest. It cannot be, while you still live. For to live is to function. That is all there is to living.
And so I end with a line from a Latin poet who uttered the message more than fifteen hundred years ago:
"Death plucks my ear and says, Live—I am coming."
G. Edmund White describes the broadcast in detail in the first chapter of his new brief life of Holmes:
The old man sat in his favorite chair in his study. He had a shock of white hair, a long white mustache that flared up at the ends, and piercing eyes that gave him a fierce expression. The year was 1931, and most men favored collars with the ends folded down, but he wore an old-fashioned type with the ends turned up and the tie visible, wrapped around his neck. He also wore an outmoded long coat with a vest. He had gotten dressed up to speak on the radio….
Then he quotes from the first-person account of Harold Laski, a friend whom Holmes had invited to watch him speak that night:
As I looked at him, his eyes seemed far away, and the swift realization that I was watching the face of a very old man, very greatly moved, kept me silent….I saw a new light come into those blue-gray eyes, and then a gay smile that played over all his features. The words he spoke as that smile met the flash of those vivid eyes are as living today in my ears as they were almost seventeen years ago. “When I came back from the Civil War,” Holmes said, “my father asked me what I was going to do, and I told him I was going to the Harvard Law School. ‘Pooh!’ said my father. ‘What’s the use of going to the Harvard Law School? A lawyer cannot be a great man.’” Then there came into his voice an almost wistful tenderness. “I wish,” he continued, “that my father could have listened tonight for ony two or three minutes. Then I could have thumbed my nose at him.”
Merely to read what Holmes said on that long-ago night is to be stirred to the core. But to actually hear the broadcast—to hear the tremulous yet unexpectedly firm voice of a man who fought in the Civil War, then spent the best part of three decades sitting on the Supreme Court—is an experience of another order altogether. I can’t describe it better than I did in the review of About a Hundred Years that I wrote for Fi in 1997:
To hear these ancient records, flawed though they are, is an intensely moving experience. The battered shellac sputters and crackles angrily, and you wonder for a moment what all the fuss could possibly be about—but then the curtain parts and the nineteenth century comes into view for a minute or two, sometimes through a glass darkly, sometimes with the near-hallucinatory sharpness of a Mathew Brady photograph.
How miraculous that such brief glimpses of the fast-receding past have survived into the unsure present—and how wonderful that the Web is now putting them at our fingertips. And how good it is, now that death has plucked my own ear, to be reminded by the electronic ghost of a very great man that the only possible answer to death is life, lived to the hilt.
Here's the playlist of iPodded tunes to which I worked out on Saturday:
• Billy Joel, “Big Shot"
• The Beatles, ”Birthday"
• Rosanne Cash, "Black Cadillac" (an excellent do-this-or-die choice for lazy heart patients)
• The Violent Femmes, "Blister in the Sun" (which I first heard on the soundtrack of Grosse Pointe Blank)
• Una Mae Carlisle, "Blitzkrieg Baby" (with Lester Young on tenor saxophone)
• Fats Waller, "Blue, Turning Grey Over You" (the 12-inch 78 version)
• Count Basie, "Blues in Hoss' Flat"
• The Benny Goodman Sextet, "Boy Meets Goy" (with Charlie Christian on guitar)
• Swing Out Sister, "Breakout"
• The Rolling Stones, "Brown Sugar"
• Pat Metheny, "Bright Size Life" (with Jaco Pastorius on bass)
• Henry "Red" Allen and Pee Wee Russell, "Bugle Call Rag" (this is one of the celebrated Billy Banks Rhythmakers 78s that Philip Larkin loved so much)
• Elvis Presley, "Burning Love" (a song I'd forgotten all about until I heard it on the soundtrack of Lilo and Stitch)
Incidentally, I saw the following caption on one of the overhead TV sets in the gym midway through my workout:
"My secretary has been very good in reading to me out of working hours, more serious matters finished. We began yesterday Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves which makes me roar. That chap is master of a light rather original slang that makes life joyous when all the carbonic acid gas seems to have fizzled out of it. Few benefactors can be compared with him."
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., letter to Lewis Einstein (Feb. 8, 1931)
If you're listening to Hello Beautiful!, you've come to the right place. Welcome to "About Last Night," a 24/5 blog hosted by artsjournal.com (we don't usually post on weekends, but we're making an exception today) on which I write about the arts in New York City and elsewhere, aided and abetted by Laura Demanski, who writes from Chicago.
At this moment Laura is in the studios of WBEZ-FM in Chicago, talking with Edward Lifson, the host of Hello Beautiful! I'm sitting at my desk in the office of my apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City, taking part in the conversation via cellphone. As Edward suggested, I'm putting up a post in real time during the show (typing with one hand and holding my cellphone in the other) in order to demonstrate the immediacy of blogging.
If this is your first visit to "About Last Night," our postings of the past seven days are visible in reverse chronological order on this page. Mine start with "TT," Laura's with "OGIC" (which stands for "Our Girl in Chicago," her online nom de plume). In addition, the entire contents of this site are archived chronologically and can be accessed by clicking "ALN Archives" at the top of the right-hand column.
You can read more about us, and about "About Last Night," by going to the right-hand column and clicking in the appropriate places. You'll also find various other toothsome features there, including our regularly updated Top Five list of things to see, hear, read and otherwise do, links to my most recent newspaper and magazine articles, and "Sites to See," a list of links to other blogs and Web sites with art-related content. If you're curious about the arty part of the blogosphere, you've come to the right site: "Sites to See" will point you in all sorts of interesting directions, and all roads lead back to "About Last Night."
As if all that weren't enough, you can write to either one of us by clicking the appropriate "Write Us" button. We read our mail, and answer it, too, so long as you're minimally polite. (Be patient, though. We get a lot of it.)
The only other thing you need to know is that "About Last Night" is about all the arts, high, medium, and low: film, drama, painting, dance, fiction, TV, music of all kinds, whatever. Our interests are wide-ranging, and we think there are plenty of other people like us out there in cyberspace, plus still more who long to wander off their beaten paths but aren't sure which way to turn.
If you're one of the above, we're glad you came. Enjoy. Peruse. Come back Monday...and bring a friend. The easy-to-remember alternate URL is www.terryteachout.com, which will bring you here lickety-split (as, of course, will the longer address currently visible in your browser).
We return you now to Hello Beautiful!
UPDATE: We had a ball. If you missed us and want to listen in, go here—the program will be archived at some point in the next few days, after which you can listen to it online whenever you like.
The show [The Andy Griffith Show] was on the air from 1960 to 1968, and was in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings each season, including a No. 1 ranking its final year. It is one of only three series to bow out at the top: The others are I Love Lucy and Seinfeld.
I didn’t know that, and it’s more than just a trivia question: it says a lot about how America has changed since 1960. For one thing, no network would now think of giving the green light to a low-keyed sitcom about life in a more or less idyllic southern town. What’s more, that kind of long-term popularity has become increasingly rare in TV—and the Nielsen ratings are themselves far less significant than they were in 1960, now that cable TV and time shifting have become ubiquitous and series television must compete with so many other forms of electronic entertainment. When I was young, everybody I knew watched The Andy Griffith Show. Today there are no TV shows that “everybody” watches, and no movies that everyone has seen. Indeed, the American film industry is about to devote its annual prime-time infomercial to celebrating five movies that most Americans haven’t seen, don’t plan to see, and couldn’t even if they wanted to (at least not until they come out on DVD).
None of this is good or bad, merely different, but for a person born in 1956—even one who has kept a fairly close eye on postmodern culture—it’s definitely disorienting. And I think it explains why so many people my age have been starting Web sites devoted to Andy Griffith-vintage TV. Of course we’re feeling nostalgic for our lost youth, just as our parents felt nostalgic about big-band music. But it’s not just that we miss those old shows, and the simpler world view they collectively epitomized: we also miss the fact that they gave us something in common, something to talk about besides the weather. We all know who Don Knotts is, which is why it made us so sad to hear of his death (and why the obituary of a second banana got so much play on the evening newscasts, which are mostly viewed by older people). What percentage of us can recall the name of anyone who competed on American Idol two years ago?
Our Girl and I have lately found it hard to write a post that doesn’t mention Philip Larkin, perhaps because he so accurately foresaw so many of the ways in which the world would change under the aspect of postmodernity. Now I find myself thinking of this stanza from a Larkin poem called MCMXIV:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word—the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
If you haven’t read Ben Ratliff’s interview with Pat Metheny in today’s New York Times, do it now.
• “The guitar for me is a translation device. It's not a goal. And in some ways jazz isn't a destination for me. For me, jazz is a vehicle that takes you to the true destination—a musical one that describes all kinds of stuff about the human condition and the way music works.”
• “Well, for me, let's keep jazz as folk music. Let's not make jazz classical music. Let's keep it as street music, as people's everyday-life music. Let's see jazz musicians continue to use the materials, the tools, the spirit of the actual time that they're living in, as what they build their lives as musicians around. It's a cliché, but it's such a valuable one: something that is the most personal becomes the most universal.”
• “It's like when you first wake up in the morning and you don't really think about what you're doing, and maybe you write your best stuff. You're not in the way.”
• “B-flat minor, the saddest of all keys.”
UPDATE: For another point of view, read Alex Ross on E-flat minor, “the key of death.”
Eleven years ago I read an amusing book called Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana that catalogued the long march of obsolescence through postwar America. It occurred to me as I opened my medicine cabinet this morning that the time had come for someone to publish a new book on the same subject. To that end, here are a few of the things I no longer use, do, or see:
• Toothpaste in tubes. I bought my last tube three years ago. Now my toothpaste comes out of a squeeze bottle.
• Ketchup in glass bottles. Ditto.
• Newspapers and magazines on paper. I can’t remember the last time I read one (except for a couple of the magazines for which I write). If I can’t read it on line, I don’t read it.
• Fax machines. I have one, but I rarely use it more than twice a month, both ways.
• Going to the post office to mail packages. I use FedEx and UPS almost exclusively.
• Black discs and cassettes. I got rid of the remnants of my collection when I moved to this apartment two years ago. I no longer own a turntable or a cassette deck.
• TV commercials. I now watch all TV programs after the fact (having previously recorded them on my DVR), meaning that I only see commercials as they whiz by silently and at very high speed.
• Typewriters. I disposed of my last one ten years ago. The only thing I miss about it is not having to address envelopes by hand…
• Stationery. …but since I rarely write personal letters on paper, it follows that I rarely address envelopes. Nor do I have fancy stationery with an elegant-looking letterhead. I used to, but that was three addresses ago. When I feel the occasional need to write a letter by hand, I use cards decorated with reproductions of paintings I like (I favor the Morandi notecards sold by the Phillips Collection).
• Going to the library. I don’t even have a library card anymore. If I really need a book I don’t own, I order a cheap used copy through amazon.com.
• Electric can openers. I don’t own one. Most of the cans I open nowadays have pop-top lids.
• Floppy disks. I back up my computer on line every night.
