About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, April 6, 2007
TT: Bilge on Broadway
Today’s Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted to a pair of East Coast shows. The first is a new Broadway musical, The Pirate Queen. The second is a Baltimore revival, CenterStage’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! The first is horrible, the second terrific:
Has there ever really been a musical so bad that it was funny? (I mean an actual show, not “Springtime for Hitler.”) “Taboo” and “In My Life” both began promisingly, but my sense of humor was swamped by their sheer awfulness well before intermission. “The Pirate Queen,” on the other hand, is a gift that keeps on giving: It starts out dumb, then gets dumber, and at no time does anything other than preposterous ever take place on stage or in the orchestra pit. If it were somewhat shorter, it might actually be worth seeing, but at two and a half hours, I can’t recommend it in good faith to anyone who isn’t (A) a full-fledged hit-me-again masochist and/or (B) deaf….
“Ah, Wilderness!” is an unabashedly autobiographical play about a turn-of-the-century Irish-American family whose members include a charismatic patriarch, a sensitive young author-in-the-making and a drunken uncle. Any resemblances to “Long Day’s Journey into Night” are strictly intentional—only this time O’Neill made it come out happy, portraying the Connecticut childhood he wished he’d had instead of the one that scarred him for life. Yet there’s nothing phony about the warmth of “Ah, Wilderness!” Like Thornton Wilder in “Our Town,” O’Neill wasn’t afraid to show us the shadows with which his not-so-imaginary New England town is dappled, and the result is a nostalgic yet emotionally complex comedy that is at once open-hearted and open-eyed.
“Ah, Wilderness!” requires four sets and a biggish cast, making it hard to produce on a shoestring and meaning that it doesn’t get done nearly as often as it should. That’s why I made a point of going down to Baltimore last weekend to see CenterStage’s revival, which I’m pleased to say is tip-top. Some of the acting is too broad, but all of it works, and Tom Bloom couldn’t be bettered as Nat Miller, the small-town newspaper editor who isn’t quite as provincial as he looks. Mr. Bloom is genial yet strong—you never feel that he’s coasting on his charm—and his performance gives the play a hard core of credibility….
No free link. To read the whole thing, 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. (If you’re already a subscriber, the column is here.)
Thursday, April 5, 2007
"Who can refute a sneer?"
William Paley, Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• Company (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter and situations, reviewed here)
• The Drowsy Chaperone (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
• Salvage (The Coast of Utopia, part 3)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 13)
• Shipwreck (The Coast of Utopia, part 2)* (drama, PG-13, nudity and adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes May 12)
• Talk Radio (drama, PG-13, 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)
• Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too complicated for children, reviewed here, closes May 12)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
“With Beethoven the parts of the composition were defined by means of harmony. With Satie and Webern they are defined by means of time lengths. The question of structure is so basic, and it is so important to be in agreement about it, that one must now ask: Was Beethoven right or are Webern and Satie right? I answer immediately and unequivocally, Beethoven was in error, and his influence, which has been extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.”
John Cage (quoted in Carolyn Brown, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham)
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"At eleven o'clock that night, in one of my dangerous moods—midnight black, excited and deeply dreading (as opposed to one of my beautiful midnight-blue ones, calm but deeply excited), my nerves strung taut to singing, I arrived alone at the Ritz, only to discover all over again what a difficult thing this was to do. I tended to lose my balance at the exact moment that the doorman opened the cab door and stood by in his respectful attitude of 'waiting.' I have even been known to fall out of the cab by reaching and pushing against the handle at the same time that he did. But this time, however, I had disciplined myself to remain quite, quite still, sitting on my hands until the door was opened for me. Then, burrowing into my handbag, which suddenly looked like the Black Hole of Calcutta, to find the fare, I discovered that I needed a light. A light was switched on. I needed more than a light, I needed a match or a torch or special glasses, for I simply couldn't find my change purse, and when I did (lipstick rolling on the floor, compact open and everything spilt—passport, mirror, the works) I couldn't find the right change. We were now all three of us, driver, doorman and I, waiting to see what I was going to do next. I took out some bills, counted them three times in the dark until I was absolutely certain that I had double the amount necessary, and then pressed it on the driver, eagerly apologizing for over-tipping. Overcome with shyness I nodded briefly in the direction of the doorman and raced him to the entrance. I just won. Panting and by now in an absolute ecstasy of panic I flung myself at the revolving doors and let them spin me through. Thus I gained access to the Ritz. I had once seen a man in the taxi in front of mine jump out and with a lordly wave at the doorman say something like, 'Pay him for me Guillaume, my good man,' and stroll inside. I have never arrived there alone since, without devoutly wishing I was sharing that cab."
Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, April 4, 2007 | Permanent
OGIC: Sally Jay is a wild man
Terry's right, I love, love, love The Dud Avocado and couldn't be more pleased that a new edition will soon be out and graced with his introduction (not to mention a perfect cover).
I first discovered Elaine Dundy's novel and its grand, green heroine Sally Jay Gorce—wisecracking, world-wandering descendent of Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer—a couple of years out of college when I was working in New York. My friend Elaine, the editor I assisted at my first job and a reader of impeccable taste, had recommended it. I borrowed her copy, brought it along on a train ride to Albany one weekend, and simply inhaled it. (There's something about discovering a wonderful book on a train trip that draws it even nearer and dearer to my heart. Dawn Powell's Turn, Magic Wheel is another. I really must contrive to ride on more trains.) I was probably around Sally Jay's age, or only a shade older, at the time. To read of her misadventures now, with the perspective of more years and greater experience, is still to be charmed and hugely amused; but it's also one of those stories of youth that makes me feel I wouldn't be 20 again for the world.
But Sally Jay works it all out, and here's to her and to Terry. By way of toasting their impending arrival, a week's worth of tantalizing Dud Avocado fortune cookies starts...right now.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, April 4, 2007 | Permanent
TT: Not-so-trivial trivia
I went to Baltimore last weekend to see CenterStage’s revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!. The program was full of fascinating information about the play and its author, but it neglected to mention one irresistible piece of trivia for which I unfortunately couldn’t find room in my review of the production, which will be appearing in Friday’s Wall Street Journal.
Anybody who knows anything about American theater knows that George M. Cohan, Broadway’s very own Yankee Doodle Dandy, starred in the original 1933 Broadway production of Ah, Wilderness! It was the first time Cohan had ever acted in a straight play of any significance, and by all accounts he was terrific—but he wasn’t the only star of the show. Who played his sixteen-year-old son, the painfully earnest writer-in-the-making that O’Neill based on himself when young?
The answer, I’m staggered to say, is Elisha Cook, Jr., the very same character actor who later moved to Hollywood and spent the rest of his long life playing weirdos and misfits in such well-remembered films as The Big Sleep, Born to Kill, The Killing, The Maltese Falcon, One-Eyed Jacks, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Rosemary’s Baby, and Shane.
What’s more, it turns out Cook was really, really good in Ah, Wilderness! According to Brooks Atkinson, the veteran drama critic who reviewed
Ah, Wilderness! for the New York Times:
As Richard, Elisha Cook Jr. has strength as well as pathos. Mr. Cook can draw more out of mute adolescence than any other young actor on our stage.
Aren’t you glad you know that now? I sure am.
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
“The essence of performance is its ‘now-ness’—no mind, no memory. Just that brief time when one has the chance to be whole, when seemingly disconnected threads of one’s being are woven and intertwined into the complete present. No other. No past. No future. No mind as an entity distinct from the body. Certainly I’ve experienced memorable performances—but what made them memorable was extraneous to the dancing.”
Carolyn Brown, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham
TT: Surprise, OGIC!
New York Review Books has a blog called A Different Stripe whose proprietress made an announcement the other day that I've been meaning to pass along:
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy, with Terry Teachout's eloquent introduction, will be available in June. Until then, you can see what he said about it in 1996, when he listed it as one of his favorite comedic novels. And his partner at About Last Night has also been a major advocate
of the book.
The funny thing is that I’d forgotten the piece in question, in which I also singled out for praise Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, Bruce Marshall’s Father Malachy’s Miracle, Dawn Powell’s The Locusts Have No King, and Wilfrid Sheed’s Max Jamison, great comic novels all. I guess that’s what happens when you write too much!
The bottom line, however, is that The Dud Avocado will be back in print in June, at which time you can see for yourself what I had to say about it. (The cover art of the new edition, by the way, is very sexy.) I proofread the galleys of my introduction a couple of days ago, and I think I got it right, if I do say so myself.
I’d wanted to surprise Our Girl, who loves The Dud Avocado at least as much as I do, but now that the whistle’s been blown, I might as well ’fess up in public. Play your cards right, Girl, and I’ll see about getting you an advance copy.
As for the rest of you, go here and you can order it now, which I strongly suggest.
Monday, April 2, 2007
“To have an affair with a man, and one’s very first affair at that, just because he picks you up under rather romantic circumstances on the Champs-Élysées, takes you to the Ritz and things, and above all, because you’re impressed with the fact that he has a wife and a mistress already, what could be more predictable? Tourist Second-Year Disorganized.”
Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado
TT: Present and accounted for
I recently received in the mail an advance copy of the Bill Charlap Trio’s upcoming CD, a live album recorded at the Village Vanguard. (Blue Note will be releasing it in May.) I happened to be on hand for one of the sets taped for inclusion in this album. Sometimes the heat of the moment can fool you into thinking that a live performance is better than it is, so I was delighted, though not surprised, to hear that this one was every bit as good as I’d remembered.
I've lived in New York for a quarter-century and spent a considerable number of my nights on the town, so it’s not surprising that I’ve been present at the creation of a fair number of noteworthy live albums. After scanning my memory and my record shelves, I came up with six others: Bill Frisell’s East/West, Jim Hall’s Magic Meeting, Nancy LaMott’s Live at Tavern on the Green, Marian McPartland’s Reprise: Marian McPartland's Hickory House Trio, the John Pizzarelli Trio’s Live at Birdland, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Live at the Jazz Standard: Days of Wine and Roses.
All were memorable occasions, though Nancy’s last engagement at Tavern on the Green was and is understandably special, as I explained in a Wall Street Journal column published in 2005:
“Live at Tavern on the Green” is the only recording of any of Nancy's live shows to have been released commercially. It was taped at her final public performance. She was wearing a wig, having lost her bottle-blond hair to chemotherapy. Seven weeks later, she was dead. Yet her sweetly husky mezzo-soprano voice had somehow remained untouched by the terrible disease that would soon take her away from all the things for which she'd longed, and she sang as if she knew she'd never have another chance. When she was done, the Chestnut Room of New York's Tavern on the Green exploded in rapturous applause. That's how I remember it, anyway, and I was there.
