(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)
“Henry James. He is someone to contend with, but an awful lot is missing—how much can be seen by comparing him with Proust. His sexual sensibility is that of a Victorian maiden of the upper class: he seems to ache to be deflowered. And I think it was Chesterton who said something to the effect that James’s work was too well-written and therefore slightly vulgar.”
Thomas Berger, letter to Zulfikar Ghose (Mar. 26, 1975)
• Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is full of seemingly random observations about life whose general applicability causes them to leap off the page. Here are two that come to mind.
The first, made by Hugh Moreland, a composer-conductor of lively mind and depressive temperament, is from The Kindly Ones:
The arts derive entirely from taking decisions. That is why they make such unspeakably burdensome demands on all who practice them. Having taken the decisions music requres, I want to be free of all others.
I know what Moreland means. To be a critic of the arts is to spend the whole of your professional life making decisions about the merits of what you see and hear. In a sense, it’s all you do. As a result, I tend when “off duty” to be quite easygoing about quotidian matters of taste. To take just one example, I’d be more than happy (as Moreland was) to let Mrs. T choose all of the restaurants at which we go out to eat.
Alas, my line of work has conditioned me not only to be decisive but to maintain meticulous professional habits—I never come late to anything—and it is the evident destiny of such folk to end up serving as the designated drivers for everybody else in the world. As I noticed during the long-ago days when I had a nine-to-five newspaper job, any writer who also has managerial skills will quickly find himself under unremitting pressure to become an editor. It doesn’t matter how talented a writer he is—it’s harder to find good managers than good writers. I suspect that all of life is like that.
The second observation, made by Nick Jenkins, the narrator and Powell’s fictional alter ego, is from The Valley of Bones:
I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.
Here, too, I found this remark to have the force of revelation. To be sure, most of my friends are avid readers, and I dare say that a handful of them might actually go along with Logan Pearsall Smith, who claimed to prefer reading to life. On the other hand, I’ve also been close to a few people who never read for pleasure, and when I was a professional musician, I knew a considerable number of otherwise smart and sensitive artists to whom books were unimportant. It would never occur to such folk to look to a novel in the hope of finding illumination, much less delight—and I have a feeling that their numbers are increasing.
Indeed, I think it possible (if unlikely) that I will live to see an America in which great literature has no cultural purchase whatsoever. I wonder what such a country would be like. Ray Bradbury tried to sketch it in Fahrenheit 451:
With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word “intellectual,” of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar.
For some Americans, of course, that new world has already taken shape, and there are those who even claim to find it desirable. But of course they don’t really believe in the desirability of illiteracy. What they want is power—and they’re getting it.
Like everybody else in the world, I’ve become a compulsive shuffle-player. To date I’ve loaded 2,849 “songs” onto my iBook and iPod, and while I occasionally pick and choose from them at will, I usually let myself be surprised. One evening last week, iTunes unexpectedly served up a string of selections fraught with personal associations. Listening to them put me in mind of the scene in High Fidelity (I can’t remember whether it’s in the novel as well) in which John Cusack explains how he arranged his LP collection in “autobiographical order.”…
Read the whole thing here.
“Many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a faint rumor of a title to you, Mrs. Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say, of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Having attained an age when I find it increasingly difficult to retrieve names with the effortless ease of my youth, I’m fascinated by the persistence, vividness, and exactitude of my earliest memories, many of which have to do either with music or with things I saw on television as a boy.
Here’s a double-barreled example. On September 21, 1963, my family watched the chaotic debut episode of The Jerry Lewis Show, a two-hour-long live prime-time talk-and-variety show for whose forty-week season Lewis was reportedly paid a cool $8 million—at the time, the highest salary ever paid to a TV performer. The series, a legendary fiasco, was canceled after thirteen weeks. (You can read all about it here.) So far as I know, the first episode was never rerun, meaning that I only saw it once. Even so, I clearly recall that Lewis sang a song that night called “Think Pink.” Not only did the refrain lodge permanently in my mind, but I remembered that it was in the key of F major.
Such, at any rate, was my memory—and now, thanks to the queer miracle that is YouTube, I’m in a position to check its accuracy. Scroll forward to 12:45 and you can see and hear “Think Pink” for yourself:
You’ll have to take my word for it, but my recollection of the refrain is note-for-note accurate…and sure enough, it’s in F major.
