Politics makes artists stupid. Take “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” the one-woman play cobbled together from the diaries, emails and miscellaneous scribblings of the 23-year-old left-wing activist who was run over by an Israeli Army bulldozer in 2003 while protesting the demolition of a Palestinian house in the Gaza Strip. Co-written and directed by Alan Rickman, one of England’s best actors, “Rachel Corrie” just opened Off Broadway after a successful London run. It’s an ill-crafted piece of goopy give-peace-a-chance agitprop—yet it’s being performed to cheers and tears before admiring crowds of theater-savvy New Yorkers who, like Mr. Rickman himself, ought to know better....
The cancellation of last season’s New York Theatre Workshop production of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” triggered a noisy row in the New York theater community, many of whose members jumped to the not-unreasonable conclusion that the producers were cravenly bowing to backstage pressure from donors who found the play’s politics obnoxious. As a result, the belated opening of “Rachel Corrie” at the Minetta Lane Theatre has had the predictable result of bringing it far more attention than it would otherwise have received.
That’s the only lesson to be drawn from this exercise in theatrical ineptitude....
If you want to see real artists turning complex ideas into compelling theater, pay a visit to the New Group’s revival of Jay Presson Allen’s stage version of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” a slicked-up, simplified version of Muriel Spark’s darkly comic 1962 novella that nonetheless manages to suggest more than a few of the book’s multiple layers of moral ambiguity. The play ran for a year on Broadway but hasn’t been seen there since 1968—the film, for which Maggie Smith won a best-actress Oscar, is much better remembered—so it is good to welcome it back to the New York stage, especially in so intelligent and incisive a production....
To be sure, Cynthia Nixon is miscast as Miss Brodie, the high-handed Scottish schoolteacher whose romantic streak leads her to embrace fascism. Imperiousness is not in Ms. Nixon’s line, and she has opted instead to play Miss Brodie as a coquette, an interpretation no more plausible than her Scotch accent. Nevertheless, she’s a fine actress, and even though her performance isn’t at all right, she mostly manages to make it work....
No free link. To read the whole thing, buy a copy of this morning's Journal and turn to the “Weekend Journal” section, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to the complete text of my review, plus many other good things. (If you’re already a subscriber, you’ll find it here.)
P.S. Maud went to see The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with me. To find out what she thought of it, go here.
UPDATE:The Wall Street Journal has posted a free link to the first half of this week’s drama column, in which I discuss My Name Is Rachel Corrie. To read it, go here.
Hugs and kisses to the many readers who responded promptly to last week’s queries, much obliged. Herewith, the answers.
• Did Art Blakey really say this?
Jazz is known all over the world as an American musical art form and that's it. No America, no jazz. I've seen people try to connect it to other
countries, for instance to Africa, but it doesn't have a damn thing to do
He sure did. The source is the interview with Blakey published in Art Taylor’s book Notes and Tones.
• Did Betty Comden and Adolph Green really write a song whose lyrics succinctly summarized famous books? Yes, indeed. It’s a revue number called “Reader’s Digest.” Nobody came up with the complete lyrics, but here are some pertinent excerpts:
Jean Valjean, no evildoer,
Stole some bread ‘cause he was poor.
A detective chased him through a sewer.
Henrik Willem Van Loon’s Story of Mankind:
The rule was eat or you'll get ate.
Man came along and stood up straight.
Gone With the Wind:
Scarlett O'Hara's a spoiled pet,
She wants everything that she can get.
The one thing she can't get is Rhett.
For the record, the other books “digested” in the song are Romeo and Juliet, War and Peace, Mein Kampf, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and the complete works of Sigmund Freud.
George Hunka (a/k/a Mr. Superfluities) and Isaac Butler (a/k/a Mr. Parabasis) are two of the smartest theater bloggers around. They are also gifted theater professionals, and I just got back from the opening night of their latest collaboration. In Public is a play written by George and directed by Isaac. This is its second off-off-Broadway production. I saw the premiere a year ago and was impressed. I found it even more impressive this time around.
In Public is the dark, discomfiting tale of two uneasily married couples whose lives become entangled. George describes it this way:
In Public is a play about two married couples over a long weekend in which desires may or may not be fulfilled; we don't know, since it's played out in public spaces; we're not allowed into their private spheres, either of the couples or of the individual characters themselves. So we interpret: We decide what we can know about them based on their very stylized, self-consciously constructed public characters. Sometimes the persona doesn't match the true self (which is always undergoing renovation) at all; sometimes it matches the self to a considerable depth and extent. It's also about how much we choose to open ourselves to our closest partners and to near-complete strangers, and the personal risks involved in each kind of contact.
That’s a very intellectual-sounding statement, as well it should be, George being a very serious intellectual. Yet one of the most striking things about In Public is that it’s really funny—but in a way that makes you snicker and squirm at the same time. This is a play full of unnerving silences that crackle with unspoken anger, then are filled by uncomfortable laughter. Isaac has staged it with cool, crisp simplicity, and the five superb actors who make up the cast each give sharply individual performances that stick in the mind. Best of all is Jennifer Gordon Thomas, a remarkable performer who has great things ahead of her.
In Public is the first production of theatre minima, a new ensemble founded by George Hunka with “the intent of stripping the theatre to its essential elements—the living body and the spoken word.” It runs through next Tuesday at manhattantheatresource. I recommend it enthusiastically.
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows 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.
"'All the world's a stage,' of course, but a metaphor as general as that loses all its meaning. Only a second-rate actor could have written such a line out of pride in his second-rate calling. There were occasions when Shakespeare was a very bad writer indeed. You can see how often in books of quotations. People who like quotations love meaningless generalizations."
Too much to do! Not enough time! Yesterday was bad, today will be worse, and I'm leaving town tomorrow, not for fun (though I expect to have some anyway).
Expect no postings today. Not from me, anyway. Are you out there, OGIC?
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Anyone whose job is writing and who has time and energy left over to do this blogorama needs to have his Check Engine codes read out. On the other hand, anyone who likes the 1943 recording of Wild Bill Davison doing "That's A-Plenty" can't be all that bad.
You got me, pal. I think I'll knock off for twenty minutes and go listen to some righteous jazz.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 18, 2006 | Permanent
"Understand once and for all that I am not interested in economy. I am over seventy-five, so that it is unlikely I will live longer than another twenty-five years. My money is my own and I do not intend to save for the sake of an heir. I made many economies in my youth and they were fairly painless because they young do not particularly care for luxury. They have other interests than spending and can make love satisfactorily on a Coca-Cola, a drink which is nauseating in age. They have little idea of real pleasure: even their love-making is apt to be hurried and incomplete. Luckily in middle age pleasure begins, pleasure in love, in wine, in food."
Graham Greene, Travels With My Aunt
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 18, 2006 | Permanent
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
TT: For the record
Here’s a line from Thursday’s Wall Street Journal that caught my eye. The author is referring to the announcement of the finalists for this year’s National Book Awards:
Judges chose, and presumably read, from 1,259 books submitted by publishers.
Readers with long memories won’t need to be reminded of the reason for that skeptical “presumably,” but for the benefit of those who have better things to do than read everything Michael Kinsley writes, he’s to blame.
As for me, I was one of the judges for the 2003 nonfiction award, and wrote about the selection process here:
We considered 436 books (some of them very, very briefly, but they all got talked about at some point in the past few months). We never raised our voices, never argued with one another, never got angry. Our deliberations were civilized, collegial, and great fun. When we met yesterday afternoon to make our final selection, it was the first time all five of us had been in the same room at once—we mostly deliberated via e-mail and in conference calls—and the atmosphere, far from being tense, was positively festive.
In case I didn’t make myself clear, let me say unequivocally that I read some of all 436 books. I don’t claim to have read all of them, or all of most of them, or very much of some of them—but, then, anyone who’s reviewed a book knows that you don’t have to read very far in certain books to know that they’re no damn good.
I might add that I haven’t read a single one of this year’s finalists, though two of them are on my list of books I’d like to read. (In fact, I hadn’t even heard of most of them.) Alas, those who write for a living must ration their literary intake severely! Besides, now that I no longer review books other than occasionally, I find it an incredible luxury to be able to read only what interests me, and nothing more. Time is a lovely thing to waste—so long as you get to decide how to waste it.
I spent most of last week deep in the woods of Connecticut, where I worked on Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. When not clicking away at the laptop, I watched In Cold Blood (about which more later in the week), Journey into Fear, The Lady from Shanghai, and Our Man in Havana, read Simon Callow’s Orson Welles: Hello Americans, Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, Chester Himes’ Blind Man With a Pistol, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Patrick Süskind's Perfume, and ate a bisonburger at a bikers’ hangout called (incongruously) the Vanilla Bean Café where the yuppie-style food is tasty and the clientele…er, unlikely.
I emerged from hiding long enough to make a side trip to Amherst College, where I gave a lecture called “The Critic as Moralist” in which I varied a few of my favorite themes:
In writing about art, I don’t moralize, nor do I look with favor upon artists who do. In fact, I regard it as a major part of my job to be on the lookout for people who prefer moralizing to beauty, no matter what disguise they may happen to be wearing. Such folk are ever and always with us, perhaps never more so than at the present moment, when beauty is besieged the world over by a two-pronged army of totalitarians and utilitarians, the first of whom wish to enlist art in the service of politics and the second of whom seek to seduce its creators with the promise of profit beyond the dreams of avarice.
While at Amherst I visited the Mead Art Museum, a teaching museum whose best-known piece is Robert Henri’s Salome. The permanent collection isn’t all that striking, but the Mead makes the most of what it has, especially the first-class Joseph Cornell box displayed in a vitrine placed next to a floor-to-ceiling window through which you can see a slice of the Berkshire Mountains, a real-life landscape that contrasts delightfully with Cornell’s imaginary world. I went there to check out George Bellows: A Ringside Seat, a smart little exhibition devoted mostly to lithographs and works on paper, though I was no less impressed by “Gifts from the Ebb Tide” and the World of Kitagawa Utamaro, which made me feel—not for the first time—that I really need to start teaching myself about Japanese art.
I would have been more than happy to spend another week in Connecticut—I never have enough time to spend on Hotter Than That in New York—but duty called, so I dutifully returned home to catch a preview of My Name Is Rachel Corrie and prepare for the coming week. This morning I'm off to the Metropolitan Museum for the press view of Americans in Paris, 1860-1900. (Will you be there, CultureGrrl? If so, peel an eye for me.) On Tuesday I’ll be talking to the fellows of the NEA’s third annual Arts Journalism Institute about the new media and the fine arts. On Thursday I head back up to Connecticut to poke my head into the Wadsworth Atheneum and see Hartford Stage’s production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, about which I hear very interesting buzz. On Sunday I return to New York for a press preview of Butley, Nathan Lane’s new show. Whew!
That reminds me: I dreamed last Friday that I lost $214,000 playing poker with Nathan Lane, who promptly sold my marker to the mob. Go figure.
"One's life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand. Even if we have the happy chance to fall in love, it is because we have been conditioned by what we have read, and if I had never known love at all, perhaps it was because my father's library had not contained the right books."
It’s me again, back in The Wall Street Journal with another edition of “Sightings,” my new biweekly column about the arts. The subject, needless to say, is Harold Pinter:
Nothing could have been less unexpected than the news that Harold Pinter had won the Nobel Prize for literature. The only surprise was that he deserved it—which probably wasn't why he got it.
That Mr. Pinter is a distinguished writer is beyond doubt. To be sure, we haven't seen much of his work on Broadway in recent years, but the Roundabout Theatre Company's 2003 revival of "The Caretaker" (1960), a dark comedy about a tramp and two brothers who share a rundown house, served as a valuable reminder that while his opaque, elliptical style has long since hardened into mannerism, Mr. Pinter really did earn his reputation as one of the key voices in postwar British drama. Even Noël Coward, who had no use whatsoever for trendy theatrical innovation, was impressed by his ability to stir up profoundly unsettling emotions through the simplest of means. "'The Caretaker,' on the face of it, is everything I hate most in the theatre—squalor, repetition, lack of actions, etc.—but somehow it seizes hold of you," he wrote in his diary. "Nothing happens except that somehow it does."
Alas, I must confess to suspecting the motives of the members of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, which awards the literature prize each October…
No link. To read the whole thing, buy a copy of the Saturday Journal and turn to the “Pursuits” section, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, a decision for which you won’t be sorry.
UPDATE: The Journal has posted a free link to this piece. To read the whole thing, go here.
Friday again, and time for this week’s Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. Today I reviewed three plays, one off-off-Broadway production (The Caterers) and two out-of-town shows (King Lear in Boston and Leading Ladies in Washington, D.C.). I gave all three a thumbs-up:
Talk about timely: I saw “The Caterers,” Jonathan Leaf’s new play about an Islamic terrorist and his three hostages, a British filmmaker and a pair of Jewish caterers, a couple of hours after Mayor Bloomberg warned New Yorkers of a possible terrorist assault on the local subway system. The news was still so hot that I had trouble getting a cab to the theater—and “The Caterers” is so nightmarishly believable a portrait of terrorism in action that the friend with whom I saw it had a panic attack when it was over.
Part of my friend’s anxiety arose from the fact that “The Caterers” is being performed by a very fine cast (Judith Hawking is especially strong) in an Off-Off Broadway theater small enough that you can smell the powder whenever Mohammed (Brian Wallace) fires his pistol. But Mr. Leaf’s play, which was inspired by a real-life incident, is wholly plausible in its own right…
Alvin Epstein is best known in Manhattan for his appearances in the plays of Samuel Beckett. He first attracted attention a half-century ago in the Broadway premiere of “Waiting for Godot” and was most recently heard from this February in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s splendid revival of “Endgame.” Now he’s up in Boston, guesting with the Actors’ Shakespeare Project in the best “King Lear” I’ve ever seen on stage….
I have a weakness for the vanilla-ice-cream farces of Ken Ludwig, the latest of which, “Leading Ladies,” is now playing at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre (yes, that Ford’s Theatre). As usual with Mr. Ludwig, this tale of Clark & Gable (Ian Kahn and JD Cullum), two fourth-rate Shakespearean actors who dress up in drag to swindle a small-town heiress (Karen Ziemba) out of an inheritance, is silly, sentimental and efficient to a fault, the fault being that you can see the denouement coming two miles off.
Fortunately, “Leading Ladies” is also funny in a sweet, old-fashioned way that may not have much to do with its purported genre (Mr. Ludwig is too nice a guy to write six-door farce, which thrives on unbridled cruelty) but is agreeable all the same….
As usual, no link. To read the whole thing, buy a copy of this morning’s Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, Web-based journalism’s best bargain.
UPDATE: The Journal has just posted a free link to this review. Go here to read the whole thing.
2. I got up at six-thirty to write my “Sightings” column for Saturday’s Wall Street Journal.
3. At nine-fifteen, just as I was starting to draft the last sentence of the column, I received a terse e-mail from Eric Gibson, my editor at the Journal: “Think we need you to comment on Pinter's Nobel for Sightings stedda agreed topic. Can do?”
4. “Pinter’s Nobel?” I said to myself, puzzled.
5. I checked the wires and found out that Harold Pinter had just won the Nobel Prize for literature.
6. Oaths were uttered.
7. I put aside Column No. 1 and spent the next five hours drafting and polishing Column No. 2.
8. My assistant showed up fifteen minutes early for an afternoon work session, only to discover that I’d been so busy working on Column No. 2 that I never got around to putting my clothes on. (Yes, she has keys.)
9. More oaths were uttered.
10. I got dressed, quickly.
11. The column got finished and filed shortly thereafter.
What would you do if you knew you had only a day to live? A week? A year? If a piece of unfinished work rested reproachfully on your desk, would you feel obliged to finish it? If you knew you couldn’t get it done in the time remaining, would you try to do as much as you could? Or would you put it aside, smiling wryly at the vanity of human wishes, and spend your last hours communing with better minds than your own?...
I mentioned the other day that I'd bought an etching by Hans Hofmann, the great abstract-expressionist painter and teacher whose work I love (you can read all about him in Jed Perl’s New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century). What’s especially striking about this etching, at least from my point of view, is that it’s one of only three figurative works of art out of the two dozen pieces in the Teachout Museum, and the only one in which the subject’s face is fully visible. Milton Avery’s March at a Table is a portrait of March, the artist’s daughter, but her face is concealed, and in Pierre Bonnard’s Femme assise dans sa bagnoire, Marthe, the artist's mistress, has turned her head away from the viewer. Since people who buy art normally buy what they like (unless they’re snobs or investment-oriented collectors), I always took it for granted that my unconscious avoidance of the human face said something significant about me. But I never did figure out what it was, and in any case my purchase of “Woman’s Head” presumably says something no less significant.
The woman in question, by the way, is a most interesting piece of work—pensive, not conventionally “beautiful” by any conventional definition of the word, and yet I can’t take my eyes off her. It’s been that way ever since I first saw her on line (I bought “Woman’s Head” from a Florida auction house). I couldn't have told you why I found her so irresistibly fascinating, but I did, and do.
a biography of Maria Callas four years ago for the New York Times. This is part of what I wrote:
Thelonious Monk, no stranger to paradox, once wrote a splintery, deliberately awkward jazz waltz to which he gave the title ''Ugly Beauty.'' He could have written it with Maria Callas in mind. A jolie laide with hard, bony features and a startlingly long nose, she contrived through sheer force of will to persuade audiences that she was a great beauty with an even greater voice. It was, of course, a con job. Her technique was full of holes, and the voice itself was more than a little bit peculiar-sounding, thick and foggy and apt to crash through the guardrails with no warning. The wobbly high C she sings in her 1955 recording
of ''O patria mia,'' the big soprano aria from the third act of Aida, is one of the scariest moments in all of recorded opera—it sounds as if someone had grabbed her from behind and was shaking her like a cocktail.
The beauty of Callas's voice was so strangely proportioned that some very discerning people simply cannot hear it…
No doubt some of my friends will be just as puzzled when they first see the ugly beauty who now makes her home in my living room. Nor will I try to persuade them that she’s pretty, because she isn’t. All I know is that I decided the moment I saw her that I couldn’t live without her. Love is like that.
Several readers wrote to comment on yesterday’s posting about how the phrase No problem has replaced You’re welcome as a response to thanks. Here's some of what some of them said:
• “The thing I detest down here [North Carolina]
is when you ask a salesperson if they have a three-handled widget and
he/she cheerfully says, ‘Sure don't.’ As if happy not to be able to
• “Wouldn't the more exact English-language equivalent to ‘de nada’ be the old-fashioned ‘Think nothing of it’? It may be antiquated, but that seems to nicely express the humility you're talking about. It may be two syllables longer, but let's bring it back!”
• “Going back at least to the 50's the Minnesotan/Iowan and other Upper Mid-West response to ‘thank you’ was ‘you bet.’ Explain that one."
You never know when you’re going to touch a nerve!
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated each Thursday. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
BROADWAY: • Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Dirty Rotten Scoundrels* (musical, R, extremely vulgar, reviewed here)
• Doubt* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• Fiddler on the Roof (musical, G, one scene of mild violence but otherwise family-friendly, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, reviewed here)
• Sweet Charity (musical, PG-13, lots of cutesy-pie sexual content, 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)
I awoke very early this morning, took a look at our world map, and saw that “About Last Night” was being read in Australia, China, the Czech Republic, France, Great Britain, India, Iran, Israel, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Spain, and Ukraine.
Hello out there!
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 12, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Spending the night with Frank Lloyd Wright
I’m in The Wall Street Journal today, where you’ll find my description of what it's like to spend the night in two rentable houses that were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright:
For all their essential similarities, Wright’s houses affect their occupants in very different ways. The Peterson Cottage, built in 1959 on the edge of an isolated, heavily wooded bluff overlooking Wisconsin’s Mirror Lake, is so tranquil and serene that I felt as though I could sit in meditative silence by its great sandstone hearth for hours on end. The 3,000-square-foot Schwartz House, on the other hand, is located in a built-up residential neigborhood and has the friendly, slightly down-at-heel look of a place that has been occupied by children ever since it was built in 1939. To put it another way, the Peterson Cottage feels like a work of art, the Schwartz House like a comfortable home that just happens to be heart-stoppingly beautiful….
No link, so if you want to read the whole thing, buy a copy of this morning’s Journal (price, one dollar) or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, than which you’ll search long and far to find a better bargain.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 12, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• Collecting art changes your relationship to art objects in all sorts of ways, some of them surprising. In my own case, it’s had an unforeseen effect on my fantasy life. Before I started buying art, I dreamed of owning such pricey objects as, say, a Degas pastel or a Matisse cutout, none of which I could hope to acquire without first taking up a new line of work (bank robbery, say). Now my wildest dreams have become considerably more practical: I’ll never be able to afford a Cézanne watercolor, for example, but it’s within the realm of remote possibility that I might someday be able to scrape together enough cash to bid on one of his color lithographs.
The simplest way to sum up this shift in perception is to define it as the difference between five- and six-figure fantasies. Not that I can easily imagine myself shelling out a five-figure sum for a painting or print—I’ve never spent anything remotely close to that on a piece of art—but it’s not wholly inconceivable, a fact that lends a touch of savor to my newly “realistic” dreams of future acquisitions. Will I ever add a Cornell box or Morandi etching
to the Teachout Museum? Probably not, but I might, just as I might run off one day with the most beautiful woman I know. (Wipe that smirk off your face, love.) No, it’s not likely, but it’s a hell of a lot more imaginable than my running off with Kristin Chenoweth, right?
• When did No problem! replace You’re welcome, sir in the vocabulary of Americans under the age of forty? Though I can see how it must have happened—it’s clearly a vulgarization of De nada—the implications of the two expressions are subtly but significantly different. To gracefully turn away thanks by saying “It was nothing” is…well, graceful. To bray “No problem!” is to invite the listener to infer that you haven’t been put out in the slightest by his request for help, and wouldn’t care to be. I guess that’s democracy in action, right?
Speaking of exasperation-provoking clichés, I’d like a word with the originator of the piece of folk wisdom so commonly dished up to singletons no longer actively seeking a companion: Ah, but that’s the best way to find one. Could this, too, be a vulgarization of a foreign idea—a watered-down Zen koan, perhaps? Or might it have insinuated its way into the common stock of received wisdom by way of some banal twelve-step slogan as yet unknown to me? Whatever the source, it’s the second most irritating piece of well-intended reassurance I know.
The first? That’s easy: It’s safer than driving! If you like your front teeth, better keep that one to yourself.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 12, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Try it
Thomas Waller, universally known as “Fats” for self-evident reasons, is one of the few great jazz musicians who was for a time popular with the public at large, though not for his hugely influential piano playing. In the Thirties and Forties, Waller led a combo billed as “Fats Waller and His Rhythm” that featured his maniacally gleeful singing of ephemeral pop songs. (This is my attempt to transcribe his vocal on “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.”) Waller’s eye-rollingly comic side has always made priggish critics squirm, but it was in fact central to both his character and his artistry. Had he never sung a note, he’d still be remembered for the poise and fluidity of such unaccompanied piano solos as the exquisite “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” but it is because of his life-enhancing singing that he was—and is—beloved.
Most anthologies of classic jazz recordings appear to have been put together on the how-could-they-possibly-have-left-that-one-out principle, but the aptly named The Quintessence: New York-Camden-Los Angeles 1929-1943 (Frémeaux & Associés FA 207, two CDs) really is just as advertised, containing thirty-six unerringly chosen tracks that comprise between them the quintessence of Fats Waller as both singer and pianist. If you can listen to “Baby Brown,” “Sweet and Slow,” or “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew” without breaking out in an ear-to-ear smile, you might as well button up your hair shirt and stick to Machaut or Tori Amos. God didn’t mean for you to be happy.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 12, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Number, please
• Robert Mitchum's weekly salary in 1944 as a first-year contract player for RKO: $350
(Source: Lee Server, Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care")
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 12, 2005 | Permanent
"Pictorial life is not imitated life; it is, on the contrary, a created reality based on the inherent life within every medium of expression. We have only to awaken it."
Hans Hofmann, Search for the Real
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 12, 2005 | Permanent
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
TT: Words to the wise
Julia Dollison has put out her first CD, Observatory. I wrote the liner notes:
“There’s this singer I want you to meet. She’s really, really good.” I must hear at least three variations per month on that tired old theme, but when Maria Schneider spoke those words to me five years ago, I took them seriously. What kind of jazz singer, I asked myself, would be interesting enough to catch the ear of the outstanding big-band composer of her generation?
Here’s the answer.
It starts with the voice: warm, airy, dappled with summer sunshine, technically bulletproof from top to bottom. (Check out those honking low notes in “Your Mind Is on Vacation.”) Such voices are born, not made, and Julia Dollison has one. Yet she never coasts on her chops. Instead, she sings like a horn player in love with lyrics, the way Lester Young knew all the words to every ballad he played. Her solos are pointed and meaningful, little musical stories that take you to places you’ve never been.
Then comes the style, an alchemical blend of jazz and pop that makes Harold Arlen and Rufus Wainwright sound not like strange bedfellows but the oldest of friends. Don’t call it “fusion,” though: that might smack of calculation, and there’s nothing calculated about Julia’s singing. She grew up listening to all kinds of music, and now she just sings what she hears, naturally and unselfconsciously.
Did I mention the arrangements? Actually, that’s not quite the right word for her root-and-branch deconstructions of standards. They pass through her mind like light through a prism, emerging refracted and transformed. “In a Mellotone” is nudged into a joltingly ironic minor key, while “Night and Day” is superimposed atop a Coltrane-like harmonic steeplechase. “All the Things You Are” becomes a spacious, Latin-flavored soundscape decorated with the pastel washes of overdubbed vocals that are Julia’s trademark.
Her own beautifully crafted songs contain the same surprising twists and turns, and their presence here, far from being an indulgence, is an indispensable part of the large-scale compositional scheme of Observatory. For this is no mere string of unrelated tunes but a painstakingly wrought musical self-portrait, one whose organic unity is embodied in the sonic collage with which the album begins. Its meaning is revealed bit by bit and song by song, then made fully manifest at the end, like Rosebud in Citizen Kane.
It says a lot about Julia that she chose to record her first album not with a supportive, semi-anonymous journeyman pianist but in the perilously fast company of Ben Monder, the avant-garde jazz guitarist whose obliquely tilted solos have long been one of the brightest colors in Maria Schneider’s palette. Monder is a major instrumental voice in and of his own right, and his powerfully individual playing could easily have blown a lesser singer right out of the studio. Instead, Julia floats serenely above it like a morning star, wafted aloft by the propulsive yet thoughtful interplay of Matt Clohesy and Ted Poor.
As I watched Observatory take shape, I thought, This isn’t going to be your ordinary debut album. And sure enough, it isn’t. Julia Dollison has something arrestingly new to say. Listen and marvel.
To order Observatory or listen online to excerpts, go here.
"We look to books not only for stimulation but for reassurance. There is no mention in 'By Its Cover' of Edward Gorey and the quiet, hand-lettered, crosshatchy covers he executed in the fifties for Doubleday Anchor books, but they spoke reassuringly, in the fledgling days of the paperback revolution, of dependability. A wealth of previously hard-to-find treasures, from Melville’s 'Redburn' and Gogol’s tales to Kierkegaard’s 'Fear and Trembling' and Stendhal’s long essay on love, were poured into the same staid yet impish mold, the Gorey style of cover."
"Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords: but, like all other pleasures immoderately enjoyed, the excesses of hope must be expiated by pain; and expectations improperly indulged must end in disappointment."
Samuel Johnson (quoted in James Boswell, Life of Johnson)
I've just learned that the great Wayne Booth passed away last night. He was a formidable literary critic and simply a wonderful man. He was as responsible as anyone for my landing in Chicago. Generations of University of Chicago alumni who had the good fortune to be his students will feel this loss acutely. He was the kind of person who commanded enormous respect and just as much affection, and will be greatly missed.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, October 10, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Trains, planes, and automobiles
On Friday I took the night off from my normal playgoing duties and went to hear Nickel Creek at the new Nokia Theatre in Times Square. I brought along Sarah—it was the payoff for having previously subjected her
to a press preview of Lennon—and when the concert was over, she happily agreed that the slate had been wiped clean.
I’ve been talking up Nickel Creek ever since I first wrote about them in the New York Times four years ago:
At 19, 20 and 24, the fiddler Sara Watkins, the mandolinist Chris Thile and the guitarist Sean Watkins (Sara and Sean are brother and sister) are young and cute enough to guest-star in an episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Friendly, giggly and almost alarmingly uncynical, they speak the it’s-like-you-know patois of southern California, where they grew up together and started playing bluegrass as children. If you were to run into them on a crosstown bus, you wouldn’t guess that they play in a musical idiom closely associated with the rural South. But, then, their sophisticated sound isn’t exactly rural—and neither are many of the fans who have bought their debut album, Nickel Creek.
“We play boundaryless music,” Mr. Thile said in an interview during a recent visit to New York, and his bandmates nodded in emphatic agreement.
Like Alison Krauss, the angelic-voiced fiddler who produced Nickel Creek, they blend hard-charging bluegrass with sweetly sung acoustic pop; like Edgar Meyer, the protean bassist-composer who moves from bluegrass to Bach and back again, they write carefully structured instrumental pieces that owe as much to classical music as to country. On stage, they ignite this volatile mixture with a high-energy performance style reminiscent of rock ’n’ roll. The pencil-thin Mr. Thile chops wildly at his amplified mandolin, flapping and flailing like the tail of a kite in a high wind, flanked by the serene, apple-cheeked Ms. Watkins, who bobs with the beat, and her older brother, a no-nonsense fellow who stands stock still while he plays in the sober-sided manner of John Entwistle of the Who….
Sara, Chris, and Sean haven’t changed all that much since I wrote those words, except that their music has grown considerably darker and tougher, as you can hear on their newly released third CD, Why Should the Fire Die? In addition, the influence of Radiohead on their postmodern bluegrass-pop sound is even more apparent now (“We love Radiohead so much it’s stupid,” Chris told the audience on Friday). But they’re as friendly and giggly as ever, and they still put on a devastating live show. As the packed house shrieked over their last encore, I turned to Sarah and said, “I feel like I’ve been to a spa.” And so I did: it had been a hell of a long week and I was dead tired when we arrived at the Nokia, but three hours later I was as fresh as tomorrow’s bread.
A good thing, too, since I took the train to Boston first thing Saturday morning (well, at noon, anyway) to kick off a two-day theatrical sprint. It started with a performance by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project of King Lear starring Alvin Epstein, a legendary veteran of the American stage who co-starred with Bert Lahr, E.G. Marshall, and Kurt Kasznar in the Broadway premiere of Waiting for Godot in 1956, the year I was born. The next morning I took a cab to Logan Airport and flew from there to Washington, where I saw a matinee of Leading Ladies, Ken Ludwig’s new farce, at Ford’s Theatre (yes, that Ford’s Theatre). The cast included, of all people, John Astin (yes, that John Astin). I then hightailed it to Union Station and caught the next train back to New York, arriving just in time to spend a few minutes purring contentedly over the Teachout Museum’s latest acquisition, an etching by Hans Hofmann that I knocked down for an embarrassingly reasonable price, before falling into bed.
And that's how I spent my weekend. How about you?
P.S. I also found time to update the Top Fives (don’t ask when, though). Take a look.
It's not a popular view among my colleagues, but I think most of the best critics—not all, but most—have had at least some professional experience in at least one of the arts about which they write. I know I try to write not as a lofty figure from on high, smashing stone tablets over the heads of ballerinas and prima donnas, but as someone who has spent his entire adult life immersed in the world of art, both as a critic and as a practitioner. I was also fortunate to have served my apprenticeship as a critic in a middle-sized city, because it taught me that criticism is not written in a vacuum. It touches real people, people of flesh and blood, and sometimes it hurts them. If you don't know that—and I mean really know it—you shouldn't be a critic. And you’re more likely to know it when you’ve lived and worked in a city small enough that there's a better-than-even chance of your meeting the people you write about at intermission….
I’m up too late, still buzzing from hearing Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap at the Algonquin. To tranquilize myself preliminary to rapid eye movement, I’m now listening, courtesy of iTunes, to Luciana Souza’s “Doce de Coco,” from Brazilian Duos. Mmmmm….
I reviewed Richard III, Bryony Lavery’s Last Easter, and the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Craig Lucas’ Reckless in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.
Richard III is a bit of of a one-man show, but a good one:
Peter Dinklage, who has never before played a major Shakespearean part, takes on one of the biggest, juiciest ones in the Public Theater’s new production of “Richard III,” and emerges cum laude, if not quite summa. At first glance it may look like a piece of trick casting, with Mr. Dinklage, who is a dwarf (his word), playing the hunchbacked killer-king who’ll do anything to anyone in order to get ahead. But the star of “The Station Agent” is no theatrical stuntman. He’s a magnetic, eye-grabbing actor who just happens to be four-foot-five, and when he strides from the wings, glowers into the middle distance and announces that “I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion…am determined to prove a villain,” you can all but hear the audience shuddering with prospective dread….
To be sure, his inexperience in classical repertory can’t be overlooked. He’s not always comfortable with Shakespeare’s verse, which he sometimes articulates overcarefully, and the upper register of his dark, grainy bass-baritone voice is barely developed. (If you want to hear what a real classical actor sounds like, take note of Isa Thomas’ awesome Queen Margaret.) Perhaps his performance is best regarded for now as a work in progress—but oh, the places he’ll go!
Unlike most of my critical brethren, I gave a rave to Last Easter:
Bryony Lavery, the British playwright who hit the jackpot last season with “Frozen,” crapped out when she was accused of plagiarizing part of that mesmerizing play about a serial killer. (A settlement is reportedly in the works.) Undaunted by the hullabaloo, MCC Theater is now presenting Ms. Lavery’s “Last Easter,” the printed script of which anxiously credits every possible source, up to and including “the wonderful jokers who told me all the jokes.” No matter where she got the jokes, “Last Easter,” which runs through Oct. 23 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is thoroughly watchable, acted by a fine cast and given a pitch-perfect staging by Doug Hughes (who also directed “Frozen”).
Like “Frozen,” “Last Easter” is a problem play that uses its hot topic—euthanasia—as a means, not an end. It’s about June (Veanne Cox), Gash (Jeffrey Carlson), Leah (Clea Lewis) and Joy (Florencia Lozano), four theatrical types who communicate exclusively in brittle, witty repartée, a mode of discourse inadequate to the news that June is dying of breast cancer. Ms. Lavery’s interest is in what happens to her flippant characters when they’re forced to grapple openly with emotions they’d rather smother, and she writes about their struggle with a barbed wit that chops away much (though not all) of “Last Easter”’s potential sentimentality…
Everybody is good in “Last Easter,” but I want to single out Clea Lewis, who endows her adorable-sidekick part with freshness and charm. Winsome can be irksome, but not when Ms. Lewis is dishing it up.
Reckless, alas, got the back of my hand:
Mary-Louise Parker plays Rachel, a revoltingly cheery housewife given to “euphoria attacks” whose husband (Thomas Sadowski) hires a hit man to kill her on Christmas Eve (I would have done the same thing), thus forcing her to keep house with Lloyd (Michael O’Keefe), a social worker whose wife Pooty (Rosie Perez) is pretending to be a paraplegic deaf-mute. The ensuing hijinks are played for screwball comedy, and I heard a certain amount of laughter ricocheting around the theater, so somebody must have found them funny. Alas, I wasn’t on Mr. Lucas’ wavelength, nor did I respond to his predictable swerve into phony profundity at play’s end. Instead, I just sat there and squirmed….
No link. To read the whole thing, go out and buy the damn paper (or click here for a shortcut).
No, this isn't another posting about film noir. I just got back from the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, where I heard a set by Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap that I expect to stay with me for a long, long time.
Stewart is an old pro who slipped between the cracks during the transition from Sinatra-style pop to Beatles-style rock (she got her big break a century or two ago on Perry Como’s TV show). As for her pianist, she said all that needed to be said when she introduced him as “the best of the best…my son.” They played the Oak Room together last fall to delightful and memorable effect, and for their return engagement they’re offering a program of such ultra-standard standards as “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe,” “Just in Time,” and “Nobody Else but Me.” No cutesy-pie surprises, in other words, nor is there anything eccentric or offbeat about Stewart’s uncomplicatedly beautiful singing. Her warm, secure contralto is a shining example of what a singer who lives on her interest instead of squandering her capital can hope to sound like on the far side of middle age. I know plenty of junior-miss vocalists who’d kill to be able to draw out a long, fine-spun pianissimo phrase the way Stewart can. As for her understated but eloquent way with a lyric, it occasionally reminded me of Mabel Mercer—with chops. “Thanks for the singing lesson,” I told her after the show, and she smiled knowingly.
My escort was a singer who is lucky enough to know what it feels like to be accompanied by Bill Charlap, an experience she summed up in five heartfelt words: “He’s the best there is.” The only catch is that if you don’t give of your best all night long, he’ll reach over and eat your lunch right off your plate. His playing on “Dancing on the Ceiling,” for all its self-effacing discretion, was so precise and concentrated that a lesser singer would have vanished in the glow of its iridescent harmonies. It’s a tribute to Sandy Stewart that she glided serenely atop them as though she were sliding down a rainbow.
Stewart and Charlap are at the Oak Room through Saturday. If you’ve never heard cabaret there, you can’t imagine what you’re missing. As I wrote a few years ago in a profile of Wesla Whitfield:
What makes the Oak Room so special? Obviously, the singers who perform there are the heart of the matter, though the room itself contributes significantly to the effect they make. Cabaret is an intimate art, and the 80-seat Oak Room, with its amber sconces and red velvet banquettes, is as up close and personal as a love seat at midnight: there is no finer place to listen to songs of passion and despair. "It's nice singing in a room this small," Whitfield says, "because I get feedback from the people. I know what works—and what doesn't work. When they're bored, you can hear them scrunching up their toes in their shoes. You can get that kind of response in a larger room, but it's very slow, and very limited."
Go, if there’s still room. For more information, click here.
"I have only read Proust in translation. I thought he began well but went dotty half way through like J Joyce in Ulysses. No plan. Nancy [Mitford] says it is uproariously funny throughout & only English & Americans treat it as anything superior to P.G. Wodehouse."
Evelyn Waugh, letter to Margaret FitzHerbert (Aug. 9, 1964)
I appreciate your reviews and your guidance. I must also say that I am so surprised that I agree with you so frequently because my politics are very different.
I hear this kind of thing a lot, by e-mail as well as face to face, and I never quite know what to say in response. I’m sometimes tempted to reply, “I know you think you’re paying me a compliment, and I appreciate your good intentions, but I wish you’d take a closer look at what you just said. I’m surprised that anybody who thinks the way you do about politics could possibly think the way I do about art. Isn’t that what you meant? If so, it’s not complimentary, it’s condescending. Besides, my aesthetic views aren’t governed by my political views. Why should they be? Are yours?”
If this blog has a credo, it is that the personal is not political. Anyone who believes it to be, or tries to persuade other people that it is, will find no comfort here. Needless to say, my own political views are far from secret (or simple), but I check them at the door of “About Last Night.” I think it’s important that there be at least one politics-free space in the blogosphere where people who love art can read about it—and nothing else.
Beyond that, I believe deeply that art and politics are essentially separate enterprises. Essentially, I say, and I chose that word carefully. Of course an artist who lives under a totalitarian regime cannot help but engage with it in some way or other, as Dmitri Shostakovich did in his music. But it’s one thing to seek to evoke the terror of life under Stalin in a symphony and another to write a novel (or paint a painting or choreograph a ballet) whose purpose, whether in part or whole, is to encourage its audience to take some specific form of political action. To do that, as Kingsley Amis has argued, is to compromise the very essence of one’s art:
Everywhere in the world literature is in retreat from politics and unless resisted the one will crush the other. You don’t crush literature from outside by killing writers or intimidating them or not letting them publish, though as we’ve all seen you can make a big fuss and have a lot of fun trying. You do better to induce them to destroy it themselves by inducing them to subordinate it to political purposes...
I can’t say it often enough: first comes experience, then understanding. I don’t think Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is a great piece of music because it’s tonal—I think tonality is valid because it is the basis for great pieces of music like Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. No more would I allow my response to a work of art to be conditioned by my political convictions. If anything, it’s the other way round: my experience of reality, which includes the reality of art, is the ultimate source of my philosophy, from which my political convictions spring. In art, experience is truth, and there is no greater sin than to say, “I know I liked that novel when I first read it, but it can’t be good because it’s inconsistent with my theory of fiction, so I guess I won’t like it anymore.” That’s the trouble with political art and politicized criticism: they start with theory instead of experience. I can’t think of a more efficient way to make bad art.
The only time I engage with political issues as a critic is when I’m covering specifically political art, and even then I always try to start with the immediate experience. Did the play I just saw excite me? Was I moved? Puzzled? Bored? In my experience, most political plays tend to be boring, precisely because the political playwright voluntarily places himself in an ideological straitjacket and thus is rendered incapable of responding freely to the call of inspiration. That leaves me with nothing to talk about but his beliefs, which then become fair game for fisking. On the other hand, I don’t want to write about plays like that, and given the choice I won’t waste time going to see them in the first place. They’re too predictable, and usually too smug as well. (In my lexicon of critical invective, “smug” is the supreme pejorative, worse even than “dull.”)
I’m as imperfect as the next guy, and no doubt I've written a few reviews in which I let my political opinions color my critical responses. But I don’t think it happens very often. I can’t tell you, for instance, how many of my readers are surprised to discover how much I love the films of John Sayles (which at their best seem to me a touchstone of how "political" themes can be treated in an unpoliticized, open-minded way) or the dances of Mark Morris. A fellow critic whom I admire recently described me as “a strong personality—and spectacularly unpredictable.” I myself wouldn’t put it that way: I don’t think unpredictability is a virtue in and of itself, just as I don’t think my aesthetic opinions are arbitrary. Still, I know what he means, and I treasure the compliment, in part because it is a compliment and not condescension in disguise.
My criticism comes with a warranty: I can't promise that you’ll like what I like, but I do promise that I like what I like—and not because I think I ought to, either.
Aleksandar Hemon wrote yesterday in Slate about the
NEA's Operation Homecoming project, which aims to get soldiers returning from service in the Middle East together with authors like Bobbie Ann Mason and Mark Bowden and writing about their experiences there. Hemon's piece seems off-target and, just below the surface, unhelpfully territorial about the arts. Hemon fears Dana Gioia's innovative program will turn out nothing but patriotic fables, and he seems to wish to pre-emptively discredit the participating soldiers' work on this basis. His fear seems unwarranted, though, by anything the NEA has said about the project:
It is impossible to predict what stories will appear in this anthology. Much of it may be personal in importance — a soldier’s or spouse’s attempt to capture and clarify a singularly challenging moment in life. Some of it may rise to literature — vivid accounts of experience that arrest the reader’s attention and linger in the memory. All of it will have historical value as the testimony of men and women who saw the events directly. Operation Homecoming will capture these individual accounts and preserve them for the public record. American letters will be richer for their addition. [my emphasis]
Surely we should wait to judge the program until we see what fruit it bears, no? To my ear, Hemon's piece seems directed less at appraising the potential of the project than at making extra-literary arguments about the U.S. in Iraq. Without actually considering any writing that has come out of them, Hemon treats the workshops as little more than a suspicious-looking arm of an administration he loathes. The whole piece seems animated by paranoia—"What is the real purpose of the project?"—and possessiveness.
Nathalie Chicha is raising excellent questions about some of the dubious literary premises of Hemon's argument over
at Galley Cat:
Hemon's claim reminds of me Stanley Crouch's recent (and widely reviled) attack on The Plot Against America for focusing on anti-Semitism instead of "the brutal anti-black bigotry that actually existed." As a letter-writer put it: "The cheapest shot a critic can take is to criticize an author for the book he didn't write." To return to Hemon's contention that "any account ... that does not include testimonies of ... Iraqis cannot avoid being a lie," I have to ask: is any story, by this criteria, not a lie?
Well, now that you mention it, no. And it's odd that such a practiced and decorated novelist would contend such a thing. If fiction and criticism since James has obsessed over any single literary issue (fantastically productively sometimes, into dead ends at other times), it has to be the inescapability of point of view. A point of view is not a lie unless it pretends to be objective, and Operation Homecoming looks to all appearances to be encouraging self-conscious subjectivity (I've never known a writing workshop that didn't). My guess is that when reviewing a personal narrative, whether essay or novel, by an established author, Hemon would never dream of making so naive a demand as that she present all sides of the story. So why would he impose it on these men and women? We twenty-first century readers know enough to read their accounts as points of view; in fact, that's exactly what will make them valuable.
Nathalie, by the way, is looking for reader feedback on the Hemon piece. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 14, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Open letter
A novelist friend writes:
Have you ever considered writing fiction? I'm editing a collection of original stories and I was on the highway today when it occurred to me…what if Terry wanted to write a short story?
So I'm throwing the idea out there. Feel free to throw it back at me with "ARE YOU CRAZY?" But if you want to do it, I want you to do it.
Alas, dear friend, you are crazy. Not that I wouldn’t like to write you a short story, but I have on more than one occasion dug deep within myself in search of the stuff of fiction and found…nothing. I’ve gone so far as to start two or three novels, invariably petering out after the first few chapters. I did manage three years ago to write a full-length play, but once the first hot flush of enthusiasm and vanity wore off, I realized that it simply wasn’t good enough, and scrapped it.
I’ve always wondered what was missing from my psyche that might have made it possible for me to write fiction. Anthony Powell, if I remember correctly, once claimed that the reason why Cyril Connolly, a very gifted essayist and parodist, was unable to write good fiction (his lone novel, The Rock Pool, was a clever disaster) was that he was insufficiently interested in the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of other people. This may be one of those explanations that sounds good but doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny—or possibly not. Though I always thought I was interested in other people, it’s also true that I’m not the world’s best noticer. No sooner does a friend tell me that she’s in trouble than I’m all solicitude and consideration, but often I’m too lost in my own thoughts to spot the fast-growing pool of blood at her feet.
Whatever the reason, I’ve reached the age of forty-eight without once successfully completing a work of fiction (or unsuccessfully, for that matter), and though it’s not unheard of for incautious writers to unexpectedly extrude a novel in the middle of life, I doubt it’ll happen to me. I regret it bitterly, just as I regret never having learned to speak another language, but by now I’m reasonably content to stick to the cards in my hand and do my best to play them as well as I know how.
“In middle age,” Evelyn Waugh told a correspondent in 1960, “a writer knows his capacities & limitations and he has a general conspectus of his future work….A writer should have found his métier before he is 50.” I seem to have found mine. My self-designed business card describes me as CRITIC, BIOGRAPHER, BLOGGER. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
"He looked at me sharply, demanding: 'You haven't been reading me?'
"'No. Where'd you get that funny idea?'
"'There was something in your tone, something proprietary, as in the voice of one who has bought an author for a couple of dollars. I haven't met it often enough to be used to it. Good God! Remember once I offered you a set of my books as a present?' He had always liked to talk that way.
"'Yeah. But I never blamed you. You were drunk.'"
Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 14, 2004 | Permanent
I couldn't agree with you more about Ms. McKeown. I was one of the lucky folks who got to hear her first set a few years ago at the Falconridge Folk Festival. Every now and then at New Singer/Songwriter showcases someone quite amazing pops up. For the rest of the weekend everyone wanted her on stage with them and her CD was what was played while the bands were setting up. I've seen her in person as often as I've been able to and forced her CDs on unsuspecting friends (it's always been appreciated). She's quite amazing.
And how do we know this correspondent's judgment is trustworthy? Well, for one thing, she has superior taste in cities:
I was in your great town this past weekend to attend the 50th birthday party of close friend. My pals at work tease me that I'm a total flight risk whenever I visit, I love Chicago so much, and they are right. New York is my husband, but I'd have an affair with Chicago at the drop of a hat.
Saucy! Well, Chicago is kind of a sly temptress that way. Just ask my increasingly smitten co-blogger….
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 14, 2004 | Permanent
“‘It is an interesting thing,’ said Spruce, ‘but very few of the great masters of trash aimed low to start with. Most of them wrote sonnet sequences in youth. Look at Hall Caine—the protégé of Rossetti—and the young Hugh Walpole emulating Henry James. Dorothy Sayers wrote religious verse. Practically no one ever sets out to write trash. Those that do don’t get very far.’”
Among all the retrospectives and remembrances of Derrida that are still multiplying like bunnies out there, I'm struck by this frank and thoughtful one by the pseudonymous literary blogger Leonard Bast. Mr. Bast looks at M. Derrida from the perspective of the college English major he was in the heyday, and comes to some sensible conclusions:
What did everyone see in him?
I persisted, and eventually I came to the kind of rudimentary understanding of Derrida that I think many people passing through English departments during that time arrived at. (How strange that time now seems!) He and his friend Paul de Man, the leading deconstructionists, had come up with a method of reading literary texts that was quite simple, even mechanical, if you could decode all the playful punning of the verbiage. To wit: identify a "binary opposition" between two terms in the text. Show how these two terms, despite being opposed, actually depend on each other and are mutually constituted. Then seize upon some obscure moment in the text, use all your ingenuity to show how, if you picked at it long enough, the apparent opposition between the two terms would unravel. Proclaim that the text had deconstructed itself, and that this was a function of language (or, to use the preferred term, "discourse") itself, not something that you, the reader, were "doing" to the text. This was the underlying "lesson" of all texts, so it could be repeated, ad infinitum.
Sounds disappointing, right? For someone like me, it was. I realized from the start that Derrida was primarily a philosopher and I was not, and that there were other issues at stake in what he was doing (to use the philosophical jargon, the "critique of the metaphysics of presence"). What my teachers were doing with Derrida really was an oversimplification, and philosophers who defended him were not complete idiots. I could, somewhat hazily, get a grasp of the issues at stake in his philosophy, especially on the occasions when I was willing to dig into the philosophical tradition he was commenting upon. But among the people I knew, these strictly philosophical considerations had little to do with why he was "hot." On the one hand, he provided an easy method of reading. On the other, some people claimed to find radical politics in this method, and enlisted it in the support of various kinds of feminism and identity politics.
This closely resembles my own, admittedly uninformed take on Derrida (my undergraduate study was blissfully theory-free, and by the time I got to graduate school, the historicists had grabbed the spotlight). It has the invaluable added bonus of providing a credible justification for my ignorance. I just didn't know it was my take until Leonard so nicely articulated it.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 13, 2004 | Permanent
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 13, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Jacques, we hardly knew ye
The Guardian asked a few prominent Brits to think out loud about the deceased Jacques Derrida's theories. The results, it must be said, are a little Onionesque.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 13, 2004 | Permanent
"Farce is higher than comedy in that it is very close to tragedy. You've only got to play some of Shakespeare's tragedies plain and they are nearly farcical. All gradations of theatre between tragedy and farce—light comedy, drama—are a load of rubbish."
Joe Orton (quoted in John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 13, 2004 | Permanent
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
OGIC: Erin McKeown is a star
A lot of people may not know it yet. Hell, a lot of people may never know it. But the couple hundred initiates who saw her perform at Schuba's in Chicago last month knew it, and now I do too. Here's the rub: you might have to see her live to fully get the picture.
You can listen to some clips here. They're a tepid taste of a pale imitation of the real thing, though. Oh, the clips are wonderful; they do bring across how funky, quirky, smart, and eclectic McKeown's music is. The full recordings are much, much better, however, since McKeown really knows how to put a song together. The pieces are diminished by extraction from the finely crafted wholes.
But what you really need to do, if you want an instant new pop hero, is catch McKeown live. If you live in New York, Boston, California, or a few other lucky places, you can do that in the near future. When I went to the Chicago show in September, having sampled her work on line, I wasn't ready for the full force of McKeown's charisma and talent. She turned out to be everything I was expecting: funky, quirky, smart, and eclectic. But she was something else over and above all that: the lady was fierce. Fiercely energetic, fiercely commanding, fiercely original. We were all in her pocket from the first number, and increasingly ecstatic throughout. Afterward she resumed human proportions, shuttling around the floor, chatting up lingerers and signing CDs. Her stuff has been in heavy—almost exclusive—rotation chez OGIC ever since.
McKeown is an omnivore whose music is all over the place, borrowing from jazz, bluegrass, blues, bubblegum, even Tin Pan Alley. Her lyrics are beguiling, evocative, sometimes mysterious, but never simply obscure. The insanely infectious "Born to Hum" muses wittily—and articulately—on inarticulateness: "Once in the spring of my twenty-fourth year / I had nothing to say / With a dangling promise, a terrible past, / I threw all the words away: / We were born to hum." My favorite song in the show was one that will appear on the album she plans to release next year, a song about, to paraphrase her introduction, the romance of the adaptation of birds' bodies to flight. It comes from the point of view of the birds, who have "air in my bones / where the marrow should be / but what I lack for guts and blood / i make up for in dreams." It's a playful, tender little marvel of a song.
Come to think of it, McKeown's distinctive voice reminds me a bit of a particularly inspired bird's. It's lithe and intimate, sweetly knowing, and, as Terry pointed out when he listened to Grand with me during his recent visit, a little offhand. Her singing is decorated with inventive little flourishes that sound new and natural all at once. In "James!" she sings, "James, I told you I could be delu-xe," and the unorthodox word division, the emphatic "xe," make the word her own. Some of her songs remind me too of an old guilty pleasure from my twenties, the Aussie band Frenté, but with none of their insipidity. (Sorry, Frenté.)
By now I know Grand inside out, and I love it top to bottom. I'm just starting to make the acquaintance of McKeown's previous album, Distillation (possibly the best album title ever), which is less purely pop and slightly less acessible, but nonetheless exciting. And it contains the wildly likable, singable, danceable "La Petite Mort" (oh Estelle!).
As you see, I'm really in the throes of it. So let me remind you how musically inexpert I am before I say again that, even if the hit-making masses never hear her or hear of her, Erin McKeown is a star. Go order her CDs, get tickets to her shows, and enjoy her small-batch brilliance.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, October 12, 2004 | Permanent
In his fading years, the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright embarked on a final grand project. Invited in 1957 by King Faisal of Iraq to design a new opera house, Wright expanded the brief into a plan for Baghdad complete with museums, parks, university and authentic bazaar. Dispensing with his 'prairie style', he peppered the scheme with domes, spires and ziggurats.
The 1958 revolution meant that none of it was built. But the ever-resourceful Wright simply offered the design to a new client. And today, the Baghdad opera house is the Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium at Arizona State University: an example of Wright's versatility and the forum for next week's presidential debate. Under the arches of a lost Iraqi skyline, George W Bush and John Kerry will meet in debate for the final time....
Talk about unlikely coincidences! Alas, I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t noticed this one—and I know a pretty fair amount about Frank Lloyd Wright.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Having gone to Arizona State as an undergrad (I grew up in Phoenix), I spent a lot of time at the Gammage building for rehearsals (in very weird-shaped rehearsal rooms, the layout of which was a function of Wright's obsession with circles at the time) and performances (I had the fun of being in an upper-balcony-brass-choir for a performance of the Berlioz Requiem). The most significant peculiarity of Gammage are the sweeping ramps that stretch out from the mezzanine into the vast parking lot in which the building is situated. (Everything in Arizona is situated in the middle of vast parking lots). The ramps are never actually used (even though they might be seen as the most ambitious expression of the noble impulse behind the Americans With Disabilities Act). So why are they there? It's the legacy of the building's Baghdad origin—the opera house was to have been built on an island in the Tigris and the Gammage ramps are truncated versions of what were to have been pedestrian bridges connecting the building to the shores on every side.
Just wanted to write to tell you how much I enjoy your blog and your
writing. I took the TT Reader
with me to Yellowstone: sitting by
Yellowstone lake, enjoying the view of the mountains, and reading about
ballet, modern dance, jazz, literature, etc. struck me as a triumph of
aesthetic appreciation. Thanks.
The passionate attachment you feel when first you discover a work of art is precious: youth orchestra concerts are so great because they are ardent (I remember in mine, a shaven-headed fifteen year old chap getting the Paul Gasgoigne award at the end of the course for crying during the Alpine Symphony). It is also easily lost. Professional music-making is gruelling. Driving through the night when you're so tired after a concert you have to wind the window right down in January so you keep awake; red-eye flights and a lunchtime concert in Barcelona, then straight back home and teaching all day the next; pouring energy every spare moment into generating your own income or chasing those who have "forgotten" to pay you; never being sick or injured; never having time to work on your favourite repertoire because you are doing outdoor prom dates in Northumberland in October. This is why musicians can look so famously miserable on the concert platform because everybody is just so bored: another Beethoven 5; once again the 1812; I'm just going to make this contemporary music up because I can't be arsed to practice it and I know everyone else will be so busy struggling with their own parts they won't notice me miming at the back….
Do I ever know what Helen means, and then some. I still have horrifying nightmare-gig memories from my bass-playing days in Kansas City—as well as memories of occasional evenings of pure bliss when the band was in the pocket, my instrument seemed to be playing itself, and all I had to do was stand there and grin like an idiot. Those are the ones you live for.
• From Footnotes, the blog of West Coast dance critic Rachel Howard, who recently saw New York City Ballet dance in Orange County:
We have entered an age of the Balanchine smorgasbord. You can walk down the buffet line and pick your favorite Jewels as Miami City Ballet’s, your favorite Stravinsky Violin Concerto as San Francisco Ballet’s; your favorite Serenade as Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s. You can make a case for preferring these renditions based not on uniformity of technique, but on subtle yet crucial shadings of interpretation, intention, and mood. Whatever your argument, the conditions for it remain the same: NYCB no longer holds the monopoly of authority on how these ballets should be danced. Whether it relinquished this authority or whether that authority was bound to fade during the Balanchine diaspora remains, to me, an open question.
Perhaps to keepers of New York City Ballet history, this new laissez-faire Balanchine market is but another symptom of the sad slide they lament. But to those who came of age after Balanchine’s death, it is impossible to mourn a golden age you didn’t witness. Freed from memories of New York City Ballet under Balanchine, I was delighted to discover new dancers and to see new choreographic details in ballets, such as Rubies, that I had previously seen only other companies perform….
This shrewd observation reminds me of something I wrote in the last chapter of All in the Dances:
No less noteworthy, though, are the numerous ballet companies, most of them based in America, which are led by New York City Ballet alumni. These “Balanchine companies,” as they are known, include San Francisco Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, and Carolina Ballet. All dance Balanchine’s ballets constantly and for the most part convincingly, and by the Nineties, many New York-based dancegoers had begun to wonder whether the city long known as “the dance capital of the world” was now no more than primus inter pares in the decentralized world of post-Balanchine ballet….
“You know, these are my ballets,” Balanchine told Rosemary Dunleavy, New York City Ballet’s ballet mistress. “In the years to come they will be rehearsed by other people. They will be danced by other people. But no matter what, they are still my ballets.” Of all the self-contradictory things he said about his work, that one seems to me closest to the truth. In the years since I saw my first Barocco, I have taken countless friends to see their first Balanchine ballets, in New York and elsewhere, and watched them weep at the sight of blurry, infirm performances far removed from the way such works look when lovingly set by first-string répétiteurs on meticulously rehearsed companies. That’s as it should be: Balanchine’s best ballets are sturdy enough to make their effect in any kind of performance. Whether the dancing is good or bad, accurate or approximate, they are still his ballets, and always will be.
I look forward to finding out what Rachel thinks of my book.
My high school had (has) a beautiful art room, a sunny space with exotic plants, where I used to while away the hours painting pseudo-Turneresque paintings and listening to records. A prior teacher, the legendary Mr. Stambaugh, had accumulated a large, eclectic record collection, which I employed to educate myself about composers like Sibelius and Prokofiev. I loved John Barbirolli’s recording of the Mahler Sixth, with its geological, plate-tectonic tempo in the first movement. I also loved Rudolf Kempe’s recording of the Erich Wolfgang Korngold Symphony in F-sharp. I didn’t know at the time that you were supposed to dismiss Korngold as a second-rate overdue-Romantic composer who had found his fortune in Hollywood. The symphony struck me as a vast, dark, towering thing, and it shook me to the core every time I heard it. It still has the same effect. Korngold wrote the piece in 1950, at a time when he had almost given up concert work in favor of Hollywood scoring. Nothing he had done in the past, not even the prodigious operas of his teens, had suggested that he was capable of such furiously sustained eloquence. It was almost as if the ghosts of the German Romantic age had taken possession of him….
I feel the same way, so much so that I included the Korngold Symphony in a list of musical masterpieces of the 20th century that I drew up for Commentary back in 1999. Its inclusion attracted some derisive comment, but I knew I was right. So, I’m pleased to see, does Alex.
Terry Teachout lives in New York, yet he understands (to some extent, as I don't believe a New Yorker ever really gets the extent of this phenomenon) that New York is no longer (if it ever really was) the center of the arts in America or the world. Certainly it was at one time the center of the hype of the arts in America, but in the long run, I really don't think that New York will be seen as all that significant.
People will realize that Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko really found their styles in San Francisco, that Warhol was useless, and so forth. As to music, it is a different story, but New York's role has been greatly inflated. While they had Corigliano, we had Lou Harrison. You can guess which one I think will be a footnote, only of interest to historical musicologists desperate for a new topic, once Amy Beach runs dry….
I guess I am a New Yorker—in fact, I know I am—but I don’t come from New York, nor did I move here until after my twenty-ninth birthday, which I think explains my openness to and interest in artistic developments in other cities.
Not that I’d go nearly as far as Erik does in this posting. The fact that significant art-related developments took place in cities other than New York doesn’t mean it wasn’t “the center of the arts in America.” It’s more a question of definition, and I think the best-known line from “New York, New York” offers the best definition of New York’s long-unquestioned centrality: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Until recently, Manhattan really and truly was the place where you had to get your ticket punched in order to be taken seriously elsewhere.
To a great extent that’s still true—ask any ambitious jazz musician—but the extent is diminishing, day by day. What’s slowing down the shift in America’s center of artistic gravity is the similarly diminished attention of the major media to serious art of all kinds, everywhere. Events in New York continue to get more coverage because that’s where the editors are. My hope is that the blogosphere will help to change this imbalance.
"Corker looked at him sadly. 'You know, you've got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read. And it's only news until he's read it. After that it's dead.'"
Courtesy of iTunes, I’m listening to the bombs-bursting-in-air finale of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, played to the hilt by William Kapell. Bedtime music it isn’t, so I’ll follow it up with “Seven Wonders,” my favorite ballad from Nickel Creek’s This Side (I love Sara Watkins’ fragile lead vocal).
I didn't realize that today was a holiday! I got up this morning and started blogging like always, and only a few minutes ago did I notice that our Monday-morning traffic was way below normal. Now I know why.
The good news is that my misguided industry has resulted in a big pile of postings (including new stuff in the right-hand column), ready for all you fortunate holiday-observing folk with five-day-a-week jobs to read on Tuesday.
In the meantime, I think I'll take a day off. See you around....
ALL IN THE DANCES gets a starred and large and boxed (jointly
with Bob Gottlieb's book) review in today's all-important Publishers
Weekly—congratulations. It really couldn't be more prominent or positive
and includes a cover shot.
Publishers have been known to put on a happy face when it comes to pre-publication reviews, but I just saw a fax of the Publishers Weekly box, and Harcourt wasn't kidding:
"Balanchine was every bit as important as Matisse," says literary critic Teachout (The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken), who writes for the viewer who doesn't know a passé from a pas de chat, but has, like Teachout, been "amazed" by one of Balanchine's works. His book is pithy, conversational and vivid, touching on all the major points of Balanchine's life....Balanchine's ballets are modern masterpieces, and Teachout, moving chronologically from work to work, uses them as stepping stones to tell Balanchine's own story. This is highly recommended as a first book on the life and art of George Balanchine for students and the general reader.
Once again, whooee!
Incidentally, "Bob Gottlieb's book" is Robert Gottlieb's George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, a new volume in the Eminent Lives series that is being published by HarperCollins simultaneous with All in the Dances. I didn't know Gottlieb's book was in the works when I started writing my own life of Balanchine, but I couldn't be happier that both titles are coming out at the same time. I admire him hugely, both as an editor and as a dance critic, and I can't wait to read his take on Mr. B, which also got a triple-barrelled rave ("elegant, sharp, and sophisticated") from PW).
While I'm on the subject, I'm pleased to announce that Gottlieb and I are appearing jointly at seven p.m. on November 16 at Barnes & Noble on Union Square (the address is 33 E. 17th St.). Robert Greskovic, the eminent dance critic of The Wall Street Journal, will be chatting us up, followed by a joint signing. Come and say hello—and buy both books!
I urged Lileks the other day not to jump to negative conclusions about A.J. Liebling before reading what I had to say about him in the Weekly Standard. My piece is now out, but the Standard’s Web site doesn’t offer a free link, so here are some pertinent excerpts. (The "White" in the first sentence is, of course, E.B. White.)
* * *
Even now, the two writers most closely identified with The New Yorker under Ross are White and James Thurber. But much of their work has aged poorly (though Thurber’s cartoons remain perennially fresh), and a growing share of critical attention is now being paid to a pair of slightly junior staffers who were the cream of Harold Ross’ bumper crop. Joseph Mitchell was duly honored with the publication in 1992 of Up in the Old Hotel, a hefty collection of his New Yorker pieces that introduced the author of McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon to a new generation of readers. Now it’s A.J. Liebling’s turn—or should be. Just Enough Liebling is clearly intended to do for him what Up in the Old Hotel did for Mitchell. He deserves it, but whether this book will turn the trick is a different story.
Though Liebling and Mitchell were close friends whose subject matter not infrequently overlapped, their styles were entirely dissimilar. Mitchell wrote about New York’s “low life”—saloonkeepers, bearded ladies, Iroquois ironworkers—in a tone of quiet amusement often touched with an elegiac note. Liebling’s prose, by contrast, was an exuberant, extroverted alloy of uptown and downtown, more or less what H.L. Mencken might have sounded like had he stuck to reporting instead of switching to the editorial page. Long experience as a feature writer for newspapers had taught him how to write concise, eye-grabbing leads, and when Ross gave him enough elbow room to paint full-length portraits of his subjects, he made the most of every inch. Here is his description of John Baptiste Fournet, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Louisiana and a minor player in Liebling’s masterpiece, The Earl of Louisiana (1961), a book-length profile of Earl Long, Huey’s no less flamboyant younger brother:
At sixty-four the Chief Justice, the Honorable John Baptiste Fournet, is still a formidable figure of a man—tall and powerful and presenting what might be considered in another state the outward appearance of a highly successful bookmaker. The suit he had on when I saw him, of rich, snuff-colored silk, was cut with the virtuosity that only subtropical tailors expend on hot-weather clothing. Summer clothes in the North are makeshifts, like seasonal slipcovers on furniture, and look it. The Chief Justice wore a diamond the size of a Colossal ripe olive on the ring finger of his left hand and a triangle of flat diamonds as big as a trowel in his tie. His manner was imbued ith a gracious warmth not commonly associated with the judiciary, and his voice reflected at a distance of three centuries the France from which his ancestors had migrated, although he pronounces his name “Fournett.” (The pronunciation of French proper names in Louisiana would make a good monograph. There was, for example, a state senator named DeBlieux who was called simply “W.”)
All of Liebling is in that show-stopping description: the weakness for rogues, the razor-sharp eye for detail, the throwaway discursiveness, the gluttonously rich prose that readily spills over into food-based metaphors. Liebling himself was a short, stout trencherman who liked four-star cuisine and lots of it (he ate himself into a coffin at the age of 59), and he wrote about it with respectful glee. The closest he ever came to outright autobiography was a memoir manqué called Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962) whose first chapter, reprinted in Just Enough Liebling, is called “A Good Appetite.” Along with food and crooked pols, he wrote about boxing, small-time show business, and his fellow journalists. He is best remembered today for his long run as The New Yorker’s press critic, in which capacity he penned the oft-misquoted line “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” though his uneven “Wayward Press” columns are now praised to excess by modern-day journalists….
Liebling’s wartime writing was far more impressive—so much so, in fact, that one might say World War II was the making of him. Before the war he had specialized in memorable tales of low life in Manhattan, including “The Jollity Building” (also in Just Enough Liebling), a three-part study of the Brill Building, a Broadway landmark that long served as headquarters for the lower depths of the pop-music business in New York City. Then Ross sent him to France in 1939 to substitute for Janet Flanner, the magazine’s much-admired Paris-based correspondent, who had come back to the U.S. to tend her sick mother. When the war started in September, Flanner was unable to return to Paris, and Liebling found himself transformed willy-nilly into a war correspondent. He approached his new task in much the same way he had written about New York, looking for the little-picture stories he loved best, but with one crucial difference: he now started putting himself into the picture.
If there is any way you can get colder than you do when you sleep in a bedding roll on the ground in a tent in southern Tunisia two hours before dawn, I don’t know about it. The particular tent I remember was at an airfield in a Tunisian valley. The surface of the terrain was mostly limestone. If you put all the blankets on top of you and just slept on the canvas cover of the roll, you ached all over, and if you divided the blankets and put some of them under you, you froze on top.
That’s how Liebling led off “The Foamy Fields,” a 1943 New Yorker dispatch about the Allied desert campaign. Rarely had he injected himself into his earlier articles, personal though their tone was. (Nowhere in “The Jollity Building,” written in 1938, does Liebling refer to himself as “I.”) Now he became a character in his reports from the front, the hapless, bemused narrator who described his unlikely-sounding wartime adventures as though he were strolling down Broadway, recounting them without the slightest trace of the strutting self-aggrandizement that afflicted so many other correspondents who wrote in the first person. When it came to conveying the sheer everydayness of war—as well as the occasional moments of terror—Liebling was Ernie Pyle’s only peer. Several of his wartime pieces were included in Reporting World War II, the Library of America’s invaluable two-volume anthology, and they leave no doubt that of all the specifically literary American journalism to come out of World War II, A.J. Liebling’s was by a long shot the very best….
The postwar Liebling was to wield considerable influence on the “new journalists” of the ’60s, who used his self-reflexive techniques in a flashier, more overtly virtuosic way (in the process occasionally losing sight of their subject matter, a sin he almost never committed). Meanwhile, their mentor disappeared from view. Years of compulsive overeating and a pair of unhappy marriages had taken their toll on an already depressive temperament, and by the time of his death in 1963 Liebling had all but dried up. Most of his best pieces had been spun into a dozen books, but none of them sold well or stayed in print….
What was needed all along was a wide-ranging, smartly edited collection that made a large chunk of Liebling’s best work available in one place. I wish I could say that North Point Press’ Just Enough Liebling is it, but it isn’t. Though The New Yorker’s David Remnick has written an engaging introduction, this five-hundred-page anthology has no editor of record (nobody is credited anywhere in the book), an omission that made me think of those Hollywood films whose directors are so disgusted with the final, studio-mangled product that they bill themselves as “Alan Smithee” in the credits. Certainly Just Enough Liebling bears the signs of group editing by meddlers insufficiently familiar with Liebling’s output. The section devoted to his wartime journalism, for example, leaves out “Cross-Channel Trip,” his deservedly legendary D-Day report (though it finds room for a pair of untypically flat “letters from Paris”), while the low-life chapter contains only “The Jollity Building” and an overripe 70-page excerpt from his weakest book, The Honest Rainmaker, an endless profile of Col. John R. Stingo, a racetrack tout for whose wheezy monologues Liebling had an inexplicable fondness….
Fortunately, North Point has also brought out attractive paperbacks of two of Liebling’s finest books, Between Meals and The Sweet Science, the collection of boxing essays he published in 1956. Presumably additional volumes are in the works—starting, I hope, with The Earl of Louisiana. In the meantime, “Cross-Channel Trip” is available in Reporting World War II, while Broadway Books recently reissued The Telephone Booth Indian (1942), which contains most of Liebling’s best-remembered low-life pieces (including “The Jollity Building”). Interested readers, then, would probably do better to pass up Just Enough Liebling and go straight to the originals….
Is it too much to hope that the Library of America might be persuaded to give us a Liebling volume containing The Earl of Louisiana, Between Meals, and an extensive and knowing selection of his shorter pieces and surviving correspondence? Outside of Mencken himself, I can’t think of another American journalist more deserving of such deluxe treatment—or one whose posthumous reputation would profit more from getting it.
Please let me know via e-mail as soon as you spot All in the Dances in your local bookstore. I have yet to see it in New York, so I'd appreciate knowing where it's on sale, how many copies are in stock, and what kind of display it's getting.
(And yes, I've finally answered all my accumulated blogmail. Sorry it took so long! I'd tell you I won't let it happen again, but I know you wouldn't believe me....)
For a guy who doesn’t like to fly, I’ve sure been spending a lot of time on the road lately: first Chicago, then North Carolina. I went down to Raleigh last Friday to see Carolina Ballet dance half a dozen ballets by George Balanchine, plus the premiere of Symposium, a major new work by Robert Weiss, the company’s artistic director. I was—as always—delighted and amazed.
My delight came from the fact that Carolina Ballet dances Balanchine’s formidably complex choreography with a stylistic assurance that can never be taken for granted, not even in the biggest of cities. Concerto Barocco, Tarantella, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and Who Cares? are longtime staples of the company’s repertory, and Victoria Simon, one of the Balanchine Trust’s répétiteurs, flew down to stage Square Dance and Donizetti Variations. I thought they all looked fabulously finished, but don’t take my word for it: I happened to be sitting next to an old Balanchine hand whose memories of Balanchine and New York City Ballet go back four decades, and he whooped and hollered after every one. “You know,” he told me at intermission, “I saw Eddie and Patty [Edward Villella and Patricia McBride] dance Tarantella, and it wasn’t a bit better than this!”
My amazement came from the fact that Carolina Ballet is located in a medium-sized city far from the beaten path of even the most devoted balletomanes. By all rights, it ought not to be much more than a well-meaning enterprise just good enough to please novice dancegoers. Instead, it’s one of the best small classical troupes (twenty-nine dancers, two apprentices) in America, “regional” only in the frustrating budgetary cheeseparing that so far has prevented Weiss and his staff from spending enough money to establish it as a significant presence on the national ballet scene. Dancers as fine as this ought to be touring regularly and appearing in New York or Washington every couple of seasons. Instead, you have to go to Raleigh to see them—which I do, once or twice a year.
I don’t go just for the Balanchine, which is in any case only a small part of Carolina Ballet's fast-growing repertory. I’m just as interested in Weiss’ own dances, and the main reason I went to Raleigh this time around was to see his new ballet, Symposium (The Masks of Dionysos). He is, as I’ve said more than once in this space, a remarkable artist in his own right, the only New York City Ballet alumnus of his generation to have used Balanchine’s movement vocabulary as the basis for a wholly personal choreographic style. As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal two years ago:
He knows Balanchine’s demanding neoclassical style cold, but instead of making the abstract “plotless” dances that were his mentor’s trademark, Weiss specializes in narrative ballets modeled after Balanchine’s 1962 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which the plot is propelled, and the characters defined, through movement rather than mime. Like that deeply conservative yet radically innovative masterwork, Weiss’ “Carmen” and “Romeo and Juliet” emphasize character-driven virtuoso dancing over the glitzy pageantry that dominates—and deadens—most of today’s full-evening story ballets.
“It may be,” Weiss says, “that I’ve shied away from plotless ballets because Balanchine did them so well, with such great depth of subtext.” Whatever the reason, his knack for storytelling has given Carolina Ballet a clear identity at a time when most American companies are chasing vainly after the trend of the week…
Even when Weiss tries his hand at a plotless ballet, he tends as often as not to be inspired as much by words as music. Symposium, for instance, is set to Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium”, and Weiss immersed himself in Plato’s discourse on love, along with various scholarly commentaries on the Symposium, in the process of readying the dance for the stage. Not that you’d know from looking, for Symposium makes sense to the eye even if you've never read a word of Plato. In truth, it’s as much a tribute to Balanchine as it is an evocation of the Symposium, one into which Weiss has woven fleeting allusions to such ballets as Apollo, Serenade, and Agon. Yet these subtly deployed quotations are never allowed to impede the unfolding logic of Symposium, nor do they stand out in any other obvious way. They simply add an additional layer of poetic implication.
I'm afraid that last paragraph may make Symposium sound like…well, like a symposium. In fact, it’s a fast-moving, tremendously exciting audience piece—a brainy crowd-pleaser, if you will—graced by the superlative dancing of Melissa Podcasy, Weiss’ wife and the prima ballerina assoluta of his company. To be sure, Weiss has trained a formidable roster of young up-and-comers (any classical company would be lucky to have Margaret Severin-Hansen, Lilyan Vigo, Margot Martin, or Hong Yang on its roster), but in Podcasy he also has a seasoned veteran who dances with a poise and maturity that come only from long experience and true artistry. I can't say often enough that you don't expect to encounter this kind of world-class dancing in a “regional” company, just as I can't help but wonder whether the citizens of Raleigh, appreciative though so many of them are of Carolina Ballet, fully understand how uniquely lucky they are to have such a group in their city.
It’s not my fault if they don’t, because I told them so. All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine having just been shipped to booksellers last week, I took the opportunity to speak briefly but emphatically about Balanchine and Carolina Ballet at the end of Friday's performance, then signed copies of the book in the lobby. It was my first appearance in support of All in the Dances, and I’m pleased to say that each and every copy was sold and signed by evening’s end. (Hear that, Harcourt? We're off and running!)
In addition to three performances by Carolina Ballet, I made time for a private view of “Matisse, Picasso, and the School of Paris: Masterpieces from the Baltimore Museum of Art,” a touring exhibition that opened at the North Carolina Museum of Art yesterday and is on view through January 16. It’s a nifty little 70-piece blockbusterette drawn mainly from the BMA’s fabled Cone Collection and including such showstoppers as Matisse’s “Purple Robe and Anemones” and a small Cézanne “Bathers” that Etta Cone bought from Gertrude Stein in 1926. Once again, please note that I saw "Matisse, Picasso, and the School of Paris" in Raleigh, not New York or Washington or even Chicago—after which I dined on a superior North Carolina-style barbecue from the museum café. You can’t get that at MoMA, not even for twenty bucks.
(Footnote for gastronomes: Raleigh has any number of very good restaurants. I especially recommend Caffé Luna and Nana’s Chophouse, at both of which I ate to ecstatic excess over the weekend. Try the risotto at Nana’s—it’s the best I’ve ever had, period.)
Now I’m back in New York, gearing up for another week of writing, playgoing, and club-hopping, and I couldn’t be happier to be home again. If you long to consume vast amounts of art on a 24/7 basis, this is the only place to live. But if your notion of a balanced life also includes carports, front lawns, and next-door neighbors who know your name, America is full of smaller cities that have much to offer in the way of civilized pleasure—and if you love dance, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit to Raleigh the next time Carolina Ballet is performing. Until they start coming here, I’ll keep going there.
P.S. If you don't know Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's "Symposium," try this recording. It's a beauty.
I write about Carolina Ballet with some regularity, but it occurred to me on the way back to New York that many of you might not be aware of how the company got started. To that end, here’s part of a longer piece I wrote about Robert Weiss and his dancers five years ago for the New York Times. More than a few things have changed for the better since then (though not, alas, the constant struggle to make financial ends meet), but it’s still quite a tale.
* * *
RALEIGH, N.C. — How long does it take to start a professional ballet company from scratch? Don't try this at home, but Robert Weiss, the founding artistic director of Carolina Ballet, did it in just under two years. He answered an ad published in Dance Magazine in November of 1996; 23 months later, his new company, 21 dancers strong, made its debut here, accompanied by the 67-piece North Carolina Symphony. The company opened its doors with a demanding all-Balanchine program, and since then it has presented works by such noted choreographers as William Forsythe, Lynne Taylor-Corbett and Christopher Wheeldon, as well as two new full-evening ballets by Mr. Weiss himself.
It takes a driven man to carry off a high-wire act like that, and Mr. Weiss, a New York City Ballet alumnus known to all as "Ricky," is nothing if not driven. A quarter-century ago, one dance writer compared him to Jimmy Porter, the seething young working-class anti-hero of John Osborne's play "Look Back in Anger"; at 50, he is still an in-your-face lapel-grabber, more polished but just as tough. He has had to be tough. After running Pennsylvania Ballet for eight years, Mr. Weiss ran afoul of the board and was fired in 1990. He then spent the next six years looking for a job. "I got a raw deal, and I had a very hard time," he says. "I sent out resumes and auditioned for every post that opened up—there were 13 of them. Sometimes I'd come in second, but never first."
You'd think a ballet company situated well below the Mason-Dixon line would have preferred someone a bit more genteel. But the Old South has changed, and though board chairman J. Ward Purrington, a Raleigh native, has a magnolia-sweet accent that any Hollywood casting director would covet, he is also a no-nonsense lawyer who speaks of Carolina Ballet as if it were a new Internet company: "What this is, is a venture start-up. You have to be lean and agile, and very, very good, and you have to grow as fast as you can."...
After an abortive attempt to use a local dance school as the basis for a professional troupe, Mr. Purrington realized that he would have to build from the ground up, so he advertised for an artistic director; he received 98 applications, all but one consisting of fulsome cover letters and inch-thick resumes. The exception was Mr. Weiss, who sent a four-sentence letter and a one-page vita. "I'd had it up to there with looking for a job," he says. "What did I know about North Carolina? And who was Ward Purrington, anyway?" But his bluntness impressed Mr. Purrington, and the two men started talking. Four months later, Mr. Weiss finally came in first.
"Ward said he wanted to start a ballet company on the highest level," Mr. Weiss recalls. "I told him that every little city in America has a little company with a million-dollar budget, and they're all trying to pander to what they think the public wants. You can't do that if you want to do something real. You have to go for quality and seriousness, right from the start—good dancers, good ballets, good décor—and that takes money. A million and a half is the least you can start with. So I said we'd have to spend a year and a half raising money, and community awareness, before I could even think of hiring dancers or giving a performance."
According to ballet mistress Debra Austin, who danced with Mr. Weiss at City Ballet and for him at Pennsylvania Ballet, that was exactly what happened: "Ricky insisted that they raise enough money up front to pay the dancers for a full year, so that it wouldn't be a fly-by-night thing. We actually had subscribers before anyone had seen a single dancer on stage!"
Ms. Austin is not exaggerating: Carolina Ballet sold 2,600 subscriptions and raised $1.2 million in advance of its inaugural season. While Mr. Purrington and the board were busy shaking down local contributors, Mr. Weiss was off looking for talented dancers willing to take a chance and move to Raleigh. One is part of the family—Melissa Podcasy, Mr. Weiss' wife, who is the company's striking prima ballerina. Some, including Ms. Austin and her husband, ballet master Marin Boieru, had previously worked with him in Philadelphia; others were drawn by the opportunity to be present at the creation of a new company….
Mr. Weiss clearly knows how to get the best out of his dancers: Carolina Ballet is already a characterful, well-disciplined and uncommonly exciting company. All these traits are displayed in his taut, compact staging of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," whose speed and dramatic clarity are reminiscent of George Balanchine's version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Nobody stands around and strikes poses in this fast-moving "Romeo," which is performed on a simple but handsome set designed by Thomas Mauney and built for the laughably low cost of $22,000. Like Balanchine, Mr. Weiss has chosen to tell Shakespeare's story through lively dancing; the fight scenes, choreographed by Jeff A.R. Jones, a specialist in stage combat, are full of loud and believable swordplay; and the pas de deux swell with intense emotion. The result is a "Romeo" that can easily stand up to comparison with any of the better-known ballet versions.
Midway through Carolina Ballet's second season, Mr. Weiss appears to have found the seasonal cash cow without which no regional ballet company can hope to pay its bills—his staged version of Handel's "Messiah" drew enthusiastic crowds this December—and his "Romeo" was recently taped for broadcast by UNC-TV, North Carolina's public television network. The company has hired five additional dancers and will be working 36 weeks this year (up four from last season) on a $2.5 million budget. Even at this early stage, comparisons with Edward Villella's launch of Miami City Ballet in 1986, though still premature, are starting to sound increasingly plausible. "Ricky has made me realize," says Mr. Purrington, "that we really can have a company of national significance, right here in Raleigh."
For that to happen, of course, the citizens of North Carolina must first be persuaded that Carolina Ballet is worth supporting. "Ward tells people that whether you like it or not, ballet is important for the community—but if you give it a try, you just might like it," says Mr. Weiss. You don't have to do much eavesdropping at intermission to learn that a great many people in and around Raleigh are finding that they like it a lot. One man who came to "Romeo" announced with lip-smacking gusto, "This sure beats all that wherefore-art-thou stuff!" Told of the remark, Mr. Weiss laughed loudly and said, "A few more like that guy and we're home free."
(Incidentally, Tyler never bothered to tell me the news. Shame on him! In the never-to-be-forgotten words of John L. Lewis, “He that tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted.” So I’m a-tootin’.)
My brother has no formal education, and never acquired a love of books. I doubt he's read more than a dozen in his entire life, and he is not a young man.
Yesterday, he happened to notice a copy of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken on my bookshelf and began thumbing through it. Then,
to my great surprise, he sat down and began reading
it. Engrossed in it would be a better way of putting
it. Every so often he would look up and smile and read
aloud some terrific line from the book. Understand,
this is a guy who had never heard of Mencken before he
picked up your book. "Damn, who IS this Teachout
dude?" he asked at one point. "I'd give anything to be
able to write like he does."
When my brother left, he took The Skeptic with him. He
promised to finish it quickly and return it promptly. I've no doubt he will do the former if not the latter.
