About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, March 30, 2007
TT: The Joan Didion Show
Today’s Wall Street Journal column is devoted in its entirety to my review of the new stage version of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I hated it:
It surprised when Joan Didion published “The Year of Magical Thinking,” for I identified her so completely with California in the ’60s that I’d almost forgotten she was still alive. Of course she continued to publish—a fat volume of her collected essays came out last fall—but somehow I had come to see her as a figure from the distant past, a chronicler of strange days for which I felt no nostalgia whatsoever. Then her daughter got sick and her husband died of a heart attack and she wrote a best-seller about it, and all at once she was back….
I found it hard to shake off the disquieting sensation that Ms. Didion, for all the obvious sincerity of her grief, was nonetheless functioning partly as a grieving widow and partly as a celebrity journalist who had chosen to treat the death of John Gregory Dunne as yet another piece of grist for her literary mill. All the familiar features of her style, hardened into slick, self-regarding mannerism after years of constant use, were locked into place and running smoothly, and I felt as though I were watching a piece of performance art, or reading a cover story in People: Joan Didion on Grief….
Would that the stage version of “The Year of Magical Thinking” were an improvement on the book, but it isn’t. In one way it’s much worse, for it starts off with a speech that has all the subtlety of the proverbial blunt object: “This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That’s what I’m here to tell you.” Why on earth did David Hare, the stage-savvy director, let Ms. Didion get away with so crude and undramatic a gesture? If the rest of the play doesn’t make that point, nothing will.
Nor did Mr. Hare insist that his debutante author (this is Ms. Didion’s first play) ram a theatrical spine down the back of her fugitive reflections on death and dying. As a seasoned playwright, he should have known better. “The Year of Magical Thinking” doesn’t go anywhere—it just goes and goes, inching from scene to scene, and when Ms. Didion finally gets around to telling us an hour and a half later what she learned from the loss of her husband and daughter, it turns out to be a string of portentously worded platitudes...
To read the rest, buy a copy of today’s Journal or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my column, plus the rest of the paper’s extensive arts coverage.
UPDATE: The Journal has just posted a free link to this review. To read it, go here.
In this week's "Sightings" column, which appears in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, I report on a visit I paid to an exhibition of paintings by Vincent van Gogh and his contemporaries, some of whom were influenced by him to the point of outright imitation. What did I learn from the experience? That second-rate art, however derivative, can sometimes teach you as much as first-rate art about the nature of greatness.
To find out more, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal and turn to the "Pursuits" section.
"Concerning Fitzgerald, there is a principle that can't be taught in a creative writing class and is hard enough to teach in the regular English faculty, but it's worth a try: his disaster robbed us of more books as wonderful as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, but we wouldn't have those if he hadn't been like that. Fitzgerald's prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when by his own later standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man."
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.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 28, 2007 | Permanent
TT: Still in the barrel
I continue to joust with increasingly urgent deadlines, and for now I feel the need to spend such free time as I have (and there isn't much of it) consuming art instead of writing about it. I will, however, pause to tell you about my recent reading and listening:
• C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which I reread after a very long interval in preparation for reviewing the new stage version of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I saw on Monday night. (Celebrity watch: Ethan Hawke was there.)
• Maurice Duruflé’s exquisite Requiem, to which I hadn’t listened for several years. I’d forgotten (but how?) that it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know. If you need consolation—whatever the reason—you’ll find it here.
• Carolyn Brown’s important new memoir, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham. I’ll be writing about it at some point, so for now I’ll simply say that if you have any interest in the emergence of avant-garde art in New York after World War II, you need to read this book. Among countless other good things, it’s wonderfully well written.
• An advance copy of Bill Charlap’s new CD, which reminds me to remind you that he’s playing at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room this Friday and Saturday. (Go here for details.) I’ll be at the second set on Friday—look for me.
Now, back to work.
P.S. If you've written to me in the last few days and haven't heard back, try to be patient and forgiving!
"Rather than reading a book in order to criticize it, I would rather criticize it because I have read it, thus paying attention to the subtle yet profound distinction Schopenhauer made between those who think in order to write and those who write because they have thought."
Miguel de Unamuno, Ensayos (quoted in Clive James, Cultural Amnesia)
You’ve heard Louis Kaufman play the violin, whether you know it or not—and you probably don't. He was the concertmaster of the studio orchestras that recorded the scores for a startlingly high percentage of the best Hollywood film scores of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. He also played with Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc, made the first recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, bought the first oil painting ever sold by Milton Avery, lived in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, and wrote a lovely autobiography called A Fiddler’s Tale.
Such a life deserves to be celebrated, and I did so in an essay published in Commentary three years ago:
Why, then, is Kaufman all but forgotten? Because he spent his peak years laboring anonymously in the Hollywood studios instead of performing in major American cities. As a result, he failed to win the critical acclaim that a violinist of his quality might reasonably have expected to receive. Virtually all of his commercial recordings (including his historic Four Seasons) were made for small independent labels and have long been out of print. And his adventurous musical tastes drew him away from the standard repertoire that is the bread and butter of every classical-music soloist who hopes to have an international concert career….
Yet if Kaufman was troubled by his failure to become famous, he gives no hint of it in his autobiography, whose charm and verve, like that of Nathan Milstein’s From Russia to the West, are clearly an outward sign of its author’s inner contentment. The epigraph to the fifth chapter of A Fiddler’s Tale comes from the Bhagavad-Gita: “He who really does what he should will obtain what he wants.” Those are the words of a man at ease in his own skin, as was the remark that Kaufman often made to his wife as they prepared for bed: “This was a great day and tomorrow will be fine too.”
The world would be infinitely poorer without such untroubled, unselfconscious craftsmen…
Kaufman died in 1994, but his wife Annette, a fine pianist who accompanied his recitals, is still alive (she sent a letter to Commentary thanking me for writing about her husband). You can hear her on a CD bound into A Fiddler’s Tale that contains recordings by Kaufman of pieces by Robert Russell Bennett, Copland, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Milhaud, Saint-Saëns, William Grant Still, and Vivaldi. In addition, a few of Kaufman’s commercial recordings have been reissued on CD since I wrote about him three years ago, including his splendidly vital, still-listenable 1947 performance of The Four Seasons.
What put Kaufman back into my head? I was reading a press release announcing the latest additions to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, a list of American recordings deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important,” and saw that his Four Seasons recording had been added in 2003:
Louis Kaufman was one of the most recorded violinists of the 20th century with a brilliant career performing both film music and classical music. His 1947 recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons with the Concert Hall Orchestra conducted by Henry Swoboda was the first LP recording of the work that would become one of the most often recorded in the classical repertoire. Kaufman's performance would also play a pivotal role in the revival of Baroque music and interest in performance practice of early music.
This inspired me to reread A Fiddler’s Tale, which I found every bit as delightful the second time around. One of the appendices is a partial list of films on whose soundtracks Kaufman played. Here are some of the highlights:
• AARON COPLAND:Our Town, The Heiress, The Red Pony
• ADOLPH DEUTSCH:High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon
• HUGO FRIEDHOFER:The Best Years of Our Lives
• LEIGH HARLINE:Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio
• BERNARD HERRMANN:The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Magnificent Ambersons, Jane Eyre, Vertigo, Psycho
• ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD:The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, The Sea Wolf, Kings Row, Between Two Worlds
• ALFRED NEWMAN:Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, Captain from Castile
• ALEX NORTH:A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus
• DAVID RAKSIN:Laura, Forever Amber
• MIKLÓS RÓZSA:Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Spellbound, Ben-Hur
• MAX STEINER:The Informer, Top Hat, Gone With the Wind, Intermezzo, Now, Voyager, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
• FRANZ WAXMAN:Rebecca, The Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard
“The theater longs to represent the symbols of things, not the things themselves. All the lies it tells—the lie that that young lady is Caesar’s wife; the lie that people can go through life talking in blank verse; the lie that that man just killed that man—all those lies enhance the one truth that is there—the truth that dictated the story, the myth. The theater asks for as many conventions as possible. A convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, an accepted untruth. When the theater pretends to give the real thing in canvas and wood and metal it loses something of the realer thing which is its true business.”