Why on earth would so trivial a ditty have made so deep an impression on me fifty-two years ago? I can only suppose that childhood memory functions in much the same way as the capacity for language acquisition: once heard, never forgotten.
Whatever the reason, it makes me tremble to imagine the unwanted pieces of pop-culture flotsam and jetsam that will clutter my consciousness on my deathbed. I’d like to think that my head will be full of Das Lied von der Erde or the slow movement of the Schubert Cello Quintet as the Distinguished Thing approaches—but it’s probably just as likely, and far more humbling, that my final thoughts will be of “Think Pink.”
Fats Waller sings and plays “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in Stormy Weather, directed by Andrew L. Stone and released in 1943. The band includes Benny Carter on trumpet, Slam Stewart on bass, and Zutty Singleton on drums. Also seen briefly in this scene are Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson:
(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)
At long last, here’s an online video of Theater Talk’s 2015 Broadway end-of-season critics’ panel, featuring Ben Brantley of the New York Times, Peter Marks of the Washington Post, John Simon of the Westchester Guardian, and me. The hosts are Susan Haskins and Michael Riedel. The shows that we discussed on the telecast, which was taped last month, are Skylight, Fun Home, Finding Neverland, On the Twentieth Century, and Something Rotten!:
Thomas Berger, letter to Zulfikar Ghose (Jan. 28, 1971)
In today’s Wall Street Journal I review two very different plays about the supernatural, the Public Theater’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of The Tempest and a Baltimore revival of Blithe Spirit. Here’s an excerpt.
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To see “The Tempest” acted under a night sky is like hearing “The Messiah” sung in a cathedral. Whatever the flaws of the production, the sheer rightness of the setting usually makes them forgettable, or at least ignorable, and you come away thinking only of the work. That’s how I felt about Michael Greif’s Central Park production of Shakespeare’s sublime dramatic study of the redemptive power of forgiveness. I didn’t agree with all of Mr. Greif’s choices, but I was glad to go along with them, and by evening’s end my cavils felt picayune: Nothing mattered but the truth and beauty of the play itself.
What is best about Mr. Greif’s “Tempest” is its easy legibility—every line registers—and clear-eyed concentration on Shakespeare’s theme. Sam Waterston’s Prospero, for instance, suggests a comical Lear who has lived to profit from his hard-won moral understanding. Querulously, even petulantly angry at having been cast away on a deserted island and determined at first to exact his revenge, he chooses instead to let love have its way with his soul. Suddenly his sorcery turns inward and he becomes a new man, so fully transformed that he even learns to treat Caliban (Louis Cancelmi) not as a monster but as a pitiably wayward son—a masterly directorial touch that is well realized by Messrs. Waterston and Cancelmi. As his 2011 Public Theater “King Lear” revealed, Mr. Waterston cannot rise to the rhetorical occasions of Shakespeare’s verse, but his sincerity does much to make up for this deficit…
Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” that most shapely and cunning of farces, is so well made that it’s impossible to do badly—but hard to do memorably. Witness Michael Blakemore’s 2009 Broadway revival, in which Angela Lansbury’s delightfully dotty Madame Arcati failed to make a sufficiently strong impression because of the uninspired efficiency of the rest of the production. Not so the far superior version now playing at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre. A starless production staged by Vincent M. Lancisi, the company’s artistic director, this “Blithe Spirit” is an all-cylinders romp in which Nancy Robinette plays Coward’s daft medium in a fluttery manner that immediately put me in mind of Elsa Lanchester—high praise indeed. Comparable kudos go to Beth Hylton, the ghost inadvertently summoned by Madame Arcati at a cocktail party, who plays Elvira as a sexy, dangerously willful woman-child. You’ll have no trouble whatsoever supposing that she’d be capable of scheming to bring about her earthly husband’s premature demise.
The Everyman performs in a 250-seat vaudeville theater built in 1911, then gutted and transformed into an up-to-date house whose neoclassical façade conceals a contemporary lobby and auditorium. The company is as impressive as its home…
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To read my review of The Tempest, go here.
To read my review of Blithe Spirit, go here.
A montage of scenes from The Tempest: