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About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)

Friday, December 1, 2006
    TT: From sea to shining sea

    I decided to see where “About Last Night” was being read before going to bed, and found these cities (among many others) glowing on our Site Meter map of the United States as of midnight:

    • Allentown, Pennsylvania
    • Alpharetta, Georgia
    • Auburn, Maine
    • Bend, Oregon
    • Cherry Hill, New Jersey
    • Cordova, Tennessee
    • Hacienda Heights, California
    • Hattiesburg, Mississippi
    • Hines, Illinois
    • San Marcos, Texas

    Hello, everybody, and good night!

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, December 1, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Broadway's big week

    At last, a hat trick—I praise three new Broadway shows, John Doyle’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, Tom Stoppard’s Voyage, and David Hare’s The Vertical Hour, in this week’s Wall Street Journal drama column:

    In an act of recreative genius, Mr. Doyle has knocked the cobwebs off “Company” and turned it into an utterly contemporary chronicle of marriage and its discontents, one whose implications have never been more immediate.

    Like Mr. Doyle’s 2006 revival of “Sweeney Todd,” this is a small-scale production in which the 14 members of the cast double as their own onstage orchestra, playing everything from piccolo to double bass. It’s no stunt, either: By making their own music, the actors create an atmosphere at once intimate and intense, and Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s astringent new orchestrations strip away all the tired pop-music clichés of Jonathan Tunick’s original arrangements. Add in David Gallo’s appropriately glossy lucite-and-lacquer unit set and Mr. Doyle’s bracingly Brechtian “presentational” staging, in which the performers mostly play to the audience rather than to one another, and you get a show that looks and sounds less like a leave-’em-laughing Broadway musical than an avant-garde theater piece. No, this isn’t your parents’ “Company”—it’s better….

    Tom Stoppard might just be a great playwright, and “The Coast of Utopia,” the trilogy of which “Voyage” is the first installment, may well prove to be a great work of art. That remains to be seen, at least by me, for I haven’t yet been to “Shipwreck” and “Salvage,” the second and third parts of “The Coast of Utopia” (they open on Dec. 21 and Feb. 15). I can already tell you, though, that “Voyage” is that rarest of theatrical experiences, a thrilling play that makes you think—hard.

    Taken together, “Voyage,” “Shipwreck” and “Salvage” constitute a grandiose meditation on the inscrutable workings of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The principal characters, Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup) and Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O’Byrne), were a group of passionately idealistic 19th-century Russian intellectuals who, in a supremely tragic act of historical irony, helped catapult their country out of one tyranny and into a worse one. In “Voyage” we see them as angry young men, at once besotted with art and philosophy and enraged by the rigid authoritarianism of life in Imperial Russia—and at play’s end we watch in horrified awe as they turn fatefully from reflection to action….

    Mr. Stoppard is an artist fascinated by political ideas. David Hare, on the other hand, is a political playwright with artistic instincts, and in “The Vertical Hour” he gives them the upper hand. The result is a show far more convincing than “Stuff Happens,” Mr. Hare’s illustrated lecture on the wickedness of the Bush administration, which played to whoops of self-satisfied delight at the Public Theater earlier this year. “The Vertical Hour” is about the Iraq war, too, but this time around Mr. Hare has gone to the trouble of embedding his opinions in a domestic drama of no small subtlety, and though his characters are symbols, they’re also fully believable as human beings….

    No free link, and I’m really sorry about that—it’s been at least a month since I had anything good to say about theater in New York, and I’d like to get the word out. Fortunately, you can always buy a copy of Friday’s Journal and look up my column in the “Weekend Journal” section, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my review, among countless other good things. (If you’re already a subscriber, the review is here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, December 1, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “We must not dismiss a new poet because his poem is called ‘To a Skylark’; nor must we dismiss a humorist because his new farce is called ‘My Mother-in-Law.’ He may really have splendid and inspiring things to say upon an eternal problem. The whole question is whether he has.”

    G.K. Chesterton, introduction to Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, December 1, 2006 | Permanent link
Thursday, November 30, 2006
    TT: In the mood

    I set my iBook on shuffle play the other night and sat down at the kitchen table to fill up my seven-day pillbox. (Don’t let anybody tell you that the life of a Manhattan drama critic isn’t exciting!) As Aimee Mann started singing “Deathly,” I glanced at the clock, saw that it was eleven, and suddenly found myself remembering a conversation I had thirty-odd years ago with a long-lost college friend. She was a slightly older married woman who had long, ash-blonde hair, thin legs, and a bone-dry sense of humor, all of which I found irresistibly (and unrequitedly) appealing. Those were the days when I was hosting a late-night jazz show on the campus radio station, and my friend remarked that she liked it when I played “eleven o’clock music.”