• “Water-cooler” TV shows. The last TV series to be viewed on a regular basis by more than a handful of my friends was The Sopranos.
• The evening news. My family watched Walter Cronkite religiously, and my mother still watches Dan Rather each night after supper. Not counting visits home, I can’t remember the last time I watched an evening newscast (or a Sunday-morning talk show).
• Dinner parties. I didn’t go to more than two or three last year.
• Renting videos. Again, I do it maybe three times a year, tops.
UPDATE:Jeff Jarvis has picked up on this thread. Among his nominees: stick shifts, corded phones, videotape, ice-cube trays, Christmas cards, and downtowns. His readers are commenting, too, and some of them are really angry, for reasons I find utterly inscrutable….
An actor who looks not unlike a freshly exhumed corpse strolls onto the stage of what looks very much like a blown-up toy theater. He fixes a fishy-eyed stare upon the hushed audience…and stands there. And stands there. Finally, to the sound of nervous titters, he speaks. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” he intones in a voice of ripest ham, “I am the grrreatest actor that has ever existed!” Then he leaves.
Welcome to “Shockheaded Peter,” now playing at the Little Shubert for what I hope will be at least a year. This homicidally hilarious British import is a musical version of the “Struwwelpeter” stories of Heinrich Hoffman, the 19th-century German author famous for his cautionary tales of ill-behaved tots who get what they deserve, and then some. (Guess what happened to little Conrad when he kept on sucking his thumbs after Mommy told him to stop?) It is, in theory, a children’s show, though the only child I can readily imagine appreciating “Shockheaded Peter” to the fullest would be Wednesday Addams….
Next up is the Irish Repertory Theatre’s splendid production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame:
If you were bothered by the twitchy excesses of the Worth Street Theater Company’s “Happy Days,” rest assured that “Endgame” is played straight down the middle. You couldn’t ask for a stronger cast (Alvin Epstein, amazingly enough, appeared in the American premieres of “Endgame” and “Waiting for Godot”). Nor do I see how Charlotte Moore’s simple, self-effacing staging could possibly be improved. To see it in a house as intimate as the Irish Rep is more than a pleasure—it’s a privilege….
Last is On the Mountain, about which I had substantial but not necessarily fatal reservations:
The first 15 minutes of Christopher Shinn’s “On the Mountain,” now playing through March 13 at Playwrights Horizons, contain references to AA, Ashton Kutcher, iPods, Radiohead, Tori Amos, group therapy, cell phones and Prozac. At the mention of the last of these, I snuck a peek at my watch, turned to my companion for the evening and whispered, “This isn’t a play, it’s a magazine article.”
Fortunately, I was wrong. “On the Mountain” really is a play, albeit one of a very particular kind: It’s a Gen-X kitchen-sink drama, right down to the kitchen sink….
No link. To read the whole thing (of which there’s much more), get thee to a newsstand, or go here and proceed as instructed.
“Take that Kreutzer Sonata, for instance, how can that first presto be played in a drawing-room among ladies in low-necked dresses? To hear that played, to clap a little, and then to eat ices and talk of the latest scandal? Such things should only be played on certain important significant occasions, and then only when certain actions answering to such music are wanted; play it then and do what the music has moved you to. Otherwise an awakening of energy and feeling unsuited both to the time and the place, to which no outlet is given, cannot but act harmfully. At any rate that piece had a terrible effect on me; it was as if quite new feelings, new possibilities, of which I had till then been unaware, had been revealed to me. ‘That’s how it is: not at all as I used to think and live, but that way,’ something seemed to say within me.”
Lev Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata (trans. Aylmer and Louise Maude)
"I often think that at the center of me is a voice that at last did split, a house in my heart so invaded with other people and their speech, friends I believed I was devoted to, people whose lives I can only guess at now, that it gives me the impression I am simply a collection of them, that they all existed for themselves, but had inadvertently formed me, then vanished. But, what: Should I have been expected to create my own self, out of nothing, out of thin, thin air and alone?"
Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, February 24, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Make mine a double
Excellent development: Bravo gets smart and installs the Cinetrix as their "Awardsmania" blogger. Through Monday she will be playing both home and away.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, February 24, 2005 | Permanent
TT: A little list
• WEDNESDAY: Finished a 6,100-word rough draft of the first chapter of the Louis Armstrong biography, which I am now tentatively calling Hotter than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong (go here, scroll down, and click on the appropriate link to hear why). Met Maccers at Playwrights Horizons for a press preview of On the Mountain, followed by dinner at Le Madeleine, where she told me war stories from the dating front that made my hair stand up. I had nothing to offer in return but a tale so mild in the telling that I considered slinking out of the restaurant in shame. (She was quite nice about it, actually.)
• THURSDAY: Get up early to write Piece No. 1, my Wall Street Journal theater column, due at noon today. Houseguest arrives circa noon. Lunch at Good Enough to Eat, followed by intensive editing on Hotter than That, followed by dinner (allegedly to be prepared by houseguest) and nostalgic chitchat.
• FRIDAY: Get up early to write Piece No. 2, an essay about The Aviator and Being Julia, due by day’s end. Cram in as much Hotter than That editing as time permits. Take houseguest to dinner, followed by a press preview of David Mamet’s Romance.
• SATURDAY: Turn houseguest loose on an unsuspecting city. Finish editing first chapter of Hotter than That (si capax). Take Friend No. 1 to Lincoln Center to see her very first Apollo.
• MONDAY: Houseguest departs at 9:30. Meet Friend No. 2 (a/k/a Bass Player) at the Metropolitan Museum at ten for a press preview of Diane Arbus Revelations. Finish writing Piece No. 3. Start drafting second chapter of Hotter than That.
• WEDNESDAY: Continue drafting second chapter of Hotter than That. Take Friend No. 4 to dinner, followed by a press preview of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
• THURSDAY: Collapse of middle-aged party. Memorial service to be announced later. (This has a suspiciously familiar ring. Will I ever learn?)
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 24, 2005 | Permanent
“The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”
Hunter S. Thompson, Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s (all other versions of this quote are inauthentic and/or apocryphal)
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 24, 2005 | Permanent
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
OGIC: Mr. Plimpton and Mr. Deedy
When we last tuned in to the adventures or misadventures of the post-Plimpton Paris Review, the Board of Directors had announced that they would not renew the contract of editor Brigid Hughes. Hughes by all accounts had been trying to keep the prestigious but not popular journal steered as near as possible to the trail her mentor George Plimpton had blazed for it. On the news of her certain departure, observers speculated that the board had different ideas about little matters like circulation and profitability, and were taking delayed advantage of the power vacuum left by Plimpton's death to remake the Review as a more relevant and remunerative publication.
At the time, all of this reminded me powerfully of something. But I didn't figure out what it was until this week: the opening scenes of an 1894 short story by Henry James, "The Death of the Lion." The story is freely available for downloading here. "The Death of the Lion" is narrated by the right-hand man of the recently deceased editor of a London weekly that has been taken over by a Mr. Pinhorn (is there anyone who is better at names than James at his best?). Mr. Pinhorn is all about the numbers.
Mr. Pinhorn was my "chief," as he was called in the office: he had accepted the high mission of bringing the paper up. This was a weekly periodical, and had been supposed to be almost past redemption when he took hold of it. It was Mr. Deedy who had let it down so dreadfully—he was never mentioned in the office now save in connection with that misdemeanour. Young as I was I had been in a manner taken over from Mr. Deedy, who had been owner as well as editor; forming part of a promiscuous lot, mainly plant and office-furniture, which poor Mrs. Deedy, in her bereavement and depression, parted with at a rough valuation. I could account for my continuity only on the supposition that I had been cheap. I rather resented the practice of fathering all flatness on my late protector, who was in his unhonoured grave; but as I had my way to make I found matter enough for complacency in being on a "staff." At the same time I was aware that I was exposed to suspicion as a product of the old lowering system. This made me feel that I was doubly bound to have ideas, and had doubtless been at the bottom of my proposing to Mr. Pinhorn that I should lay my lean hands on Neil Paraday. I remember he looked at me as if he had never heard of this celebrity, who indeed at that moment was by no means in the middle of the heavens; and even when I had knowingly explained he expressed but little confidence in the demand for any such matter. When I had reminded him that the great principle on which we were supposed to work was just to create the demand we required, he considered a moment and then rejoined: "I see; you want to write him up."
Pinhorn, we learn, has turned a genteel journal into a glorified gossip rag. Under Deedy the journal appears to have been mainly critical; Pinhorn has turned it into a fin-de-sičcle People Magazine. In hatching his plan to write something about the literary light Neil Paraday, the narrator is trying to thread a a very small needle, maintaining a shred of the old high-mindedness of the journal under Deedy while satisfying Pinhorn's demand for newsworthiness. In the interest of giving his piece the appearance of being a scoop, he arranges to visit the reclusive author Paraday at home.
I was unregenerate, as I have hinted, and I was not concerned to straighten out the journalistic morals of my chief, feeling them indeed to be an abyss over the edge of which it was better not to peer. Really to be there this time moreover was a vision that made the idea of writing something subtle about Neil Paraday only the more inspiring. I would be as considerate as even Mr. Deedy could have wished, and yet I should be as present as only Mr. Pinhorn could conceive. My allusion to the sequestered manner in which Mr. Paraday lived (which had formed part of my explanation, though I knew of it only by hearsay) was, I could divine, very much what had made Mr. Pinhorn bite. It struck him as inconsistent with the success of his paper that anyone should be so sequestered as that. Moreover, was not an immediate exposure of everything just what the public wanted? Mr. Pinhorn effectually called me to order by reminding me of the promptness with which I had met Miss Braby at Liverpool, on her return from her fiasco in the States. Hadn't we published, while its freshness and flavour were unimpaired, Miss Braby's own version of that great international episode? I felt somewhat uneasy at this coupling of the actress and the author...
So the narrator gets "bundled off" to Paraday's, where he sits down and writes "merely a finicking, feverish study of my author's talent"—i.e., something purely critical, dirt not included. Pinhorn's response is rapid:
That night my manuscript came back from Mr. Pinhorn, accompanied with a letter, of which the gist was the desire to know what I meant by sending him such stuff....Mr. Pinhorn's note was not only a rebuke decidedly stern, but an invitation immediately to send him (it was the case to say so) the genuine article, the revealing and reverberating sketch to the promise of which—and of which alone—I owed my squandered privilege.
This the narrator declines to do, marking the end of his tenure with the journal—his dismissal by the board, so to speak. The eventual fate of his critical piece goes to show whose side the reading public is on:
A week or two later I recast my peccant paper, and giving it a particular application to Mr. Paraday's new book, obtained for it the hospitality of another journal, where, I must admit, Mr. Pinhorn was so far justified that it attracted not the least attention.