I’ve never understood why Amy Irving’s film career failed to pan out. All I know is that she made some good movies in the ’80s, married and divorced Steven Spielberg, moved to Brazil and pretty much dropped off the scope. Now she’s back in Manhattan, giving a dynamite performance Off Broadway in a one-woman play about an American artist who, like Ms. Irving, changed course and went south.
Marta Góes’ “A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop” is one of those fact-filled shows about a real-life character that feels at times less like a full-fledged play than a canned bio. Fortunately, Bishop’s life was interesting enough to make the facts worth seeing….
The original production of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” which ran for 1,847 performances at the Village Gate starting in 1968, is one of Off Broadway’s all-time success stories, as well as a prototype of today’s jukebox musicals. Now a new team of producers has revived it, this time at the Zipper Theatre, a charmingly run-down cabaret-like dump south of the theater district. Lightning isn’t supposed to strike twice in the same place, but I won’t be surprised if they get lucky, because this revival is the best-performed musical revue to hit New York in ages….
Whenever I hear the words “cult classic,” I look for the nearest exit. Alas, my duty as a critic kept me rooted in my aisle seat throughout “Grey Gardens,” the musical version of the 1975 cinéma-vérité documentary that is currently packing them in at Playwrights Horizons. According to the program, the film, which told the creepy story of two impoverished society ladies who spent their sunset years living in a crumbling, cat-infested Long Island summer house, is much admired by gay men. I never saw it, but the stage version, whose book is by Doug Wright, the author of “I Am My Own Wife,” made me feel as though I’d sat through a play written in a foreign language….
No link, so get thee to a newsstand, buy a copy of today’s Journal, turn to the “Weekend Journal” section, and read the whole thing there. Or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with instance access to the complete text of my review, along with plenty of other art-related coverage.
Here's a little taste of my next “Sightings” column, which appears biweekly in the “Pursuits” section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:
A Colorado teacher was put on leave by her superintendent last month after showing a video of excerpts from “Faust” to one of her classes. Some parents, it seems, didn’t want their kids to see an opera about a devil. Around the same time, a principal in Fulton, Mo., cancelled a student production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” when he learned that the play was about witches.
You probably read these stories—then forgot about them. Such skirmishes, after all, are commonplace in postmodern America, where long-simmering cultural resentments can boil over without warning. But what happened to Tresa Waggoner, who got in red-hot water for introducing her students to an opera she calls “a great part of our civilization and Western culture,” is more than just another black-and-white tale of blue-nosed intolerance in Red America….
As always, there's lots more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.
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 and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Bridge & Tunnel* (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza* (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd* (musical, R, adult subject matter, 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)
"Like most people who cultivate an interest in the arts, Hayward was extremely anxious to be right. He was dogmatic with those who did not venture to assert themselves, but with the self-assertive he was very modest."
“He knew that an enormous proportion of mankind feels, weirdly but indisputably, a stronger awe for the theatre than almost any other art or activity on earth. He knew that to get in on the inside, to be ‘behind scenes’ in the theatre, was to achieve a glamour completely out of proportion to that attached to almost any other profession. He knew that to give to the average person free seats for the theatre (while pretending that such a thing was easy because one was intimately connected with it) gratified such a person a dozen times more than to give him the money for the seats. When anxious to flatter, cajole, or bribe people in the past, he had often himself bought seats at a theatre and then given them away with the pretence that he had come by them through inside influence and that they were of no use to himself.”
I came here looking for something
I couldn't find anywhere else.
Hey, I'm not trying to be nobody,
Just want a chance to be myself.
I've done a thousand miles of thumbin',
I've worn holes in both my heels
Trying to find me something better
Here on the streets of Bakersfield.
Spent some time in San Francisco,
I spent a night there in the can.
They threw this drunk man in my jail cell,
I took fifteen dollars from that man.
Left him my watch and my old house key,
Don't want folks thinkin' that I'd steal.
Then I thanked him as I was leaving,
And I headed out for Bakersfield.
You don't know me, but you don't like me.
You say you care less how I feel.
But how many of you that sit and judge me
Have ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?
Homer Joy, "Streets of Bakersfield" (in memory of Buck Owens)
P.S. For a good obit of a great country singer, go here.
"'But Piers, why did you choose him of all people? I shouldn't have thought you had anything in common.'
"'This having things in common,' said Piers impatiently, 'how overrated it is! Long dreary intellectual conversations, capping each other's obscure quotations—it's so exhausting. It's much more agreeable to come home to some different remarks from the ones one's been hearing all day.'"
"Maybe that was just it, he thought; maybe you just got to a point where everything around you was strange, where the world had changed sufficiently that you no longer fit in. None of the music sounded like music anymore. None of the dancing looked like dancing. The satin-and-powder fancy world that he saw in the movies—where was it? He had grown up expecting to inhabit that world, and now even the memory, the fancy of that world was disappearing from the earth and he had still not slept with Carole Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck."
Kevin Canty, Winslow in Love
(We children of the seventies and beyond, of course, will experience this particular species of superannuation over the marketing industry's cold, dead body.)
Two of the greatest American plays of the 20th century were revived on Broadway this week. Both feature familiar faces: Jessica Lange and Christian Slater in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Both were directed by Brits, David Leveaux and Anthony Page—and both productions are crash-and-burn disasters.
By far the worse of the two is “The Glass Menagerie,” now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, for which Mr. Leveaux (“Fiddler on the Roof”) wins the Eurotrash Award of 2005 by inserting a spectacularly gratuitous subtext into Williams’ fragile tale of a dysfunctional family caught in the choking web of genteel poverty. Did it ever occur to you, even for a millisecond, that the shy, crippled Laura Wingfield (Sarah Paulson) might want to have sex with her sensitive brother Tom (Mr. Slater)? No? Well, it did to Mr. Leveaux…
Similarly misguided things are happening at the Longacre Theatre, but at least Mr. Page’s version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” spares us the interfering touches beloved of so many postmodern directors. His blunder was a simpler one, if no less devastating: He cast Bill Irwin as George, the small-time college professor whose marriage to Martha (Ms. Turner), the boss’ drunken daughter, has turned him into a monster of passive aggression. I yield to no one in my admiration for Mr. Irwin’s great gifts as the tragic clown of such self-written extravaganzas as “The Regard of Flight,” but his flip, flat readings of George’s blood-soaked quips are as far off the mark in one direction as Mr. Slater’s regular-guy Tom Wingfield is in the other….
As for All Shook Up, well…
Think of it as an exercise in commodities trading. The jokes are strictly from Bob Hope’s 1955 reject pile (“Hey, you’re wearin’ blue suede shoes!” “Nobody step on ’em”). The dances, mysteriously credited to two different choreographers, are as memorable as a stump speech by Michael Dukakis. Stephen Oremus’ musical arrangements are loud and anonymous….
The rest of “All Shook Up” is theme-park trash, a Broadway musical for people who don’t like musicals, or Broadway. Or music. If you found “Mamma Mia!” too intellectually demanding, you’ve come to the right place.
No link, so if you want to read the whole thing—and there’s plenty more where that came from—pick up a copy of this morning’s Journal and look me up in the “Weekend Journal” section. Or go here, pull out your credit card, and start clicking.
"I think the reason gamblers habitually gamble is to lose. Because they know they have to lose, it's the law of averages. I'm not talking about bookies or gentlemen gamblers. I'm talking about the compulsive, neurotic gambler. Pain is what he's searching for. The emotion of pain. It's much greater than the emotion of pleasure. Bigger, larger, stronger. Therefore more interesting."
Walter Matthau (quoted in Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg, Matthau: A Life)
I am now officially the Honorable Terry Teachout, having been sworn in this morning (together with Gerard Schwarz
and James Ballinger) as a member of the National Council on the Arts. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor dropped by to administer the oath. It was a near-run thing, for Justice O’Connor didn’t know when she agreed to do the honors that she and her Supreme Court brethren would be hearing the Terri Schiavo case today. “We had a busy morning!” she said as she arrived, still wearing her judicial robes. I’d never seen her in person, and was surprised by how short she was. Charismatic, too: she’s engaging, energetic, and has amazing eyes, dark and snapping.