    “What’s eleven o’clock music?” I asked innocently.

    “Oh, you know,” she said. “Music to…you know. That’s when my husband and I like to do it.”

    This offhand remark promptly triggered a near-incapacitating spasm of jealousy, which doubtless explains why it burned itself into my memory, surfacing without warning half a lifetime later. My friend, as it happens, looked more than a little bit like Aimee Mann, a coincidence that now causes me to smile wryly. Where are you now, dear Lynda? Do you still like to do it at eleven o’clock—and if so, do you still do so to the accompaniment of the coolly bittersweet records I made a point of playing on the radio every Wednesday between eleven p.m. and midnight?

    Love-hungry bachelors of the Fifties and early Sixties were notorious for using jazz and romantic ballads to grease the skids. Frank Sinatra, I’m told, was their artist of choice, though I’ve also been assured by a number of senior citizens in a position to know that Getz/Gilberto was similarly effective. Blake Edwards notwithstanding, I’ve never met anyone who did it to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet or Ravel’s Boléro, at least not more than once.

    As for me, I’ve never been one to play music in intimate situations. Perhaps because I am, or used to be, a musician, I find it distracting, though not so much so that I won’t happily accommodate a companion who feels otherwise. I once dated a woman who found it difficult to get in the mood without a soundtrack, and so I spent a pleasant afternoon creating an iTunes playlist specifically designed to warm her up. Now that the statute of limitations has expired, I can confess that I played an ignoble private joke on her by slipping in a couple of songs recorded by a woman with whom I’d previously been in love (also unrequitedly—I'm good at that).

    I suppose it says something significant about me that while music is one of the most important things in my life—perhaps the most important thing—I don’t find it sexy, and never have. Musicians, yes, if they’re women: I’ve been attracted to more than a few of them over the years, and the snippet of dialogue from High Fidelity that I posted as an almanac entry a couple of years ago is in my case not without autobiographical overtones:

    BARRY: I want to date a musician.

    ROB: I want to live with a musician. She could write songs at home, ask me what I thought of them, and maybe even include one of our private jokes in the liner notes.

    BARRY: Maybe a little picture of me in the liner notes.

    DICK: Just in the background somewhere.

    But even though I’ve long been drawn to women who make music, it’s not their music that draws me, at least not directly. I’ve no idea why I make this odd distinction, and I’m not sure what it means, either, since I’ve never been attracted to a woman who made bad music—yet there it is.

    For me, music exists in a realm infinitely removed from physical sensuality. It is, as the theologians say, “wholly other,” and it seems to me altogether appropriate that it was in a book about a religious conversion, Karl Stern’s The Pillar of Fire, that I ran across one of the few descriptions of music that seems to me at all valid:

    “To talk about music” is a miserable paradox, and contains in four words an admission of incongruity. I remember the embarrassed feeling I had when I read Kierkegaard’s somber theological speculations on Mozart and Don Giovanni. Is Don Giovanni not just a “charming” opera which has a place on the repertoire somewhere with Carmen and The Barber of Seville? Or is it something entirely different, opening up the fathomless abyss of human existence? There is a hierarchy of values, the validity of which cannot be proved by what one calls ordinary means. In this respect, as in others, the Good and the Beautiful are intimately related. To me Mozart’s quartets and Bach’s Well-tempered Clavichord are in essence much more closely akin to Saint Thomas’ Summa than to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, although the latter is music and the Summa is not.

    Be that as it may, I have nothing but respect for those fortunate souls who find music sexually arousing. More power to them, I say, though as I say it I can’t help but think of a story that Mr. Rifftides likes to tell about his old friend Paul Desmond, the celebrated alto saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and a man who by all accounts knew his way around a bedroom, though he wasn’t one to kiss and tell:

    Once when he and I were dining, a corpulent, polyestered, middle-aged couple planted themselves next to us and announced to Paul that they recognized him from an album cover and just wanted him to know that his music sure was good to make love by. Desmond took a long look at the flabby woman in her beehive hairdo and caked makeup, and the man with his paunch and cigar stub, and said, “Glad to be of help.”

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 30, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: So you want to see a show?

    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.

    A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
    Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
    The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
    The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
    The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Dec. 31)

    The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
    Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
    Slava’s Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)

    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (drama, R, adult subject matter and nudity, reviewed here, closes Dec. 9)

    Heartbreak House (drama, G/PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Dec. 17)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 30, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “If we apply to authors themselves for an account of their state, it will appear very little to deserve envy; for they have in all ages been addicted to complaint.”