Only a handful of people who came to the Chestnut Room on that crisp October night in 1995 knew how sick Nancy was. I was one of them. I had been among the first journalists to write about her for a national magazine, and we became friends after my piece came out. A year and a half later, I watched her perform for the last time, wondering whether she'd make it to the end of the show.
She did, of course—Nancy was a trouper, never more so than on that night—and my memory has assured me ever since that she sang her best the whole evening long. But memories can sometimes tell you only what you want to hear, and I felt a strange fluttering of nerves as I put the CD on the stereo. I didn't need to worry. The voice on “Live at Tavern on the Green” is the same one I heard countless times in 1994 and 1995, warm, soulful and easy to love.
Such experiences are only available to those who get out often enough, and though this one was especially intense, I treasure many more happy memories of the countless evenings I’ve spent sitting in nightclubs, concert halls, and theaters, waiting for magic to happen. Not all of them—I could have done without Lennon—but going to bad performances is the price you pay for going to good ones, and most of the time I’m more than glad to pay it.
I got lucky twice in a row last week. On Thursday I went up to Symphony Space to hear the Trio Solisti play Mendelssohn’s C Minor Trio, Astor Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango, and Paul Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy. Paul, who is a friend of mine, was hosting the concert, the last in a series called The Composers Project of which he was the curator. It suddenly occurred to him late that afternoon that he couldn’t very well interview himself, so he called me up and asked if I’d do the honors. I said yes, put on my Black Outfit, and caught the next cab north. We improvised an interview segment that came off quite nicely, after which the Trio Solisti and an excellent clarinetist named Alan Kay played the hell out of Paul’s piece.
The next night I went down to Lincoln Center’s Allen Room to hear Bill Charlap in a concert called “The Birth of Cool.” This time all I had to do was sit and listen, and I was looking forward to doing so, for Charlap is my favorite mainstream jazz pianist. Much of the music, alas, was too miscellaneous to suit me: Charlap’s preternaturally tight trio was augmented by a long parade of guest artists who were present to pay tribute to such noted musicians of the past as Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Claude Thornhill, and Lennie Tristano, and Lester Young. I don’t much care for that kind of program and wouldn’t have gone to this one, which felt at times more like a lecture-recital than a gig, if I’d known what to expect.
Even so, you can’t spend an evening with Charlap without hearing something beautiful, and I was greatly taken with a super-slow version of “You Go to My Head” in which Mary Stallings and Frank Wess saluted Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Wess, a celebrated Count Basie alumnus, is eighty-four years old and visibly fragile, and he'd had trouble getting off the ground on the first couple of numbers, but the feathery obbligato he played behind Stallings’ Carmen McRae-ish vocal was exquisite, while Charlap’s velvety piano accompaniment couldn’t have been bettered.
I interviewed Charlap five years ago for a New York Times profile, and he said something to me then that I’ve never forgotten:
People still worry about innovation and modernity a lot, but the best you can do as an artist, what you ought to do, is be yourself, here and now. If that self is avant-garde, so be it. But maybe who you are is something else. The things I like to listen to have purity and are balanced, and I hope my playing is getting more like that. More honest. Maybe that sounds pretentious, but I think jazz is all about being honest. About being who you are, never playing anything you don’t mean. At the same time, you’re not there to impress people. You want to get your ego out of the way. The music doesn’t need it. It’s never just about me. That’s the best I can say it—I’m trying to get out of the way. The less I’m in the way, the better the music is going to be and the more fun I’m going to have.
I like that—a lot.
Friday, April 7, 2006
"Praise and blame are aspects of the same thing. The capacity for criticism is the capacity for enjoyment. They don't have to be kept in touch with each other. They are a single propensity that has to keep in touch with itself."
Clive James, Cultural Amnesia
TT: Enough for one week
I wrote four thousand more words of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong on Thursday, which puts me within spitting distance of finishing yet another chapter. I think that's just about enough for one week, don't you? I'm going to try to get the fourth chapter locked up today, after which I'll put the book aside for a couple of weeks and think about other things.
Here's one more little taste before I go:
“Gut Bucket Blues,” the third Hot Five recording, made the biggest splash, for obvious reasons. It starts out with a twangy single-string banjo solo over which Armstrong unexpectedly speaks a few cheery words of encouragement in the same gravelly voice first heard on record a year before in “Everybody Loves My Baby”: “Aw, play that thing, Mr. St. Cyr, lawd! You know you can do it—everybody from New Or-leans can really do that thing. Hey, hey!” He puts his cornet to his lips and starts to blow, and the rest of the band comes tumbling in behind him. They play two collectively improvised blues choruses, after which the other musicians solo, with Armstrong good-naturedly introducing each one in turn: “Ah, whip that thing, Miss Lil! Whip it, kid! Aw, pick that piano, yeah…Ah, blow it, Kid Ory, blow it, kid…Blow that thing, Mr. Johnny Dodds! Ah, toot that clarinet, boy.” Then Armstrong takes center stage with a simple, penetrating solo that returns again and again to a flatted third—the same “blue” note around which King Oliver built the first chorus of his “Dipper Mouth Blues” solo. The other horn players come back for a final ensemble chorus, to which Armstrong appends a two-bar break prefaced by one of his patented upward rips.
That’s all there is to “Gut Bucket Blues,” and according to Johnny St. Cyr it didn’t take much longer to come up with the number than it did to play it. Elmer Fearn, the producer of the session, asked for a blues, and St. Cyr offered to start it off with a unaccompanied banjo solo: "So we made a short rehearsal and cut the number. When Mr. Fern [sic] asked, 'What shall we name it?,' Louis thought for a while and then said, 'Call it The Gut Bucket.' Louis could not explain the meaning of the name. He said it just came to him. But I will explain it. In the fish markets in New Orleans the fish cleaners keep a large bucket under the table where they clean the fish, and as they do this they rake the guts in this bucket. Thence The Gut Bucket, which makes it a low down blues."
In 1966 Armstrong would tell a reporter that “all songs display my life somewhat, and you got to be thinking and feeling about something as you watch them notes and phrase that music—got to see the life of the song.” The same thing, it seems, was already true in 1925: his music even then was a self-portrait, a reflection of his vast experience of the world. He might well have said, with Montaigne, that “I have no more made my book than my book has made me: ’tis a book consubstantial with the author, of a peculiar design, a parcel of my life.”
That's all, folks. See you Monday!
TT: Mother knows worst
I’m in a foul mood in this morning’s Wall Street Journal drama column, in which I hold forth on Lisa Kron’s Well and David Marshall Grant’s Pen:
No theatrical season can call itself complete without a new play about a weird mother. This week there are two, and not surprisingly, they bear certain family resemblances. Both have monosyllabic titles, both contain elements of fantasy, both are graced with splendid performances by the actresses who play the ladies in question—and neither is any good, though one is a good deal more ambitious than the other….
It’s a bit more than a joke to say that a performance artist is a standup comic who got a grant. Not only is Ms. Kron’s onstage manner exceedingly nightclubby, right down to the ingratiating smirks she fires off at the audience every half-minute or so, but the program reveals that she got quite a few grants in support of the writing and production of “Well.” Alas, nobody bothered to teach her how to transform a monologue into a play….
Except for Jayne Houdyshell’s performance, I didn’t like anything about “Well.” (I didn’t laugh once.) Still, I freely admit that as awful as it is, it’s more interesting than David Marshall Grant’s “Pen,” the latest in Playwrights Horizons’ fast-growing string of excessively similar plays about family life. Here we get such staples of kitchen-sink dramaturgy as the vinegar-tongued, self-pitying mother (J. Smith-Cameron) whom multiple sclerosis has put in a wheelchair, the whiny ex-husband (Reed Birney) who just happens to be a shrink, the angry young teenage son (Dan McCabe) whose shoplifting of Christmas presents is a cry for help…but must I go on? The only thing missing is a working stove…
No link, so if you want to inspect the rest of the carnage, buy a copy of today’s Journal and read the whole thing, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with on-the-spot access to the complete text of my review, along with plenty of extra art-related coverage.
Thursday, April 6, 2006
"Old age is very strange. It has a kind of aloofness. It's lost so much, that you can hardly look upon the old as quite human any more. But sometimes you have a feeling that they've acquired a sort of new sense that tells them things that we can never know."
W. Somerset Maugham, The Narrow Corner
OGIC: Keener than thou
Interesting: Armond White likens Nicole Holofcener's movies to Whit Stillman's, approvingly:
Although Nicole Holofcener’s specialty has been showing middle-class white women at loose ends (Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing), she has become the small-scale wonder of indie movies not for flattery but because her heroines are seen intimately, concisely and without judgment.
I love both of those movies, but I never thought of them as cousins to Metropolitan et al. There's something to that. Unfortunately, White doesn't find Holofcener's latest, Friends with Money, as penetrating, and he goes so far as to saddle it with what counts in some circles as an ultimate put-down:
So far, Holofcener had avoided the sensibility of a New Yorker short story writer. Now, her biggest film yet is hobbled by vaguely snobbish class desires....
That's too bad, but I'll still see anything with Catherine Keener in it. All the more so here since Holofcener has a history of casting Keener in spirited unsympathetic roles, which are truly the actress's forte. At this point, does anyone remember anything else from Being John Malkovich? I mean besides "Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich."
OGIC: Crossing over
There's little in twenty-first-century life more mind-numbing than a blogger's excuses for not blogging, so I'm going to skip them. Suffice it to say I've been busy. The usual things have been especially demanding, and I've added a few new commitments to the weekly schedule. One of these is the return of The Sopranos after its long hiatus. Another is worrying about the playoffs, which isn't a scheduled activity but gnaws at the edges and center of each waking minute. But the most time-consuming and preoccupying of my new pursuits, by far, is indirectly related: I'm learning to ice-skate.
Yeah, I'm finally doing it. Why now, I couldn't tell you, but it had something to do with another birthday approaching and passing. For a few years at least, I'd talked about this, but after a few cursory web searches that didn't turn up any nearby adult beginning skating lessons, I'd put the idea away. Well, this year my searching was more determined and I turned up lessons at a rink that's almost within a reasonable distance of where I live and work. But not quite. So early Saturday mornings and late Monday afternoons, I take to the road and spend more time than I'm willing to admit driving to and from a northwest suburb, all in order to spend a significantly shorter amount of time on the ice. It's utterly worth it. Fortunately, I've roped a friend into joining me; she's Canadian, and appeals to her national pride proved effective. And thanks to my dad—and unlike her—I've got hockey skates.
