Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works. The Library of America’s compact compendium of O’Connor’s novels, short stories, essays, and letters might just be the best single-volume anthology of anything ever published. Not only does it contain all of her fiction and most of the best of everything else she wrote, but it’s light enough to hold comfortably in one hand, the typography is elegant, and the notes (by O’Connor scholar Sally Fitzgerald) are extensive and impeccable. Speaking as a sometime editor and longtime connoisseur of collections, I consider this to be one of the half-dozen super-essential books in my library, pre-designated for a place in my suitcase in the event of my hasty and involuntary evacuation to anywhere (TT).
Archives for November 6, 2007
Dizzy Gillespie, The Quintessence (Frémeaux & Associés, two CDs). While we’re on the subject of really cool anthologies, this imported thirty-six-track collection is–not to put too fine a point on it–perfect. It contains each and every one of the finest recordings cut by the co-inventor of bebop between 1940 and 1947, all of them in better-than-decent transfers from the original 78s. Charlie Parker deserves all the ink he gets and then some, but Diz rates equal attention, so if you haven’t spent sufficient time listening to and reflecting on the music of the trumpeter who helped change the sound of jazz, start here (TT).
Stop press! This week I’m writing two drama columns for The Wall Street Journal, one today and the other on Friday as usual. Today’s special column is devoted in its entirety to the American premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll:
Part of what makes “Rock ‘n’ Roll” a tough nut is that it’s really two related plays that are woven together like a double helix and stuffed into a single giant-sized package. Both begin in 1968, the year when idealistic Czech reformers tugged too hard on their reins and were ruthlessly slapped down by the Kremlin, which sent Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. Play No. 1 is about Max (Brian Cox), a left-wing Cambridge don of a certain age who has remained faithful to the Communist Party and its long-deferred dream of a Marxist utopia even though he’s been “kicked in the guts by nine tenths of anything you can tell me about Soviet Russia.” Play No. 2 is about Jan (Rufus Sewell), Max’s prize pupil, a seemingly cool-headed realist who returns to his native Czechoslovakia in the hope of saving “socialism with a human face,” then finds himself swept up in the spring tide of resistance to Soviet rule.
Philosophical materialism is the tie that binds the two halves of “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (as well as making it a quasi-epilogue to “The Coast of Utopia”). Like all good Marxists, Max rejects the notion that man has a soul separate and distinct from his body: “The brain is a biological machine for thinking. If it wasn’t for the merely technical problem of understanding how it works, we could make one out of–beer cans.” But his wife Eleanor (portrayed with searing passion by Sinead Cusack), who is dying by inches of cancer, knows better: “They’ve cut, cauterized and zapped away my breasts, my ovaries, my womb, half my bowel, and a nutmeg out of my brain, and I am undiminished, I’m exactly who I’ve always been. I am not my body. My body is nothing without me….I don’t want your ‘mind’ which you can make out of beer cans. Don’t bring it to my funeral. I want your grieving soul or nothing.”…
“Rock ‘n’ Roll” is the first Tom Stoppard play I’ve seen that felt too long, perhaps because the scenes set in Czechoslovakia too often suggest a cross between a historical pageant and a finger-wagging lecture on the horrors of Communism….
Yet even so, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” succeeds in touching the heart while stimulating the mind, and in Ms. Cusack, who plays the tricky double role of Eleanor and her daughter Esme with awe-inspiring aplomb, it has a star worthy of its best pages. I wasn’t altogether satisfied by it, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world–and neither should you.
So you want to read the whole thing? Buy a copy of this morning’s Journal–or get smart and go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you one-stop access to all of the Journal‘s arts coverage, my drama column included. (If you’re already a subscriber to the Online Journal, the column is here.)