This is grim, but not altogether easy to parse. Am I wrong to think that, despite the common pessimism of James's story (and for an even direr take on the 1890s literary scene, see George Gissing's 1891 novel New Grub Street) and today's Paris Review watchdogs, there's something slightly leavening in the realization that, 110 years on, it's essentially the same battle still being fought? This implies, at least, that it hasn't yet been lost. Besides which, we don't yet know what the new PR will look like, and under whose guidance it will be transformed—though there seems little doubt that transformed it will be. Finally, although the narrator of "Death of the Lion" seems decidedly on the side of the angels as far as the struggle for publishing's soul goes, that doesn't mean he's necessarily such an appealing figure himself. He has more than a little in common with the half-ridiculous, half-monstrous narrator of "The Aspern Papers," another Jamesian literary leech. Ambivalence, as usual in James and in life, carries the day.
I actually want to say more about "The Death of the Lion" and its portrait of a devolving literary sphere—there are some choice bits I've left out. Alas, it will have to wait until after I do a little (paid) finicking, feverish study of my own.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, February 23, 2005 | Permanent
TT: The fame that got away
I'm in this morning's Wall Street Journal with a piece commemorating the centennial of the birth of Harold Arlen:
The greatest American popular songwriter of the 20th century was born a century ago last Tuesday. Warning: You may not know his name....
Arlen never quite managed to reach the top rung of renown, and though dozens of his songs are firmly stamped on America’s collective memory, he hasn’t a fraction of the name-above-the-title recognition of George Gershwin or Cole Porter. Only his peers fully grasped his greatness, among them Irving Berlin, who summed it up with characteristic economy when Arlen died in 1986: “He wasn’t as well known as some of us, but he was a better songwriter than most of us and will be missed by all of us.”
Why isn’t Arlen better known in his own right? One reason, perhaps the main one, is that his gifts were essentially undramatic. Though he knew how to write a show-stopper, his most characteristic songs were such intimate, introspective monologues as the yearning “That Old Black Magic” and the despairing “One for My Baby.” Like Johnny Mercer, the finest of the many talented lyricists with whom he worked, Arlen preferred evoking a mood to driving a plot. As a result, he never wrote a successful Broadway musical—most of his hits were hand-crafted for Hollywood films—and his reputation was built song by song, not show by show....
No link. To read the whole thing, buy a copy of today’s Journal, or (better yet) go here and subscribe to the online edition. It's a bargain.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 23, 2005 | Permanent
"There ought to be a limit (she thought as she steered the bronze Chrysler through the cemetery gate) on the number of open graves you had to look down into in any given lifetime."
Jon Hassler, North of Hope
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 23, 2005 | Permanent
• Ever wonder what cheap-thrill-seeking gardeners look for at the newsstand? The Bookish Gardener has your answer. It feels a bit salacious to ask this now, but—when Spring?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 22, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"It is the mistake of much popular criticism to regard poetry, music, and painting—all the various products of art—as but translations into different languages of one and the same fixed quantity of imaginative thought, supplemented by certain technical qualities of colour, in painting; of sound, in music; of rhythmical words, in poetry. In this way, the sensuous element in art, and with it almost everything in art that is essentially artistic, is made a matter of indifference; and a clear apprehension of the opposite principle—that the sensuous material of each art brings with it a special phase or quality of beauty, untranslatable into the forms of any other, an order of impressions distinct in kind—is the beginning of all true aesthetic criticism."
Walter Pater, "The School of Giorgione," The Renaissance
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 22, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Roll 'em
I've spent the last two days working on the prologue to my Louis Armstrong biography, and I think it's going well. Very well, actually. In fact, I seem to be on a roll, and so I plan to keep on rolling for at least another day or two. My hope is to have the entire prologue roughed out by dinnertime and substantially polished by week's end. I've been in an elevated state ever since Friday night: hundreds of facts that had previously been spinning around in my head have now started to clump together and take coherent shape. It's the most exciting part of a writer's life, and I'm right in the middle of it....
I'll keep you posted, but don't expect to hear much more from me until I stop for gas. In the meantime, cross your fingers and wish me well.
P.S. You go, Girl! It's damned well about time that my formerly anonymous co-blogger dropped the veil and identified herself as (among other things) the dedicatee of the Teachout Reader. I kept waiting for somebody to make the connection!
Some readers have emailed to ask why I turned in my pseudonymity yesterday. Some are frankly disapproving: "You were the mystery to be solved, the puzzle with the missing piece. Now, the illusion is ruined and the game is over." Ruined! Gosh, when you put it like that, I almost have second thoughts! I may never attain true mysteriousness again.
Almost second thoughts...but not quite. It's not something I'd undo, even if I somehow could—Eternal Sunshine-style, say, or like Glory in season five of Buffy. Hey, what's a little brainwashing among friends?
Well, I can't undo it. And I wouldn't. Therefore I won't. Your brains are safe. But why do it, and why now? Essentially, I got tired of being two half-people who couldn't share each other's work with their respective audiences. I've been reviewing books for about ten years, but more regularly in the last year or so. From now on I'll ask my editors to include the URL for About Last Night in the biographical note beneath my newspaper reviews, and hope that this brings new visitors here. And, more important, I'll link to my reviews on this page and start blogging more openly about the reviewing racket, which is something I've always wished I could do.
For example, in December I wrote positively, even glowingly, about Robert Anderson's novel on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Little Fugue, for the Baltimore Sun. Given the tired subject matter, I looked forward to this assignment with very low hopes indeed. As I wrote for the Sun:
I'll be frank: another morbid promenade over the well-trampled ground of Sylvia Plath's suicide isn't my idea of a good time. After the many existing biographies, memoirs, studies, and at least one novelization—all topped off with the strictly decorative cherry of last year's Gwyneth Paltrow biopic—can there possibly be anything new to say? Isn't this whole affair becoming a bit, well, obsessive and ghoulish? If we put a penny in a jar each time someone references Plath's death, and remove a penny each time someone references her poetry, does anyone truly believe we will ever empty that jar?
The novel, thankfully, defied my expectations.
These are some of the questions that buzz in my head as I crack open Robert Anderson's new novel about Plath’s death, Little Fugue (named after a poem she wrote in 1962). The first chapter does little to allay my skepticism. Plath has always been a powerful magnet for other writers' self-dramatics; true to form, the first few pages here are overwrought: "She is a fire that has burned low of its own severity. She lies in her grave now, still awake." At this point I am considering joining her. Then, something totally unexpected happens: Little Fugue grabs me and holds on.
That review went on to explain why, even though I thought the novel did not succeed in its furthest-reaching ambitions, I still found it immersing and impressive. Its portraits of Hughes and his lover Assia Wevill struck me as vivid and nuanced, especially the haunting depiction of Wevill's childhood in a war-torn Middle East.
The novel got far less positive notices than mine in the most prominent places: The New York Times Book Review, where Richard Eder weighed in, and the Washington Post Book World, where Michael Schaub, whose coblogging at Bookslut I find delightful, came down particularly hard on it in a sharp, witty piece.
I could see both these reviewers' points in criticizing the novel, and yet they weren't enough to make me reconsider my positive take on it. And here the blog could have come in awfully handy: it would have been the perfect place to call attention to these smart critics' assessments while reiterating my own different view. As a buyer and reader of novels, I like to look at reviews in constellations rather than in isolation whenever possible (which is why I think Ron Hogan's new "Book Review Review" blog, Beatrix, is such a brilliant idea). And I would have done just that—if I hadn't been pseudonymous.
Well, I'm pseudonymous no more—though I will hang onto my OGIC tag, which has grown on me over time (like KFC, I never use the spelled-out version myself, though others may, and have my blessing). So you can expect more from me here on books and reviewing, and perhaps on some other previously-skirted subjects that haven't occurred to me yet in this brave new world. I am, after all, making this up as I go along....
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, February 21, 2005 | Permanent
"We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He choose this as the way in which they should break, so be it."
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Sunday, February 20, 2005 | Permanent
Saturday, February 28, 2004
"Half the controversies in the world are verbal ones; and could they be brought to a plain issue, they would be brought to a prompt termination. Parties engaged in them would then perceive, either that in substance they agreed together, or that their difference was one of first principles."
John Henry Newman, "Faith and Reason,
Contrasted as Habits of Mind"
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 28, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Continued sunshine
I just finished writing an essay for Commentary
about the American violinist Louis Kaufman, whose autobiography, A Fiddler’s Tale, was one of my Top Fives last year. It comes with a bonus CD that includes a performance of Darius Milhaud’s Concertino de Printemps conducted by the composer. As I listened to that adorable little piece, I suddenly realized that it’d been far too long since I’d heard any of Milhaud’s music. Except for the jazz-influenced La Création du monde, it isn’t very well known, for the very good reason that there’s too much of it (Milhaud’s last opus number was 443). Someday, adventurous performers will start sifting through Milhaud’s catalogue, and when they do they’ll make dozens of delightful discoveries. He may not have been the most profound of composers—though much of his output is both serious and deeply affecting—but I can’t listen to his music without breaking out in a broad smile.
Appropriately enough, Milhaud wrote an autobiography called My Happy Life. I pulled it off the shelf yesterday to see if Kaufman was mentioned (he isn’t) and ended up reading the whole thing. While I was at it, I dogeared a few favorite passages, which I’ll post today in lieu of anything more formal. Enjoy.
• "My cousin Eric Allatini, a fervent Wagnerian, took me to hear Tristan; I never dared tell him how deadly boring I found that ‘sonorous love-philtre.’ When the Bayreuth copyright expired, and Parsifal was given at the Opéra, I went to hear it: this work, which everyone had been impatiently waiting to hear, sickened me by its pretentious vulgarity. I did not realize that what I felt was merely the reaction of a Latin mind, unable to swallow the philosophico-musical jargon and the shoddy mixture of harmony and mysticism in what was an essentially pompous art. I felt that even the leitmotif was a childish device, like so many thematic Baedekers, flattering the audience’s self-esteem by the feeling that they always ‘knew where they were.’ I also deplored the influence of this music on ours. Yet I was not so foolish as to underestimate its importance, and when Wagner’s operas were published by Durand at five francs a copy, I bought them all; I do not remember ever having been tempted to play them. But Pelléas and Boris Godunov always stood by my bedside."
• "It is the indifference of the public which is depressing; enthusiasm, or vehement protests, are a proof that your work is alive."
• "The atmosphere of France, in which Stravinsky had been living for so many years, as well as his admiration for Tchaikovsky, had perhaps induced him to substitute for his vividly coloured, oriental, Russian art, which was almost Asiatic in feeling with its complicated harmonies and barbaric rhythms that had the violence of a hurricane, a type of music that was spare, stripped of inessentials, economical in the means it employed and imbued with a sense of proportion that by no means excluded grace or grandeur but conveyed a feeling that was pure, quintessential, devoid of artifice."
• "What strikes one immediately in Copland’s work is the feeling for the soil of his own country: the wide plains with their soft colourings, where the cowboy sings his nostalgic songs in which, even when the violin throbs and leaps to keep up with the pounding dance rhythms, there is always a tremendous sadness, an underlying distress, which nevertheless does not prevent them from conveying the sense of sturdiness, strength and sun-drenched movement."