The oath she administered is the one specified in Section 3331 of the United States Code:
An individual, except the President, elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed services, shall take the following oath: ''I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.''
I’d never taken an oath remotely like that—in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever taken any oath before today—and as I repeated the words after Justice O’Connor, I suddenly realized that my voice was on the verge of cracking. Maybe it was because I'd looked up and seen my brother standing just fifteen feet away, snapping a picture. On the other hand, it wasn’t the first time in the past couple of days that my emotions had been engaged so strongly. Under Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, public sessions of the National Council on the Arts always begin with a performance of an appropriate piece of music, and today we heard the finale of Walter Piston’s Fourth Symphony in a recording conducted
by Gerard Schwarz, who was seated next to me. My eyes filled with tears as I listened, the same way they’d grown moist the day before as we watched a video clip of Ethan Stiefel and Alessandra Ferri dancing the pas de deux from Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream. That’s one of the biggest differences between a meeting of the National Council on the Arts and one of, say, the board of directors of Citibank. Great art has a way of slipping in under the radar and filling you with extraordinary sensations.
As soon as Justice O’Connor finished swearing us in, she smiled and said, “Now, go do a good job!” To which Jim Ballinger (who knows her) instantly responded, “You, too!” That brought down the house, and the four of us went back to work.
I could tell you all sorts of other things about today’s meeting, but I’ll pass on just one detail. Gordon Davidson, the outgoing artistic director of Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, just finished serving a term as a member of the NCA. He had to miss his final meeting, so he came to our first one to say his goodbyes, which consisted of an elegant little speech in which he said something which struck me so forcibly that I scribbled it down on my notepad: “I liked being here because I love asking questions. I think the best art asks the best questions.” Me, too.
Chairman Gioia gaveled the proceedings to a close at noon, after which my brother and I said our goodbyes, jumped into a cab, went back to his hotel, changed clothes, caught a Tourmobile bus in front of the National Air and Space Museum, and spent the rest of the day looking at monuments. This is my brother’s first trip to Washington, and it’s been ages since I last did any tourist-type stuff here. I’d forgotten how stirring an impression the Lincoln Memorial makes, even when it’s full of noisy tourists. Once again, I caught myself choking up as I read the so-familiar words carved into the wall: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Washington has a way of doing that to you, too.
Now we’re back in our hotel room, worn out from walking and preparing for what I sincerely hope will be a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we’ll be visiting Arlington National Cemetery, the National Archives, and whatever else sounds good, weather permitting. I’ll be returning to New York on Saturday, and I expect to be more worn out still—and inordinately happy. It’s been an extraordinary week, in all sorts of ways....
One last thing: Dana introduced me this morning as “a critic, biographer, and blogger,” adding that I’m “the first blogger ever to serve on the National Council on the Arts.” How about that?
Henry James isn't famed for making people laugh, but when he's guarding his turf an evil sense of humor can rear its toothy head. For example, in the sections of his famous "Art of Fiction" essay where he is responding directly to Walter Besant's lecture of the same name, James is hilariously withering (and Besant's philistinism well deserves it). And in "The Death of the Lion," previously discussed by me here, he takes on literary journalism as personified by the comically monstrous Mr. Morrow, who shows up with a notebook one afternoon at the home of the reclusive author Neil Paraday. Also on the scene is the story's narrator, a critic who considers himself above mere literary fashion and who here interposes himself between the voracious would-be reporter and his reluctant quarry.
Mr. Morrow glared, agreeably, through his glasses: they suggested the electric headlights of some monstrous modern ship, and I felt as if Paraday and I were tossing terrified under his bows. I saw that his momentum was irresistible. "I was confident that I should be the first in the field," he declared. "A great interest is naturally felt in Mr. Paraday's surroundings."
"I hadn't the least idea of it," said Paraday, as if he had been told he had been snoring.
"I find he has not read the article in The Empire," Mr. Morrow remarked to me. "That's so very interesting—it's something to start with," he smiled. He had begun to pull off his gloves, which were violently new, and to look encouragingly round the little garden. As a "surrounding" I felt that I myself had already been taken in; I was a little fish in the stomach of a bigger one. "I represent," our visitor continued, "a syndicate of influential journals, no less than thirty-seven, whose public—whose publics, I may say—are in peculiar sympathy with Mr. Paraday's line of thought. They would greatly appreciate any expression of his views on the subject of the art he so brilliantly practises. Besides my connection with the syndicate just mentioned, I hold a particular commission from The Tatler, whose most prominent department, 'Smatter and Chatter'—I daresay you've often enjoyed it—attracts such attention. I was honoured only last week, as a representative of The Tatler, with the confidence of Guy Walsingham, the author of 'Obsessions.' She expressed herself thoroughly pleased with my sketch of her method; she went so far as to say that I had made her genius more comprehensible even to herself."
…Not because I had brought my mind back, but because our visitor's last words were in my ear, I presently inquired with gloomy irrelevance whether Guy Walsingham were a woman.
"Oh yes, a mere pseudonym; but convenient, you know, for a lady who goes in for the larger latitude. 'Obsessions, by Miss So-and-So,' would look a little odd, but men are more naturally indelicate. Have you peeped into 'Obsessions'?" Mr. Morrow continued sociably to our companion.
Paraday, still absent, remote, made no answer, as if he had not heard the question: a manifestation that appeared to suit the cheerful Mr. Morrow as well as any other. Imperturbably bland, he was a man of resources—he only needed to be on the spot. He had pocketed the whole poor place while Paraday and I were woolgathering, and I could imagine that he had already got his "heads." His system, at any rate, was justified by the inevitability with which I replied, to save my friend the trouble: "Dear, no; he hasn't read it. He doesn't read such things!" I unwarily added.
"Things that are too far over the fence, eh?" I was indeed a godsend to Mr. Morrow. It was the psychological moment; it determined the appearance of his notebook, which, however, he at first kept slightly behind him, as the dentist, approaching his victim, keeps his horrible forceps. "Mr. Paraday holds with the good old proprieties—I see!" And, thinking of the thirty-seven influential journals, I found myself, as I found poor Paraday, helplessly gazing at the promulgation of this inepititude. "There's no point on which distinguished views are so acceptable as on this question—raised perhaps more strikingly than ever by Guy Walsingham—of the permissibility of the larger latitude. I have an appointment, precisely in connection with it, next week, with Dora Forbes, the author of 'The Other Way Round,' which everybody is talking about. Has Mr. Paraday glanced at 'The Other Way Round'?…Dora Forbes, I gather, takes the ground, the same as Guy Walsingham's, that the larger latitude has simply got to come. He holds that it has got to be squarely faced. Of course his sex makes him a less prejudiced witness. But an authoritative word from Mr. Paraday—from the point of view of his sex, you know—would go right round the globe. He takes the line that we haven't got to face it?"
I was bewildered; it sounded somehow as if there were three sexes. My interlocutor's pen was poised, my private responsibility great. I simply sat staring, however, and only found presence of mind to say: "Is this Miss Forbes a gentleman?"
Mr. Morrow hesitated an instant, smiling: "It wouldn't be 'Miss'—there's a wife!"
"I mean, is she a man?"
"The wife?"—Mr. Morrow, for a moment, was as confused as myself. But when I explained that I alluded to Dora Forbes in person he informed me, with visible amusement at my being so out of it, that this was the "pen-name" of an indubitable male—he had a big red moustache. "He only assumes a feminine personality because the ladies are such popular favorites. A great deal of interest is felt in this assumption, and there's every prospect of its being widely imitated."
Who's on first? Of course, the narrator is being skewered here, too, for his pompous, principled disengagement from fashion—absurd as that fashion may be. The narrator is exposed by the prim horror with which he regards Morrow, Morrow principally by his own speeches. If Morrow never opened his mouth, we might well find him sympathetic just by virtue of how effortlessly he moves our priggish narrator to overblown similes involving barges and dentists. We don't have to trust the author's or narrator's assertion that both of these men are ridiculous—James has each character manage to damn himself, just by being himself.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, March 24, 2005 | Permanent
"'She still has no taste, thank God,' Ethel thought, comfortingly, but the truth was that Amanda was too successful, too arrogantly on top, to even need good taste. Good taste was the consolation of people who had nothing else, people like her own self, Ethel thought, inferiority feelings leaping back at her like great barn dogs trying to be pets."