I've got hockey skates! They're almost three weeks old, but possessing them still makes me feel like some different, cooler person. Never let it be said of me that I don't care about my image—I'm especially fond of carrying my skates to the car. Especially if it's parked far away or my neighbors are around. And I'm totally making progress with the things on my feet, which is really, really thrilling.
I didn't realize how long it has been since I set out to acquire a brand new skill—hell, in graduate school I think I unlearned a fair number of them—and at this point, anyway, the learning curve is nice and steep. Every week I learn to do something new and get demonstrably better at everything I learned previously. Progress is better than steady, and skating just keeps getting more fun as I test and stretch my limits. My class, which is full of friendly moms and only a couple of guys, is geared toward figure skating, but since I need to build a foundation of skills and get really comfortable on the skates, that's fine. It's Sasha Ovechkin, not Cohen, I'm thinking about out there, but right now I just want to keep learning new moves of whatever kind. I'm not picky.
I think this new adventure of mine nicely parallels Terry's recent forays into painting. He got the bug from looking at so many paintings for so many years with wonder and delight and, in the end, a wish to experience firsthand the process of making something like that. I certainly got here from watching way too much hockey, until mere spectatorial connoisseurship was no longer satisfying. I don't know whether his taking up painting has changed the way he looks at pictures, but already I'm watching hockey differently, my eyes more on the players' feet than the puck sometimes (especially their backward skating, since mine hasn't progressed beyond swizzles yet). I've never played an instrument or danced or pursued a visual art form in any sustained way, and in fact I've never followed something as it's performed at the highest level while practicing it at the lowest level (not that I'm yet playing hockey, but in my mind I'm taking the first steps toward so doing). It's true that at moments, the experience unsettlingly makes me long to be an eight-year-old Minnesotan boy—what wouldn't be possible!—but for the most part, it's illuminating and transporting. Count another recruit to the ranks of the passionate amateurs.
TT: Stunned but happy
On Wednesday I entered that state of grace that occasionally comes to biographers so deeply immersed in their material that for a brief time they are capable of simultaneously holding everything they know about a subject in their head, ready for instantaneous access at any point. Between morning and evening I piled three thousand brightly polished words of the fourth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. As of this hour, I've finished writing roughly a third of the book.
Here's a taste of what I wrote today:
What is most striking about Armstrong's solos on "Shanghai Shuffle" and "Copenhagen," and the many others that he contributed to Fletcher Henderson’s recordings throughout 1924 and 1925, is that they are solos, brief but expressively potent monologues in which he steps into the spotlight and speaks his musical piece, more often than not accompanied by the rhythm section alone. He had been raised, after all, in a very different kind of tradition, one in which it was taken for granted that the individual artist, however gifted, would willingly subordinate himself to the needs of the omnipresent ensemble. In New Orleans solo playing was the exception, not the rule, and even after moving to Chicago Joe Oliver would continue to stress collective improvisation over individual solos, his own included. In Albert Nicholas’ words, he “didn’t want to hear any one person, [he] wanted to hear the whole band. He wanted everyone to blend together.” Armstrong, like Sidney Bechet, knew that tradition intimately, but by 1924 both men were moving in a different direction, having concluded, consciously or not, that it could no longer accommodate their need for personal expression. The more Armstrong grew as a player, the harder he found it to stay within the narrow bounds of the time-honored New Orleans style. He still loved Papa Joe—he always would—but he wanted to be heard.
I hope I have sense enough to lay off for a day and take it easy, though it's tempting to keep on forging ahead. In the immortal words of Crash Davis, "A player on a streak has to respect the streak." On the other hand, I forgot to go to the gym on Wednesday. In fact, I almost forgot to eat. (Could it possibly have snowed in Manhattan today, or was that just something I imagined while in the throes of composition?)
What I really ought to do tomorrow is walk across Central Park to the Frick Collection and pay a visit to Goya’s Last Works, which I still haven’t gotten around to seeing (it’s up through May 14). Maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll succumb to the temptation to put in a little more work on Hotter Than That. Somewhere in my mind it’s November of 1925, and Louis Armstrong has just caught the morning train from New York to Chicago. In less than two weeks he’ll be going into a recording studio with his wife Lil to record “My Heart,” “Yes! I’m in the Barrel,” and “Gut Bucket Blues,” the first three sides by the Hot Five….
Enough already! I’m going to get some sleep, and tomorrow morning I’ll go to the gym. The rest can wait.
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Avenue Q* (musical, 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)
• Defiance (drama, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here, extended through June 4)
• I Love You Because (musical, R, sexual content, reviewed here)
• Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Lieutenant of Inishmore (black comedy, R, adult subject matter and extremely graphic violence, reviewed here, closes Sunday and moves to Broadway April 18)
• A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop (one-woman show, PG, some adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
• Abigail’s Party (drama, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Saturday)
• Bernarda Alba (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here, closes Sunday)
Wednesday, April 5, 2006
"'It's funny, I've never met a meaner crook, or a man who had less idea of decency, and yet he honestly believes in God. And hell, too. But it never strikes him that he may go there. Other people are going to suffer for their sins and serve 'em damn well right. But he's a stout fellow, he's all right, and when he does the dirty on a friend it isn't of any importance; it's what anyone would do under the circumstances, and God isn't going to hold that up against him. At first I thought he was just a hypocrite. But he isn't. That's the odd thing about it.'
"'It shouldn't make you angry. The contrast between a man's professions and his actions is one of the most diverting spectacles that life offers.'"
W. Somerset Maugham, The Narrow Corner
TT: Back in the saddle
Somewhat to my surprise I find that I've written the first 1,500 words of the fourth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. As you may recall, I wasn't planning on doing any work yesterday, but when you're hot, you're hot, so I guess I'll lay off the blog for another day or two and keep pumping it out.
In the meantime, here's a little taste of the day's work:
Harlem in 1924 was as much an arena for sexual opportunism as it was a center of cultural ferment. Duke Ellington euphemistically described it as “a very colorful place....an attraction like Chinatown was in San Francisco.” Some well-heeled Manhattanites treated it more like Storyville East, and some Harlemites were more than glad to oblige them. Carl Van Vechten, who would celebrate Harlem two years later in his controversial novel Nigger Heaven, was already bringing parties of nightclubbers there, both to revel in the black entertainment and, as often as not, to troll for sex. Though he was a true believer in the Harlem Renaissance, Van Vechten was also a gay man in search of adventure, and there was no lack of it in Harlem, no matter what your tastes might encompass. Langston Hughes would later write sardonically of how “thousands of whites came to Harlem night after night, thinking the Negroes loved to have them there, and firmly believing that all Harlemites left their houses at sundown to sing and dance in cabarets, because most of the whites saw nothing but the cabarets, not the houses….The ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any. As for all those white folks in the speakeasies and night clubs of Harlem—well, maybe a colored man could find some place to have a drink that the tourists hadn’t yet discovered.”
Once again, later.
Tuesday, April 4, 2006
"He was perhaps a cynic, and his withers were unwrung at many of the misfortunes that affect men, but he had a peculiar feeling for youth, perhaps because it promised so much and lasted too short a time, and it seemed to him that there was in the bitterness it experience when reality breaks upon its illusions somehting more pathetic than in many graver ills."
W. Somerset Maugham, The Narrow Corner
TT: Lightly toasted on both sides
In case you're wondering, I overdid it, though not drastically, and definitely not according to the lunatic standards of my pre-illness days. In a nutshell, I stayed up very late Sunday working on Hotter Than That, then spent most of Monday editing what I'd written and turning out this week's drama column for The Wall Street Journal. Smoke is now coming out of my ears.
My plan for Tuesday is threefold: (1) Spend a nice long chunk of time at the gym. (2) Sit on the couch and watch three or four episodes of the first season of The Equalizer, currently airing on the Sleuth Channel. (3) Do no work. (That includes blogging.)
Monday, April 3, 2006
"Because of the doctor's remark while they were up in the old Portuguese fort, Erik put on the beginning of the last act of 'Tristan.' The recollection gave an added poignancy to the music. The strange and subtle little tune that the shepherd played on his reed, when he scanned the wide sea and saw no sail, was melancholy with blighted hope. But it was another pang that wrung the doctor's heart. He remembered Covent Garden in the old days and himself, in evening clothes, sitting in a stall on the aisle; in the boxes were women in tiaras, with pearls round their necks; the King, obese, with great pouches under his eyes, sat in the corner of the omnibus box; on the other side, in the corner, looking over the orchestra, the Baron and the Baroness de Meyer sat together, and she catching his eye bowed. There was an air of opulence and of security. Everything in its grand manner seemed so well-ordered, the thought of change never crossed the mind. Richter conducted. How passionate that music was, how full and with what a melodious splendour it unrolled itself sonorously upon the senses! But he had not heard in it then that something shoddy, blatant and a trifle vulgar, a sort of baronial buffet effect, that now somewhat disconcerted him. It was magnificent, of course, but a little frowsty; his ear had grown accustomed in China to complications more exquisite and harmonies less suave. He was used to a music pregnant with suggestion, illusive and nervous, and the brutal statement of facts a trifle shocked the fastidiousness of his taste."
W. Somerset Maugham, The Narrow Corner
TT: A week in the life of a biographer
I got back from Connecticut on Saturday, having spent most of the preceding week working on the third chapter of Hotter Than That, my biography of Louis Armstrong. “All Those Tall Buildings: Leaving Home, 1919-1924” takes Armstrong from the St. Louis-based riverboats on which he cruised up and down the Mississippi, playing jazz for the residents of the sleepy harbor towns immortalized by Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi, to Chicago, where he joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, made his first recordings, got divorced and remarried, and started thinking of himself not as a sideman but a soloist.
I was staying with a friend who lives out in the country, and I devoted most of my waking hours to the book. No sooner did I return to New York than I resumed work on Hotter Than That, knocking off only to attend a performance of Lisa Kron’s Well on Saturday night and get some sleep.
On Sunday morning I awoke at eight, descended from my loft, booted up my iBook G4, and started writing again. Within a few minutes I was lost to the world, having previously taken the precaution of setting my alarm for one p.m. so that I wouldn’t forget to put on my clothes, go down to Forty-Second Street, and see a preview of another new play, David Marshall Grant’s Pen.