• "In 1962 I was asked to talk about myself at an American college. I recalled my parents, who were so understanding, my wife, my son and his children, who have brought me nothing but joy. In short, I said that I was a happy man. At that moment I sensed general consternation—almost panic—in the hall. Some students came to talk to me after the conference: how had I been able to create in those conditions? An artist needs to suffer! I replied that I had managed to arrange things differently."
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 28, 2004 | Permanent
Friday, February 27, 2004
OGIC: Drunk on sunlight and free-associating
If you weren't careful, a day like today could persuade you that spring is here. It's temperate, bright, and intoxicating. Two days ago I was one impulsive mouse click away from booking a flight to Las Vegas that would have departed O'Hare in an hour. The impulse dissolved, click I did not, and instead of milling about an airport gate in heels and sunglasses, I'm at my desk watching the motes in the sunlight and listening to the birds dotting the tree branches outside my window. They're as pleased with the day as I am.
3 sorts The common house Sparrow The Hedge Sparrow & Reed Sparrow often calld the fen sparrow The common sparrow is well known but not so much in a domesticated state as few people think it worth while bringing up a sparrow When I was a boy I kept a tamed cock sparrow 3 years it was so tame that it would come when calld & flew where it pleasd when I first had the sparrow I was fearful of the cat killing it so I usd to hold the bird in my hand toward her & when she attempted to smell of it I beat her she at last woud take no notice of it & I ventured to let it loose in the house they were both very shy at each other at first & when the sparrow venturd to chirp the cat woud brighten up as if she intended to seize it but she went no further than a look or smell at length she had kittens & when they were taken away she grew so fond of the sparrow as to attempt to caress it the sparrow was startld at first but came to by degrees & ventured so far at last as to perch upon her back puss would call for it when out of sight like a kitten & woud lay mice before it the same as she woud for her own young & they always livd in harmony so much the sparrow woud often take away bits of bread from under the cat's nose & even put itself in a posture of resistence when offended as if it reckoned her no more than one of its kind. In winter when we coud not bear the door open to let the sparrow come out & in I was allowd to take a pane out of the window but in the spring of the third year my poor tom Sparrow for that was the name he was calld by went out & never returnd I went day after day calling out for tom & eagerly eying every sparrow on the house but none answerd the name for he woud come down in a moment to the call & perch upon my hand to be fed I gave it out that some cat which it mistook for its old favourite betrayed its confidence & destroyed it.
As the publication of Jonathan Bate's biography last year made better-known, Clare was a Romantic-era English peasant-poet who found some fame in his lifetime but lived in poverty and eventually went mad, deteriorating and dying in obscurity in an asylum. The facts of Clare's biography magnify the pathos of the remembrance above, with its discovery of the danger of mistaking the familiar social operations of one's native locale for the less forgiving, sometimes inscrutable laws of the wider world. In the light of Clare's unhappy life, it's a sobering little brief for staying at home, letting natural enmities be, and trusting no one.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 27, 2004 | Permanent
Doug Ramsey, who is writing an eagerly awaited biography of Paul Desmond, the alto saxophonist who was (and is) my favorite jazz musician, saw my posting
about Walker Percy and sent me this paragraph from his 1977 obituary of Desmond:
And there was always talk about books. He rarely left on a trip of more than 30 minutes without at least one paperback. He was a rapid and consuming reader. Long ago, in '55, he had alerted me to Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and I was gratified in the sixties to turn him on to Walker Percy. Paul said he found a lot of himself in The Moviegoer, that beautiful Percy book about loneliness and grace.
That’s a wonderful thing to find out about Desmond, a man whose wry, soft-spoken playing was by all accounts a mirror of his personality. I wish I’d met him, though I’ve listened to his recordings and read his witty liner notes often enough to feel that we might almost have have known one another. He famously remarked that "I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini," and on another occasion described himself as "the John P. Marquand of the alto," a brilliantly apposite observation that no other musician in the history of jazz (except perhaps the well-read Bing Crosby, another Marquand fan) would have thought to make. As a longtime admirer of Marquand’s elegiac novel Point of No Return, I know just what he meant.
If you’ve never heard Desmond’s playing, either on his own or with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, you couldn’t do much better than to start with The Paul Desmond Quartet Live, a perfectly lovely solo album from 1975. Should that ring the bell, your next stop should be The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, a splendid five-CD box set that also features the great guitarist Jim Hall. Once you’ve gotten that far, I won’t need to tell you what to do next—you’ll be hooked.
As for The Moviegoer, I hope you're already on the case....
I’m in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, reviewing the new revival of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by David Leveaux, and A.R. Gurney’s Big Bill, a play about Bill Tilden, the legendary tennis player who was arrested twice in his declining years for molesting teenage boys.
Fiddler I liked very much, and also found unexpectedly timely:
This isn’t one of those self-consciously "dark" revivals of a famous musical: Mr. Leveaux’s unfussy, trickery-free staging lets the show speak for itself. But at a time when the world is blighted by a sickening recrudescence of anti-Semitism, "Fiddler"’s tough-minded departures from musical-comedy orthodoxy cannot but be seen in the lurid light of current events. The first act ends with a brutal pogrom, the second with the forced emigration of the villagers of Anatevka. The Minskoff Theatre is a big house, but when the Russian constable called Tevye a "Jewish dog," the audience grew so still that you could have heard an hourglass run out….
I also liked most things about Big Bill, especially Mark Lamos’ staging and John Michael Higgins’ performance in the title role, though I had some nagging doubts about the play itself:
As Tilden steers closer and closer to the brink of disaster, "Big Bill" shrugs off its deceptive patness and acquires a sharp, even ragged edge. Why, then, did I go home dissatisfied? Because the pitiful realities of Tilden’s life have been subtly but unmistakably sanitized by Mr. Gurney. We never hear directly from any of the boys he seduced, for instance, though we are treated to a brief speech of self-justification at play’s end: "You could say that if only I had lived in a more accommodating society, I might have met someone…someone I could have loved…someone with whom I could have shared my life, without fear or shame."
I don’t need to have everything spelled out, but I wonder whether Mr. Gurney meant for the audience to recall that for Bill Tilden, that "someone" would presumably have been a teenager. If he didn’t, he should have, because that puts a different spin on the ball.
No link, so do yourself (and me) a favor and go buy a copy of this morning’s Journal, where you’ll find my drama column nestled in the "Weekend Journal" section among plenty of other good stuff.
Paul Johnson, who wrote the introduction to the newly published Norman Podhoretz Reader, contrasts the intellectual and political styles of England and America. Apropos of Ex-Friends, the memoir in which Podhoretz tells how he and such folk as Allen Ginsberg, Lillian Hellman, and Norman Mailer parted company over political matters, Johnson writes:
We do things differently in England. We try not to let ideological disagreements disturb our social life or the ecumenical serenity of our clubs. Politics, let alone ideas, are not that important….We think people should come before ideas: it is our strength, as well (some would say) as our weakness.
I don’t know whether English intellectuals are really like that nowadays, but it certainly seems as if they were once upon a time, and I think Johnson is right to declare this tendency (however ambiguously) to be at once a strength and a possible weakness. For my own part, I’ve never broken with a friend over his personal beliefs, so long as he doesn’t become a monomaniac about them—but as any good statistician would immediately point out, that may say more about my friend-making practices than my friend-keeping practices. I don’t enjoy the company of humorless people, and the absence of a sense of humor tends to go hand in hand with belief-related monomania. Hence I don’t tend to seek out the kinds of people with whom I later might find myself inclined, even obliged, to break.
Not long after 9/11, I wrote an essay about overly earnest artists:
Alas, they have always been with us, especially in wartime and most especially in America, far too many of whose well-meaning citizens are allergic to the exhilarating fizz of high art with a light touch. It seems not to occur to them that life is such an indissoluble mixture of heartbreak and absurdity that it might be more truly portrayed through the refracting lens of comedy. Instead, they prefer what Lord Byron, who knew a thing or two about both life and art, would have crisply dismissed as "sermons and soda-water."…
Of course there is a parallel case to be made for earnestness: surely it is people like Isadora Duncan who make the world go round. But who would want to go along for the ride if they also made all the art? Henry James, that wittiest of serious men, underlined the point in an 1893 letter to his friend Edmund Gosse. The occasion was the publication of "A Problem in Modern Ethics," John Addington Symonds’ agonizingly earnest pamphlet calling for a change in public attitudes toward homosexuality. "I think," said James, "one ought to wish him more humour—it is really the saving salt. But the great reformers never have it." No, they don’t, but the greatest artists do, and never more than when falling skyscrapers threaten to make us lose sight of the crooked shape of man, absurd and preposterous and—yes—beautiful.
I still stand by those words, but I invite you to note that James—and I—were careful to distinguish between artists and reformers. Reformers, like saints, can be awfully awkward people. Their singlemindedness is no small part of what makes them effective, as well as uncomfortable to be with. I’ve known a few, but I’ve never tried to get close to them. No matter how friendly they may seem, I always get the feeling that they’d be perfectly happy to have me guillotined if they thought it necessary.
But, then, artists also incline to ruthlessness, don’t they? As William Faulkner once observed, "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The
‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies." This is not, thank God, a universal rule. Most of my friends are artists, and most of them seem disinclined to rob their mothers. But most of the great artists I’ve known—and it’s a short list—have done things in the service of their art at one time or another (though never to me) that were so selfish as to make my hair stand up.
Again, the statistician in me speaks up: how big is my sample? And the answer is: not very. I’ve read enough biographies to know that some great artists are nice, others nasty. I haven’t known many great reformers, or any saints at all. And as for what Paul Johnson calls "ecumenical serenity," I like getting along with people—though I wouldn’t pay any price for it. But the truth is that my inclination to companionability has never been put to anything like a severe test. I have good friends whose views I think silly, but none who seem to me downright evil (and I believe in the existence of evil). I sometimes wonder what I’d do if I were to learn that a friend of mine had committed a cold-blooded murder. I like to think that I wouldn’t have befriended such a person in the first place, and that’s probably true—but human nature is complicated enough that I can’t say so with certainty.
All I can say for sure is that I’ve never been intimate with anyone lacking a sense of humor, or truly loved a work of art by a humorless artist. That might just be the most revealing thing about me.
"His account of the Communists shows in the most extreme form what I came to loathe in the abolitionists—the conviction that anyone who did not agree with them was a knave or a fool. You see the same in some Catholics and some of the 'Drys' apropos of the 18th amendment. I detest a man who knows that he knows."
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., letter to Harold Laski, October 30, 1930
During intermission at the Cecilia Bartoli concert I attended this weekend, I ended up talking to the woman two seats over. (She'd overheard me talking about the program with my friend T., who came with me.) Did I play anything, she asked. I said no. "You certainly seem to know a lot about music — I don't know much of anything about it," she replied. I said something about having an inexpert but occasionally obsessive interest. Then the guy on my other side, who'd leaned over to ask if he could borrow my opera-glasses from time to time during the second half of the concert, answered a question of T.'s about horn-playing in far more technical detail than I ever could have produced. I was somewhere in the middle — literally — between "I don't know much about music" and "I can tell you all about crooks." All of which is to say, I should get over my phobia of being seen as an amateur and actually blog about music every so often….