    Samuel Johnson, The Adventurer, March 2, 1754 (courtesy of Pratie Place)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 30, 2006 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
    TT: The rule of three (plus one)

    Robert Altman, Anita O’Day, and Betty Comden: it was a rocky Thanksgiving for lovers of American art.

    About Altman's death I have nothing much to say, for I respected his films far more than I liked them, and only wrote about one of them, Gosford Park. Our Girl (with whom I saw Gosford Park five years ago) thinks otherwise, and I’m hoping she’ll get around to explaining why at some point.

    I felt much the same way about O’Day, whose hard-swinging, ever-ingenious jazz singing I admired greatly without ever warming to it. I saw her in person twice, once in her prime and once long afterward, blogging about the second occasion without identifying her:

    I recently saw a public performance by a very old artist. No names or details—it wouldn’t serve any purpose—but it was a disastrous, pitiful self-parody of ruined greatness, the kind that leaves a dark and permanent stain of humiliation in the memory. It shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. Yet it did...

    I still recall that performance with retrospective horror, and since then have been exceedingly careful about going to see performers whose time has come and gone.

    My memories of Betty Comden are sunnier, not only because I was an unabashed fan of her work but also because I was lucky enough to interview Comden and Adolph Green, her late friend and lifelong colleague, for a 1999 New York Times profile:

    Sixty-one years after they began working together, it is almost possible to take Ms. Comden and Mr. Green for granted, because they are so much a part of the theatrical air we breathe. Their hit shows, which include ''On the Town,'' ''Wonderful Town,'' ''Peter Pan,'' ''Bells Are Ringing'' and ''On the Twentieth Century,'' have yielded a bumper crop of standards; whenever you sing ''New York, New York, a helluva town'' or ''The party's over, it's time to call it a day'' in the shower, their words are on your lips. In addition, they wrote the scripts for ''Singin' in the Rain'' and ''The Band Wagon,'' by common consent the two finest film musicals to come out of Hollywood since World War II. No less remarkable is the roster of superstars with whom they have worked, including—just for starters—Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Gene Kelly, Mary Martin, Andre Previn, Jerome Robbins and Frank Sinatra….

    One unintended consequence of the drying up of musical comedy as a living idiom has been the welcome opportunity to revisit the best shows of the 40's and 50's. My guess is that the joint reputation of Betty Comden and Adolph Green has only just begun to benefit from that continuing revaluation. But even if their musicals should fail to survive the test of time, I am certain that the elegantly turned, emotionally true lyrics they wrote for such individual songs as ''Lucky to Be Me,'' ''Lonely Town,'' ''Just in Time,'' ''The Party's Over'' and ''Make Someone Happy'' will continue to be sung so long as human beings stubbornly insist on falling in and out of love. To listen as Tony Bennett and Bill Evans turn ''Some Other Time'' into a piercingly rueful monologue about missed chances (''This day was just a token/Too many words are still unspoken'') is to realize, once and for all, that the life's work of the longest-lived writing team in the history of the American theater is far more than just a barrel of laughs.

    I made no secret of the fact that I admired Comden and Green without reservation when I visited them at her Upper West Side apartment six years ago, and they in turn made it known to me that they liked what I later wrote about them in the Times. I wouldn’t change a word of it today.

    Back then “Some Other Time” was my favorite song, and though in recent years I’ve come to love another song from On the Town even more, I have no doubt that there can be no more fitting tribute to Betty Comden than to recall the words she and Adolph Green wrote for the most piercingly beautiful of wartime ballads:

    Twenty-four hours can go so fast,
    You look around, the day has passed.
    When you’re in love
    Time is precious stuff;
    Even a lifetime isn’t enough.

    Where has the time all gone to?
    Haven’t done half the things we want to.
    Oh, well, we’ll catch up
    Some other time.
    This day was just a token,
    Too many words are still unspoken,
    Oh, well, we’ll catch up
    Some other time.

    Just when the fun is starting,
    Come’s the time for parting,
    But let’s be glad for what we’ve had
    And what’s to come.
    There’s so much more embracing
    Still to be done, but time is racing.
    Oh, well, we’ll catch up
    Some other time.

    The world is poorer for her passing.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 29, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Mailbox

    A friend writes, apropos of yesterday’s posting about (among other things) Gone With the Wind:

    It's not my favorite movie either, but I was force-fed it at a very early age because it was one of my mother's all-time favorites. She first took me to see it on the big screen when I was nine—it was still being shown every now and then in movie houses back then and we went any time it was in town or nearby. Didn't think much of the movie at the time—the hospital scene was a little much—but it was cool to witness it on the big screen, complete with intermission. Later I read the book, which I preferred, as it was the perfect summer trash read.