A friend of mine told me that she once owned chows who were terrified when it thundered. Two kinds of music calmed them down--Louis Armstrong, and the Goldberg Variations. The only music, it happens, that I could bear during chemotherapy.
Aside from being a remarkable tribute to Louis (and one he would surely have appreciated), this e-mail suggests a fascinating party game, though one that few of my acquaintances, thank God, are qualified to play. To make it a bit more generally accessible, what music do you listen to when the world is way, way too much with you?
Here are ten pieces that have helped me through times of extreme mental disruption:
• Copland Violin Sonata (first movement)
• Mozart A Major Piano Concerto. K. 488 (first movement)
• Ravel Piano Concerto in G (slow movement)
• Dave Brubeck Quartet, "Stardust"
• Gerry Mulligan with Tommy Flanagan, "Lonely Town"
“‘There you are, Collins,’ Colonel Ross said. ‘I think we can get your promotion next week.’
“The warm feeling which came from power to arrange so quickly a considerable favor for somebody else, which was also reasonably sure to be a good stroke of business for himself, lasted him, Colonel Ross supposed, half a minute. In this life, you succeeded when you were young because you never risked letting anyone do anything for you; and when you were old you succeeded, if you did, because you never risked doing yourself what you could pick someone to do for you.”
Mr. Gioia, my new boss, “asked” me to draw up a mini-program of ten piano-accompanied English-language settings of Shakespeare. I had roughly fifteen minutes to comply. He didn't tell me why he wanted it. Here’s what I came up with, pretty much straight off the top of my head:
• Thomas Morley, “It was a lover and his lass”
• Gerald Finzi, “It was a lover and his lass” (from Let Us Garlands Bring)
• Joseph Haydn, “She never told her love”
• Franz Schubert, “Who is Sylvia?”
• Erich Wolfgang Korngold, “Desdemona’s Song” (from Four Shakespeare Songs)
• Amy Beach, “O Mistress Mine” (from Three Shakespeare Songs)
• Peter Warlock, “Sigh no more, ladies”
• Roger Quilter, “Come away, Death”
• Stephen Sondheim, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” (from The Frogs)
• Dominick Argento, “When icicles hang by the wall” (from Six Elizabethan Songs)
I just got back to my Washington hotel after my first day of meetings as a member of the National Council on the Arts. I can’t tell you what I did today, because this was the first of two days’ worth of closed sessions, but I can say that my fellow NCA members are without exception serious, thoughtful, and collegial, and that I’ve already learned a huge amount about the workings of the National Endowment for the Arts, all of it impressive (to me, anyway).
In lieu of spilling the official beans, let me direct you to a very interesting profile
of Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA, that appeared a couple of days ago in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Here’s the money quote:
"I would say that the major reform I've made at the endowment can be summarized pretty easily," Gioia said. "Historically, the National Endowment for the Arts thought of itself as a federal agency that served artists. Today, the NEA sees itself as a federal agency which serves the American public by bringing the best of the arts and arts education to all Americans."
He said the same thing to us today. Read the whole story and you’ll see exactly what he meant.
I also took that v. cool friend of mine to the Phillips Collection this morning, where we looked over a beautifully mounted Modigliani retrospective that’s an absolute must-see, even if you’re not all that enthusiastic about Modigliani (which I’m still not).
Now I’ve got to get to bed—tomorrow is going to be an even longer day. Stay out of trouble while I’m gone.
The Little Professor has one of her chilling tales from the teaching front. I suspect these may be somewhat more amusing to us than to her. This particular story also reminded me of a wee shred of dialogue from last week's Arrested Development. Teenaged Mabey, discovering that her cousin is getting out of school for a day to go to a Christian camp, decides that perhaps she too should find religion.
Mabey: Do you know where I can get one of those gold chains with a T on it?
Michael (her uncle): Uh, Mabey, that's a cross.
Mabey: Across from what?
Meanwhile, Carrie at Tingle Alley is especially prolific of late, which is always good news in my book. Highlights include an impromptu Division I game of Humiliation and this reflection on James Woods, Marilynne Robinson, and the problem (or not) of the good protagonist. This last item is especially interesting to me right now, as I'm working on reviews of one new novel that takes on this challenge explicitly, with mixed results, and another that follows what some would call the easier, or at least better-traveled, road of employing a protagonist who is pretty much defined by his flaws. I'll have more to say about this when these reviews are finished and printed. For now I'll just note that the latter book seems, on a first consideration, to give me more to grapple with as a reader--more sustenance. Whether these impressions hold up to closer scrutiny, and how much they reflect the relative goodness of the characters, are questions I'll be trying to work out in writing the reviews.
I'm still out of Chicago, and posting from my corner will continue to be light for the next couple of days. There's lots of worthwhile reading out there, however, beginning with the debutante blog The Gurgling Cod*, the creation of About Last Night pal the Fesser. If he weren't already my friend, he would be making serious headway in that direction with this opening installment of musical links in tribute to hockey's Original Six.
It almost makes up for the time he sent me a Patrick Roy birthday card.
*Wonder whether he's offering any sort of door prize to the first reader to identify his blog's namesake?
“Nathaniel Hicks said: ‘Look, Bill. I’ve worked with writers for years. I know a lot about them. When he writes, Edsell doesn’t mean anything personal; any more than he means in that story he could do it better. He just sees a situation he thinks he can write a story about. Then he dresses it up and twists it around to make it a story. That’s what they pay him for.’
”‘I suppose that’s right,’ Major Whitney said uneasily. There might remain in Major Whitney’s mind a point he did not, or could not, phrase—what were you to think of a fellow free and friendly to your face, who, all the while, was working away at something that, at elaborate length, in the permanence of print, would hold you up to the ridicule of a large audience? Nathaniel Hicks could only answer by saying: ‘That’s the way they are, Bill—‘”
I'm posting from a very nice Washington hotel room (you're paying for it, so the least you can do is enjoy it vicariously) after a wild do-this-do-that-no-this morning, followed by a hair-raising cab ride to Penn Station and a tranquil train ride to our nation's capital. I chewed up NEA-related paperwork all the way from New York to Philadelphia, then took a lovely nap. I'm meeting a friend for dinner shortly, after which I'll return to the hotel and try to knock out a few more pages of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. The festivities start tomorrow.
For the moment, I'm listening to Pee Wee Russell on my iBook and marveling yet again at the joys of technology. All I had to do to connect to the blogosphere was stick a plug into the side of my computer and click a few keys, and there...I...was! I don't normally take my computer on trips like this (to do so makes it too tempting to work when I need to be unwinding), but since I had to make an exception, I figured I'd say hello.
Now it's time for dinner. I might blog tomorrow, and I might not. OGIC might or might not do the same. There's just no telling what we'll do!
I got word while packing of the death this morning of Bobby Short, the great cabaret singer. (Here’s the Associated Press obituary.) I met him on my very first trip to New York City, an encounter I recalled in City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy:
My biggest adventure consisted of going by myself to the early show at the Café Carlyle, neatly dressed in a black suit that my mother and I had picked out at a factory outlet store in Bloomfield.
I went to the Café Carlyle because I was, believe it or not, a fan of Bobby Short, a cabaret singer who performs there regularly. I first read about Bobby Short in a piece Rex Reed wrote for Stereo Review back when I was in high school. Hungry for a taste of the glamorous life, I ordered Bobby Short is Mad About Noël Coward
and Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter
from Collins Piano Company, the only place in Smalltown, U.S.A., where you could place special orders for records. Going to see my idol in person seemed to me the perfect way to round out my trip to New York, so I booked a table for one and turned up half an hour before show time, blissfully ignorant of the fact that the Café Carlyle is an elegant watering hole intended for well-to-do New Yorkers, not teenage boys in ill-fitting black suits.