At 12:55 the phone rang. It was my friend Meg, whom I would be meeting at Playwrights Horizons in fifty minutes.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“Sitting at my desk, writing,” I said.
“The play starts in five minutes,” she said.
“No, it doesn’t,” I said. “The curtain is at two o’clock.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “Daylight Savings Time starts today. It’s five till two."
“Damn,” I said. (Actually I said something of much higher voltage, but this is a family blog.) “Tell the press guy what happened. I’ll get there as fast as I can.”
I hung up, threw on Saturday’s clothes, ran downstairs, stole a cab from an unwitting woman on the corner, and told the driver to step on it. Nine minutes later, unfed and unshaved, I sat down in my aisle seat, and ten seconds after that the house lights went down and the play started.
“I can’t believe you made it on time,” Meg whispered.
“I can’t believe I made it on time,” I whispered back.
Four hours later I was back at my desk, and eight hours after that the third chapter of Hotter Than That was finished, footnotes and all. It’s 10,044 words long.
Here’s a little taste of what I wrote last week:
A month after Armstrong came to Chicago, F. Scott Fitzgerald published Tales of the Jazz Age, giving a name to the period of postwar cultural ferment that was fast transforming America. “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire,” Fitzgerald later wrote. The art was no small part of it, for the coming of the Jazz Age was the moment when modernism hit America like a shrieking tornado. In 1920 Eugene O’Neill won the Pulitzer Prize for Beyond the Horizon; in 1921 Alfred Stieglitz held the first public exhibition of his nude studies of Georgia O’Keeffe; in 1923 Ernest Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, was published in Paris; in 1924 H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan launched The American Mercury and Paul Whiteman premiered George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Contrary to popular belief, jazz was both discussed widely (the Mercury was one of the first magazines to cover it) and taken seriously in America as well as Europe, where classical composers as dissimilar as Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, and Darius Milhaud were incorporating its thrillingly asymmetrical rhythms into their music. By 1925 W.J. Henderson, the most discerning American music critic of the day, was informing the readers of the famously sedate New York Times Book Review that jazz embodied “our carefree optimism, our nervous energy and our extravagant humour.”
Yet even then most Americans still thought of ragtime, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and Whiteman’s decorous dance music when they thought of jazz. To be sure, Shuffle Along, the first Broadway musical to be written, directed, and performed by blacks, had opened three years earlier, and the Harlem Renaissance was well under way. But the music of Joe Oliver, Armstrong’s mentor and boss, was as yet unknown outside the urban ghettoes, save to the handful of nervy white boys who went there to listen and learn, and unless you happened to live in certain sections of Chicago or New Orleans, Louis Armstrong himself wasn’t even a vaguely remembered face, much less a celebrity. You had to look closely to find his name on the labels of the Creole Jazz Band’s records:
DIPPER MOUTH BLUES
KING OLIVER’S JAZZ BAND
His new wife Lil was right. Second cornets don’t get great enough—not until they go out on their own.
And now, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll take a little nap….
Friday, April 1, 2005
"He was not very fond of idealists. It was difficult for them in this workaday world to reconcile their professions with the exigencies of life, and it was disconcerting how often they managed to combine exalted notions with a keen eye to the main chance. The doctor had often found here cause for amusement. They were apt to look down upon those who were occupied with practical matters but not averse from profiting by their industry. Like the lilies of the field they neither toiled nor spun, but took it as a right that others should perform for them these menial offices."
W. Somerset Maugham, The Narrow Corner
TT: There's something about Amanda
In case you’re wondering what I’ve been doing since I got back to New York, part of the answer can be found in my drama column in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, in which I review four, count 'em, four shows, This Is How It Goes, Dessa Rose, Moonlight & Magnolias, and the Kennedy Center’s production of Mister Roberts.
Off we go in a breathless rush:
• Neil LaBute, who got my hopes up with “Fat Pig,” has let them back down again in “This Is How It Goes,” running through April 17 at the Public Theater. Not all the way, I’m relieved to say: This compact tale of a romantic triangle with an interracial twist has its moments of nerve-shredding tension. But the jack-in-the-box plot twists are contrived in a way that sits awkwardly alongside Mr. LaBute’s ruthless dialogue, and it’s about time he swore off more than a few of his personal clichés (enough already with the cute meetings!)…
All of which brings us to Amanda Peet (“The Whole Nine Yards”), an up-and-coming starlet who is wonderfully natural and direct as the spouse in question, eschewing the glammed-up look of her films and offering instead the kind of no-nonsense performance one never expects and rarely gets from a young movie actress. I’d like to see her on Broadway, soon….
• Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are definitely on the wrong track with “Dessa Rose,” an eat-your-spinach musical about slavery in the Bad Old South that proclaims its choking earnestness in the very first line, “We are descended from a long strong line of women.” All the more frustrating, then, that so much of “Dessa Rose,” which plays at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through May 29, is so impressive….
• If you long to see a play about slavery, I recommend the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Ron Hutchinson’s “Moonlight & Magnolias,” an unpretentious piece of slapstick about how producer David O. Selznick (Douglas Sills), screenwriter Ben Hecht (Matthew Arkin) and director Victor Fleming (David Rasche) teamed up to rewrite the script for “Gone With the Wind” in five days flat. Any resemblance to real-life events is strictly coincidental, but Mr. Hutchinson keeps the punch lines coming…
• Where are the smash hits of yesteryear? One of the smashiest is on display at the Kennedy Center, which has exhumed “Mister Roberts,” a service comedy that opened in 1948, ran for 1,157 performances, won four Tonys, and hasn’t been seen on Broadway since. Now it’s playing through Sunday as part of “A New America: The 1940s and the Arts,” an interdisciplinary festival currently in progress at the Kennedy Center—and you know what? It’s good stuff. Robert Longbottom’s staging is efficient and effective, the ensemble cast takes care of business, and Andrew Jackness’ just-like-a-ship set is a pleasure to behold….
Whew, huh? No link. Buy the damn paper, or subscribe to the Online Journal by going here.
That’s it. I’m done. Back to the salt mines. See you Monday, unless I collapse and/or enroll in the Overworked Critic Protection Program....
Thursday, March 31, 2005
Is not a choice,
It's who I am.
Is not a choice
And not much reason
But it gives me purpose,
Gives me voice,
To say to the world:
This is why I live.
You are why I live.
Stephen Sondheim, "Loving You" (from Passion)
OGIC: B-chip, activate
I'm hunkering down Terrylike over here under the onus of many deadlines, and flipping my blogging switch to the Off position. Oh, I may try to put up a couple of fortune cookies, but beyond that the pickings will be slim. Also, if you've emailed me recently, it will probably take me a day or two more to respond. Better late than never, right?
Right? Bueller? Anyone?
Ah well. In the meantime, please check out a brand-spanking-new literary group blog, The Valve, some of whose contributors grace the blogroll here. (A little Maud told us.)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, March 31, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Passion on PBS
In light of Our Girl's recent posting about Stephen Sondheim, I thought I should mention that I just got back from the opening-night performance of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook concert version of Sondheim’s Passion, starring Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald, which I’ll be reviewing in next Friday’s Wall Street Journal.
In addition to being a gala for the bejeweled rich, Wednesday's performance doubled as a technical rehearsal for tonight’s live telecast of Passion on PBS’ Live at Lincoln Center. In New York City, Passion will air at eight o’clock on Channel 13, with a replay at noon Sunday. For more information, go here.
If you live in another city and want to know when and where Passion is airing, go here. (Got that, Girl?)
To purchase the original-cast CD of the 1994 Broadway production of Passion, go here.
Now, if you’ll be so kind as to excuse me, I’m off to another show....
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
"The army taught me some great lessons—to be prepared for catastrophe—to endure being bored—and to know that however fine [a] fellow I thought myself in my usual routine there were other situations alongside and many more in which I was inferior to men that I might have looked down upon had not experience taught me to look up."
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., letter to Harold Laski (1926)
OGIC: This year's smoothie
Oh—did I mention the temperature in Chicago today reached 72?
Quorum of strawberries, fresh or frozen
Lone banana, sliced
Goodly dollop raspberry sorbet
Liberal spoonful orange juice concentrate
Generous shmear plain yogurt
Decent smattering ice cubes
Blend and be nourished.
Don't worry, I know you know how to make a smoothie. But this one has been working magic for me this young spring, so I felt like sharing.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 30, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Portrait of the critic as seriously frazzled
I know I'm way, way too busy when I stop filling the ice trays in my freezer. I belatedly noticed this afternoon that I must have reached that point some time in the past couple of days. Not to worry, though. My head remains above water (just), and I see that OGIC has been keeping you fed and groomed in my unavoidable absence. Isn't she the best?
As for me, I still expect to depart this vortex of overwork some time over the coming weekend and return to the blogosphere on Monday, perhaps not rested but definitely ready.
OGIC: Critics' corner
• In Slate, Stephen Metcalf argues that Ian McEwan's Saturday, which I hope to find the time to read one day in 2007, isn't about what other critics think it's about. This being 2005, I can't tell you whether he's right. For what it's worth, however, his is the first review of the book I've felt like reading all the way through and, even so, one of the few that didn't tell me more than I wanted to know about the novel's plot.
• Christopher Orr tries to watch Closer with a straight face, an experiment that fails but amuses. (Link via The American Scene, whose Ross Douthat will "rush out to buy a ticket" for any movie panned by David Denby.)
• Don't rush out for this one, Ross. Said Denby likes the awful Upside of Anger and thinks Mike Binder "may be one of the few male directors around who take an active interest in what women are feeling." Sure, if you mean the beautiful, lecherous women with inexplicably low standards who populate Mike Binder's ludicrous fantasies.
• Detractors of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? (I think that covers everyone except Meghan O'Rourke.) B. R. Myers was already sick up to here of Jonathan Safran Foer when all of you were cuckoo for him. So there.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 30, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: The royal Wes
I was amused to discover, a few months after the fact, that none other than National Geographic interviewed Wes Anderson in December about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It's a brief but entertaining softball toss, with Anderson fielding questions like "Did any Lord of the Flies stuff go on? Was there a conch shell?"
It's been a couple of months now since I caught up with The Life Aquatic. After The Royal Tenenbaums I had just about given up on Anderson. I missed Bottle Rocket but enjoyed Rushmore, in no small part thanks to Bill Murray's presence. But in Tenenbaums I couldn't escape the feeling that I was being subjected to some overachieving ninth-grade geek's school project: a lovingly and ingeniously detailed diorama, a thing to behold, but airless and unpeopled. Filled with stars, sure—but unpeopled. It made me want to pat him on the head and go home to read a simple book. When I got a load of the trailer for The Life Aquatic, it just screamed more of the same—a diorama with a Hollywood budget, heaven help us. The Tenenbaums' townhouse taken to the nth degree. I was not hopeful.