    My mom lived in the movie houses when she was a teenager, watched old movies on television whenever she could and would wax rhapsodic about her favorites. She saw Vivien Leigh in person once, when she was married to Laurence Olivier, and said she looked exactly like Snow White. I became more of a Clark Gable fan myself and always enjoy watching his Rhett. Think I saw it last summer when it was on television and I was on painkillers from surgery. It's still hard to sit through, even under sedation.

    Or when seated on a rowing machine.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 29, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “All of life is a choice of genre.”

    Eve Tushnet, EveTushnet.com

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 29, 2006 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
    TT: From boom to bust

    On Saturday I devoted my “Sightings” column in The Wall Street Journal to a cold-eyed consideration of the desperate state of dance in America:

    Thirty-two million Americans tuned in the other night to see Emmitt Smith, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, win the Cheesetastic Disco Ball Trophy on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." The network claims that the latest episodes of its primetime ballroom-dancing competition were the most widely viewed programs of the current TV season. That's an impressive statistic no matter how you slice it, but it's noteworthy for another, grimmer reason: If you want to see dance on TV, "Dancing With the Stars" is pretty much all there is.

    Things were different in the '60s and '70s, when Edward Villella would fly through the air on "The Ed Sullivan Show" one week and swap one-liners with Tony Randall on "The Odd Couple" the next. Those were the days of the "dance boom," the heady interlude when America was dance-crazy. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Jerome Robbins, Broadway's hottest musical-comedy director, made popular ballets like "Dances at a Gathering" on the side. Even George Balanchine was a celebrity, thanks in part to "Dance in America," the PBS series that introduced a generation of TV viewers to ballet and modern dance.

    Back then, dance was the most glamorous of the lively arts. Now it's the one most in danger of slipping through the cultural cracks. New episodes of "Dance in America" are as rare as funny sitcoms. Mr. Baryshnikov was the last classical dancer to become famous, and he stopped appearing in ballet years ago. As for Balanchine, how many Americans under the age of 40 even know the name of the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, much less that he was as significant an artist as Pablo Picasso or Igor Stravinsky?...

    Now the Journal has posted a free link to this column, which has been stirring up talk. To read the whole thing, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 28, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Multimedia extravaganza

    I may be busy, but that hasn't stopped me from going to the gym every day I'm in town. With the first anniversary of my near-death experience just around the bend, I’m disinclined to get lazy, so even on mornings when I’d rather curl up on the couch and look at the Teachout Museum, I pull on my sweats, plug in my iPod, and hit the road.

    Sunday morning was especially difficult—I’d seen a show the night before and had two more coming up later that day—but I bit the bullet anyway, in part because I was actively looking forward to spending an hour with the latest version of the Terry Teachout Workout Tape:

    • Bill Monroe, “New Muleskinner Blues”
    • Donald Fagen, “Security Joan”
    • Horace Silver, “Opus de Funk”
    • Duke Ellington, “Never No Lament”
    • Abba, “S.O.S.” (a guilty pleasure, I suppose, but it’s still one of the best-made pop singles of the Seventies)
    • Gene Krupa, “Leave Us Leap” (composed by Eddie Finckel, whose son David is the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet)
    • Lionel Hampton, “Haven’t Named It Yet” (on which Big Sid Catlett’s drumming can be heard with exceptional clarity)
    • Pentangle, “Sally Go Round the Roses”
    • Benny Goodman, “Ridin’ High” (the thrilling live version recorded off the air in 1937, which inexplicably got left off my recent list of music that makes me happy)
    • Johnny Winter And, “Rock ’n Roll, Hoochie Koo” (an old high-school favorite, recently downloaded from iTunes)
    • Dave’s True Story, “Sequined Mermaid Dress” (the song that first turned me on to DTS)
    • Flatt & Scruggs, “Six White Horses”
    • Miles Davis, “Seven Steps to Heaven”

    Not only did all these songs give me great pleasure, but for once there was something on the TV monitors at the gym that I didn’t mind seeing: the burning-of-Atlanta sequence from Gone With the Wind. I last saw that grossly overrated movie in 2004, and once again found it wanting:

    The only other costume piece I can think of that uses Technicolor as vividly is John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Clark Gable and Hattie McDaniel are excellent, Max Steiner’s score is wonderful in its old-fashioned way, and the siege and burning of Atlanta are fully as effective—and unexpectedly unsentimental—as I remember them. But Vivien Leigh’s two-keyed performance as Scarlett is wearying, while the script scissors out most of the novel’s ambiguities, such as they are….