Mrs. T remained under the weather throughout our honeymoon, and though she managed to stay afloat long enough to see Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob, and People’s Light & Theatre with me, she ran out of steam the next morning. Instead of bringing her back to Manhattan, I drove her all the way from Philadelphia to her mother’s house in Connecticut, where we reluctantly parted company. She went straight to bed and saw her doctor the next day, while I drove back to New York, arriving in time to catch a press preview of Pygmalion, knock out a drama column, and keep a long-standing appointment with six NEA Arts Journalism Institute fellows.
Two days later I went to the opening of William Bailey’s exhibition at Betty Cuningham Gallery. This wasn’t the first time I’d attended such an event, but it was my first one in Manhattan’s meat-packing district, which in recent years has become a magnet for artists, dealers, and scenesters of all sorts.
Whatever the opposite of a scenester is, that’s me, but I’d written the catalogue essay for the Bailey show, meaning that I was invited to the post-reception dinner. In addition to being curious about life after hours in the meat-packing district, I’d never met Bailey and wanted to know what he was like in person, so I put on my Black Outfit and headed downtown, nervous but game.
Betty Cuningham Gallery is a large-roomed space with gleaming white walls, all of which had one or two paintings hung on them. Each room was packed with interestingly dressed people, none of whom appeared to be looking at the paintings. Instead they were facing inward, sipping white wine and talking nineteen to the dozen about whatever it is that scenesters talk about. (I’m still not sure.) It goes without saying that I’ve attended more than my share of musical and theatrical events to which nobody was paying attention. Ned Rorem, if memory serves, once defined a concert as “that which precedes the party.” Even so, it’s customary to at least give the appearance of paying attention to the events taking place on stage. Gallery openings, it turns out, are different: nobody even bothers to pretend.
I circled the perimeter of the gallery three times, looking at the paintings with the same fascination and delight I’d felt when I saw them for the first time in Betty’s back room a couple of months earlier. In between I eavesdropped. Nobody was talking about anybody I knew, nor did I recognize anyone I saw. I usually run into friends and acquaintances on Broadway, at concerts, or in nightclubs, and when I go to a ballet or modern-dance performance, I sometimes come away with the impression that I know everybody in the lobby. Not so this time: I’d wandered too far from my beaten paths, and though I had at least as much reason as anyone to be there, I felt like a ghost.
An older man tapped me on the shoulder. “What brings you here?” he cried happily. I was so surprised to be recognized that it took a moment before I realized that I was talking to Albert Kresch.
“I wrote the catalogue essay,” I replied. “And what about you?”
“Oh, I’ve known Bill forever,” he said. “But I didn’t know his show was opening tonight–I was on my way to another gallery and thought I’d look in, and there he was.” He pointed out a tall, shy-looking man standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by admirers. “Aren’t these good paintings?” he said. Then he asked if I’d heard what happened to Larry Salander. All at once I, too, was part of the scene, dressed in black from collar to shoelaces and nattering away about the art world’s scandal du jour with one of my favorite American painters.
A half-hour later I was sitting across from William Bailey at an Italian restaurant around the corner from the gallery, surrounded by strangers who were telling stories about famous painters they’d known. I listened silently, feeling shy and awkward, the way I always feel at parties. But Bailey turned out to be perfectly approachable, and when he learned that I, too, came from Kansas City and loved jazz, the ice was broken. No sooner did I mention that I was writing a biography of Louis Armstrong than the painter sitting next to me told me that he’d known Ruby Braff all his life. My shyness fell away, just as it had when Al Kresch tapped me on the shoulder at the gallery, and I felt at home.
I called Hilary in Connecticut as soon as I got in a cab bound for the Upper West Side. “Did you have fun?” she asked.
“I had a ball. But you know what? It’s true what they say–nobody goes to an opening to look at the paintings.”
(To be continued)
“Grief doesn’t work the way you’d think. It keeps itself to itself, nothing you do has any meaning for it. Doing something is the same as not doing it–grief sucks value out of the world like a bomb sucks out the oxygen. Take the woman to bed; don’t take the woman to bed. What’s the difference?”
Tom Stoppard, Rock ‘n’ Roll