Not being much of a drinker, I decided to consume my minimum by having a late supper at my tiny table. I tore into my shrimp cocktail with gusto, unaware that anything was wrong until I put down my fork, looked around, and saw that no one else in the room was eating. I might well have died of embarrassment had it not been for the fact that Bobby Short, formerly of Danville, Illinois, spotted me for an out-of-towner the moment he walked through the door and came straight to my table to say hello, an act of kindness for which I am still grateful. I talked about it for weeks, though I knew only three or four people who knew who Bobby Short was, which took most of the starch out of the story after the first few tellings….
I never went back to the Carlyle to see him again, not wanting to disturb that perfect memory, though I continued to listen to his lovely, elegant recordings. I wish I had time to pay fuller tribute to his artistry, but I have to catch a train for Washington. On the other hand, perhaps this reminiscence of a small-town boy at large in the big city is the best possible tribute I could pay to a sophisticated singer who was also, at least to me, a very nice man.
(4) Follow my brother around. (He's coming to Washington to represent the family at my swearing-in, but he has a long list of other stuff he wants to do.)
(5) Try to get some work done on Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong.
I’ll be gone until Saturday, and while I’ll be taking my iBook with me, it isn’t likely that I’ll be doing much blogging, given the demands of my itinerary. I promise to check in with you if time permits, though, and of course I’ll be back at the old stand next Monday, rain or shine. I’m not sure what OGIC will be up to while I’m gone, but I’m sure she’ll be poking her head in from time to time, so be sure to look in on us.
It happens that I’ve never filled out the celebrated Proust Questionnaire, so when I saw that Searchblog had done so the other day, I thought that doing the same thing might be a nice note on which to hit the road.
• What is your most marked characteristic? Curiosity.
• What is the quality you most like in a man? The ability to argue without becoming angry.
• What is the quality you most like in a woman? A sense of the absurd.
• What do you most value in your friends? Kindness and warmth.
• What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Impatience.
• What is your favorite occupation? Conversation with a loved one over a good meal.
• What is your idea of perfect happiness? The same, minus the meal and in closer proximity.
• What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?Siegfried.
• In which country would you like to live? This one, in the Fifties.
• Who are your favorite writers? Johnson, Trollope, Dostoevsky, James, Conrad, Fitzgerald, Colette, Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, M.F.K. Fisher.
• Who are your favorite poets? Shakespeare, Dickinson, Hardy, Frost, Yeats, Auden, Larkin.
• Who is your favorite hero of fiction? Father Hugh Kennedy, in Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness. Runner-up: Lucky Jim Dixon.
• Who is your favorite heroine of fiction? Vicky Haven, in Dawn Powell’s A Time to Be Born.
• Who are your favorite composers? Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Fauré, Stravinsky, Ravel, Britten, Copland. (If I could add a jazz musician, it'd be Jim Hall.)
• Who are your favorite painters? Chardin, Constable, Cézanne, Bonnard, Morandi, John Marin, Milton Avery, Hans Hofmann, Fairfield Porter, Helen Frankenthaler.
• What are your favorite names? Anne, Ali, Erin, Heather, Kate, Laura, Libby, Tanaquil (all accented on the first syllable, for what it's worth).
• What is it that you most dislike? Smugness. “I detest a man who knows that he knows” (Justice Holmes).
• Which talent would you most like to have? I wish I could dance like Fred Astaire. (I wish I could walk like Fred Astaire.) Failing that, I wish I could play drums like Dave Tough.
• How would you like to die? In a state of grace, after having seen my last, best book through the press.
• What is your current state of mind? Frazzled but expectant.
• What is your motto? “Be generous and delicate and pursue the prize” (Henry James). Alternate motto for especially hectic days: "If there's no alternative, there's no problem" (James Burnham).
"Perhaps you will blame me for having spent so much of my time in Music Halls, so frivolously, when I should have been sticking to my books, burning the midnight oil and compassing the larger latitude. But I am impenitent. I am inclined to think, indeed I have always thought, that a young man who desires to know all that in all ages in all lands has been thought by the best minds, and wishes to make a synthesis of all these thoughts for the future benefit of mankind, is laying up for himself a very miserable old age."
At long last, Verve has reissued Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet, for thirty years one of the most eagerly sought-after recordings on the used-LP market. This is its first appearance on CD, and I’ll be reviewing it for the Washington Post next month. Since you probably haven’t heard of Kellaway or the Cello Quartet—most people haven’t—I thought I’d reprint this profile of Kellaway that I wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 1995. The original title was "Jazz’s Most-Admired Unknown."
* * *
Roger Kellaway is the greatest unknown pianist in jazz.
"Unknown" is, of course, a relative concept. Among musicians, Kellaway is not only known but extravagantly admired. "I love Roger Kellaway," says the hard-to-please Oscar Peterson. "He knows the tradition and he's not afraid." And he gets plenty of work for an unknown, not only as a pianist but as a composer and songwriter. He's played with everybody from Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins to Bobby Darin and Joni Mitchell; he's written music for Yo-Yo Ma, New York City Ballet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; his film-score credits include "Paper Lion" and "A Star Is Born." Chances are that you've heard one of his compositions, the closing theme for the sitcom "All in the Family," several dozen times.
Kellaway is, in short, the quintessential musician's musician, a fact of which he is uncomfortably aware. While he doesn't mind having the respect of his peers, he also wouldn't mind a bit of celebrity to go along with it: "I don't want to be everybody's little secret. There's nobody else in the world who does what I do, or does it the way I do it. I want more people to know that."
Part of Roger Kellaway's problem is that he's a born eclectic. Though he can swing as hard as anyone, he has an unnerving habit of doing it in 7/4 time, or playing in two different keys at once, or throwing in a few top-of-the-keyboard tone clusters just to keep the rhythm section on its toes. These exotic techniques, which somehow sound as familiar as a 12-bar blues when Kellaway employs them, are the natural consequence of his omnivorous musical curiosity. In conversation, he's as likely to bring up Benjamin Britten and Anton Webern ("He's to 20th-century classical music what Thelonious Monk is to jazz") as Duke Ellington and Art Tatum. "The idea that anything can go with anything is very appealing to me," he says, "and classical music has taught me that the options are infinite. If I'm writing a piece and get stuck sonically, I put on a record by Charles Ives or Edgard Varese. These people just blow your head wide open."
For all his determined eclecticism, Kellaway is anything but faceless. Whatever the context, his airy, sparkling playing is instantly recognizable. (If you're listening to an unfamiliar jazz record on which the piano player abruptly drops a bright treble splat into the middle of a solo, it's by Roger Kellaway.) But his refusal to stick with one style sits poorly with the button-down types who run the record business. "The majority of people simply aren't interested in artists who have eclectic tastes," he says with a resigned shrug. "Let's say our lives are a wheel. Well, I've decided to take more spokes of that wheel, that's all. But music-business types are suspicious of musicians like me. I confuse them. They can't pigeonhole me."
Kellaway's closest brush with fame came in 1971 when he put together the Cello Quartet, a drummerless combo consisting solely of "instruments made of wood": piano, cello, marimba and bass. "The cymbals and drums in a regular drum set fill up the air between the other instruments," he explains. "Take them away, clear the air, and you get chamber music." He persuaded Herb Alpert's A&M Records, one of the hottest labels of the '70s, to cut two albums featuring the group, "Cello Quartet" and "Come to the Meadow." The rich, outdoorsy colors of the Cello Quartet set musicians' heads spinning, but the listening public failed to sit up and take notice. Both albums sold modestly, went out of print, became cult classics and now fetch jaw-dropping prices on the used-LP market.
Though Kellaway went on to other things, he never lost his love for the sound of the instrument around which the Cello Quartet was built: "The cello just always killed me. It's so wonderfully expressive, so perfect for playing melodies. I think it resonates with the body to a greater degree than perhaps any other musical instrument." Not surprisingly, the thought of reviving the group remained at the back of his mind. Last year, he found another major label willing to give it a try: Angel Records, which was recently repositioned as the crossover line of EMI Classics. Kellaway added a pair of percussionists to the original lineup ("I wanted to add more ethnicity to the mix") and recorded "Windows," a gorgeous album that sums up his kaleidoscopic style as completely as any one album can.
