I’ll be talking with Brian Lamb about Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong on C-SPAN’S Q & A tonight at eight p.m. ET and eleven p.m. ET, with a replay on Monday at six a.m. ET.
If you’re not going to be anywhere near a TV set, you can watch the program on your computer by going here.
Archives for January 2010
Yeah, I know, I’m the guy who dumped on Arthur Miller when he died, but exceptio probat regulam, as they say, and the new Broadway revival of A View from the Bridge, as I explain in today’s Wall Street Journal, is something to shout about. Not so, alas, Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies’ new play. Here’s an excerpt from my review.
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Theater offers few pleasures so immediate as the joy of watching a show in which absolutely everything works, all the way from the first line to the final curtain. Gregory Mosher’s revival of “A View from the Bridge,” Arthur Miller’s 1955 play about love and death on the Brooklyn waterfront, is that kind of show, a flaw-free production of a well-made melodrama. The play itself isn’t even slightly profound, but it is, almost alone in Mr. Miller’s oeuvre, largely devoid of pseudo-poetry and wholly to the dramatic point, and Mr. Mosher, who has returned at last to Broadway after a decade-long absence, has staged it with a lean, clean, deceptively soft-spoken intensity that pulls you straight to the edge of your seat and keeps you there until you get up to go home. Fold in the dead-center acting of a first-string cast led by Liev Schreiber and you get a production so hard-hitting that you’ll want to see it twice–assuming that you can get tickets, which I very much doubt.
Regular readers of this column will know that I don’t have much use for Arthur Miller, but I’m happy to make an exception for “A View from the Bridge,” in which he tells the tale of Eddie Carbone (Mr. Schreiber), a middle-aged Italian-American longshoreman who lusts after his young niece (Scarlett Johansson). Unable to sleep with his wife (Jessica Hecht) and tortured by his dark longing for his niece, Eddie informs on her fiancé (Morgan Spector), an illegal immigrant, then finds himself frozen out by his fellow longshoremen, for whom ratting on a buddy is the ultimate, unforgivable sin….
All this is the stuff of old-fashioned verismo opera–so much so that William Bolcom wrote a highly effective musical version of “A View from the Bridge” a decade ago–but Mr. Mosher and his colleagues have opted for understatement instead of red sauce and garlic, in the process vastly strengthening the punch of the play’s bloody climax, a shockingly believable-looking knife fight. It had never occurred to me that you could perform “A View from the Bridge” in a subtle way. Nothing is exaggerated, nothing italicized, nothing blown out of proportion. Instead of being shoved in your face like a pie, the terrible things that happen in the play are simply allowed to happen, the way they do in real life….
I wish I could say something nice about a play that stars Laura Linney, Alicia Silverstone, Eric Bogosian and Brian d’Arcy James. No can do: Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still” is a predictable piece of middle-of-the-road Pulitzer bait that has nothing to recommend it beyond the cast, Daniel Sullivan’s staging and Mr. Beatty’s set, all of which are exemplary.
Mr. Margulies, it seems, has reached the decadent stage in a playwright’s life when he starts writing plays about writers. In “Brooklyn Boy” he told us how hard it is to be a best-selling novelist. Now we get a play that revolves around a pair of tough yet sensitive journalist-lovers (Ms. Linney and Mr. James) who exchange one-liners in a really cool-looking loft (much obliged, Mr. Beatty) and care about the human race so much that they can’t stop covering wars, even though their last visit to Iraq left one of them half-crippled and the other half-crazy….
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Read the whole thing here.
“To hell with all this caution! To hell with this ‘academic’ approach! There are times when nature is dull: change it.”
Stanley Cortez (quoted in Charles Higham, Hollywood Cameramen: Sources of Light)
I last wrote about the late author of The Catcher in the Rye in Commentary in 1987:
V.S. Pritchett once described The Way of All Flesh as “one of the time bombs of literature.” J.D. Salinger’s books have had an equally potent and similarly delayed effect on American culture. The influence of Catcher could be seen as early as the mid-50’s, at the height of the first teen-age revolution, when James Dean and Elvis Presley and Jack Kerouac were on the mind of every right-thinking American teen. And the earliest children of the baby boom responded with equal fervor a few years later to Salinger’s seductive invitation to join what Mary McCarthy has aptly called “the world of insiders.” Salinger became their very own author, a hip guru whose Zen-flavored gospel of youthful authenticity and neurotic rebellion was presumably unintelligible to the unfeeling adult world.
All demographic accidents have unforeseen consequences, and one of the most unlikely cultural outcomes of the baby boom has been the survival of Holden Caulfield into the age of Ronald Reagan. That Salinger’s work would have an enduring appeal for the baby boomers was predictable. He is, after all, their Glenn Miller. His books, like Mrs. Glass’s “consecrated chicken soup,” are a kind of literary comfort food for bruised veterans of the Big Chill….