“A good action/adventure movie is like a great amusement-park ride, and I'm just not that interested in spending a year of my life on that kind of job. It's not very interesting to me. One of my favorite things about moviemaking is working with actors. One of the reasons I get such good actors to work for scale in our movies is because most of what they do is very interesting to them. Whereas in a blockbuster, they're in front of a blue screen yelling ‘Duck!’ And someday, somebody will computer in whatever they're ducking from. It's not enough to keep the mind alive. I do like some of those movies. I think the X-Men movies have been really well-made and fun to go see. I saw the last Spider-Man movie, and that was well-made. I like the Jurassic Park movies. They're old-fashioned monster movies. But, no matter how you cut it, it's at least a year of your life.”
John Sayles, interview, The Onion (Sept. 29, 2004)
The autumn issue of Classic Record Collector, the only classical-music magazine I still read regularly (not that there’s a whole lot of competition out there), features on its cover Pierre Monteux, a great conductor who was by all accounts a perfectly delightful man. These two traits are rarely found in the same person, so their simultaneity in the case of Monteux is worthy of note.
Born in 1875, Monteux played for Brahms, conducted the first performance of The Rite of Spring for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and lived long enough to conduct the 50th-anniversary performance of the same piece in 1963, with Igor Stravinsky present and cheering. As if that weren’t enough to put him in the history books, he also conducted the premieres of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. (Most of his best recordings are out of print, but this is a choice example of Monteux in his absolute prime.)
In short, Monteux was a very distinguished artist, which is all the more reason why I found these remarks he made in a 1959 interview to be worth mentioning:
I do have one big complaint about audiences in all countries, and that is their artificial restraint from applause between movements or a concerto or symphony. I don’t know where the habit started, but it certainly does not fit in with the composers’ intentions. Of course applause should be spontaneous, not dutiful, but often it is the most natural thing to applaud between movements.
It sure is, and yet I continue to see obviously excited concertgoers shamefacedly sitting on their hands at the very moment when they ought to be raising a ruckus. What’s more, the concert halls of New York are full of spine-starched prigs who delight in staring down any poor dope who makes the "mistake" of expressing his heartfelt enthusiasm for a great performance at a moment not to their liking. This never happens at the ballet—not only do dance audiences clap between movements, but they also applaud whenever anything especially cool happens on stage. Good for them, and down with the prigs.
Incidentally, my favorite Monteux anecdote (which didn’t make it into Classic Record Collector, alas) is to be found, logically enough, in one of my favorite musical memoirs, André Previn’s No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood, a book which has served as the source of two "About Last Night" almanac entries to date. Previn, who likes to tell stories of which he is the butt, studied conducting with Monteux:
He liked cloaking his advice with indirection and irony. A few years later he saw me conduct a concert with a provincial orchestra. He came backstage after the performance. He paid me some compliments and then asked, "In the last movement of the Haydn symphony, my dear, did you think the orchestra was playing well?" My mind whipped through the movement; had there been a mishap, had something gone wrong? Finally, and fearing the worst, I said that yes, I thought the orchestra had indeed played very well. Monteux leaned toward me conspiratorially and smiled. "So did I," he said. "Next time, don’t interfere!" It was advice to be followed forever, germinal and important.
I wish somebody had told Leonard Bernstein that.
While I’m at it, I should mention that John Canarina, another Monteux pupil who wrote about his master in Classic Record Collector, has just published Pierre Monteux, Maître, a biography I plan to order from amazon.com as soon as I post this item. If it’s as good as his article, you should, too. (I’ll let you know.)
Charles Paul Freund makes interesting and provocative mention of my middlebrow posting from last week (see below, ad infinitum) in "Reading for NoBrows," a piece written for Reason’s Web site which you can read by clicking here:
The underlying conceit of the middlebrow phenomenon—that cultural choices should be understood as cultural duties—made gatekeepers more than useful; it made them necessary. Middlebrow adherents, in their attempts at achieving well-roundedness, often spread themselves notably thin, listening to, say, Third Stream Jazz, attending exhibits of Abstract Expressionism, watching enigmatic Bergman movies, sitting through eventless Beckett plays, etc. This entailed a lot of heavy lifting, intellectually speaking, and gatekeepers could greatly ease the trial by telling you not only what works were worth your while, but also what they meant. It was the age of the influential critic, to whom culture consumers often yielded power in exchange for guidance....
Good or bad, however, middlebrow's eclipse is such that even its basic forms—such as greatest-ever lists—are now at the service of post-middlebrow values.
If I may mix my metaphors, Freund and I may not be quite on the same page, but we’re in the same ballpark.
In case you haven’t heard, Merce Cunningham, who invented postmodern choreography long before the term "postmodern" was coined, has collaborated with Radiohead and Sigur Rós on a new dance, Split Sides, which received its world premiere earlier this week at the BAM Opera House with both bands in attendance. I was in St. Louis, but I caught up with Merce last night, and though the bands had already hit the road, they left their music behind for the company to dance to.
My plan had been to write about Split Sides this morning, but Tobi Tobias, one of my fellow arts bloggers hosted by artsjournal.com, beat me to it, and I couldn't have put it better. Click here to go to her posting and you’ll know pretty much what I thought.
I only have one thing to add, which is that I’d never heard anything by Radiohead prior to last night, even though an alarmingly large number of my musician friends had long been urging me to give them a listen. No special reason—I simply never got around to it—and when I heard that Merce was working with the group, I figured I might as well wait to see and hear what they cooked up together. Boy, was I ever disappointed. Radiohead’s portion of the score for Split Sides was nothing more than tinkly British minimalism with a beat, mere aural décor, musical background without a foreground. (Sigur Rós wasn’t much better, or different.)
Tobi summed it up quite aptly:
Both Radiohead and Sigur Rós laid down a background of hypnotic New Age chimes-and-gongs (music to space out on), agitating it with the static of indecipherable speech, mechanical noise, and threats from nature (thunder, the buzz of swarming insects). Presumably the competing, fragmented sounds and rhythms reflected the contemporary mindset. To my ears—untutored in such matters, I grant you—all of it sounded terribly dated….Neither sound score was what devotees of, say, Bach—favored by choreographers of various persuasions—would call music. Yet neither, though far less intellectually sophisticated than the work of, say, John Cage, was radically different, in effect, from the aural accompaniment Cunningham has traditionally provided for his dances.
Tobi Tobias may be "untutored" when it comes to up-to-the-nanosecond rock, but she wasn’t far wrong. In fact, she wasn’t even slightly wrong. My companion for the evening, as it happens, was a jazz musician who is a Radiohead fan, and who assured me that what we heard was unrepresentative of what the group really sounds like. I believe her, and I promise to check out whichever Radiohead CD she recommends. But as I listened last night, the thought occurred to me that any classical musician familiar with avant-garde developments of the past quarter-century or so would find the technomuzak that accompanies Split Sides to be weak tea indeed. As I say, I don’t know what Radiohead sounds like at its best, but what I heard at the BAM Opera House was—brace yourself—provincial.
I happen to admire Merce Cunningham very much, which rather surprises me. I wrote about him at length in a 1994 essay reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader (out next April from Yale University Press, for those of you joining us late), of which this paragraph strikes me as particularly relevant:
To spend an evening with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is to leaf through a fat scrapbook of twentieth-century nonsense….As the curtain goes up, we find ourselves face to face with two of the most absurdly rigid theories ever foisted upon a dance audience: the idea that dance and music ought to take place simultaneously but not synchronously, and the idea that large choreographic structures can be meaningfully determined by rolling dice. As the "orchestra" starts to play, we are confronted by the ghost of John Cage, the man whose harebrained notions probably did more to damage Western music than anyone since Schoenberg. (Fifty years from now, Cunningham’s dances will keep Cage’s music alive in exactly the same way La Bayadčre keeps the music of Minkus alive.) And then we forget the theories, and are enthralled. The superficial foolishnesses recede quickly into the background; even the music becomes unimportant, a distant clatter one quickly learns to tune out. The dances are all that matter. Of all the lessons Merce Cunningham teaches us, this is the most important one: theory is meaningless to a genius.
Nine years later—and even though I didn’t care for Split Sides—I still feel the same way.
"About Last Night" and its proprietors have now been immortalized in verse. And yes, we’re flattered.
As for the Buffy quotes, well, I’ll take it up with OGIC once she gets her computer fixed….
Speaking of landmarks, this blog will receive its 50,000th page view some time this afternoon (probably while I'm eating lunch). Not too shabby, I'd say. And here's something else I'd say, and will: Thanks for your support. Keep it up. Have I told you to tell a friend about www.terryteachout.com lately? Well, do.
Yeah, I know, I promised to post yesterday, but thingsgotbusyaroundhere and all of a sudden it was bedtime. No more excuses, though: I am now officially back, with a vengeance.
Part of what preoccupied me yesterday was the snail mail, which really piles up when I'm gone. Fortunately, there were plenty of accumulated goodies in the mailbox to serve as a counterpoise to all those bills and press releases. Among other things, Mosaic Records sent me a review copy of The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions, a box set for which jazz buffs have been waiting impatiently ever since word of its imminent release circulated last year. More later, but believe me, you don’t need to wait for the reviews, from me or anyone else, to buy this one.
I also received a treasure from San Francisco, Milton Avery’s March at a Table, a drypoint etching that I ordered from a dealer months ago but couldn’t afford to finish paying for until I received the first installment of the advance for my Louis Armstrong and George Balanchine biographies. It’s really, really beautiful, and it’s also an anomaly: I don’t own any other works of figurative art. All my other pieces are unpeopled landscapes, cityscapes, still lifes, and abstracts. No doubt this says something profound and unintentionally revealing about the nature of my interior life (especially since this "portrait" of the artist’s daughter is far from literally representational), but all I know is that I hung "March at a Table" on the wall at the end of my couch, where I can see it easily whenever I’m curled up with a book.
Lastly and leastly—except to me—HarperCollins sent a first-off-the-press copy of the trade paperback edition of The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, which comes out on November 4 (you can pre-order it from amazon.com by clicking on the link). It, too, is beautiful, at least as far as I’m concerned. It’s also the perfect antidote for those blue periods when you feel like nothing will ever go right again, because in addition to the front- and back-cover blurbs from the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, The Economist, the Baltimore Sun, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, the folks at HarperCollins threw in four solid pages of enthusiastic excerpts from thirty other reviews of The Skeptic. Is that cool, or what?
So yes, I’ve got a lot of stuff to do (don’t I always?), and sometimes I wish I didn’t, but when you get right down to it, who has a better job? Which is why I’m glad to be blogging again: I love to share my pleasures with you, at least vicariously. Thanks for stopping by while I was gone, and thanks for being so nice to Our Girl in Chicago.
(Incidentally, I just heard from OGIC, who is having computer troubles of her own. Please send benign thoughts her way—I sooooooo know how it is.)
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a gallery to visit, and a review to write, and a whole lot of accumulated e-mail to start answering….
I reviewed The Boy from Oz in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. It’s a new musical in which Hugh Jackman plays pop singer-songwriter Peter Allen. Here’s an excerpt:
Mr. Jackman, an energetic and engaging movie-star-in-the-making whom my friends assure me is babealicious, plays the piano-pounding Australian songster who was discovered by Judy, married Liza, came out of the closet (not that the news of his homosexuality surprised anyone, least of all his wife), enjoyed a momentary vogue as a sort of disco-era Liberace, wrote and starred in "Legs Diamond" (it crashed and burned after 64 performances), and died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 48, his 15 minutes of fame having long since run out.
All this adds up to a potentially interesting tale, and the story of the Allen-Minnelli marriage in particular is the stuff of which a terrific backstage musical might well have been made. But Martin Sherman, who wrote the book for "The Boy from Oz," has settled instead for the theatrical equivalent of a cheesy TV movie, turning every character into a stick figure and every plot twist into a four-panel comic strip. I’ve seen some silly things on Broadway, but my Schlock-O-Meter nearly exploded when Allen’s dead lover (Jarrod Emick) returned as a ghost to sing "I Honestly Love You" to his grieving companion. Eeuuww!...
No link—it’s the Journal—so if you want to read the rest, and also find out what I thought of William Gibson’s Golda’s Balcony, proceed directly to the nearest newstand, divest yourself of a dollar and turn to the "Weekend Journal" section, which is where I hang out every Friday. You’ll find lots of good stuff there.
I’m writing an essay about a new biography of Paul Whiteman, the celebrated bandleader of the Twenties who premiered Rhapsody in Blue. In preparation, and also just for fun, I recently reread A Pocketful of Dreams, the first volume of Gary Giddins’ excellent biography of Bing Crosby, who got his start singing with the Whiteman band (I really do wish Giddins would get around to finishing that second volume, by the way).
What caught my eye this time around was the chapter about Kraft Music Hall, Crosby’s radio series, one of the most popular shows of the Thirties and Forties. In addition to his own singing and the usual comedy, Crosby consistently booked classical performers. A Pocketful of Dreams lists a few of the now-legendary artists who appeared as guests on KMH, and the roster is illuminating. They include Harold Bauer, Feodor Chaliapin, Emanuel Feuermann, Percy Grainger, Bronislaw Hubermann, Lotte Lehmann, Mischa Levitzki, Gregor Piatigorsky, Ruggiero Ricci, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Andrés Segovia, Efrem Zimbalist—and that was just the first season.
The mere fact that these giants of classical music appeared on KMH will doubtless be hard for anyone under the age of 50 to believe, much less imagine. (When David Letterman books a classical musician, the earth trembles.) What is even more interesting, though, is the way Crosby presented them. Says Giddins: "No other program in broadcast history did as much to introduce Americans to classical music and its stars, whom Bing chaperoned with casual respect, presenting their talents as a non-medicinal contrast to the pop tunes handled by himself and Jimmy Dorsey’s 12-piece band."
"Casual respect": that’s the key. Crosby’s guests were expected to join him in scripted banter (in which they got most of the punch lines), but when it came to the music, they played it straight. So did he. Here’s Giddins again, describing a guest shot by the violinist Toscha Seidel:
Bing introduced Seidel with straightforward biographical remarks, noting his Oslo debut, his first American visit, and his 1,100 recitals, winding up with a peculiar Crosbyan verbal turn, starting high and landing low: "Mr. Seidel favors us this evening with the scherzando movement from Lalo’s violin concerto, Symphonie Espagnole, and when you hear Mr. Seidel play it, if you don’t think it’s swell music, then you can’t pick tunes for me."