"Imprisoned in every fat man," Cyril Connolly famously said, "a thin one is wildly signaling to be let out." Corollary: Imprisoned in every musician's musician, a pop icon is dreaming of performing in stadiums packed with screaming fans. "I remember being on stage with Joni Mitchell and playing for 10,000 people," Kellaway says. "I loved it. I remember saying to myself, `I can do this. This is comfortable.' There could be a million people out there and it wouldn't faze me. I don't get frightened, I don't hold back. I'm not afraid to show you who I am."
To this end, Kellaway is putting together still another group, one that may be his least likely musical venture yet: a straight-ahead, no-frills jazz piano trio. "I want to do the trio format," he says, "because it's something I love to do. Except for Monty Alexander, nobody's out there right now just laying it down and making your hair stand on end, and I still know how to do that. So I thought, `Why the hell not?' And as long as we're going to do it, let's do it. Let's play festivals, let's play for big crowds. I want to really try and make some noise." A quizzical look flashes across his lean, bespectacled face. "Maybe I'm not afraid to make a splash anymore."
* * *
Needless to say, he didn't make a splash, and Windows is long out of print, but now you can find out what I was talking about back in 1995 by listening to Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet. So do.
"Choreography, finally, becomes a profession. In making ballets, you cannot sit and wait for the Muse. Union time hardly allows it, anyhow. You must be able to be inventive at any time. You can’t be like the cook who can cook only two dishes: you must be able to cook them all."
George Balanchine, Balanchine’s Complete Stories
of the Great Ballets
Book or no book, I remain the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, in which capacity I went to see Twentieth Century, which opened last night, and wrote about it for this morning’s paper. It’s very uneven, and Alec Baldwin is the opposite of funny, but I did have some good things to report. Here are two:
A passenger train is a perfect setting for a comedy but difficult and expensive to put on stage, so I’ll start by assuring you that John Lee Beatty, the designer of this Roundabout Theatre Company production, has done a good job of evoking the streamlined art-deco interior of the old Twentieth Century Limited. Mr. Beatty’s set slides from side to side in order to reveal more of the train’s interior (as well as suggesting its forward motion), and while it won’t make you fall down dead with astonishment, it’s quite sufficiently nifty.
Anne Heche, on the other hand, is a whole lot more than nifty—she’s dynamite on a stick. Dolled up to the max in William Ivey Long’s slinky period costumes, she looks like a blonde clothespin in a black pantsuit, flinging her miraculously flexible arms and legs around the stage as if they were made of some space-age equivalent of rubber and tossing off her lines in the kind of hoity-toity finishing-school accent you learn from a Hollywood diction coach. She’s doing Katharine Hepburn, of course, but her Kate the Great is more a manic caricature than a slavish imitation, and so unabashedly gleeful that only a sourpuss would do anything other than giggle. Walter Bobbie, the director, has given her plenty of tricky moves, and she makes the absolute most of them, revealing an unsuspected gift for physical comedy. I won’t say Ms. Heche is worth the price of the ticket all by herself, but she sure did make me laugh….
No link, so if you want to read the rest of the story, go buy a Journal. A dollar is a dollar.
In other news, I’m still working on the Balanchine book, it’s still due on April 1, it’s still going well, and I may post another snippet of it tonight. Watch this space for details.
"Lightning was a mad grin in the room, thunder a shudder over all the earth."
Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, March 25, 2004 | Permanent
A thousand apologies for the deafening silence from my corner lately. I rolled back into Chicago two days ago, but I'm swamped. Until next week, you'll hear a few peeps out of me but not a whole hell of a lot more, I'm afraid. Thanks to the readers who sent birthday wishes; the day was very nice, and what do you know, spring did arrive more or less on time.
While I scramble to meet more deadlines than I care to count, here are a couple of links:
• Nathalie is great on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I loved the movie too. I don't have much to add to her observations, except to say that while Jim Carrey is a good sad sack, Kate Winslet's performance is the ingredient the movie couldn't have done without. I always liked Being John Malkovich, which is similarly fascinated with the inside of consciousness. But after seeing the sweeter, more loosely conceived Eternal Sunshine, I suspect the earlier movie may now seem almost unwatchably sour, as well as overly invested in the machinery of its fantastical premise.
• Charles Schulz is getting the auteur treatment with Fantagraphics' forthcoming 25-volume Complete Peanuts. I spent some of the weekend going through last year's very cool Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz, an ever-so-slightly selfish Christmas gift to my dad. Book designer Chip Kidd (best known for his Jurassic Park cover art) put this volume together. In the Sun article, he compares "Peanuts" to Bauhaus:
"Schulz did for the comic strip what the Bauhaus did for architecture," he says. "I know that sounds really eggheady, but what I mean is this: Visually he pared everything down to its simplest forms. Charlie Brown is a circle with two dots and a squiggle and a line, and all of a sudden it's a person. It's minimal, but Schulz is so in control of the minimalism that the characters almost work like typography-it's like you're reading them. There's your form. And then for your content: He predated Woody Allen's neuroses by a good 20 years. On the comics page!"
Also revealed: Schulz hated the name "Peanuts," but deferred to the wishes of the United Feature Syndicate as one of the terms of his contract.
Back to the salt mines!
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, March 25, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Tied to the tracks
I thought you might enjoy knowing what a week in the life of a freelance writer, i.e., me, is like:
(1) My Balanchine book is due April 1. I have a chapter and a half left to write.
(2) Between now and then, I also have to write and file two Wall Street Journal drama reviews, my Washington Post column, and three other pieces.
(3) On April 2, I hop on a plane, ready or not, and fly south to see (what else?) some ballet in Raleigh, N.C.
In short, I hear that train a-comin', it's rollin' round the bend... but all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. I think. I hope. Gulp.
Needless to say, I'm not likely to be posting a whole hell of a lot during the next week and a half, but I do promise to make some sort of daily appearance in this space, however exiguous. A few of my colleagues linked to yesterday's excerpt from the Balanchine book, suggesting approval thereof, so I imagine I'll do the same thing once or twice more. To those of you who want to know what happened to Tanny Le Clercq, the book comes out in November. And to those of you who have already gotten your hands on early copies of A Terry Teachout Reader, I say...tell your friends!
"Robespierre and Saint-Just were ready to eliminate violently whole social strata that seemed to them to be made up of parasites and conspirators, in order that they might adjust this actual France to the Sparta of their dreams; so that the Terror was far more than is commonly realized a bucolic episode. It lends color to the assertion that has been made that the last stage of sentimentalism is homicidal mania."
While I have your attention, I will offer a correction to your Mencken biography. It is minor, but so jarring to this Baltimore resident that I
remember it after two years (and suspect, therefore, that some other
Baltimore resident has alerted you to it). It is your reference to
"riverside renovations" on page 20. Baltimore is not on a river, but on a
harbor; I assume that you meant to refer to Harborplace.
I sure did, and I can’t tell you how I cringed as I read this e-mail. That’s the kind of mistake that gives all biographers nightmares—not quite as horrible as inadvertent plagiarism, but plenty bad enough. Geography has always been one of my weaker suits (I actually made a similarly horrific directional mistake in a book I wrote about my own childhood), but of course that’s no excuse.
On the other hand, here’s the funny part: until now, nobody else noticed this error, in spite of the fact that The Skeptic sold well and was widely read in Baltimore, where I lectured twice about Mencken in the year and a half following its publication. Not only that, but I ran the manuscript of the passage in question by a close friend of mine who is a Baltimore native and has written with great acuity about the city and its people...and she didn’t notice it.
Proving what? I’m not sure, but I thought it’d amuse you. All proposed morals to this story will be read and appreciated.
Since I’m basically too busy to think about anything else, I thought you might like a taste of the chapter of my Balanchine book that I finished on Monday. It’s about Balanchine’s fourth wife, Tanaquil Le Clercq.