To my surprise, however, The Life Aquatic was a pleasure. Even Owen Wilson…especially Owen Wilson? Could be. For whatever reason, I was able to take this movie seriously and even respond to it emotionally, despite the basic premise being even more precious and imaginatively labored than that of Tenenbaums. The closest I've come to figuring out the difference between it and its predecessor is this: animals. They're ubiquitous in The Life Aquatic: real cats and dogs and invented fish, lounging in the background, trotting alongside the characters, populating the aqua. Animals don't do irony, and for me their near-constant presence cut against that overweening irony Anderson is so prone to. Anderson loves deadpan, but these beasties out-deadpan the characters by a mile, with no disingenuousness about it. Maybe his next career move should be to drop those Wilson boys altogether and make some nature specials—I daresay National Geographic would get on board.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 30, 2005 | Permanent
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
"The inevitable is not wicked. If you can improve on it all right, but it is not necessary to damn the stem because you are the flower."
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., letter to Harold Laski (1921)
OGIC: Back by popular demand
If you arrived here by way of Sarah Boxer's article in The New York Times, welcome! If it's movie quotes you want, please check in here for the original post including my five quotes, here for Terry's more distinguished five, here for the big wrap-up Boxer quoted from, and here and here for some personal favorites.
As you'll see if you follow these links, this exercise wasn't really cooked up in the ALN labs but borrowed from our friends at Llama Butchers, who borrowed it themselves, and so on, and so on. In fact, I'm not entirely certain this meme can be traced to its point of origination, which I suppose somehow goes to support Boxer's infinite regression critique of culture blogs. Not that I'm necessarily buying that critique—but she definitely softened me up by building her lead around "Powers of 10," of which I am an enormous fan.
More on the Eames's edutainment film, and on the original chic geeks themselves, can be found starting here—first turn your attention to the clickable black and orange grid to the right. There's a good fifteen minutes of procrastination packed into that little bitty grid.
And if your inner narcissist is at the ready with five movie quotes? Go on, send 'em! I'm done tabulating them, but I never did get tired of reading them—and I'm storing up the best of them for future fortune cookies.
OGIC: James and giggles, redux
Last week, like an image consultant to the canon, I posted some funny bits from Henry James, sensing that he may not get enough credit for that sort of thing. I also suggested he wear more earth tones, but does he listen to me?
Anyway, I was glad to get a little backup when some other James fans and aficionados chimed in: Robert the Llama Butcher's mom, Lance Mannion, who is especially good on the unfunny Tragic Muse, and Alex Ross. And there's always been Max Beerbohm, who not only was one of the first to see the humor in Henry James but who, er, enhanced it:
It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it. But just where the deuce had he left it?
(From "The Mote in the Middle Distance" by H*nry J*m*s, by Max Beerbohm, found in A Christmas Garland.)
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"Literary criticism, which is bound to pursue meaning, can never really encompass the fact that some things are on the page because they gave the writer pleasure."
Ian McEwan, Paris Review interview
OGIC: Trickle-up effect
I'm belated in pointing out that Tim Hulsey wrote a thoughtful post last week on the occasion of Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday. I'm a newly minted fan of Sondheim's work—well, of precisely two of his plays so far—and can't offer anything nearly so knowledgable. But I can free-associate!
In 2004 I had my first glimpse of Sondheim's work at a Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of A Little Night Music that swept me off my feet and left me in tears (this, I find, is happening a lot more often the older I get, and bears no necessary relation to the quality of the movie/book/play/sporting event). A few months later, in New York, Terry took me to see an all-stops-pulled-out production of Sweeney Todd at City Opera, and several months after that we saw a tiny, black-box-theater version of Todd back here in Chicago. I guess I got lucky—every one of these stagings was played with talent and conviction, and after spending half a life unaware of the force that is Sondheim, I was half in love.
What pushed me the rest of the way, into a full-fledged liaison with his work, was receiving the original cast recording of A Little Night Music as a Christmas gift. Now I could listen at will, and I learned that the songs more than held up to sustained attention. For a few weeks in January I was listening to nothing but (the neighbors are still looking at me a little funny). Musically the songs are irresistible, but I don't have the expertise to talk about that. The lyrics, however, just slay this former English major, they're so rich and so unbelievably deft at creating and revealing the characters who sing them. But what might get me most is simply the unabashed feeling with which the songs are performed.
To some of you the following transition will seem very sublime-to-ridiculous, but the first time I saw the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical special, "Once More with Feeling," I was braced for the worst, ready to laugh my way through it all. Not at all practiced at watching musical theater, I was deeply suspicious of the entire enterprise. I was surprised, then, when the Buffy musical grabbed me by the heartstrings, but by way, somehow, of the head. The wittiness of many of the lyrics authorized the heart-on-the-sleeve emotion in the show and freed me up to savor it. (Imagine my dismay, then, when at the climactic moment of Buffy's rescue from the dancing demon's spell, my videotape cut to the unlovely mug of Dennis Franz—I had set the VCR that night to tape Buffy followed by NYPD Blue, unaware that the musical ran an hour…plus seven minutes.)
The next day, I ran into an acquaintance who was also a Buffy watcher. I asked her what she'd thought of the musical; she laughed a bit unsurely and said, "I thought it was embarrassing." And while I didn't quite believe her, I also knew exactly what she meant. I had felt a temptation to react that way at first, and even into the middle of the show. Emotional content is so regularly faked, overplayed, and abused on television and in movies, you really feel like you have to start from a position of suspicion toward anything unironical. There's something essentially unironical about singing, though, let alone singing in a musical. This is not to say there aren't plenty of counter-examples, but song just doesn't seem to be the same sort of natural habitat for irony that it is for feeling. In any case, I was pleased to have gotten over my own initial embarrassment toward the musical, and proceeded to establish my liberation beyond a doubt by watching it fifty more times in quick succession. When I showed it to Terry during his next visit to Chicago, he almost immediately noted the heavy influence of Sondheim, and I nodded in sage agreement, having no idea of Sondheim at all.
Obviously I see the influence now. And if one somewhat sad consequence of my new understanding has been to knock down the Buffy musical a slight notch by comparison with its models, I can't help thinking that Joss Whedon provided some crucial paving of my way toward appreciating A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and (next up) Sunday in the Park with George in full. It would be nice to claim that I wasn't the kind of person who needed to come to it in baby steps, led by an instance of Pop Culture with a capital P, but that's how it happened. The neighbors might be embarrassed for me, hearing show tunes through the thin walls, but I really do love this stuff too much to care.
OGIC: All ears
On the basis of his ear for random scraps of conversation, I would venture a guess that this playwright-blogger is good at his chosen craft. If, that is, you think that unscripted-sounding dialogue makes for good plays, which I generally do.
On the other hand, I recently overheard in the soup aisle of the supermarket an apparently authentic exchange that sounded so scripted, I would hesitate to put it in a play, or on a blog like Tim's:
SON: What's "Soup at Hand"?
FATHER: Soup getting out of hand.
Ow. One can't help but suspect that some coaching was involved.
Monday, March 28, 2005
"I vehemently disagree with the 'contempt for the jingles of Kipling.' I agree that Kipling's attitude toward life seems to me wanting in complexity and not interesting—but it will take more than Sassoon to convince me that Kipling ought not to stir the fundamental human emotions. I think he does—and that simple thinkers often do. A student of mine long dead spoke with contempt of the fighting lines in Henry V. His widow was a mainstay of the sympathizers with Sacco and Vanzetti. I was not with him."
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., letter to Harold Laski (1928)
OGIC: Don't go
We like to think positive at About Last Night, so we don't have a "Bottom Five" sidebar. But the worst movie I have seen in a long time is The Upside of Anger, which had an inexplicably easy time of it with the critics. It's true that, as almost everyone reviewing it has noted, Joan Allen is a witty and engaging performer. But that's not enough when a script is this terrible; in my book, Allen's goodness should count against the movie rather than for it, making us wish for her better material. If I had known that the movie was written, directed, and acted in by the man responsible for the dismal HBO comedy The Mind of the Married Man, which aired a few years ago during the six months I had free HBO, I would have steered clear. Having failed this, I apply my efforts now to sparing you.
To a large degree, I hated this movie because I hated its characters. I didn't like this sort of criticism when it was applied to Sideways recently by some of that movie's detractors. But then I didn't feel the charge stood up that Payne glossed over, okayed, or played as a mere joke, say, Miles's pathetic thieving from his mother. On the contrary—when, at the truly painful end of that scene, she offers him as a gift what he has just stolen from her, it puts him in the worst possible light. Sure, the movie asks us to like Miles warts and all, and I did, but this scene is one instance of the writers not letting him off easy, and one reminder that some of his warts are more than just cosmetic. Another critique held that the movie glamorized the characters' alcohol abuse by presenting the wine culture they're steeped in as attractive. If it didn't look at least externally attractive, though, would we have half so good an understanding of Miles and his problems—and his virtues? What do you want, a movie or a public service announcement?
In The Upside of Anger, there's so little understanding of people on the writer-director Mike Binder's part, I couldn't help wondering: does this guy know any? The charmless ones in his movie are more akin to (affluent) bundles of symptoms and psychoses who occasionally spit out a cue to the audience to laugh or "ooh" or cry. Kevin Costner is something of an exception insofar as his presence in the movie has a casual quality, almost as if he had wandered in off a different set entirely. I'm by no means a Costner fan, and the figure he plays here is more or less stolen outright from Terms of Endearment, but his air of just hanging around provided some relief in a film that's contrived everywhere else you look, and whose plot, even so, doesn't always make logical sense.
This shell game of a movie pulls its first cheap trick early: In the first scene we're shown the funeral of some unidentified person. Then we're yanked three years into the past, left to wonder which of the characters will meet an untimely end and, in due course, served several red herrings. Ho-hum. Let 'em (as Hannibal Lecter once advised Francis Dolarhyde) kill them all. Save yourself: skip this movie.
TT: Silence and respect
No sooner did my train pull into Penn Station two days ago than I jumped back on the merry-go-round of my New York routine, discovering to my dismay that some prankster had sped it up while I was out of town. I barely had time to pry open my suitcases before I found myself in a cab again, racing downtown to see Neil LaBute’s This Is How It Goes with Galley Cat. On Sunday afternoon I took an actress friend to a matinee of Moonlight and Magnolias, and now I have five more shows and three deadlines gurgling down the pipeline, not to mention a chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong that’s crying out to be finished. I'm not going to blog at all for the rest of the week, so don’t ask me.