    I haven’t changed my mind, but I can report that Gone With the Wind is a good deal more tolerable with the sound off. I especially appreciated the irony of seeing Rhett and Scarlett galloping toward Tara to the accompaniment of Miles Davis, whose opinion of Gone With the Wind is unrecorded but must surely have been unprintable in the extreme. To be sure, I didn’t get to hear Clark Gable’s deliciously growly voice or Max Steiner’s lush score, but I was also spared Vivien Leigh’s flibbertigibbet accent (they really should have dubbed her) and the pitiful minstrel-show antics of Butterfly “I Don’t Know Nuthin’ ’Bout Birthin’ Babies!” McQueen.

    I looked up McQueen’s Wikipedia entry after coming home from the gym, and found it edifying:

    By 1947 she had grown tired of the ethnic stereotypes she was required to play and ended her film career.

    By 1950 she had played another racially-stereotyped role for two years on the television series Beulah, which reunited her with her Gone with the Wind co-star Hattie McDaniel.

    Her acting roles after this were very few, and she devoted herself to other pursuits including study, and received a bachelor's degree in political science in 1975. She had one more role of some substance in the 1986 film The Mosquito Coast.

    McQueen lived in Aiken, South Carolina, and died in Augusta, Georgia, as a result of burns received when a kerosene heater she was attempting to light exploded and burst into flames. A lifelong atheist, she donated her body to medical science and remembered the Freedom From Religion Foundation in her will.

    I like that last detail.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 28, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “Absolute catholicity of taste is not without its dangers. It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art.”

    Oscar Wilde, Pall Mall Gazette, Feb. 8, 1886

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 28, 2006 | Permanent link
Monday, November 27, 2006
    TT: Off-road vehicle

    After what seemed like an endless string of trips to everywhere imaginable, I find myself in New York City once more, a homecoming that reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “going right round the world is the shortest way to where you are already.” I don’t expect to see the inside of another airplane until I go home for the holidays, and that suits me fine.

    When Harry Truman returned home to Missouri after a seven-year stint in the White House, a reporter asked him what he planned to do first. “Take the grips [i.e., suitcases] up to the attic,” he replied. Like Truman, I tossed my trusty rolling tote in the closet on Saturday afternoon, but then I headed straight back out the door. As I mentioned last week, I knew I’d have to fling myself into a marathon of plays and performances the moment I hit the city limits, and the only thing that made it possible for me to face that prospect with reasonable equanimity was the probable quality of the shows I’d be seeing.

    On Saturday, for example, Maccers and I caught a preview of Voyage, the first installment of the American premiere of The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy of plays about the nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals who catapulted their country out of one tyranny and into another. The coming of The Coast of Utopia to the Vivian Beaumont Theater is by definition a major event, not only because we see so little of Stoppard’s work on Broadway (it’s been five-and-a-half years since a new Stoppard play was last performed there) but because this production is crawling with familiar faces (Billy Crudup, Jennifer Ehle, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Brían F. O’Byrne, Martha Plimpton).

    Alas, The Coast of Utopia, as Mr. Playgoer points out, is a fearfully expensive pleasure:

    I've just found my actual tickets stubs from the original Royal National Theatre premiere of Utopia, almost exactly 4 years ago. I flew to London that November for basically a weekend to see all three plays in one day….

    Sure, I spent some money flying over there, but note the prices of my three tickets to the trilogy: Voyage (11am matinee) Ł13; Shipwreck (3:15 matinee) Ł19; Salvage (7:30pm) Ł14. Total: Ł46. The exchange rate then was basically 2-to-1, so let's call that $90. A pretty awesome deal for what were pretty decent seats. (Shipwreck was the splurge.) And that was not a student rate or any special discount.

    At Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont, $90 will just about cover a $65 seat in the balcony. To one of the plays. And only the last two rows of the balcony. The overwhelming majority of seats are $100. So to see all three—which really is essential to appreciating any one of them—will run you anywhere between (not including fees) $235 for sucky seats and $300. Per person….

    By the way, my cheap-deal airfare to London 4 years ago? About $250. So in other words, for just a little more than the price of three downtstairs seats at the Beaumont, I got the same show and a trip abroad.

