Stop the presses–Gore Vidal wrote a good play! Granted, he wrote it in 1960, but “The Best Man,” a tart, smart story of dirty politics run amok, could have been penned last week, and Remy Bumppo Theatre Company’s consummately well-acted revival is strong enough to put this ambitious Chicago troupe on the national map….
Remy Bumppo, which performs in a pleasingly intimate 150-seat house, is a 10-year-old ensemble whose slogan is “Think theatre.” According to its mission statement, the company “strives to delight and engage audiences with the emotional and ethical complexities of society through the provocative power of great theatrical language.” This production lives up to those fancy words. Every member of the cast is ideal or close to it….
“Who is’t can say,
Archives for September 2006
“The reason that music attracts me more than any other art is its abstract quality. I like music because it is not connected with any time, place or particular thing. It is abstract emotion. As soon as you get words, you’re tied to a particular object or situation, inevitably, by the use of words, which to me limits the vast horizons that music has from an emotional point of view.”
Malcolm Arnold, BBC interview, 1959
I’m sitting at a table in the food concourse (or whatever they call it) of the Delta-Northwest terminal at LaGuardia Airport, having stood in an awesomely long (but efficiently managed) line, removed and replaced my shoes, presented my shampoo for inspection, eaten breakfast, inserted my in-ear monitors, pressed play to listen to an mp3 of the first movement of Malcolm Arnold’s Second Symphony, logged onto the Web via WiFi, and checked the Northwest Airlines Web site, where I learned that my flight to Minneapolis will be departing LaGuardia an hour later than scheduled so that the crew can get some rest.
Once upon a time–last year, say–I would have irked beyond words by this last piece of news, but now I don’t care (much). Instead of strutting and fretting, I’ve simply sent an e-mail to Minnesota Public Radio to alert the people I’m meeting for lunch this afternoon that I’ll be an hour late, and now I’m using the extra time to catch up on my correspondence and tinker with the Commentary essay on Malcolm Arnold that I finished writing six hours and seventeen minutes ago. Should I grow tired of Arnold’s Second, I can always listen to another of the 2,991 “songs” currently residing in the iTunes player installed in my iBook G4, or shut up the iBook and read Roger Scruton’s Gentle Regrets, the paperback tucked into the outside flap of my wonderful new TravelPro Crew4 Rolling Tote, which I purchased last week for the ridiculously modest sum of $99, took with me to Chicago, and now believe to be the finest carry-on bag in the world.
Am I feeling smug? Hardly. What I feel at the moment is abject gratitude for any number of things, some small and others very large indeed. Not only do I have the best of all possible jobs, but I’m living at a time when digital technology has made it infinitely easier for middle-class people like me to cope with the stresses and strains of our Age of Do More, Faster.
Do I wish I lived in a simpler time? Occasionally–but I grew up in a much simpler time, and though I recall with nostalgia my days of slow-moving innocence, I can’t begin to imagine doing without cellphones, laptops, and iPods. I spent the first ten years of my career as a professional writer clicking away at a manual typewriter, and I don’t miss that old black monster in the slightest, any more than I regret the invention of the pills I take twice a day in order to defer for as long as possible the appointment with the Distinguished Thing about which I dreamed the other night.
Were I in a less accepting mood, of course, I could gripe about the fact that I’ve been so busy since coming home from Chicago on Monday that I only managed to sleep for seven hours out of the past forty-eight. Nor do I expect to shoehorn in a nap between now and eight o’clock this evening, when I’ll be showing up at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater to see a revival of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. I’ve got plenty more than that to do between now and Sunday afternoon, when I fly back to New York for the second time in a week, and at some point along the way I’m sure I’ll be grumbling about my hectic life–but not now.
Yes, I’d rather be fast asleep in my loft, but since I’m not, I’m disposed to seize the day and be glad for it. “Why are you stingy with yourselves?” George Balanchine used to ask his dancers. “Why are you holding back? What are you saving for–for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.” All things considered, I like now just fine.
A composer I know was recently told by his doctors that he could expect to live for another ten years or so. He’s in his late seventies, so that wasn’t stop-press news, but even so, it concentrated his mind wonderfully. Now that he has a pretty good idea of how much time he has left, he’s deciding what pieces of music he wants to write before the clock runs out.
Such thoughts have a way of becoming alarmingly specific when you spend large chunks of your life composing symphonies or writing books. When my friend told me what his doctors had told him, I found myself wondering what I’d do if I were to learn (which I haven’t) that I, too, was likely to die in ten years. It took me about that long to write The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. Would I roll up my sleeves, spit on my hands, and start work at once on another book of similar proportions, or opt instead for a less elaborate project that I could wrap up in a year or two? Might I decide to embark on something completely different? Or choose to do nothing at all?
Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom, says the psalmist. I wonder how many of us do, or even try. I nearly died nine months ago, and you’d think that such an sobering experience would cause me to devote my remaining days to none but the most consequential of tasks–but you’d be wrong. A couple of Saturdays ago, for instance, I found myself with no shows to see and no appointments to keep. How did I spend my precious night off? Did I pile up fresh pages of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong? Did I closet myself with a hitherto-unread classic, or listen anew to Op. 111, or spend hour upon hour contemplating the Teachout Museum in breathless silence? No, indeed. I sent out for pizza, curled up on the couch, and watched a pair of perfectly silly movies.
This puts me in mind of the famous passage in which one of Tolstoy’s characters meditates upon a performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata:
In China music is under the control of the State, and that is the way it ought to be. Is it admissible that the first comer should hypnotize one or more persons, and then do with them as he likes? And especially that the hypnotizer should be the first immoral individual who happens to come along? It is a frightful power in the hands of any one, no matter whom. For instance, should they be allowed to play this “Kreutzer Sonata,” the first presto,–and there are many like it,–in parlors, among ladies wearing low necked dresses, or in concerts, then finish the piece, receive the applause, and then begin another piece? These things should be played under certain circumstances, only in cases where it is necessary to incite certain actions corresponding to the music. But to incite an energy of feeling which corresponds to neither the time nor the place, and is expended in nothing, cannot fail to act dangerously. On me in particular this piece acted in a frightful manner. One would have said that new sentiments, new virtualities, of which I was formerly ignorant, had developed in me. “Ah, yes, that’s it! Not at all as I lived and thought before! This is the right way to live!”
I’m not going to try to tell you that listening to Beethoven–or anything else–galvanizes me in so thoroughgoing a way. Nevertheless, I do spend more time than most people exposing myself to works of art whose effects on the nervous system can be very dire indeed. I’ve seen a dozen Shakespeare plays since getting out of the hospital last December, two of them twice. Would I have done that if I weren’t a drama critic? Probably not. Man cannot live by masterpieces alone, nor is he capable of spending all his days and nights screwed up to the highest possible pitch of moral and intellectual resolution. Every once in a while he has to send out for pizza and watch Two Weeks Notice instead.
I had a nightmare in Chicago last weekend, a few hours after seeing a performance of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, in which one of the characters tells an old friend that he’s dying. A couple of weeks before that, I’d seen Breaker Morant, a movie that ends with an explicitly gory firing-squad scene, and in between I had occasion to chat with a friend about Dialogues of the Carmelites, the Poulenc opera whose climax is a procession to the guillotine by a group of nuns who have been condemned to death by a revolutionary tribunal. All these experiences somehow became scrambled in my head, and I dreamed that I was watching a long line of nuns who were being led one by one into an adjacent room, where an unseen executioner shot them to death. At some point in the dream, I realized that I was standing in the same line, and that in a matter of minutes I, too, would be given a dose of what Philip Larkin called “the anesthetic from which none come round.” That’s when I woke up.
I wish I could tell you that I went straight home to New York and polished off a chapter of Hotter Than That, but I didn’t. I did, however, write the drama column that will appear in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal, then started work on my next Commentary essay. In between I saw a press preview of Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia, dined with two good friends, talked to my mother on the phone three times, and read two new biographies, one about Fritz Reiner and the other about Orson Welles. I’ve done better–and worse.
All of which, I suppose, is a roundabout way of saying that I’m only human. Who among us applies his heart unto wisdom twenty-four hours a day, or anything remotely approaching it? Not me. On the other hand, I’m not a saint, much less a genius, and I’m old enough to know exactly how unimportant I am in the grand scheme of things. If my plane to Minneapolis were to crash tomorrow morning, I doubt the world would weep bitter tears to learn that Hotter Than That had been left unfinished, or that someone else would be taking over as drama critic of The Wall Street Journal. (In fact, I know a number of people who might consider throwing a party.)
None of this, needless to say, makes it remotely acceptable for me to fritter away the unknown remnant of my life in useless pursuits. Nor do I plan to do so. I expect to finish Hotter Than That, to get started on another book as soon as that one is done, to keep on writing my Wall Street Journal reviews and Commentary essays for as long as the editors of those publications care to publish them, and to whittle steadily away at the embarrassingly long list of great books I’ve never read and great plays I’ve never seen. I also expect to spend more than a few too many nights sitting on the couch watching dumb movies–and, more than likely, feeling guilty about it the next day. That, too, is life.
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows strongly 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)
– The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, 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)
– The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here)
– The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
– Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
– Slava’s Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
“The feeling of virtuous lawyers toward shysters is the same as that of virtuous women toward prostitutes. Condemnation, certainly; but somewhere in it one tiny grain of envy, not to be recognized, let alone acknowledged.”
Rex Stout, The Golden Spiders
“In the Lewis Carroll world of the structuralists, of course, there is no such thing as truth: there is merely ‘truth.'”
Simon Callow, Orson Welles: Hello Americans
Sorry for the continuing silence, but Our Girl and I are both struggling mightily to hit a pair of scary deadlines before heading for our respective airports and flying off into the wild blue yonder (in different directions, alas). I promise to post something tasty on Thursday. In the meantime, I’ve knocked out a couple of fresh Top Five picks for your entertainment pleasure.
See you tomorrow, I hope.