– The other night I went to a play in which a very short actress gave a very good performance. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that a great many of the women to whom I’ve been attracted over the years have ranged in height from five foot zero to five foot three. I once had occasion to mention this fact to a self-styled feminist, who told me that I clearly had an unnatural need to dominate women. (I’m five foot eight.) I sputtered in reply that one of the most attractive women I know is six feet tall, and it later occurred to me that I also happen to like art songs, novellas, small paintings, and cozy little apartments such as the one in which I so contentedly live.
To this list I would now add plays of no more than two hours’ length, performed if at all possible without an intermission. (Remember my Drama Critics’ Prayer?) One such show that I recently reviewed is Primo, Sir Anthony Sher’s one-man dramatization of Primo Levi’s Auschwitz memoir. I went to see it with Sarah, and as my review doubtless made clear, I was deeply moved. I actually started crying shortly after we left the theater, and the two of us walked together in silence for a block or so as I struggled without success to regain my composure.
For some reason I glanced across the street at the marquee of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where Sweet Charity is playing. Below it I saw a huge poster on which was emblazoned in jumbo letters the following blurb:
“IT’S A BLAST!”
The Wall Street Journal
I looked at Sarah and pointed silently at the poster. The absurdity of the juxtaposition caused us both to dissolve on the spot into helpless laughter, and we were still laughing when we finally managed to flag a cab and flee the theater district.
Like the man says, life is pandemonium.
– I recently watched a TV documentary called Ken Russell: In Search of the English Folksong. Like all of Russell’s films and TV shows, it stank of self-regard, but there was one moment that struck me as especially awful, even for him. At the top of the hour, an unnamed young woman sang Percy Grainger’s seraphically beautiful harmonization
of “Brigg Fair,” a folk song that Grainger took down in 1905 from the singing of Joseph Taylor, a seventy-two-year-old Lincolnshire bailiff. The camera then cut to Russell sitting at a table with an old phonograph and a stack of 78s, and I realized that he was about to play one of the rarest records ever made, the 1908 performance of “Brigg Fair” that Taylor recorded at Grainger’s urging for the Gramophone Company of London. It was one of a dozen folk songs recorded by Taylor in the studio, the very first time that a “genuine peasant folk-singer” had made commercial recordings. “Nothing could be more refreshing,” Grainger wrote at the time, “than [Taylor’s] hale countrified looks and the happy lilt of his cheery voice….though his age was seventy-five, his looks were those of middle age, while his flowing, ringing tenor voice was well nigh as fresh as that of his son.”
I’d long known of the existence of this record (Grainger is one of my favorite composers), but I’d never heard it, and was starting to think I never would. Then, to my amazement and delight, Russell slipped it out of the pile of 78s, placed it on the turntable, and lowered the needle to the spinning shellac surface. From the speakers of my TV set came a century-old sound: It was on the fifth of August, the weather fair and fine/Unto Brigg Fair I did repair, for love I was inclined. I listened with wonder to Joseph Taylor’s throaty, ever-so-slightly creaky voice and the fluttering ornaments with which he gracefully decorated the long descending arch of melody. Time was melting away…and then Ken Russell, damn him, started talking. “Bit crackly,” he said midway through the second line. “But, you know, it was recorded on a cylinder.” (Actually, it wasn’t.) “Lovely, isn’t it?” He kept on prattling to the very end of the song.
Hell isn’t hot enough.
– I met a writer friend for lunch yesterday at Caf