Before I vanish into the not-so-distant future, though, I want to record some fugitive impressions of the time I spent playing tourist in the nation’s capital. I go to Washington, D.C., mainly to spend time with friends and look at paintings and plays. It had been twenty years since I'd last seen the sights of the city other than through the window of a cab. For that reason, I thought it might be interesting to accompany my brother on his first visit to Washington, seeing whatever he cared to see. So instead of going to the National Gallery and the Phillips Collection, we rode a Tourmobile to Arlington National Cemetery, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian Museum of American History, with brief side trips along the way to the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam Memorials. We didn’t actually go to the Capitol, but since we were staying in a hotel only a few blocks away from Capitol Hill, we didn’t have to. The great dome was omnipresent, visible from wherever we happened to be at any given moment.
That’s a lot of stuff to cram into two days, and I was in grave need of sleep by the time I boarded the Acela Express on Saturday afternoon. Still, I wouldn’t have willingly passed up a single sight. Like all small-town boys, I’m a gawker at heart, and Washington offers endless opportunities for high-class gawking. Among other things, I saw the Wright Flyer that took to the skies at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and the American flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1812, the same one that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I saw a uniform that was worn by George Washington. I saw the stovepipe hat Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre the night he was assassinated—and, a few steps away, the nuclear “football” carried by Bill Clinton’s military aide.
Best of all, I saw the Declaration of Independence (not to mention the portable wooden desk on which Thomas Jefferson drafted it), the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. If the Museum of American History is the national attic, then the rotunda of the National Archives is the reliquary of our civic religion. It’s fun to see little Judy Garland’s ruby-red shoes, but it’s something altogether different to look upon the original founding documents, faded to near-illegibility but still recognizable at a glance. To have beheld these fragile pieces of parchment mere hours after having taken an oath administered by a Supreme Court justice was...well, awesome.
As for Arlington National Cemetery, my brother and I spent a whole morning there, and could easily have spent a whole day if we’d had more time to spare. It's no place for the flippant—Arlington has a way of making the overheard remarks of ironically inclined visitors sound shameful—but it has much to offer the aesthete, even the soul-deadened kind to whom patriotism is no more than gold-braided bigotry. The simple marble headstones
that mark most of the graves are at once ruthlessly functional and timelessly handsome, both individually and en masse, just as the changing of the guard
at the Tomb of the Unknowns is all but balletic in its poised, precise clarity. Next to such pure classicism, the bronze plaque
that honors the astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion seems almost sentimental, as much a symbol of its times as the marble tablets are of theirs.
For the most part, though, Arlington is a place of sobering beauty, which is one of the reasons why so few visitors require the reminders provided by the discreet circular signs placed at strategic points along its paths: ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY. SILENCE AND RESPECT. Of course you hear the occasional idiot twitter of a ringing cell phone, or the shouts of children too young to understand what it means to be surrounded by the corpses of a quarter-million of their fellow Americans. Airplanes are constantly roaring overhead, and the lawnmowers pause for no man, dead or alive. Arlington isn't exactly quiet, just serious. Some of its permanent residents are well known, including two presidents, eleven Supreme Court justices, and a couple of movie stars (Lee Marvin and Audie Murphy, both of whom fought in World War II, are buried there), but most were and are obscure, while thousands more are, as their headstones explain, known but to God. All served their country in one way or another, and tens of thousands of them died violent deaths while doing so.
Most tourists go out of their way to visit the graves of John and Jackie Kennedy. I did, too, but once I’d paid my respects, I wandered down the hill where the Kennedys lie, looking for a white headstone that says HOLMES. It's not hard to find, though I doubt that many people seek it out, the name of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., now being known for the most part only to students of American constitutional law. Once upon a time, though, Mr. Justice Holmes was famous enough that Hollywood made a movie about him, a foolish film about a remarkable man. A friend of Henry and William James, Holmes fought for the Union in the Civil War, was wounded in battle three times, became a lawyer and then a judge, was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, and served as an associate justice for nearly three decades, retiring in 1932 at the age of ninety-one, three years before his death.
An eminent Victorian who lived long enough to read and comment on Proust and Hemingway, Holmes looked upon the world with an ice-cold eye, unconsoled by faith and certain only that "[o]ur business is to commit ourselves to life, to accept at once our functions and our ignorance and to offer our heart to fate." I’m not sure how great a jurist he was, and there are any number of things about which I disagree with him passionately, but he was beyond doubt the high court’s greatest writer, both of judicial opinions and personal letters (Edmund Wilson wrote an admiring New Yorker essay about his correspondence), and he was by way of being a great man as well.
As a Civil War veteran, Holmes was entitled to burial in Arlington National Cemetery, and when his beloved wife Fanny died in 1929, she was laid to rest there. A month later he wrote to a friend:
I have a lovely spot in Arlington toward the bottom of the hill where the house is, with pine trees, oak, and tulip all about, and where one looks to see a deer trot out (although of course there are no deer). I have ordered a stone of the form conventional for officers which will bear my name, Bvt. Col. And Capt. 20th Mass. Vol. Inf. Civil War—Justice Supreme Court, U.S.—March, 1841—His wife Fanny B. Holmes and the dates. It seemed queer to [be] putting up my own tombstone—but these things are under military direction and I suppose it was necessary to show a soldier’s name to account for my wife.
Six years later he joined her beneath the pine trees, and seventy years after that I stood by their graves, silent and respectful, hearing the words of the psalmist in my mind’s ear: Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am. Somewhere in the middle distance I overheard a young boy saying, “I wanna be buried here!" All at once I recalled something else that Holmes wrote: "I believe that force, mitigated so far as may be by good manners, is the ultima ratio, and between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy except force. I may add what I no doubt have said often enough, that it seems to me that every society rests on the death of men..."
With both quotations uneasily commingled in my head, I boarded the Tourmobile that would return me to the land of the living. For all its myriad beauties, Arlington National Cemetery is not a place where one can comfortably tarry, at least not for very long. The next day I was back in New York, sworn in, worn out, and grateful above all things merely to be alive.
“You look really happy,” Galley Cat told me at dinner that night.
“I am really happy,” I replied.
So I was, and still am. My life is far from perfect, and there are many things about it that I would gladly change, but nobody could hope for a better or more blessed one. May you all have such good fortune, and know it for what it is while it lasts.
See you next week.
"'Why, she isn't even crying!' she heard people say at her mother's funeral, as if it was for this moist tribute that people died. People were always wanting children to cry and prove again and again their helplessness, so that they might take advantage of it."
Dawn Powell, A Time to Be Born
Friday, April 2, 2004
"Before he came I also had read Henry James' The Ambassadors. All the characters as usual talk H. James, so that I regard it rather as a prolonged analysis and description than as a drama. It brought up Paris to me; but more especially, by a kind of antagonism that it provoked, made me reflect, contrary to Münsterberg's book (The Eternal Values), how personal are our judgments of worth. If a man debates for half an hour whether to put his right or left foot forward while he stands in a puddle, he will think me stupid when I prefer to brusquer the decision. For all I know the fate of the cosmos may hang on it, but I think him stupid as to the growth of ideas, or the law, or whatever my hobby may be. I was struck as usual by the exclusiveness of his criteria and interests. He lives in what seems to me rather a narrow world of taste and refined moral vacillations; but in them he is a master. I can't help preferring him in description and criticism, but he has a circle that thinks him great as a novelist. My general attitude is relatively coarse: let the man take the girl or leave her. I don't care a damn which. Really, I suppose, he, like his brother and the parsons, attaches a kind of transcendental value to personality; whereas my bet is that we have not the kind of cosmic importance that the parsons and philosophers teach. I doubt if a shudder would go through the spheres if the whole ant heap were kerosened."
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., letter to Lewis Einstein (1909)
"Resolve: To be altogether more advanced and intelligent, to have more friendships and fewer affairs, to write and read more than I eat and drink, to revisit Paris and write a prize novel."
Cyril Connolly, The Condemned Playground
TT: I can't believe I wrote the whole thing
No rest for the weary: I spent the whole damn day writing the last of four pieces that came due the same week as All in the Dances, my Balanchine book. This one was my monthly Commentary essay, about Solomon Volkov's Shostakovich and Stalin and Richard Kostelanetz's Aaron Copland: A Reader (aren't you wondering how those two books fit together?), and it ended up being four thousand words long. I started it Thursday morning and finished it at 11:30 Thursday night. Now I'm going to bed. Tomorrow (today, actually) I'll catch a plane to Raleigh, N.C., to spend two days looking at Carolina Ballet, and I'll be back some time on Sunday.
Until then, there will be no further blogging from me. In fact, there will be no further writing of any kind from me. Not counting the book and the blog, I've produced roughly 8,000 words of publishable prose since Monday morning, and that's soooo much more than enough. Right now you couldn't pay me to inscribe a copy of A Terry Teachout Reader. (Really!)
Believe it or not, though, it's nice to be back. I missed you while I was gone, a lot. And though I still have Balanchine-related chores awaiting me next week—I've got to choose the illustrations—I plan to spend plenty of time right here at "About Last Night." So keep your eyes peeled for further cultural bulletins.
See you Sunday.
Thursday, April 1, 2004
TT: Sighted scene, stole same
It's Friday—do you know where I am? In The Wall Street Journal, of course, reviewing Arthur Penn’s revival of Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Eric Stoltz, and Barbara Cook’s Broadway.
Sly Fox isn’t perfect, but it’s damned good for what it is:
"Sly Fox" is, of course, Mr. Gelbart’s very loose rendering of Ben Jonson’s "Volpone," relocated from seventeenth-century Venice to nineteenth-century San Francisco, where the noted conman Foxwell J. Sly (Mr. Dreyfuss) and his not-so-trusty servant Simon Able (Mr. Stoltz) have set up shop for the purpose of fleecing a bunch of equally dishonest folk. In this modernized version, little of Jonson’s play survives but the plot (Mr. Gelbart claims not even to have read Jonson, relying instead on a 1927 German-language adaptation of "Volpone" by Stefan Zweig), atop which are sprinkled several thousand jokes about greed and hypocrisy. All the characters talk like Groucho Marx, squeezing off punchlines like bullets from a burp gun, and while many go wide of their targets, enough hit the bull’s-eye to keep you flailing with laughter….
As Sly, Mr. Dreyfuss is going up against still-vivid memories of George C. Scott and Robert Preston, his predecessors in the role, and though I never saw either of them on stage, my guess is that he falls a little bit short, perhaps because he’s—well, a little bit short. I envisioned Foxwell J. Sly as a Falstaffian rascal, and Mr. Dreyfuss’ finicky voice and compact frame didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Nevertheless, he’s more than good enough to get the job done, and even better as Judge Thunder J. Bastardson, under whose wary eye the cast of "Sly Fox" conducts a seminar on scene stealing that is glorious to behold.
As for Barbara Cook’s Broadway, well, it’s pretty fabulous:
Speaking of old pros, Barbara Cook used to sing ingenue roles on Broadway back in the Fifties and Sixties, the salad days of musical comedy. Now she’s 76 years old and stars in one-woman shows about those same salad days. Her latest such effort, "Barbara Cook’s Broadway," is running through April 18 at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, the same house where Christopher Plummer is starring in "King Lear," also through April 18. (Ms. Cook performs on Mr. Plummer’s days off.) Go see it. She sings 15 wonderful show tunes, some familiar and some not, all interpreted in a totally straightforward style that keeps the spotlight on the songs, not the singer. When not making music, Ms. Cook tells tales out of school, including an anecdote about Elaine Stritch that’s worth at least half the price of admission.
No link. Just buy the Journal, O.K.? It’s only a dollar. Then send ‘em a letter saying how wonderful I am. They like letters.
TT: Loud and clear
I found this note in my e-mailbox yesterday:
I'm so proud. I saw the the headline "Finishing the Book" and immediately knew you were going to be referencing Sunday in the Park with George.
As someone in my early twenties just emerging from a South Georgia town about the size of Smalltown, U.S.A. (15,000, give or take), I've been following "About Last Night" eagerly from its beginning last summer, and it's been a welcome expansion of my horizons. I've got you to thank for Avenue Q, Helen Frankenthaler, and TMFTML, just to name a few. It's also occasionally been a reassurance. (Maybe there's not something wrong with me because I don't love Virginia Woolf; maybe I shouldn't consider a rural background a permanent sentence to second-class cultural citizenship....)
I'm afraid that it's a deceptively seductive medium, and I've come to feel oddly close to you and OGIC and many of the people in your right-hand column after what's nearly been a three-season-immersion. There was a little inner debate on whether to address you as "Terry" or "Mr. Teachout." South Georgia won. I've really got no reason to write other than to say thank you.
P.S. Congratulations on the Balanchine book. I hear that sort of thing isn't easy, any way you look at it.
Right from the start, Our Girl and I hoped that "About Last Night" would be read not just in New York, Chicago, and cities of similar size and presumed sophistication, but all over the country. Well, we got our wish. Yes, we’re most frequently read in the eastern time zone of the United States, but most days we also get hits from as many as thirteen other time zones, along with mail from readers living in the most unlikely-sounding places—only it turns out that they’re not so unlikely after all. Modern communications technology has made the world of art universally accessible to all who care to partake of it, and the Web has gone beyond that to transform the cultural conversation. Time was when people like OGIC and me did all the talking. Now it’s a two-way street.
So to our happy reader from South Georgia, as well as to all the rest of you out there in cyberspace, our thanks for listening—and even more for writing. We feel every bit as close to you as you do to us. And don't forget to tell your friends what they're missing.
TT: Adventures of an author
I went to Harcourt yesterday afternoon to drop off the manuscript of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, the book whose fitful progress I've been chronicling on this blog for the past three months. Oddly enough, I'd never seen the headquarters of my new publisher, with whom I signed a two-book contract a little less than a year ago (the contract was delivered and collected by messenger), so I thought it would be both courteous and fun to bring in the manuscript myself.
I showed up a few minutes early and waited briefly in a lobby decorated with photographs of noted Harcourt authors past and present, wondering whether the day might come when I would be deemed worthy of display cheek by jowl with T.S. Eliot and Alice Walker. Then André Bernard, my editor, escorted me to his fifteenth-floor office, which has a panoramic view of the Flatiron Building, Edith Wharton's birthplace, and the golden-domed rooftop eyrie where Stanford White cavorted with his ladyfriends. That's a view.
I gave André the box containing the manuscript. He saw me and raised me by clicking away at his computer for a moment and retrieving the design for the dust jacket of All in the Dances, which had just been e-mailed from San Diego earlier that day. "What do you think?" he asked tentatively. I stammered out wildly enthusiastic noises in reply. To have one beautifully designed book published in a single year is quite nice enough. To know that you're going to be two for two is...well, a whole lot nicer.
It was drizzling as I left Harcourt, and I'd never felt so tired in my life. Or so happy.
"What work I owed I postponed until it had to be churned out in a flush of rage over my being disturbed by it."
Jack Richardson, Memoir of a Gambler
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
TT: And I feel fine
I jumped in a cab last night and told the driver, "Carnegie Hall, please."
"Carnegie Hall, please." Silence. Then it hit me. "Do you know the address of Carnegie Hall?" I asked, trying to conceal my astonishment.
"Er, no, sir," he replied, tearing himself away momentarily from his cellphone. "I don't."
To you this may seem trivial, but I fear it isn't. I've been taking cabs to Carnegie Hall for almost 20 years, and in all that time, no cabby has ever had to ask me where it was—until last night.
I don't even want to think about what that means.
OGIC: Borrowed diversions
For the longest time now I've been meaning to add the incomparable Coudal Partners website to our blogroll, and tonight I've finally done so. The site came to my attention back in February, when Nathalie did a stint as a guest editor there, and it has increasingly become my failsafe destination when I simply must find strong distraction from whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing—for those desperate times when hockey box scores just won't cut it. Coudal's Fresh Signals (right-hand column) haven't failed me yet. I read stuff on the web all day, but here you can always find something to look at. Among the freshest at the moment, I particularly recommend 10 worst album covers of all time and the sequel, More album covers. Last one, I swear, as well as The world's flags given letter grades.
Ah hell, now that I've linked to a flag report card I may as well throw in the too-cute Kitty Cat Dance movie I've been sending to everyone I know lately. The title says it all, so you can steer clear if kitty cat dances aren't your cup of tea, and don't say I didn't warn you. I'm afraid they're mine. Thanks to Steve for this one.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 31, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"For two centuries, Siberia had had a reputation for being the freest place in the Empire, this open-air nuthouse where being a third-generation prisoner made you aristocracy. You could see the difference, the (comparative) fearlessness in people's bearing: Gwen had met the descendant of a Decembrist who was married to the great-great-granddaughter of Poles deported here after the 1848 uprising, and it seemed to her that no beltway politician, no Boston Brahmin could ever match the arrogance of this couple whose families had been on the wrong side of power for a hundred and fifty years. What can you do to us, the joke ran, we're already in Siberia."
Fernanda Eberstadt, The Furies
(Yes, this does mean I finally finished Shirley Hazzard! The Transit of Venus will be the subject of one more gushy post. Any day now.)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 31, 2004 | Permanent
"'We have done our best, and must leave it. No one can do more.'
"'We have done nothing,' said Maria.
"'Well, that is usually people’s best,' said her stepson. 'Their worst is something quite different.'"
I. Compton-Burnett, Two Worlds and Their Ways
Tuesday, March 30, 2004
TT: Finishing the book
The last time I finished writing a book (as opposed to editing a collection, which feels much less eventful) was on September 4, 2001. I’d actually typed the final words of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken years earlier—I wrote the prologue and epilogue first—and I’d completed the next-to-last draft of the book in late August, but it was on the afternoon of September 4 that I finished editing the last draft and started printing out the manuscript. I didn’t open a bottle of champagne or go out to dinner: instead, I spent the evening alone and went to bed early. I’d been working under extreme pressure all summer, and now, at last, the heat was off. I delivered the manuscript to my agent the next day and caught a plane to Missouri to visit my mother the day after that.
I was expecting to feel a touch of post-partum depression sooner or later, as most writers do when they finish writing a long book. Then, five days later, my mother’s phone rang and a caller from the Upper West Side told me to turn on the TV. That was the last time I thought about Mencken, or my book, for the next few weeks.
All these memories came flooding back as I sat at my desk two nights ago and printed out the seven chapters of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. Unlike The Skeptic, a full-length biography which took me the better part of a decade to research, ponder, and write, All in the Dances is a short biography, about 40,000 words long, and I spent just three months writing it, not counting four or five false starts as I tried unsuccessfully to get the first chapter going. I was still thinking in terms of a full-length book, one that would start with a lengthy set piece describing the making of Serenade, the first ballet Balanchine choreographed after coming to America. That had been my plan more or less from the time I decided to write a book about Balanchine, but it didn’t work. Not until I replaced it with a shorter description of the night I saw my first Balanchine ballet (part of which is in this posting) did the logjam break, and after that the rest was easy. If I hadn’t had so many other pieces to write in February and March, I probably could have wrapped the whole thing up in a month.
As the subtitle says, All in the Dances is a "brief life," a biography short enough to be read in one or two sittings. I like brief lives (even The Skeptic is a good deal shorter than most full-length biographies), and I’d thought a lot about the form before deciding to write one of my own. A couple of years ago I reviewed Paul Johnson’s brief life of Napoleon, a volume in the Penguin Lives series, and made the following observations:
The premise of these tasty little volumes is that it ought to be possible to sum up the life of a famous person in 200 pages or less. Seeing as how Johnson specializes in really, really long books, I wondered at first whether he was the best choice for the job, but within a few pages I knew that Napoleon is a near-perfect model of what a brief life can and should be: crisp, clear, concise and strongly personal.
In order to write a good short biography, you have to start with an unambiguous point of view….
All in the Dances has one: I believe that George Balanchine, in addition to being the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century, was also a key figure in the modern movement in art, directly comparable in significance to Henri Matisse or Igor Stravinsky, even though he isn’t widely recognized as such outside the world of dance. This premise flavors the whole of my book in a way that would be inappropriately reductive in, say, an 800-page biography. It also makes possible a kind of overarching unity that isn’t easy to create in a longer book. When you’re writing 40,000 words about a man who lived to the age of seventy-nine, you have to be selective, and thus interpretative.
It didn’t surprise me that I had to leave so many things out. What surprised me was how much I was able to put in, and how many of the techniques I used in writing The Skeptic were equally useful in writing All in the Dances. Both books are built around scenes and portraits, though most of the "scenes" in All in the Dances deal not with events in Balanchine’s life but with the premieres of the Balanchine ballets I singled out for description and criticism. Conversely, I used the portraits—of Serge Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Suzanne Farrell, the six most important people in Balanchine’s life—to keep the narrative moving forward.