I couldn’t agree more. Please do. Intelligent amateurism is a big part of what blogging is all about. And the same goes for you, Mr. TMFTML.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 26, 2004 | Permanent
TT and OGIC: Tell us something
Once again, for those of you joining us late:
Our Site Meter tells us a lot about worldwide traffic patterns at "About Last Night," but there's one thing we don't know and would like to find out: exactly how do you read us?
Do you visit "About Last Night" daily? If so, is it at a regular time of day, or whenever the spirit moves you?
Alternatively, do you visit once or twice a week, and read the accumulated postings? If so, on what day or days do you come here?
Finally, do you read "About Last Night" directly, or do you subscribe to our postings via an RSS feed, or some other form of aggregator?
If you feel like it, drop us a line (using Terry's mailbox, not Our Girl's) and tell us how and when you read "About Last Night." Please put the words READING HABITS in the subject line, so that we can cull out your responses from incoming e-mail on other subjects.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 26, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Guess who's coming to dinner?
Our Girl in Chicago is coming to New York City next Friday! We're going to go see Paul Taylor at City Center, Helen Frankenthaler at Salander-O'Reilly, Sweeney Todd at New York City Opera, and everything else we can cram into three days' worth of nonstop art consumption. Nonstop for her, anyway: I've got a book to finish, yikes....
As for OGIC, she's planning to reveal her secret identity to a couple of carefully chosen bloggers who have yet to see her in the flesh. (We'll have to kill them afterwards, but at least they'll get to meet her first.)
Watch this space for further bulletins.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 26, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Words to the wise
Two things you won't want to miss:
• The Paul Taylor Dance Company performs at City Center March 2-14. Two new Taylor dances will be seen in New York for the first time: Le Grand Puppetier, set to a player-piano version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (premiering March 2), and In the Beginning, set to music by Carl Orff (premiering March 3). Repertory for the season also includes Promethean Fire, Piazzolla Caldera, Sunset, Runes, and all sorts of other goodies.
As I wrote in this space last August:
Paul Taylor is the world’s greatest living artist, irrespective of medium. I don’t deny that I’ve been known on occasion to exaggerate, but I happily stand by every word of that high-octane statement. If you want further details, I wrote the foreword to the 1999 paperback reissue of Private Domain, Taylor’s autobiography, in which I summed up my opinion of his work as concisely as possible. (Private Domain is a wonderful book, by the way, by far the best memoir ever written by a choreographer.) His dances are serious and funny, lyrical and frightening, harsh and poignant—sometimes by turns, sometimes all at once. If you’ve never seen any of them, go and be blessed.
• Also on March 2, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries opens an exhibition of 20 woodcuts by Helen Frankenthaler, my favorite living painter. She’s also a first-rate printmaker, and her woodcuts are sumptuously beautiful. The show, organized by the Naples Museum of Art, is up through April 3.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 26, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Those who can do (sort of)
Says SlowLearner, a new addition to "Sites to See":
I'm going to go out on a limb and submit a Rule For Playwrights: Playwrights that can act, should - from time to time.
In general, if you're a playwright, you know if you can act or not. Many self-identified actors have no idea that they actually have no aptitude for acting, but playwrights, who have staked their ego on an entirely different delusion, are free to critique themselves mercilessly if they happen to occasionally act. I act from time to time, for the sheer recreation of it, and I'm under no illusions. I'm a competent actor, I'm basically engaging, I have a few tricks that audiences seem to enjoy, and I can even muster simple honesty for several minutes at a time. Unfortunately, based on the viewing of videotapes, I leave a lot to be desired in the area of physical control, and many of my movements are jerky and inspecific. In the professional world, there would always be about thirty guys at any audition who would get cast before me for any role appropriate to a tall, nebbishy dude, but in the weirdly-male-bereft world of unpaid Off-Off Broadway, there's usually something fun I can find to do….
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 26, 2004 | Permanent
TT: No degrees of separation
Supermaud (who embodies the South) mentioned
Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer on her site the other day. I sent her an appreciative e-mail in response, and inside of five minutes we’d upped the ante to the point of mutually acknowledging that we both rank The Moviegoer among the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. Maud says it's "one of my all-time favorites, and possibly THE favorite." I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I wouldn’t want to live off the difference.
Percy, as it happens, was a Catholic convert, and though The Moviegoer doesn’t bang you over the head with that fact, it is very much a spiritual statement, a novel about the problem of "everydayness," a phenomenon with which anyone searching for truths beyond the realm of the immediately visible must contend:
The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place—but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.
What do you seek—God? you ask with a smile.
I hesitate to answer, since all other Americans have settled the matter for themselves and to give such an answer would amount to setting myself a goal which everyone else has reached—and therefore raising a question in which no one has the slightest interest. Who wants to be dead last among one hundred and eighty million Americans? For, as everyone knows, the polls report that 98% of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2% are atheists and agnostics—which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker….
Have 98% of Americans already found what I seek or are they so sunk in everydayness that not even the possibility of a search has occurred to them?
On my honor, I do not know the answer.
Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a Catholic, but I find Percy’s way of situating the problem of "everydayness" in the context of modern American life to be deeply sympathetic. I also admire the lightness of touch with which he does so—for The Moviegoer, unlikely as it may sound, is a kind of comic novel about spiritual alienation. But, of course, there are many roads to seriousness, and the best of them take us down the path of comedy.
A couple of years ago, I was writing about Ghost World, one of my favorite films, and in trying to suggest its special quality, I found myself comparing it to, of all things, The Moviegoer:
American Beauty offered easy answers to loaded questions (that’s why it won so many Oscars—Hollywood only gives prizes to movies that tell us what it wants to hear), whereas Ghost World is a movie without any answers at all. That is the source of its pathos. Like every teenager, Enid longs to be shown how to live, but the ghostly adults who drift in and out of her unhappy life offer her no counsel. Instead, she has been set adrift on the sea of relativity, looking for a safe harbor on a coast without maps.
Walker Percy once pointed out that a visit to the neighborhood theater is for many Americans "maybe the only point in the day, or even the week, when someone (a cowboy, a detective, a crook) is heard asking what life is all about, asking what is worth fighting for—or asking if anything is worth fighting for." Out of that insight grew The Moviegoer, a novel about a man who goes to the movies in order to narcotize himself against the shallowness of American life, unaware that by doing so he has embarked on a search for meaning that will ultimately end in his embrace of Catholicism. As improbable as it may sound, Ghost World reminded me quite strongly of Percy’s great novel. To be sure, Enid lacks the spiritual consciousness that helped Binx Bolling find his way out of the slough of despond, but she is just as surely going forth on a similar quest, and the fact that she is doing so without benefit of moral guidance makes her plight all the more moving.
In case you’ve forgotten where we started, this chain of not-so-random reflections was triggered by a fugitive posting on the blog of a colleague who has become a friend. This is part of what fascinates me about blogging—the way in which it facilitates intellectual cross-pollination.
While we're on the subject, let me tell you another, similarly illuminating story. I got an e-mail last month from Cindy Cheung, a very funny actress whom I'd praised last year in a Wall Street Journal drama review (the operative words were "wildly loony"). Cindy learned about this blog from my review, in due course becoming a regular reader. She wrote to tell me that if I thought she was funny, I should read Waylaid, a novel by her husband, Ed Lin. This kind of e-mail almost always makes me run for the nearest exit, but it struck me that she might possibly be onto something, so I accepted her offer to send me a copy.
Not to prolong the suspense needlessly, Waylaid turned out to be a gem, a tough little coming-of-age tale about a 12-year-old Asian-American boy whose home is a rundown hotel in deepest New Jersey owned and operated by his immigrant parents. He knows too much and found it out too soon, and his stories of life among the Jersey hookers are funny in the saddest possible way.
Waylaid reminded me at times of Lolita, another seriously funny novel that casts a cold eye on the grubby surface of American life. Remember Nabokov’s wry descriptions of the motels visited by Humbert Humbert and his nymphet?
"We wish you to feel at home while here. All equipment was carefully checked upon your arrival. Your license number is on record here. Use hot water sparingly. We reserve the right to eject without notice any objectionable person. Do not throw waste material of any kind in the toilet bowl. Thank you. Call again. The Management. P.S. We consider our guests the Finest People of the World."
Well, Lin has that same kind of beautifully exact feel for the way things look and smell and sound:
Each hotel room was basically the same except that some of the black-and-white televisions had rabbit-ear antennas and some had inverted wire coat hangers. They all had a simple desk, a night stand, and a chair made of pressed wood. Push on any of the furniture the wrong way and it would splinter apart….The wall-to-wall carpeting looked like every marching band in the country had dragged flour sacks of grime across it. Every color in the carpet had been corrupted into a different shade of dark green.
Now, I don’t know anything about Ed Lin except that he’s the husband of one of my readers—and that Waylaid is a damned fine first novel. Which brings us back one last time to the subject of blogging. To review the bidding:
(1) I wrote about Cindy Cheung in the Wall Street Journal.
(2) She saw the URL of "About Last Night" at the end of the piece, looked it up, and became a regular reader.
(3) Even though we’d never met, she took a chance, wrote to me through the blog, and sent me her husband’s first novel.
(4) I read it and loved it.
(5) Now I’m passing on the word to you.
That's the miracle of blogging. It generates serendipities.
P.S. Cindy is currently appearing in an indie flick called Robot Stories. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m going to try to catch it this weekend. You come, too.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 26, 2004 | Permanent
"The local critic didn't like the piece, which poses the question: does one write for the public, or for the critics? Three thousand people applaud enthusiastically and one journalist makes uncharitable remarks. Which is more important? And how do critics feel able to make a definite judgment after one hearing? As a composer, I would never presume to do such a thing. When my pupils brought their music to me I always made them play it twice, something I learned from Honegger. There is too much of the unexpected in a first hearing; after a second hearing things begin to fall into place."
Miklós Rózsa, Double Life
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 26, 2004 | Permanent
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
OGIC: The editor's lament
Over the last week, many lit bloggers have been linking to and commenting on this column by Robert McCrum in the UK Observer. McCrum reports that publishers are increasingly buying novels on the basis of synopses or sample chapters, and makes a compelling case that this practice is symptomatic of the publishing industry's problems and sure to exacerbate them. The column has been intelligently commented and expanded upon by Sarah, The Literary Saloon, and others too numerous to itemize.