    I know well how lucky I am to get free tickets to the shows I see (though it hasn’t felt like much of a boon in recent weeks!). Still, I rarely have occasion to think in specific terms about how much civilians pay to go to the theater in New York, and Mr. Playgoer’s bluntly informative posting, which has provoked some interesting reactions in the blogosphere, filled me with dismay. Tom Stoppard, after all, is widely regarded as one of the half-dozen most important playwrights in the world, and for that reason alone any New Yorker who cares about art will want to see all three installments of The Coast of Utopia—but how many of them can afford to do so?

    Similarly bleak thoughts ran through my head on Sunday afternoon as I settled into my $101.25 aisle seat to watch the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, staged by John Doyle in the style of his small-scale production of Sweeney Todd, about which I said extravagant things last year in The Wall Street Journal. That time I took Ms. in the wings, who was in New York on a visit, and this time I took Ms. Litwit, a Sondheim buff of near-fanatical intensity who just moved from Chicago to New York and will doubtless be posting her own reactions to Company in due course. (To find out what I thought of it, come back on Friday.) I also gave her a tour of the Teachout Museum before we headed down to the theater district, and I gather she liked what she saw.

    Sunday was a two-show day for me, but the second show wasn’t on Broadway or anywhere near it: I went to hear the Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard, my favorite New York nightclub. Maria and her band performed some of the music from Sky Blue, the album they'll be recording in January. If you know their work, you won’t be surprised to hear that the results were utterly beautiful.

    I wasn’t the least bit surprised, since I’ve known Maria for years and have written about her music on many occasions, most accessibly in my liner notes for her second album, Coming About:

    Coming About is no ordinary big-band record. You won't hear any blues in D flat, or standard-issue flagwavers with a shout chorus tacked on at the end. The centerpiece, “Scenes from Childhood,” is a suite in three movements that begins with the angry howl of air-raid sirens (simulated on a theremin by baritone saxophonist Scott Robinson) and ends, half an hour later, with iridescent clouds of sound that shimmer into silence. It is one of the most ambitious jazz compositions heard on record in years, and it makes perfect sense when you look at Maria's resumé: she studied composition with Bob Brookmeyer, and spent three years as Gil Evans' musical assistant. From Brookmeyer, she learned how to create large-scale musical structures that add up to more than just a string of solos; from Evans, she learned how to blend instrumental colors with a Ravel-like precision and clarity.

    Working with these two masters of big-band writing inspired Maria to develop a completely original sound of her own. "I think my music has a strong element of fantasy in it," she says, explaining that the inspirations for her compositions are as likely as not to be visual: dreams, paintings, memories. "If I don't have a dramatic plane to put myself on," she adds, "I'm at a complete loss for coming up with notes. Actually, I think of my pieces as little personalities. They're like my kids. After I finish a piece, it takes a while for me to forget the struggle of composing it. Then, all of a sudden, it becomes something separate from me, and the band takes control of it, and shapes and develops it, and it has its own life."

    One of the new pieces I heard on Sunday was in a similar vein: "The Pretty Road," a musical reminiscence of Maria's small-town childhood in which a Coplandesque opening section gives way to an astonishing episode of Messiaen-like onomatopoeia in which she evokes the mysterious sound of bird calls on a starry Minnesota night. I can't think of another jazz composer capable of writing a piece remotely like "The Pretty Road," though I'm increasingly disinclined to use the word "jazz" to describe Maria's unabashedly polystylistic music. As I said in Time magazine a few years ago, “To call Schneider the most important woman in jazz is missing the point in two ways. She is a major composer—period."

    Now I’m back home again, girding my loins for the coming week’s work: I'll be writing two pieces and seeing five more shows and a classical concert between now and next Sunday night. The good news is that I’m looking forward to all these events, especially the concert, a Sunday matinee at which Richard Stoltzman and the Amelia Piano Trio will be playing Paul Moravec’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy. (If you’re interested, go here for more details.)

    I plan to blog in between shows and deadlines—I haven’t spent nearly enough time with “About Last Night” in recent weeks—so watch this space to find out how things are going.

    See you tomorrow.

    P.S. Even when I'm at my busiest, I try to roll over the Top Five and "Out of the Past" picks fairly frequently. You'll find some new ones in the right-hand column.

    UPDATE: To read Ms. Litwit's thoughts on Company, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 27, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "The desk calendar was turned to a date weeks ago, evidence of her indifference. As for copybook maxims there was one printed on the calendar, 'Thursday the 12th. Darkness Comes Before Daylight.' She could not help smiling, leafing through the pad for further philosophic gems, but why smile when the Platitude was the staff of life, the solace for heartbreak, the answer to 'Why' even though the oracle spoke in the priest's own hollow voice. Underneath the woes of the world ran the firm roots of the platitudes, the calendar slogans, the song cues, a safety net to catch the heart after its vain quest for private solutions."