* * *
It was Balanchine’s practice, if not his destiny, to fall in love not with creatures of flesh and blood but with fantasies of his own devising. Like most such romantic idealists, he was aroused by pursuit and disillusioned by capture, and no sooner did he marry his latest muse and capture her essence in a new ballet than he started looking elsewhere for inspiration. With Maria Tallchief, the gap between appearance and reality was especially wide, for she was no evanescent Osage sylph but a hard-working, hard-headed professional who scrubbed her own floors and played poker after hours with the men of the company. "I don’t need a housewife," Balanchine complained to a close friend. "I need a nymph who fills the bedroom and floats out." It wasn’t long before he found one, right under his nose.
Long-legged and long-necked to the point of gawkiness, with delicately chiseled features and a gamine smile, Tanaquil Le Clercq, known to all as "Tanny," was a Balanchine ballet come to life. "Like a lean Giacometti, she reflected modern art," wrote Allegra Kent, who danced with her in Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15. Born in 1929, she was the first great dancer to have studied exclusively at the School of American Ballet, and by the time she made her professional debut in The Four Temperaments, she was fully formed. Tallchief enviously described her as "a coltish creature who still had to grow into her long, spindly legs. Those legs went on forever—it seemed as if her body could barely sustain them. She had the long, willowy look of a fashion model, dressed stylishly in long skirts and sweaters, and had a lovely presence….Tanny didn’t have a formal education, yet she was articulate, witty, and chic." A few of her performances were filmed, and in them one can see "the scissor legs, the vehement energy, the regal spine, the expansive upper body, the wit, the chic, the joy in movement" to which her friend Holly Brubach paid tribute after Le Clercq’s death in 2000. Jerome Robbins fell in love with her at first sight, and for a while they were all but inseparable. Balanchine teamed them to memorably comic effect in Bourrée Fantasque, while Robbins immediately began making dances of his own for her. "All the ballets I ever did for the company," he later confessed, "it was always for Tanny."
But Balanchine’s eye had already started to wander—as had Tallchief’s. They agreed to separate after the London season (their marriage was subsequently annulled), and no sooner did NYCB return to Manhattan than Balanchine began seeing Le Clercq in public. "I just love you to talk to, to go around with, play games, laugh like hell, etc.," she told Robbins in a letter. "However, I’m in love with George. Maybe it’s a case of he got here first." Devastated by what he saw as her betrayal, Robbins made The Cage, a chillingly angry portrait of a tribe of insect-women who kill the men with whom they mate. And though Tallchief remained the prima ballerina of New York City ballet for a few years more, it was Le Clercq for whom Balanchine made La Valse (1951, music by Ravel), a darkly unsettling vignette about a beautiful young girl who encounters a black-clad man at a party. He offers her a pair of black gloves into which the girl heedlessly plunges her hands. Then they waltz together with mad abandon until she collapses and dies.
La Valse ranks among Balanchine’s most strikingly personal creations, one with which Le Clercq would forever after be identified. But it was a bizarre present to offer his latest muse, whom he married at the end of 1952: a ballet in which he envisioned her premature death. What happened to her in real life would be immeasurably more shocking….
* * *
How’s that for a teaser?
Now I’ve got to get back to work—it’s half past Chapter Five, and Suzanne Farrell is about to make her first appearance. More later.
"Granted that in later life a man will have to learn to get along with other people—I learn with horror that the knack is now taught in high school as a 'social study'—that is all the more reason there should be a period in his life when he has to get along with nobody but himself. It will be a sweetness to remember."
A.J. Liebling, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris
The Great Task continues to go smoothly. Posting will be light this week, but there will be intermittent spells of bloggery, as was the case on Sunday morning (and if you didn't read all those posts, do so now!). OGIC should be back in the saddle shortly, too.
Wish me luck. I'll really be happy to wrap this book up.
In my not so humble opinion, you, of course, belong in the Picture of Dorian Gray, and do not try to deny it. You belong in the fashionable circles of Victorian London where exotic tastes, a double life, decadence, wit and a hypocritical belief in moral betterment make you a home. You belong where the witty apothegms of Lords, the silly moralities of matrons, the blinding high of opium, and the beauty of visual arts mingle to form one convoluted world.
But enough about me—what about you? Go here to find out.
Say what you will about me, I’ve finally learned to keep up with the incoming e-mail! Except that I occasionally move especially interesting letters to a separate mailbox so that I can either respond to them at length or post them, and sometimes…I forget. Which is why some of you haven’t heard back from me, for which I apologize most humbly. I’ll try to work my way through that box once the book is done.
In the nonce, here are two recent pieces of mail that I especially liked:
• "My Paul Desmond
story: although I had been listening to jazz on the radio and to my father's big band 78s since childhood, it was hearing Paul Desmond with Brubeck on the old Steve Allen show one night in 1954 or 55 that told me three things: I would love jazz forever, that the alto saxophone was the most beautiful sounding instrument of all, and that Paul Desmond had a tone worth emulating. My very first experience of jazz in person was seeing the Brubeck Quartet when they played a Sunday evening concert at the Glen Island Casino, about one mile from my home when I was 14. The Casino had fallen on hard times--the big band era was definitely over and Elvis was on the horizon--and was attempting to find new formats to get people to visit. So I got in my Sunday-best suit, and trudged to the show. A very big snowstorm had begun, so I was one of only a handful of people in attendance, so I am sure no one made much money, including my very professional waiter, who served me cokes--15% of the price of a 1955 coke was not much to take home, even with the usual nightclub markup. I was dazzled, enthralled, overwhelmed that men could do this. I had wanted to get everyone's autograph, but was too shy to approach the bandstand. Walking home in the snow past my ankles, I hardly noticed the effort--I was transported. A year later, I committed my first act of semi-adult unfaithfulness--I bought a Shorty Rogers record and transfered my allegiance to Art Pepper. Ah well, they are both up there in the great alto sax section in the sky with Bird, Carter and Hodges."
• "I read your review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
in the WSJ, and as a result
saw it this afternoon. In the past several years there has been only one
other show where, at intermission, I wanted to call all my friends and tell
them to see it at once (the other was Wonderful Town, last fall). Of course
I couldn't make the calls today because of the intermission concert, which
was almost as wonderful as the show. Thank you for telling me about it. I came to your blog in order to
thank you, and started reading, and started following links, and now I've
ordered Goodbye, Babylon. I hope it's as wonderful as it sounds.
I've always enjoyed your WSJ pieces, and now I'll keep in touch with your blog."
Thanks very much to you both. Letters like these are among the very biggest reasons why OGIC and I keep on blogging, come what may.
You and I disagree as often as we agree, but I read you regularly and enjoy your site very much.
If more people would (or could) say things like that to one another in a wider variety of contexts, both cultural and political, the world would be an infinitely more pleasant place. Instead, we talk past each other—when not shooting at one another. I don't think things were like that when I was young, though perhaps I'm simply remembering the world of my youth through a haze of nostalgia.
At any rate, one of the goals of this site is to be a place where culture and the arts are discussed civilly and amicably. Which isn't to say that OGIC and I don't like a bit of snark from time to time: we do. Nor are we afraid to dust it up. But it seems to me that enough people are kicking up enough dust. All things being equal, I'd rather shed light, and maybe even a little sweetness, too.
I know Our Girl agrees, and I hope you do, too—and I also hope that "About Last Night" gives you pleasure even when you don't.
This story from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution almost slipped past me, but the Cranky Professor steered me straight:
"Et tu, Brute?"
"And you too, Brutus?" is what students read in a new genre of study guides that modernize the Elizabethan English found in "Julius Caesar" and other plays by William Shakespeare.
These guides move beyond the plot summaries found in other study aides by providing line-by-line translations in modern-day English.
Once barred from school, the new translations now are being used in classes across metro Atlanta.
But not everyone thinks they belong there. Some educators say the beauty of Shakespeare rests in the writer's eloquence and poetry — something missing in the translations.
"Shakespeare without language is like a movie without sound," said Paul Voss, who teaches Shakespeare at Georgia State University.
The translated study guides can be found in a class for struggling readers at one Fayette County high school. Henry County teachers also assigned it to students with lower reading skills. And some DeKalb County high school teachers use it as a supplement.