The piece brought to mind Gerald Howard's classic essay in this vein, "Mistah Perkins—He Dead: Publishing Today," which appeared in The American Scholar in Summer 1989. It's too long and detailed to do full justice to here, but here's a bit of what Howard (then editor at Norton, now at Doubleday) was saying about the industry fifteen years ago:
The American publishing business today is in a tremendous state of confusion between its two classic functions: the higher-minded and more vocally trumpeted mission civilisatrice to instruct and edify and uplift the reading public and the less loudly advertised but, in the nature of things, more consistently compelling mission commerciale to separate the consumer from his cash. Happy the publisher (and happy the author) who can manage to make a single book fulfill both functions! The real art of publishing consists not in reconciling what are, in a capitalist system, quite simply irreconcilable imperatives but in orchestrating the built-in tensions in a harmonious fashion. However, the two-way road in publishing from the bottom line to Mount Olympus travels right across a fault line, and that is where the serious editor lives and plies his trade. To put it bluntly, the tectonic plates are shifting, there's an earthquake going on, and all that moving and shaking you've read about is making it hard to attend to business—or even to be certain, from day to day, just what our business is. The delicate task of orchestrating tensions becomes more difficult still when the walls threaten to collapse about you.…
The point that I wish to make is that book editing is not now and never has been a pursuit that permits a narrow purism. F. Scott Fitzgerald characterizes his film producer hero Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon as one of the few people who can hold the whole complex equation of filmmaking in his head at once; it might be said that good editors do something similar with the publishing equation. Their ministrations extend equally to the narrow compass of the page of text where the reader will experience the book and the wide cultural and commercial arena where the book itself must find its way; their fealty is equally to the spiritual, emotional, and financial well-being of the authors they publish and the firms that employ them. One might say that the effective editor is on comfortable terms with God and with Mammon. The great Max Perkins also published Taylor Caldwell and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Probably the most remunerative book ever published by Alfred A. Knopf was Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet (over 8 million copies sold in this country alone, and climbing still), and the ultra-prestigious firm that bears Knopf's name is known in the book trade for its top-of-the-culinary-line cookbooks and for the commercial éclat with which it published glossy show business memoirs. The firm of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, publisher of several Nobel Prize winners and generally regarded as the most purely literary house in the country, pulled itself out of the red in 1950 after four financially lackluster years by publishing Gaylord Hauser's best-selling Look Younger, Live Longer….
The philosophers tell us that man has fallen into the quotidian; it may be said that publishing at some point fell into the fiscal—the early-to-mid sixties is the likely starting date. One by one the great trade houses sold themselves to the conglomerates and the huge communications concerns, and so ceded, whether they recognized it or not, the control of their own destiny. On the side of the houses, the impetus for the sale varied. In some cases the founders or their heirs found themselves getting on in years and no longer vigorous enough or committed enough to handle the business of the firm properly. So in effect they cashed out their interests for a handsome price. In other instances the independent houses believed that allying themselves with powerful corporate owners would solve the perennial problems of modest concerns—cash flow and capital shortage—and allow them to ride out the inevitable lean seasons cushioned by the corporation's substantial assets against the squeeze of high inflation and interest rates. Better to go to the friendly corporate owner than the possibly unfriendly banker or the impersonal capital markets for the necessary funds, the logic went. On the conglomerates' side, these houses, controlling as they did substantial literary properties and themselves brand names of widespread recognition, offered a highly cost-effective entry into what everybody saw as a growth industry, now that a vast new generation of Americans was in the process of becoming college-educated and thus, it was assumed, lifelong readers.
At the heart of these sales lay a terrible misunderstanding. The trade houses thought they would run their business as they had before, with similar independence of taste and action, safely cocooned within their conglomerates. The corporations, however, with far less naďvete, expected and insisted that their new assets adopt the same financial lockstep as their other assets, show quarterly growth, institute strict managerial controls—the shareholders expected no less. God, as usual, was with the big battalions, and today almost all the houses bearing the great names in American publishing are either huge corporations themselves or smoothly integrated into cast corporate combines. They now dance to the tune of big-time finance, and it's not a fox-trot; it's a bruising slam-dance.
From down here on the shop floor, the results often look ludicrous and disastrous. Publishers are playing a big-money game with comparatively minuscule resources. On the map of corporate America as a whole, trade publishing commands such a small portion of the consumer dollar that it is barely visible. Let me illustrate the point. The January 1989 issue of Manhattan, inc. reports that Nintendo Video Entertainment was the toy industry's top-selling product in 1988, grossing $2.3 billion. The net income to Nintendo from that one toy (assume 50 percent of gross) amounts to more than a quarter of the income of the entire trade book industry, which was $4.4 billion last year. What conceivable clout can even a $100 million company wield in such an environment? On the southern tip of Manhattan, twenty-five-year-olds in bright red suspenders buy and sell such concerns the way kids trade baseball cards—and with less feeling for the object in question.
And, skipping ahead, Howard writes of the effects of all this on writers:
Among the younger writers these days one can observe a great deal more career ambition--an itchiness to get it now--than purely literary ambition. Far from offering any resistance to the mighty engines and subtle strategies of contemporary success, they eagerly embrace and employ them. In this regard they are only mirroring the behavior of their contemporaries in business and financial services who reportedly sense failure if they haven't made their first million by the age of twenty-seven. The eighties have not been a decade noted for patience. The proliferation of creative writing programs has made possible ab ovo a career management approach to literature. Go to the right college, get into the right MFA program, make the right contacts among established writers and book and magazine editors, find the right literary agent, who'll sell your book to the right publisher, who'll give your book the right cover and shake down the right writers (some of whom you already know, of course) for the right blurbs, and you're off! You get the good review from Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, the paperback reprinters and Hollywood producers begin throwing money at your book, the hip night clubs beckon, the galleys begin to arrive asking you for blurbs, you guest teach at the right creative writing program, you summer at Yaddo or McDowell…everything is on track and on time.
And, very possibly, out of scale. What nobody will tell the hot young writers, least of all their editors, is that however fresh or unusual their first books were, they may have a long way to travel before they develop mastery of their craft. (That news may be delivered, brutally, by reviewers of the second book.) The system that helps make these talented young people also exploits them and can possibly destroy them. They may be living in a flashy Potemkin village of their agents' and publishers' construction. What the showy early success removes is the possibility of a slow, even fitful progress towards artistic maturity, well away from the harsh spotlight and the demands of an impersonal star system. The Muse does not speak on the Bitch Goddess's schedule, and for many writers the most precious gift of all is not a big fat book contract, but the space and time to find their unique style and subject, to learn from an honorable failure, perhaps, without being tossed on the ash heap for it.
What also seems to have departed from the world for the moment is the desire among young writers to create the masterpiece, the total work that, whether gorgeously compressed or encyclopedically vast, seems to say all that must or can be said at its particular moment. Once upon a time (1944) Cyril Connolly could write, to general agreement: "The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence." To live by such words is to cultivate an imperial contempt for the mundane, for the world and its shabby workings. It is impossible, I believe, for an attitude of proud self-sufficiency such as cultivated by a Lawrence or a Joyce or a Beckett to coexist with an eagerness to play ball with the literary star search. It is certainly impossible for an editor to expect his young author to make the complete spiritual and artistic commitment the creation of a masterpiece demands when he has previously ascribed cultural authority to the system of hype. The masterpiece, almost by definition, is written outside this system.
It's a good and important article written from the inside, and not one devoid of hope. It strikes a nice balance between pragmatism and idealism. Well worth looking up at the library and running off a copy. At the time Howard wrote it, a novel bought on the strength of a synopsis or even just a sample chapter would have been a rarity, and the trend in that direction is perhaps a manifestation of the further evolution of the star system he identifies as a product of book publishers' desperation to compete, and decries as hostile to literature.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, February 25, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Time for a break
I lay down for a little nap at 4:30 yesterday afternoon, and the next thing I knew, it was nine o'clock. Yikes! In the evening, thank God, but even so, I know a warning bell when I hear it. No more blogging for me today, thank you very much.
We've had a couple of wild days here at "About Last Night," incidentally. Everybody in the world seems to have linked to us for one reason or another (mostly the other). So if you’re visiting this blog for the first time and want to know more about it, click here to read an archived posting from last November that tells all. Or simply work your way down the right-hand column, which is crammed full of information about this page and its two proprietors.
Either way, I'm glad you stopped by. If you had fun, come back tomorrow...and bring a friend. The easy-to-remember alternate URL is www.terryteachout.com, which will bring you here lickety-split (as, of course, will the longer address currently visible in your browser).
Welcome. I'll be back on Thursday. Our Girl in Chicago will keep you company until then.
P.S. Not to worry, Girl, I haven't forgotten that you're expecting me to come up with my own answers to those five questions. I just need some sleep first.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 25, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Invisible friends
Insofar as possible, I’m reading everything that’s being written about my recent dustup with Bookslut, who got hopping mad at what I said over the weekend about link-poaching. Too many people have chimed in for me to link to all their comments, though you can find most of the best ones by trolling the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column, which you should be doing anyway.
It’s been especially interesting to note the sharp division of opinion between bloggers who, like Our Girl and me, believe in the concept of a blogosphere whose participants use links to "freely share ideas and readers with one another, and in so doing increase their own value" (my words), and those stalwart individualists who reject the idea of the blogosphere as virtual community. It’s odd that I should be in the former category, since I’m no kind of communitarian, but this particular aspect of the blogosphere has seemed self-evident to me ever since I first started thinking about how blogging works (which was two or three years before I launched "About Last Night," by the way). Linking and blogrolling are what differentiate blogs from old media—and this difference, it seems to me, is the whole point of blogging.
Interesting, too, is the intensity with which certain bloggers continue to express their loathing for the way in which certain other bloggers make friendly mention of one another. Clearly, this reflects a divergence of taste that no amount of civility will narrow: some folks just don’t like it, and that’s that. Me, I like it very much, and I don’t see it as clubby or exclusionary, much less snobbish. Sure, I have my favorites, but without exception they’re people whom I got to "know" in cyberspace, solely and only through their work (though I’ve been lucky enough to meet a half-dozen of them in the flesh, and hope to meet many more). They’re my cast of characters, and I try to write about them in such a way as to make my readers want to get to know them, too. As I’ve said more than once, I think that’s part of the fun of blogging—not just for bloggers themselves, but for those who read us as well. It personalizes blogging. It strengthens the feeling of community. Above all, it encourages our readers to visit other blogs.
Finally, a few bloggers seem to disapprove of those of us who take an interest in the amount of traffic we draw. That puzzles me. I don’t write posts in order to draw traffic—it doesn’t work—but I’m always delighted when new people visit "About Last Night," and why on earth shouldn’t I be? I think blogging is good. I want more people to do it. I think it’ll be good for the world of art if they do. What’s wrong with that? And who’s being clubby now? I’m an elitist, but I don’t believe in the we-happy-few mentality: I want everybody who can swim to jump in the pool.
At any rate, I’ll close by repeating something I can’t say often enough, which is that the regular readers of this blog are great people, smart and attentive and a joy to hear from. So are most of the bloggers featured in the right-hand column—but, then, Our Girl and I don’t add blogs to "Sites to See" because their proprietors are charming. We do it because we believe that what they write is worth reading, right or wrong, nice or nasty. Even when they dump on us.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 25, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Attention, Keith Sherman
I inadvertently erased your phone message to me. Apologies, but it was a long day, and my trigger finger got itchy.
Could you please call again?