    Dawn Powell, The Locusts Have No King

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 27, 2006 | Permanent link
Friday, November 25, 2005
    TT: Here be lizards

    It’s Friday, and I’m a drama critic again! Today’s Wall Street Journal contains my reviews of the Broadway revival of Seascape and a Baltimore production of Hay Fever:

    Edward Albee is back on Broadway. “Seascape” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 but flopped at the box office (it ran for only 63 performances). Now Lincoln Center Theater is putting on a revival directed by Mark Lamos and playing for six weeks at the Booth Theatre, Broadway, “The Light in the Piazza” having tied up the company’s own Vivian Beaumont Theater for an unexpectedly long run. Though “Seascape” is no masterpiece, it’s being performed in a masterly way, and you could do a lot worse than to spend an evening watching Frances Sternhagen and George Grizzard make magic out of it.

    Ms. Sternhagen and Mr. Grizzard play Nancy and Charlie, a married couple on the far side of middle age who can’t agree on what to do with the rest of their lives (she longs to comb the beaches of the world, he wants to settle down in one place and take it easy). As they sit on an unidentified beach and bicker about their future, they are unexpectedly accosted by Sarah and Leslie (Elizabeth Marvel and Frederick Weller), a pair of giant talking lizards who, feeling a vaguely uneasy sense of “not belonging anymore,” have crawled out of the ocean to see how the other half lives….

    What do you think of when you think of Baltimore? My list would include H.L. Mencken, crab cakes, Camden Yards, John Waters, “The Wire” and the Matisses at the Baltimore Museum of Art—but not live theater. At least not until last Saturday, when I paid my very first visit to Centerstage and saw a performance of Noël Coward’s “Hay Fever” that not only impressed but delighted me….

    No link. To read the whole thing (and please do), buy a copy of this morning’s paper, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which is such a megadeal.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 25, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Art, American style

    Here's a sneak preview of my next "Sightings" column, which will be published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal:

    What do the music of Aaron Copland, the dances of Paul Taylor, the paintings of Stuart Davis and the novels of Willa Cather have in common? They’re all American—and all-American. You can’t listen to five bars of “Appalachian Spring,” or read a paragraph of “My Ántonia,” without catching the tangy scent of American modernism. It’s as familiar as the smell of wood smoke on a cold November evening....

    Needless to say, there's much, much more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 25, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Briefly noted

    • My brother just filed for re-election to the city council of Smalltown, U.S.A. He's running unopposed. I don’t know what you think, but I think that’s just about as cool as it gets.

    National Review Online asked several of the magazine’s longtime contributors, myself included, to recommend books, both new and old, for Christmas gifts. Go here and scroll down to see my suggestions.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 25, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Rerun

    Thanksgiving 2004:

    To be sure, the one thing a new friend can never do for you is say I knew you when, and I find it rather sad that there are so few people in my life who can speak those words. None of my closest friends in Manhattan knew me when: we didn’t meet until after I’d figured out who I was and what I wanted to become. On the other hand, the friends of our youth present their own problems. They are part of the train of memories that we all pull behind us, the one that grows longer with each passing day, and for that reason harder to pull….

    (If it’s new to you, read the whole thing here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 25, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Eugene O'Neill's total earnings in 1922, the year in which The Hairy Ape and Anna Christie were both running on Broadway: $44,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $455,461.84

    (Source: Library of America, Eugene O'Neill: Complete Plays)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 25, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of habit."

    W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 25, 2005 | Permanent link
Thursday, November 24, 2005
    TT: So you want to see a show?

    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.

    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)
    The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes Mar. 26, reviewed here)
    Sweeney Todd* (musical, R, adult situations, strong language, reviewed here)
    The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
    The Woman in White* (musical, PG, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

    Orson's Shadow (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, very strong language, closes Dec. 31, reviewed here)
    Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)

    Absurd Person Singular (comedy, PG, adult subject matter, closes Dec. 18, reviewed here)
    Bach in Leipzig (comedy, G, too complicated for any but the brightest children to follow, closes Dec. 18, reviewed here)
    Hamlet (drama, PG, adult subject matter, closes Dec. 11, reviewed here)
    See What I Wanna See (musical, R, adult subject matter, explicit sexual situations, strong language, closes Dec. 4, reviewed here)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 24, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Thoughts for today

    • “There are very few men and women, I suspect, who cooked and marketed their way through the past war without losing forever some of the nonchalant extravagance of the Twenties. They will feel, until their final days on earth, a kind of culinary caution: butter, no matter how unlimited, is a precious substance not lightly to be wasted; meats, too, and eggs, and all the far-brought spices of the world, take on a new significance, having once been so rare. And that is good, for there can be no more shameful carelessness than with the food we eat for life itself. When we exist without thought or thanksgiving we are not men, but beasts.”