If you read what I wrote here last week about the lost world of middlebrow culture, you’ll know why this part of A Pocketful of Dreams stuck in my mind.
I suppose you could complain about how Crosby only let his classical-music guests play short pieces or individual movements from longer works, or how he made them swap jokes with him. But if you did, you’d be missing the point, which is that he presented them on a plane of implicit equality with the pop singers and movie stars who were his other guests. Even if you think that an artist like Toscha Seidel is by definition superior to an artist like, say, Art Tatum (and I don’t), pause for a moment and consider what it meant for the biggest pop-culture star of the pre-rock era to showcase classical music in that way on his hugely successful radio show.
If you want to know what middlebrow culture was like at its best and most honorable—and how different it was from the rigidly stratified culture of today—I don’t think you can do much better than that.
For those of you visiting "About Last Night" for the first time, or who only tuned in recently, this is a two-headed blog.
Posts whose headlines begin with "TT" are by me. If you want to know more about who I am, visit the top box of the right-hand column.
In recent weeks, I've been sharing this space with a fetching young lady who prefers to be known as Our Girl in Chicago. (Posts whose headlines begin with "OGIC" are by her.) The original plan was for Our Girl to blog in my stead on Fridays, but when my hard drive exploded and I subsequently had to spend a good-sized chunk of October out of town, OGIC was kind enough to split the blogging burden with me, thus lengthening my life and saving my sanity.
If you want to know more about who Our Girl is, here's how she described herself on the eve of her debut:
OGIC is a thirty-something dilettante (in the best sense of the word, she hopes) with experience as an editor, critic, graduate student, and teacher. Naturally drawn to the medium-hot centers of this world, she is a fierce advocate of her adopted Second City but still feels at home when she visits her one-time stomping grounds of Manhattan. A serious media addiction helps her keeps close tabs on the red-hot from her comfy but happening city by the lake. She worries she should shoulder more guilt about her guilty pleasures—which include pro hockey, cop and lawyer shows, Las Vegas, and the colorful adventures of Travis McGee—but they're all just so damn pleasurable. More presentably, she's into Romantic poetry, Henry James, landscape painting, modern dance (with and without shoes, if you know what she means), and Edward Gorey. But she's not always sure she doesn't have some of those items in the wrong column....
I hope that clears up any lurking confusion. We return you now to our regularly scheduled blog.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 15, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Now it can be told
The finalists for the 2003 National Book Awards have just been posted on the National Book Foundation’s Web site. (I’m a judge for the nonfiction prize.)
To see lists of finalists in all categories, go here.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 15, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Here today, here tomorrow
Yes, I'm back in New York City, finally and believe it or not (and I was starting to have my doubts as the plane approached LaGuardia, seeing as how the wind was up and we got bounced around pretty extensively).
Coming attractions include a quick nap, then The Boy from Oz, then a modest amount of additional sleep, then a wild sprint to a noon deadline for Friday's Wall Street Journal, and then...I'll be blogging again, with a vengeance. I can't believe I missed all the action around here. I mean, Bookslut? Mark Steyn? Instapundit? Come on, now.
In the meantime, my heartfelt thanks to Our Girl in Chicago for keeping the joint jumping while I was out giving speeches and nibbling at my fear-of-flying problem. She isn't going anywhere, but she does need a rest, so I'll be doing most of the writing around here for the next few days, starting some time on Thursday.
As for School of Rock, I'll see it the first free evening I have. I promise!
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 15, 2003 | Permanent
Still not sure whether you want to see the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty? Cinetrix at Pullquote might not make your decision any easier—
This is a high-gloss enterprise; it's not clear to me yet whether there's any heart beating behind its Brian Grazer-buffed surface.
—but you'll be glad you read her riff on the movie anyway.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 15, 2003 | Permanent
What is disappointing, even embarrassing about the poetry of Robert Lowell in retrospect is not so much the tin ear or heavy-handedness, not the posturing and self-dramatisation, not even the straining after the important subject, the insistence on being taken as major, when, in fact, with very few exceptions, the poetry isn't really much good at all; what is, finally, so dreary about the oeuvre at this remove, the reason his enormous Collected Poems sinks like a breached tanker, are Lowell's cultural assumptions, his notion of a cultural hierarchy and his pre-eminent position in that hierarchy so tirelessly cultivated throughout his career.
Even in the midst of the widespread reassessment that has followed the publication of Lowell's Collected Poems last summer, I haven't seen anything close to this emphatic a dissent from the consensus view of Lowell as a great twentieth-century poet. Is Kleinzahler's view so exceptional, or are there like-minded poetry readers out there who have been biting their tongues?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 15, 2003 | Permanent
Of course there's much to disagree with (Roald Dahl? Atonement?). It's in the nature of these exercises to be pretty rote in the early going (chronologically) and somewhat scattershot toward the end. But my biggest quarrel is that this list comes bubble-wrapped in enough caveats and preemptive defensive gestures to very nearly take all of the fun out of the proceedings. If you're going to do something bold like make a canon, do it boldly, please.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, October 14, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Cabbages and kings
The Booker Prize winner will be announced later today, seemingly depriving scores of British culture beat writers of a livelihood. What will they write about? Meanwhile, Moorish Girl links to an outspoken piece in the Scotsman by Booker chairman John Carey about an ascendant genre of fiction.
He calls it the moral indignation novel (MIN), and he says the hell with it. Seems like Carey and Tony Kushner have a lot to talk about.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, October 14, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"The world was different—whether for worse or for better—from her rudimentary readings, and it gave her the feeling of a wasted past. If she had only known sooner she might have arranged herself more to meet it."
Henry James, The Wings of the Dove
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, October 14, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Holdin' down a rockin' fort
When the cat's away, the mice will bask happily in his reflected luminosity. That's how it felt Monday, anyway, what with Terry away and unplugged in St. Louis, and OGIC left to gape all alone at the awesome traffic-generating power of referrals from the likes of Bookslut, Mark Steyn, and especially Instapundit. These are a few of the kind bloggers who recently linked to Terry's piece from last week about the demise of middlebrow culture. The result? A record day at About Last Night by a longshot, with more than 2,800 page views for the day. Whew.
Terry will be back in the saddle Wednesday, after one last speaking engagement at Washington University. In the meantime, it'll be an OGIC kind of day around here. Check back for updates, please; I'm saving some of my best links for later.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, October 14, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Adam vs. Adam
Jessa Crispin at Bookslut helpfully provides a link to this recent interview with the outrageously talented young writer Adam Johnson. His short story collection from last year, Emporium, is a book I just can't shut up about. I have not yet gotten my hands on his new novel Parasites Like Us, and have not read much about it.
As far as splashy fiction debuts, last summer sometimes seemed to be the summer of Adams: Johnson and Haslett. It was easy to get them confused at first, but soon this one was grabbing most of the attention, topped off with a National Book Award nomination. I liked Adam Haslett's stories, but the media fuss seemed misplaced. To my mind there is something just a little showy, and less than fully felt, about the stories in You Are Not a Stranger Here. They're inventive, diverse and impeccably crafted, beyond any argument. But—and I know this is a highly subjective criterion—to me Haslett's stories feel decisively less urgent, less necessary. They may be too diverse; as a group they feel oddly professional in their intent, like a portfolio of work samples designed to demonstrate mastery of a range of modes and subjects.
I think Lost in Translation is going to be a touchstone for all of my thinking about art and storytelling for a while. What it has in common with the amazing stories in Emporium, and what distinguishes them from Haslett's fine, but finally sterile, performance in You Are Not a Stranger Here, is hard to put your finger on precisely. It's in the vicinity of conviction or purpose—whatever all that lovely craft is serving. Encountering Coppola and Johnson's work, I experienced something very like what Terry described here.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, October 14, 2003 | Permanent
Monday, October 13, 2003
OGIC: And then some
Last week, literary blogger Maud Newton wondered aloud whether Lost in Translation was really as good as its press and word-of-mouth suggested. I finally made it to the movie last night [aside: according to the terms of our deal, Terry, you are now bound to see School of Rock, and, we hope, report back here!] and can give Maud my two cents: yes, at least that good.
It's deft and gorgeous. I can't remember ever being so ravished and heartened by a story of, essentially, renunciation. Most of the reviewers I'd read emphasized the film's delicacy, subtlety, understatement—and these are in fact its defining qualities. But this characterization led me to expect a sort of charming, airy soufflé, so I was really knocked down by the emotional wallop the picture ultimately delivered. It's a strangely quiet wallop, one whose force is built up throughout the film slowly and deliberately, but with such a light touch and alongside so many incidental pleasures that you don't see it happening, like in life.
I'm going to see it again as soon as possible.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, October 13, 2003 | Permanent
I never noticed before today that my thesaurus, Roget's International, includes definition-quotations from famous writers for certain words, like "love" and "memory." Some of the bundlings of quotations read like miniature epigrammatic debates.
This example tells a tart little history of the fortunes of the word it explicates:
"good sense delicately put in force"—Chévier, "the microscope of the judgment"—Rousseau, "a fine judgment in discerning art"—Horace, "the literary conscience of the soul"—Joseph Joubert, "the fundamental quality which sums up all other qualities"—Lautréamont, "the enemy of creativeness"—Picasso
And here's HOPE:
"the second soul of the unhappy"—Goethe, "the dream of those who wake"—Matthew Prior, "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul"—Emily Dickinson, "the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man"—Nietzsche
A cynic in every crowd.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, October 13, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Coming attractions, the game
When I was waiting to see Lost in Translation last night, there were plenty of new trailers. This meant a perfect chance to play the thumb game. It's simple: the moment a trailer ends, each participant votes thumbs-up or thumbs-down, Siskel-and-Ebert-style. There are two rules: your verdict must be instantaneous (in demanding a snap decision, this game shares in the spirit of "In the Bag"), and, most crucially, there is no middle ground. Period. A horizontal or flickering thumb is grounds for no popcorn. And that's about it; there's no winning or losing, just the need to publicly commit to a judgment before sussing out what everyone else you're with thinks, and live with the consequences.
The trouble is, these days even trailers for good movies are pretty reliably awful, so anyone voting thumbs-up for anything risks having to absorb a lot of abuse and condescension for the rest of the evening. Depending on how tough the crowd is, and how honest, it can make things more interesting to require each player to vote thumbs-up at least once or twice, no matter how dismal the offerings.
Drastic measures weren't necessary last night, though, since there were a couple of advertised films that actually looked pretty good. Here's my scorecard:
In America: New Jim Sheridan looks faintly autobiographical, but seemingly centers not on Irish starving-artist émigré character but on his New York drag queen neighbors and adorable, open-minded small children. Saccharine and drag queens don't mix. Thumbs down.
21 Grams: Blue-chip cast has Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro, Naomi Watts (here's hoping Robin Wright isn't now considered too old to play her husband's romantic interest, but Watts is close enough to a young Wright to raise the suspicion), director of Amores Perros; cool, trippy trailer is hard to follow, doesn't give too much away. Thumbs way up.
Sylvia: See it to believe it. Crumpled balls of bond paper abound, but no oven in sight. Thumbs on the floor.
Pieces of April: Katie Holmes plays madcap misfit hosting her suburban family for Thanksgiving dinner in East Village or similar. Trailer tries too hard, with many poultry disaster shots, but Holmes is intrinsically appealing and writer-director Peter Hedges pushes this one over the edge. Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. Thumbs up.
I think there were more, but they must have looked neither very good nor too spectacularly awful.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, October 13, 2003 | Permanent
Sunday, October 12, 2003
TT: Ooh, yum! Slurp!
Among other things with which I just caught up was this posting from an anonymous blogger who seems to be suggesting (if I read him right) that OGIC and I are members in good standing of the Cool Lit Club:
Hi. Did you read a lot of books in high school, but secretly thought bullies were kinda cool? Did you enjoy watching them pummel the kids who thought they were being original, when really, they were just being stupid and annoying with their "different" dress and "underground" music? Are you now in your 20s? Fancy yourself a writer? I mean, a real writer, not those arty, navel-gazing fags who only write about their lives? Well, hey, blogging's for you!…
Links. Oh god, this may be THE most important aspect of your blog. You must have an extensive links list. But not just any links list. You must have a CLC-approved links list. A small sample of cool links would include: Gawker; Neal Pollack; The Minor Fall, The Major Lift; Maud Newton; Moby Lives; Book Slut; The Old Hag; Moorish Girl; The Literary Saloon; About Last Night; Boing Boing; Number One Hit Song; etc….
Membership in the CLC is all about how much a------ you can chow down. Shamelessly lick the cornhole of The Minor Fall, The Major Lift. Shamelessly. Once you've pounded that stinky butthole down, move on to Gawker and then Maud Newton. Even though the CLC is all about criticism and snark, never EVER criticize them. They are above criticism…. praise them. Endlessly. Worship them. Pat them all on the back, even though most of what they say is not witty, clever, or even observant. That is not the point. The point is that they're cool. And you want to be cool, don't you?
The part I like is about how I’m in my 20s. As for OGIC, she’s the cool one around here.
I’m in New York for the night, en route from Washington to St. Louis, and I’m severely underslept, so I doubt I’ll be posting anything substantial until Wednesday. This is just to say that I miss the old blog—that’s why I put so much stuff up on Thursday night—and that I promise to make up for lost time with a vengeance once I get back.
I haven’t had my iBook with me (and won’t be taking it to St. Louis, either), and hence was astonished to see how widely my posting on middlebrow culture
was picked up in the blogosphere. Those in the know will recognize it as a snippet from the introduction to A Terry Teachout Reader, the collection of my greatest hits that I just finished indexing. Did I mention that it’ll be out from Yale University Press in April? I did? Several times? Well, in the immortal words of Truman Capote, a boy must peddle his book.
What have I done since you saw me last? I saw Mystic River in Washington and Golda’s Balcony in New York, and will have something to say about both in this space at some point subsequent to my return on Wednesday. I reread the first volume of Gary Giddins’ Bing Crosby biography, about which I will also be thinking out loud. I made notes for other things I want to write, here and elsewhere (including some fresh Top Fives). What I didn’t do was catch up with the blogmail—that’ll have to wait until Thursday and Friday. But as you know, I always answer everything sooner or later, even the dear-sir-you-cir e-mail (of which I don’t get much, believe it or not).
No "In the Bag," either. I just haven’t got the steam. I have dark circles all around my eyes tonight! So I’ll leave you in the elegantly manicured hands of Our Girl in Chicago for now. I’ll seeeeeee you again….