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 25, 2004 | Permanent
"The gates of the one class should be open to the other; but neither to one class or to the other can good be done by declaring that there are no gates, no barrier, no difference."
Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 25, 2004 | Permanent
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
OGIC: Pocket books
I've collected Edward Gorey books and miscellany since high school. Sometimes this has meant shelling out a hundred or two hundred dollars for a first edition or something signed, but it's also a collection that I can grow on the cheap by scouring the fiction shelves of used bookstores for old Anchor and Vintage paperbacks with Gorey covers. On occasion I've spotted them on friends' bookshelves and negotiated trades.
I adore these little pieces of book art and book history. Hunting them down is a blast, they rarely set me back more than a few bucks, and many of them are beautiful. The books themselves are good or great, the kinds of rich, distinguished works that pose a challenge to an illustrator. Gorey's solutions are thumbnail interpretations, frequently bold and always fascinating. Sometimes he chooses to draw figures, sometimes landscapes, sometimes interior scenes. For some nonfiction titles, he sticks to abstract designs. In nearly every case, he manages to capture something of the mood of the book. His witty, thoughtful illustrations make you rue Oxford and Penguin's comparatively lazy practice of slapping paintings on the covers of the books in their paperback Classics series.
One room is dedicated to notebook entries, dry-point etchings such as Reclining Nude
or Rothko with Pipe,
monoprints, and woodblock prints. Avery was quite prolific, constantly drawing portraits, still lifes, and landscapes, always searching: it sure inspired me to get to work.
I enjoy your reviews in the Journal even if most of the shows don't make it to Minnesota and we don't make it to NYC often.
My wife & I went to the Producers at the St. James on Feb 14. I liked the show (she loved it) but I was very uncomfortable throughout the show with the closeness of the seats. I'm 6'2" and was jammed into the seat. My shins had dents from the seat in from of me and every time the woman leaned back it mashed my shins. My knees stuck over the top of her seat. My back also hurt too. I'll never go back to that place again. The play was not worth the pain.
Here's my questions:
(1) Are all Broadway seats that close?
(2) Did they add extra rows in the theatre to sell more tickets?
(3) Are the seats better on the floor? We sat in Mezzanine N 15 & 17.
(4) Am I the only one to complain?
I work for an airline and so don't expect too much room but it was way too tight for comfort. Even my 5'2" wife could not cross her legs.
Well said, sir. My answers:
(1) No—seat pitch varies widely from theater to theater—but some are way too close for comfort.
(2) I don’t know whether the St. James packed in additional seats for The Producers, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.
(3) I haven’t sat in the balconies of most of the major New York houses (critics always sit in the orchestra), but I do know some houses where the upstairs seats are appallingly cramped. I nearly had to call an ambulance a few years ago after spending an evening in the back row of the Vivian Beaumont, for example.
(4) Probably not, but I’ve never seen such a complaint in print, and so am happy to post yours. Send the management a letter!
I wrote in Arabic and French when I was a kid but English superseded those languages by the time I started college. When I wrote in Arabic I found it hard to keep up with the rhythm. Pick up any novel in Arabic and you'll see that a sentence can run a page or two. I needed the finality of the period, perhaps because I had been already exposed to non-Arabic punctuation from a very early age. In French I wrote mostly poetry, long pieces that were meant to sound like Lamartine or Hugo and later like Baudelaire or Verlaine. I started learning English in high school and liked the mechanics of the language and soon I was reading almost everything I could get my hands on in English….
Read the whole thing here. As for me, I’m one jealous monoglot!
I found this in my e-mailbox yesterday morning. It’s a story from the Chicago Sun-Times:
Mel Gibson's controversial "The Passion of the Christ," which recounts the final hours in the life of Jesus, finally opens Wednesday, and the Sun-Times' own Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper offered an exclusive early review of the movie on their syndicated series "Ebert & Roeper" this weekend.
Giving "Passion" their trademark stamp of approval of "two thumbs way up," Ebert and Roeper called it "a great film."
"It's the only religious movie I've seen, with the exception of 'The Gospel According to St. Matthew' by [Italian director Pier Paolo] Pasolini, that really seems to deal with what actually happened," said Ebert, who is the Sun-Times film critic.
"This is the most powerful, important and by far the most graphic interpretation of Christ's final hours ever put on film," said Roeper, a Sun-Times columnist. "Mel Gibson is a masterful storyteller, and this is the work of his lifetime. You have to admire not just Gibson for his vision and his directing abilities, but Jim Caviezel [as Christ] and the rest of the cast."…
As it happens, I was about to leave for a screening of The Passion of the Christ when that e-mail arrived. The screening took place at the Brill Building, an address well known to show-business aficionados: A.J. Liebling wrote about it in the Thirties, calling it "the Jollity Building," and later on it became known as the Tin Pan Alley of Sixties rock. It struck me as nicely ironic that I would be seeing a movie about the Crucifixion in such a place.
Screening rooms are dismal little affairs, comfortable enough but far from atmospheric, and in no way suited to anything remotely approaching religious contemplation. This one, not surprisingly, was full of people making calls on cell phones and conversing in notice-me voices. One fellow was earnestly explaining how Mel Gibson couldn’t possibly be a good Christian, having previously expressed his longing to impale Frank Rich’s intestines on a stick. "On a basic level," he intoned, "it occurs to me that Jesus was a gentle guy."
The lights went down and the film started, accompanied at first by whispered conversation, though that faded out after a few minutes. I suspect that not a few people were shocked into silence by the film’s evident high seriousness, not to mention the high quality of its craftsmanship: the actors are excellent, the production design and photography handsome without ever lapsing into picturesque self-indulgence. The one exception is the overblown music, which can’t begin to compare with Miklós Rózsa’s remarkable scores for Ben-Hur and King of Kings. Rózsa made those movies seem more serious than they really were. On the other hand, The Passion of the Christ bears no resemblance whatsoever to any of the big-ticket Biblical epics of the Fifties and Sixties. Instead, it’s what Gibson said it would be, an almost entirely naturalistic portrayal of the Crucifixion as described in the Bible. In an odd sort of way, it put me in mind of Master and Commander, another film that went to unusual lengths to reproduce the sights and sounds of a far-off world. (The use of Aramaic and Latin dialogue helps—a lot.)
Everything you’ve heard about the violence in The Passion of the Christ is true. It’s jarring, almost sickening. Yet I didn’t find it gratuitous, given the film’s initiating premise, though the scourging of Jesus went on well past the point of diminishing artistic returns, however "realistic" it may have been. In any case, there is nothing in The Passion of the Christ that will startle viewers familiar with Western religious art. The difference—and it’s a big one—is that this is a film, not a mural. Photographs pack a punch quite different from even the most gruesome paintings. To say that The Passion of the Christ suggests a Caravaggist Crucifixion come to life, while true enough, understates its impact. Of course it’s only a movie, and we’ve all read about the special effects, but Gibson and his collaborators create an illusion of reality so enveloping that it’s possible to forget yourself.
Not that many of the people who came to the Brill Building yesterday were likely to have forgotten themselves. They were New York media types, not the viewers I had in mind when I told Janet Maslin the other day that "most of the people who see The Passion of the Christ will regard it as a film about something that actually happened. That's something that a lot of the people writing about it are apt to misunderstand." We live, after all, in an age when ostensibly serious art critics for major newspapers and magazines can get away with turning up their noses at the Metropolitan Museum’s El Greco retrospective because of its subject matter. I doubt that many of their cinematic counterparts will find it possible, much less easy, to write about The Passion of the Christ as a movie qua movie.
Even so, there wasn't a whole lot of chatter to be heard in the lobby, or the elevator, as we left to write our stories. "So, was it intense?" one person waiting for the next screening asked. It was. And—just for the record—I’ll be very much surprised if it isn’t a very big hit.
"There is nothing, I think, in which the power of art is shown so much as in playing on the fiddle. In all other things, we can do something at first. Any man will forge a bar of iron, if you give him a hammer; not so well as a smith, but tolerably. A man will saw a piece of wood, and make a box, though a clumsy one; but give him a fiddle, and a fiddle-stick, and he can do nothing."
Samuel Johnson, quoted in Boswell’s Life of Johnson
…is the impending arrival of the first finished copies of A Terry Teachout Reader, which will be arriving in my mailbox later this week. No, it doesn’t go on sale until May, but you can place an advance order for your very own copy by clicking here.
As for me, I can hardly wait—and I know Bookslut will be excited, too. (Oh, and Jessa…the hits just keep on coming. Thanks again!)
P.S. Return of the Reluctant has his own take on link-poaching—and unlike me, he shoots his prisoner. Go get ’em, Ed.
Like Greg Sandow, I urge you to read Alex Ross’ New Yorker essay about classical music:
The Web site ArtsJournal features a media file with the deliberately ridiculous name Death of Classical Music Archive, whose articles recycle a familiar litany of problems: record companies are curtailing their classical divisions; orchestras are facing deficits; the music is barely taught in public schools, almost invisible on television, ignored or mocked by Hollywood. But the same story could have been written ten years ago or twenty. If this be death, the record is skipping. A complete version of the Death of Classical Music Archive would go back to the fourteenth century, when the sensuous melodies of ars nova were thought to signal the end of civilization.
The classical audience is assumed to be a moribund crowd of the old, the white, the rich, and the bored. Statistics provided by the National Endowment for the Arts suggest that the situation is not quite so dire. Yes, the audience is older than that for any other art—the median age is forty-nine—but it is not the wealthiest. Musicals, plays, ballet, and museums all get larger slices of the $50,000-or-more income pie (as does the ESPN channel, for that matter). If you want to see an in-your-face, Swiss-bank-account display of wealth, go look at the millionaires sitting in the skyboxes at a Billy Joel show, if security lets you. Nor is the classical audience aging any faster than the rest of America. The music may not be a juggernaut, but it is a major world. American orchestras sell around thirty million tickets each year. Brilliant new talents are thronging the scene; the musicians of the august Berlin Philharmonic are, on average, a generation younger than the Rolling Stones.
The music is always dying, ever-ending. It is an ageless diva on a non-stop farewell tour, coming around for one absolutely final appearance. It is hard to name because it never really existed to begin with—not in the sense that it stemmed from a single time or place. It has no genealogy, no ethnicity: leading composers of today hail from China, Estonia, Argentina, Queens. The music is simply whatever composers create—a long string of written-down works to which various performing traditions have become attached. It encompasses the high, the low, empire, underground, dance, prayer, silence, noise. Composers are genius parasites; they feed voraciously on the song matter of their time in order to engender something new. They have gone through a rough stretch in the past hundred years, facing external obstacles (Hitler and Stalin were amateur music critics) as well as problems of their own invention ("Why doesn’t anyone like our beautiful twelve-tone music?"). But they may be on the verge of an improbable renaissance, and the music may take a form that no one today would recognize. For now, it is like the "sunken cathedral" that Debussy depicts in one of his Preludes—a city that chants beneath the waves….