I haven’t thought about Salinger, or felt moved to reread any of his work, since then. It will be interesting to see how long his books survive him–and us.
P.S. How strange it is to realize that Salinger and Louis Auchincloss were nearly the same age!
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) 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.
• Fela! * (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• God of Carnage (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)
• Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
• The Orphans’ Home Cycle, Parts 1 and 2 (drama, G/PG-13, too complicated for children, now being performed in rotating repertory with third part of cycle, extended through May 8, reviewed here and here)
• Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)
“I don’t really like actors much–I mean, I like having dinner with them, but working is another matter.”
David Lean (quoted in Simon Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor)
Louis Auchincloss, who has died at the august age of 92, was a novelist whom I admired, albeit with significant reservations.
Auchincloss hit the high C once, with The Rector of Justin. Only one of his other novels, The Embezzler, has anything like the focus and intensity of that excellent book, and it runs a distant second. His other novels are watery by comparison, so much so that it’s tempting to call him a man of one book, though in fact he wrote many books, all of them serious and well crafted and not a few of them gratifyingly readable. Still, it’s no mean thing to write even one novel of significance, and The Rector of Justin, to my mind, definitely qualifies.
I wrote about Auchincloss twice, in 1993 and 1995. Here’s some of what I had to say on those two occasions:
Rarely is it possible to single out the stupidest thing ever written about someone, but in the case of Louis Auchincloss, the booby prize undoubtedly goes to a piece published a quarter-century ago in the New York Review of Books. The author, boggling at the undeniable fact that Auchincloss’ novels are all about New York’s moneyed families, wrote, “I can believe the upper class is human…but fiction seems the wrong medium for the privileged life, which belongs, if anywhere, in the spreads of Country Life or the New York Times society page, or in the moments of awed intrusion that TV likes to purvey.” So long, Henry James! Bye-bye, Marcel Proust!…
Auchincloss is worth reading about not only because he is a good writer but also because his life is so perfectly emblematic of the class that writer-director Whit Stillman, in the movie Metropolitan, called the “UHB”–urban haute bourgeoisie. Auchincloss attended Groton School, Yale University and the University of Virginia Law School, put in a couple of years at Sullivan & Cromwell, served with distinction in World War II, returned to New York to find a place in the trusts and estates department of Hawkins, Delafield & Wood, married well and lived happily ever after. His only deviation from form was a passion for literature that led him to do something wildly uncharacteristic for a white-shoe lawyer: He became a part-time professional writer.
Auchincloss broke into print two years after the war and since that time has turned out roughly a book a year. He writes about what he knows: “I especially want to portray things into which I’ve been fortunate enough to gain insight, that is, the decline of a class. WASPs have not lost their power, but they have lost their monopoly on power.”
All his novels and short stories deal in one way or another with this theme, so much so that many critics have been put off by his exclusive interest in the WASP world–or, to be more exact, by his comparatively untroubled acceptance of its imperatives: “I have always suffered from the suspicion not so much that I write about the wrong people (look at the success of [John] O’Hara and [John P.] Marquand!) but that I write about the wrong people in the wrong way. Perhaps I tend to accept the status quo more than seems acceptable.”
This is a shrewd remark, and it suggests one possible reason why Auchincloss has never written an absolutely first-rate novel: He seems too happy. After a successful round of psychoanalysis (apparently there are such things) in the early fifties, Auchincloss accepted himself without reservation. If this account of his life is accurate, he is an obsession-free, comparatively uncomplicated man whose urge to write is rooted more in his desire to record the splendors and miseries of a social class than in any private passions of his own.
It is surely no coincidence that Auchincloss’s best novel, the 1964 The Rector of Justin, deals with the only episode in his life that appears to have scarred him: his years at Groton. In The Rector of Justin, Auchincloss fuses his cold-eyed inside knowledge of how the world of privilege really works with his angry memories of “being back amid the varnished walls surrounded by boys who are waiting to kill the smallest aspiration.” The result is a novel of considerable power and insight, perhaps the best thing ever written about the American prep school ethos….
He will be missed.
A couple of weeks ago I spent an hour talking about Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong with Brian Lamb of C-SPAN at the network’s studios in Washington, D.C. It was, I said at the time, the best interview I’ve ever done with anyone on any subject–thorough, challenging, well-informed, impeccably fair. Now you can see for yourself. My appearance on C-SPAN’S Q & A will be telecast twice this coming Sunday, at eight p.m. ET and eleven p.m. ET, with a replay on Monday at six a.m. ET.
If you’re not planning to be anywhere near a TV set on Sunday, you’ll also be able to watch my C-SPAN interview on your computer via streaming video by going here.
Incidentally, I’ll be announcing the subject of my next book during the interview.