Shakespeare can intimidate students because of unfamiliar syntax and strange character names. Modernized versions give students the confidence to tackle the work, said Connie Kollias, who had her sophomores at Sandy Creek High in Fayette read a translated "Julius Caesar" aloud in class.
"We're not dumbing down lessons for these students," Kollias said. "We are giving them tools that allow them to do the same work as everyone else."
"Tut, I am in their bosoms, and I know wherefore they do it." — Act 5, Scene 1.
"I know how they think, and I understand why they're doing this." — Same scene, "No Fear Shakespeare" translation….
This isn’t an open-and-shut case. As I’ve told any number of people whom I took to see their very first Shakespeare plays, the Bard is harder to read than he is to watch. (Which is why the teachers quoted in this piece ought to be showing a Shakespeare film or two—or three—to their kids.) I’m not necessarily opposed to the judicious use of "translations" in a classroom setting. It depends on the circumstances.
What made my hair stand on end were these two words: "Some educators..." Are there really English teachers in Atlanta who don’t think "the beauty of Shakespeare rests in the writer’s eloquence and poetry"? Has it come to this?
Don't answer that. In the immortal words of me, all slopes are slippery.
I almost forgot to post some of the great mail I’ve been getting in response to what I wrote the other day
about Charlie Chaplin:
• "For the most part, I think your criticism of all kinds is dead-on. In
fact, I have once or twice
asked myself whether you are me when I grow up. But your recent
dismissal of Chaplin
made me very sad. I agree that ‘by common consent’ The Gold Rush is
Chaplin's best movie, but I have never been able to understand why,
considering the 1942 rerelease with Chaplin's narration (that narration
really saps the humor
and spark right out of the movie, in my opinion). And certainly Monsieur
Verdoux is not
very good (neither is the Great Dictator, really...neither are any of his
sound movies). But I
suggest that you defer final judgement of Chaplin until you've seen
Modern Times and City
Lights--especially Modern Times. I think that Modern Times alone will
lead you to wrinkle
your nose at David Thomson’s contention that Chaplin's films are ‘cut off from
any known period
or reality.’ Both films are very, very funny as well (and I have never
laughed during The
Gold Rush either, although I have smiled), and both are great venues for
his unique physical
virtuosity. The ending of City Lights really is one of the best
Hollywood Moments ever--it still
gets me to reach for the kleenex, and I've seen it maybe a dozen times.
has some English dance-hall moments and extended lazzi routines (such as
his fondness for
strange-noise-making hiccups) that get tedious even in his best films,
but Lordy, TT, you're
depriving yourself of some really funny, really moving cinema if you give
up on him now.
"One parting remark on the Chaplin-versus-Keaton tone of your post. The
dichotomy, in the last twenty years or so, seems to have attained in some
critical circles an
either/or status. I love Keaton--and yes, there are moments of startling
currency in his
films, which you won't find in Chaplin. But his greatness does not
• "I don't know if you've seen Bertolucci's The Dreamers, but there's a fine
scene in which the sexy young French guy and the sexy young American guy
argue over who is the greater comedian: Chaplin or Keaton. The American
picks Keaton; the Frenchman picks Chaplin. When the American protests, the
French guy dismisses him, snapping: ‘You Americans don’t even understand the
essence of Jerry Lewis!?’
"So there you go."
Thanks, folks. I ain’t budgin’, though.
(In addition, God of the Machine has waded into the fray, with a little help from Wyndham Lewis. Go look.)
Today's postings are merely an aberration. I wrote until...when? Midnight? Two in the morning? I forget. But I got a whole lot of work done on the Balanchine book yesterday, and I mean to get still more done today. Only I have a guest coming at one o'clock, followed by a matinee at two, and the idea of trying to write between now and then is, shall we say, repellent. Repugnant. Revolting. Maybe even rebarbative. So I decided to post a few quick items instead, knowing that you've all been missing me.
Nothing more will be forthcoming today, except for (I hope) the rest of Chapter Four. And yes, I may post a snippet or two of the book, but not while it's still piping hot. It needs to cool down a bit, and so do I.
(The very next thing I'll be writing, incidentally, is a character sketch of Jerome Robbins. That ought to be fun.)
Anyway, it's time for peanut butter and jelly, after which I'll take a shower and prepare to give my guest a tour of the Teachout Museum. Then we'll go hear Barbara Cook at Lincoln Center. Then it's back to work.
Lileks fisked, of all things, Adam Gopnik’s New Yorkerpiece
about Times Square:
"It’s not filled by media images that supplant the experience of real things."
Neither is my back yard or toilet bowl or left kidney; lots of things are not filled by media images that supplant the experience of real things. Folks, let me tell you: when you reach a certain level in an organization, you can write things like that, and the copy desk shrugs and says "whatever." Because it’s Opinion, it’s Creative, it’s the Star Writer on a tear, and you don’t step in to point out the emperor is not only buck-fargin’ naked, he’s wearing white before Memorial Day….
Here’s Rachel Toor, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Not so many years ago writing a trade book would bring accusations of popularizing, an academic sin worse than spending a Sunday night watching the Super Bowl. No more. Now university presses are turning away from cranking out piles of narrow monographs too expensive even for libraries and are actively looking for books that have at least an academic/trade market, books that will cross over to scholars in other disciplines or outside a narrow subfield. At the same time, commercial presses are hungry for serious, well-researched books that will appeal to people who want something more substantial than the next John Grisham. Trade publishers are also willing to pay big advances for the prestige of having heavyweight authors on their list. It isn't hard to think of powerhouse intellectual scholars who have become rock stars of the scholarly firmament. Hey, I'd line up to get Simon Schama's autograph.
How do these "popular" academic books happen? Do their authors instinctively know how to write for a broad audience? No stinking way. For the most part, rock-star academics are made, not born. And the people who make them are literary agents….
Read the whole thing here. And before the mud starts to fly, I poached this link—but I don’t know where I got it. I bookmarked it a few days ago, then got immersed in writing, and now I can’t remember where it came from, arrgh.
You know who you are. You know what to do. But please—I beg of you—don’t do it.
I don’t know whether this story from the Chicago Tribune says more about the state of cultural literacy in America today or the tendency of middle-aged politicians (and their speechwriters) to live in the dear departed past. Either way, it tickled me:
The bogeymen of the 2004 presidential campaign just aren't what they used to be, a nationwide poll indicated Thursday.
When Republican allies of President Bush try to indict Democratic presidential rival Sen. John Kerry for 34-year-old ties to the anti-Vietnam War activities of Jane Fonda, only 20 percent of Americans have any idea what that's all about.
And when Kerry accuses Bush of being the first president to suffer a net loss of jobs since Herbert Hoover at the outset of the Great Depression, more than half of respondents are left wondering what the Democratic challenger is talking about. Many think Kerry's referring to a former FBI director, a 69-year-old dam on the Colorado River or a vacuum cleaner.
While one-fifth of those polled in a National Annenberg Election Survey know Fonda as a Vietnam War protester, twice as many think of her as an actress, 9 percent tie her to exercise videos, and 2 percent link her to either father Henry Fonda or ex-husband Ted Turner. Another 11 percent give other answers….
When survey respondents were asked, "Just your best guess, what was Herbert Hoover known for?" fewer than 7 percent tied Hoover to the Great Depression or the 1929 stock market crash--the parallel with Bush that Kerry likes to claim.
Thirty-seven percent cited Hoover as president. Twelve percent confused him with the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Another 4 percent correctly tied Hoover to the towering $48.9 million dam on the Colorado River that bears his name….
Twenty-nine percent of those surveyed had no answer at all when asked about Hoover, while 17 percent had no answer when asked about Fonda.
What I wonder is how many respondents could name any movie in which Jane Fonda starred. Or any specific thing Herbert Hoover did. Or any specific thing, period.
"There is one very good thing to be said of posterity, and this is that it turns a blind eye on the defects of greatness. Contemporary opinion is more concerned with the faults of a writer than with his excellence, but posterity takes him as a whole and very sensibly accepts the faults as the inevitable price that must be paid for the excellence."