The Oscars have lost 22 million viewers since 1998. So what are the show's producers going to do about it? The Wall Street Journal (no link) reveals the brilliant plan:
• "ABC has asked writers on its prime-time series to weave the Oscars into their story lines. In an episode of 'It's All Relative,' for example, one character will get mad at another who breaks the remote control, spoiling plans to watch the Oscars."
• "In addition, characters on three ABC daytime soaps—'General Hospital,' 'One Life to Live' and 'All My Children'—will talk about the awards show, saying they plan to watch the Sunday telecast or attend an Oscar party. They will stop short of saying they are watching on ABC because the network figured that was obvious."
• "For the ceremony itself, [producer Joe] Roth says he is building the Oscars as a comedy show, employing an army of writers to churn out one liners."
• "And he is promising an appearance by Best Actor nominee Sean Penn, a no-show at the Globes."
• "Marketing the show under the slogan 'Expect the Unexpected,' Mr. Roth says he hopes to foster the kind of spontaneity exhibited last year, when Best Actor winner Adrien Brody passionately embraced presenter Halle Berry on stage. But that 'Unexpected' slogan may be slightly misleading.…Following the controversy over Janet Jackson's Super Bowl halftime stunt, ABC has imposed a five-second delay on the telecast, meaning it will review comments and images before they are broadcast and could censor them" (emphasis added).
Would somebody come over here and break my remote, please? I don't think I'll be able to stand the suspense.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, February 23, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Fisticuffs in the blogosphere
Bookslut didn’t like what I had to say over the weekend about link-poaching. That’s putting it mildly. Too bad, but you should read what she has to say, too.
Oh, and Jessa...thanks for the link.
UPDATE: Our Site Meter is jumping! In the blogosphere, at any rate, there is no bad publicity. (And with reference to this posting, I should certainly add that I didn’t have any of my fellow artsjournal.com bloggers in mind, as I suspect is now abundantly clear.)
An American blogging from Sweden at MemeFirst
Yet another belated New Yorker, delivered to Sweden on donkeyback, I'm sure it was, and yet again I couldn't shake the feeling this institution is going through a spate of mediocre issues: A 34-year old student collects lost gloves on the Upper West Side? The diary of a neurotic webstalker with a boring target? A Shouts & Murmurs that is spectacularly unfunny in its exploration of "Instructions to everything"?
These stories wouldn't make it into the blogs I read, I thought. Wow. Maybe it's not that The New Yorker is getting much worse, but that New York blogs are getting much better. Eurotrash
is far funnier than Shouts and Murmurs; Gothamist
are better at trendspotting than Talk of the Town; Maud Newton’s got her finger on the literary world's pulse like none other; Felix, Terry Teachout
and Michael at 2 Blowhards
have got the New York arts scene covered — to name just a very few of the stars in the New York blog firmament. The New Yorker still holds the crown for long articles and fiction, but for much longer?
Can New York bloggers please all just stand back for a minute, look at what you have wrought, and pat yourselves collectively on the back? This has got to be New York's most impressive literary renaissance since the Beat writers, and the snarkiest since the Algonquin Round Table held sway (and begat The New Yorker). Have there ever been so many New Yorkers writing as well as today, within a community that approaches a meritocracy?
For expat New Yorkers everywhere, you are a godsend. I kiss you.
Well, shucks. Glad to be of service. You can save the kiss for Our Girl, though....
I recently talked to an avid reader, a woman in her fifties who, to my alarm, said that for years she simply refused to read any book written by a man, especially fiction told from the point of view of female characters. A few months ago I tried reading Susanna Moore's In the Cut and gave up halfway through because of the book's relentless misandry, but I couldn't imagine refusing to read books written by women. Where would I be as a reader without having read Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Susan Cheever, Amy Bloom, Marilynne Robinson, Louise Erdrich, Cynthia Ozick, Flannery O'Connor...on and on and on? As for writers depicting characters of the other sex, have there ever been any male characters better drawn than Middlemarch's Lydgate, Casaubon, Ladislaw, Vincy? If writers are forced by political considerations to write only from their own narrow experience, we as readers will be left with having to choose from among solipsistic memoirs--in fact, the very books I continue to see more and more of on the new books tables of the chain stores….
I go to a lot of performances of every kind, and since my job as drama critic of The Wall Street Journal obliges me to cover all Broadway openings, I don’t spend nearly enough time wandering off the beaten path. I wish I did. Especially when it comes to theater, New York is full of good things that don’t get enough attention, and I’m always happy whenever I have a chance to see one of them. Fortunately, I have theatrical friends who keep me informed about such shows, and one of them steered me last Friday to a production of As You Like It that took place in deepest Queens—Astoria, to be exact, a neighborhood richly populated with Greek restaurants.
The play was produced by the Astoria Performing Arts Center, which obviously doesn’t have any money, since it was staged in the round on the floor of a basketball court in a church gymnasium. The audience was small, the set nonexistent, the dress modern, the décor a handful of tattered pennants—and I loved every minute of it. The cast was young and lively, and John Hurley, the director, kept things spare and simple, letting Shakespeare be the star of the show. I don’t mean the production was static. It was decidedly physical, even a bit goofy at times. Yet nowhere did the players get in the way of the play, nor did Hurley smother Shakespeare’s words in his own tendentious ideas.
As I watched, I thought of the NEA’s new Shakespeare in American Communities
project, about which you may or may not know. According to the Web site, this initiative, "the largest tour of Shakespeare in American history….will bring professional Shakespeare productions and related educational activities to 100 small and mid-sized communities in all 50 states." It’s recently taken a certain amount of stick from big-city critics who have the addled notion that the National Endowment for the Arts is somehow wreaking havoc on the arts in America by sending Shakespeare on tour instead of Tony Kushner. To paraphrase George Orwell, only an intellectual could say something that stupid—but, then, I doubt very much that the intellectuals saying such stupid things have spent a lot of time watching shows like the APA’s As You Like It in places like the Presbyterian Church of Astoria, much less looking at the glowing faces of the people who come to see them.
I did, and as I looked, I thought of something I wrote for The Wall Street Journal five years ago, long before I thought of becoming a drama critic:
We are not accustomed to thinking of art forms as technologies, but that is what they are—which means they can be rendered moribund by new technological developments, in the way that silent films gave way to talkies and radio to TV. Well into the eighteenth century, for example, most of the West’s great storytellers wrote plays, not novels. But the development of modern printing techniques made it feasible for books to be sold at lower prices, allowing storytellers to reach large numbers of readers individually; they then turned to writing novels, and by the twentieth century the theatrical play had come to be widely regarded as a cultural backwater. To be sure, important plays continue to be written and produced, but few watch them (unless they are made into movies).
I still stand by those words—in fact, I included the essay in which they originally appeared in A Terry Teachout Reader—but I hasten to add that they don’t embody a value judgment, merely an observation on the necessarily marginal position of theater in the age of film and TV. Yet live theater remains indispensable, and never more so than when a troupe of little-known actors performs Shakespeare in the gym of a neighborhood church for a few dozen enthralled onlookers. I love Broadway, I really do, but if you want to know why theater will never die, there’s your answer.
If you’re curious, the APA’s As You Like It will be performed this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Go here for details and directions.
"I do not know if others are like myself, but I am conscious that I cannot contemplate beauty long. For me no poet made a falser statement than Keats when he wrote the first line of 'Endymion.' When the thing of beauty has given me the magic of its sensation my mind quickly wanders; I listen with incredulity to the persons who tell me that they can look with rapture for hours at a view or a picture. Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all: that is why the criticism of art, except in so far as it is unconcerned with beauty and therefore with art, is tiresome. All the critic can tell you with regard to Titian's Entombment of Christ, perhaps of all the pictures in the world that which has most pure beauty, is to go and look at it. What else he has to say is history, or biography, or what not. But people add other qualities to beauty—sublimity, human interest, tenderness, love—because beauty does not long content them. Beauty is perfect, and perfection (such is human nature) holds our attention but a little while. The mathematician who after seeing Phčdre asked: 'Qu'est-ce que ça prouve?' was not such a foool as he has been generally made out."
"In Vicksburg, on the asphalt, the deflected minions of want walked, those who lived to care for and feed their cars, and she watched them outside Big Mart. And the sad philosophic fishermen who lived to drag slabby beauties from the water, that dream of long seconds, so they told her. About the same happy contest as sexual intercourse, as she recalled it, though these episodes sank deeper into a blurred well every day. She loved the men and their lostness on the water. Their rituals with lines and rods and reels and lures. The worship they put into it. How they beleaguered themselves with gear and lore, like solemn children or fools. She had spent too much time being unfoolish, as if that were the calling of her generation. As you would ask somebody the point of their lives and they would answer: horses."
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, February 23, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Better late than never
If you had to live in a film, what would it be? To my surprise, this turns out to be the hardest of Terry's questions for me to answer. I thought it would be a simple matter of picking one of my many favorite movies, but it turns out that the movies I like best don't tend to be happy places. The Dreamlife of Angels? The Long Goodbye? The unjustly forgotten Georgia? As potential habitats, these all look damn inhospitable. Still thinking.
But the saddest work of art I know? King Lear. Two things about this play especially make me feel like I've been drawn and quartered: the rift between a father and daughter, and the cruel way that tragedy springs from mere foolishness, from what should be forgivable. Shouldn't it?
So Terry, despite my taking an Incomplete for now, will you let us in on your answers?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, February 23, 2004 | Permanent
Sunday, February 22, 2004
TT: Taps for today
Two shows yesterday, a performance tonight. Result: no more blogging today, especially since I need to at least try and write some prose-for-hire before the sun goes down. I haven't heard from Our Girl for a couple of days, but maybe she's got something up her pretty sleeve. I myself do not (nor is my sleeve pretty).
The phone is off the hook now. See you Monday, unless my resolve weakens.
Janet Maslin holds forth in today’s New York Times about events likely—or not—to follow the opening of The Passion of the Christ:
In Bernardo Bertolucci's new film, "The Dreamers," three nubile cinéastes play film-mimicking games. In an extremely Parisian equivalent to collecting baseball cards, they act out favorite film scenes and then impose sexual penalties on one another if the identity of the scene cannot be guessed. Thus the heroine is seen flouncing around her apartment ŕ la Garbo in "Queen Christina," and pretending to be in the "Blonde Venus" tropical conga line.
Most of us react less literally to what we see on screen. We process and absorb it, sometimes even echo it. What more? How often is there a direct cause-and-effect link between events on screen and behavior in the real world? Movies spawn fads and fashions, but can they change real attitudes and catalyze real action? Starting Wednesday, Mel Gibson's graphic re-enactment of the Crucifixion may offer answers to some of these questions….
Read the whole thing here, including some off-the-cuff remarks from yours truly. Maslin tracked me down last week in Smalltown, U.S.A., where just about everybody I ran into wanted to know whether I’d seen a preview of The Passion of the Christ. I hadn’t, and haven’t, but I still tried to talk as much sense as I could. (I even managed to quote W.H. Auden and work in a plug for artsjournal.com, no small trick when your whole family is pestering you to get off the phone and come to supper.) The verdict is yours.