If you’ve read The Skeptic, you’ll recall that it’s structured in a similar way, but that didn’t hit me until I looked over the last draft of All in the Dances. Up to that moment, I'd felt as if I were writing a brief life in the style of a full-length biography. Now I’m more inclined to see The Skeptic as a brief life writ large—an interpretative portrait of Mencken, not a first-he-did-this-then-he-did-that chronicle. The big difference is that it’s a lot easier to control the material when you’re writing a brief life: you can hold the whole book in your head at once and give it a consistency of tone that’s much more difficult to impose on a longer biography. I line-edited the entire manuscript of All in the Dances in a continuous ten-hour session, stopping only to eat two quick meals. You definitely can’t do that with a hundred-thousand-word book, though I did my very best to give The Skeptic a similar feeling of unity and sweep.
Another thing that surprised me was that there was room for a certain amount of poetry within the compass of a 40,000-word book. Even though I wrote All in the Dances out of sequence, I saved Balanchine’s death for last, just as I had Mencken’s, and it wasn’t until I actually started writing the death scene that I figured out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. This is what I wrote, late Sunday afternoon:
His memory had been fading for weeks, and now he was losing the power of speech as well. "I would just sit on the bed," wrote Farrell, "holding his hand while he slept, but as soon as I rose to go, his hand would grip mine more tightly." Karin von Aroldingen saw him most often, but most of the many women he had loved made the pilgrimage to his bedside. Tamara Geva was the last. "One day I found him clutching a small icon in the palm of his hand," she said. "He brought it to my face and repeated several times, ‘Must believe…must believe…’ and closed his eyes. With every hour he seemed to grow farther away into the distance, like a shrinking shadow." All his life he had had the faith of a child. Now it was all he had left.
Balanchine’s ballets, early and late, are full of unsettling images of loss. Serenade ends with a processional in which a woman left alone by the hand of fate is carried to her own destiny. In Liebeslieder Walzer, a woman appears to die in the arms of her partner; in La Valse, the partner is death. Even Apollo’s triumphant ascent to Olympus was also a farewell to earth. That, too, was part of his vision. He took for granted that earthly love must end in separation. Like the inescapable evanescence of choreography, loss was part of the cycle of life: "Choreography is like cooking or gardening. Not like painting, because painting stays. Dancing disintegrates. Like a garden. Lots of roses come up, and in the evening they’re gone. Next day, the sun comes up. It’s life. I’m connected to what is part of life." Only a fool, he knew, sought to prevent the inevitable.
In 1976, he added a coda to "Emeralds," a pas de sept in which the principal dancers of the ballet enact the stately sorrow of the incidental music Gabriel Fauré composed to accompany the death of Mélisande in Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande. At the very end, the ballerinas slip into the wings, vanishing like mist burned off by the morning sun, while their deserted cavaliers, left alone on the stage, sink down on one knee and gesture skyward in salute to...what? He never said.
* * *
Tamara Geva left him on the afternoon of April 29. He died at four the next morning. After a lifetime of movement, he was still at last.
I didn’t expect to write anything quite like that in so compact a book, but I think it works. And now that I’ve finished writing my first brief life, I’m even more excited by the form than I expected to be. In fact, the last few weeks have actually been kind of wonderful, despite the fact that I had to put the rest of my own life on hold in order to finish on time.
Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat….
That’s what Stephen Sondheim wrote in Sunday in the Park with George about what it feels like to paint. That’s also what it feels like to sit at your desk for hours on end, immersed in the magical act of "making a hat where there never was a hat." Three months ago, All in the Dances didn’t exist. Over the years I’d told dozens of people all about George Balanchine’s life and work, but every time I had to start fresh. Now there’s an inch-thick pile of paper on my kitchen table with a title page on top, the gateway to a world I made, and even though I’ll be reviewing a Broadway play tomorrow morning, then writing my Washington Post column in the afternoon, part of me is still back in that world of shadows.
That’s why I wanted to tell you now about how it felt—and how it feels. I want to enjoy it just a little while longer before I return to the world of daylight and deadlines.
TT: One good book deserves another
Stunned by overwork, I made the mistake of peeking into my mailbox, where I found a hundred or so accumulated pieces of e-mail. Most of it was spam, of course, but I learned from quite a few of you that amazon.com just started shipping A Terry Teachout Reader, well in advance of the official publication date.
How about that? I'm published!
If you ordered the Teachout Reader in advance, your copy has either just arrived or is on its way to you. If you haven't ordered it yet, go here and do so.
In addition, I got quite a bit of nice mail on various subjects (all of it answered—thanks very much).
I also got a rare piece of hate mail, which tickled me enough to pass on:
The main things that are unpleasant about your WSJ column are that you are relentlessly determined to show us how smart you are (not an elegant trait) and your poor white trash name (definitely not elegant).
In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, "Ah, me public!"
And now…back to overwork. See you tomorrow.
"It is the line of least resistance, and there is no denying that in daily life it has its advantages. But all the more must we insist that it plays the most deadly role in music, especially in the performance of old and familiar works. In fact, routine with its loveless mediocrity and its treacherous perfection lies like hoarfrost on the performance of the most beautiful and best-known works."
Wilhelm Furtwängler, BBC interview, November 2, 1948
Monday, March 29, 2004
TT: It is finished
I spent ten hours editing the Balanchine book today, then printed it out. I'm all done. I'll be delivering it to Harcourt on Wednesday. I've never been so tired, and I still have those four pieces left to write (two of them tomorrow), but I'm done.
Thanks again for your forbearance, which I hope will last a little while longer while I finish cleaning my plate. Then I'll start blogging again, and reading other blogs, too, something I've missed terribly in the past couple of weeks.
I look forward to serving you again!
OGIC: On the fly
Still crazy-busy over here, but I wanted to throw out this tidbit from James Wood's latest New Republic review, a polite but firm taking-apart of John Le Carré's latest—and, somewhat more mildly, of the writer's long-standing reputation as a literary talent who transcends his chosen genre (link via Arts & Letters Daily). Wood identifies Le Carré's spies as examples of a recurring literary masculine type that leaves him cold:
This is the tone, and the philosophical posture, inherited from Greene and, further back, from Hemingway, in which what masquerades as thought is actually just the ratification of permissible male reticence. Versions of this male reticence can be found in the work of Robert Stone, and in some of Andre Dubus's stories; it is almost a universal male vernacular. Such characters—"Leamas was not a reflective man"—are, paradoxically, alert but always blocking the ratiocinative consequences of their alertness. Such characters are not minds but just voyeurs of their own obscurities. One thinks of the end of A Farewell to Arms: "He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew." And that is all we hear on the subject. In such writing, a principled refusal to be sentimental stifles feeling and the description of feeling; and that refusal, in turn, becomes itself somewhat sentimental.
Wood's piece is in part a review of the reviewers who have made claims over the years for Le Carré's literary importance. Definitely worth a look.
OGIC: Spies like us
Over at Slate, one of last night's three notable guest stars, Leon Wieseltier, is dishing but good on the cast members of "The Sopranos":
My fleeting impressions, from a humble place at the table: Michael Imperioli is a talented sweetheart. Lorraine Bracco is a genuinely intelligent woman with the rare gift (these days, the almost unimaginable gift) of holding her eros in reserve. James Gandolfini is a completely authoritative actor whom I would not care to know. Even when he read his lines lightly in the run-through, he gave the lie to the maxim that nobody is indispensable. Peter Bogdanovich is risibly self-important. Steve Buscemi is unexpectedly comfortable in his febrile body and an extremely nice guy. (We went upstairs to wardrobe together, he for his shorts and me for my tux, except that I inadvertently wandered into the wardrobe room of Sex and the City, which made me think affectionately of Robespierre.)
In case you missed it, the other cameo guys included an actor, David Straitharn (as A.J.'s college counselor), and David Lee Roth (at the poker table).
"'Would you like a sandwich?' she asked, offering a dejected-looking plate."
Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence
Sunday, March 28, 2004
I just finished the first draft of the Balanchine book. "First draft" is something of a misnomer, actually, since this draft is substantially polished. I'll need another six or eight hours' worth of close line-editing and sprinkling on a few pinches of magic dust, and then it'll be ready to ship off to the publisher.
More as it happens, but now I need to get some sleep and start writing those other pieces, yikes!
In the meantime...yes, I'm happy. And relieved.
See you later today or, more likely, tomorrow.
A friend of mine went last night to see New York City Opera's revival of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. As soon as she got home, she sent me this e-mail:
Something unexpected hit me close to the end of the second act, about the time all hell was breaking loose and the chorus was running around like mad singing "City on Fire". Up til then, it was a pretty enjoyable show. Then all of a sudden, all the chaos on stage felt too real and I remembered how the Village was the night the World Trade Center was attacked - that horrible metallic burning smell and the air thick with smoke. And the madman onstage waving a razor, seething with vengeance made me uncomfortable. I wasn't planning on that feeling so real.
That's a memory I'm glad not to have.
TT: The absolute latest
I finished the fifth chapter and the bibliography of the Balanchine book late Saturday night. Come Sunday morning I start on the last one. I hate to tempt fate, but I do believe the end is in sight.
I'll post another excerpt later today. In the meantime, kindly cross your fingers, please.
"One never takes lessons to heart. It’s just a thing people talk about—learning by experience and all that."
Anthony Powell, The Valley of Bones
TT: The beat goes on
I reviewed Bill Charlap’s new CD, Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein, in today’s Washington Post:
Not since Ahmad Jamal's legendary trio of the 1950s has there been a jazz combo that blended uptown and downtown so seamlessly as does the Bill Charlap Trio. It's equally at home in smoky nightclubs and I-kiss-your-hand-madam cabarets. You don't have to know anything about jazz to enjoy its polished, elegant renditions of show tunes, but if you do, you'll marvel at the savoir-faire with which the group saunters through Charlap's quietly intricate arrangements.
If any part of that description piques your interest, then by all means give a spin to "Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein." I wouldn't be even slightly surprised if this near-flawless collection of 12 songs written by the man who brought you "West Side Story" turns Bill Charlap into the Diana Krall of jazz instrumentalists, a sophisticated artist whose albums are bought and loved by ordinary folks who don't know the Village Vanguard from the Village People. "Somewhere" is that good -- and that accessible….
Read the whole thing here.