    M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf

    • “Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people.”

    Samuel Johnson, Tour to the Hebrides

    • “Gratitude is the most exquisite form of courtesy.”

    Jacques Maritain, Reflections on America

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 24, 2005 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
    TT: Thanks for the memory

    This is my favorite moment from Citizen Kane:

    A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.

    I’m old enough to have memories like that, isolated flashes of recollection that light up the darkness of the past so intensely that you catch your breath. What’s more, I’ve found that the younger I was when the remembered event occurred, the more exact is my recollection today. Not long ago I ran across a CD reissue of a record I hadn’t heard in thirty years, the 1955 J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding performance of Let’s Get Away From It All, and I realized as I listened that I remembered the entire arrangement note for note, all the way from the intro to the shout chorus.

    Much the same thing happened last night as I watched The Carol Burnett Show: A Reunion on Bravo. I was barely in my teens when I saw the skit in which Tim Conway played a maladroit dentist who injected himself repeatedly with novocaine while attempting to pull one of Harvey Korman’s teeth. I only saw it once—maybe twice—but when I viewed it again for the first time in decades, I was astonished to find that my recall of the skit was all but total.

    I'm sure this says something about the receptivity of young minds, but I wonder if perhaps it might also tell us something equally important about the nature of art. Here is James Stewart, speaking to a British Film Institute interviewer in 1972:

    I'm beginning to believe that, in films, what everyone is striving for is to produce moments—not a performance, not a characterization, not something where you get into the part—you produce moments that create a feeling of believability to what you're doing….

    I was making a Western in British Columbia and we were on the Columbia Icefields. It was raining and there was heavy mist around, so we couldn't shoot, so we were all huddled around a fire. Suddenly, out of the mist, came a man, and he was not a young man. He had a beard—it wasn't exactly a beard, he just hadn't shaved for a while—and he was a miner type, he was dressed like a miner. He came closer to us and he said, “Which one of you is Stewart?”

    “I am.”

    He came over and looked at me and said, “Oh, yeah. Yeah. I recognize ya. Well, I heard you was here, and I thought I'd come up and say hello. I've seen a lot of your picture shows, but I think the one I liked best—you were in this room and your girlfriend was in the next room and there were fireflies outside, and you recited a piece of poetry to her. I thought that was a nice thing for you to do.”

    And I remembered exactly the moment, exactly the film, who was in it, who directed it, and I also realized that that picture had been released twenty years before. That man made a tremendous impression on me. To think that I had been part of creating a moment that this man had liked and had remembered for twenty years. I'll never forget it. That's what I mean by the moment.

    I know what he means—now. I’ve become Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane, a middle-aged man with a head full of fireflies, perfectly remembered pinpoints of laughter and sorrow, ecstasy and humiliation, that crowd my consciousness without warning. Would that I also had a few flashes of life-changing insight tucked into my album of mental snapshots, but I guess that’s not how memory works. No doubt I, too, will be thinking of Tim Conway when I’m on my deathbed, or the way Van Cliburn played “The Star-Spangled Banner” when I heard him give a recital at the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium in 1978, or the shy smile on the face of a pretty girl I once met by arrangement in a bookstore, not knowing what she looked like until the very moment of our meeting.

    I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl, or heard Bach’s Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele playing in my head, or recalled the greasy tang of the hamburgers my family used to eat at the SEMO District Fair each fall. A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember, once he passes over the great divide and starts to make his way down the far side of the mountain.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 23, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Mr. Jelly Roll, unexpurgated at last

    I’m in The Wall Street Journal today with a piece about Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax, a newly released box set from Rounder Records:

    "When I was down on the Gulf Coast, in nineteen-four, I missed goin' to the St. Louis Exposition to get in a piano contest...."

    To the jazz aficionado, those prefatory words, spoken in a careworn Creole accent, are as evocative of a lost world as "You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' but that ain't no matter." Jelly Roll Morton said them on May 23, 1938, sitting at a grand piano in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington, sipping whiskey and softly vamping away at a tune of his own composition called "Alabama Bound." Sitting nearby, discreetly manipulating two portable disc recorders, was Alan Lomax, a young musicologist employed by the Library of Congress who had had the brilliant idea of inviting Morton to talk about the origins of jazz.

    Now Rounder Records has released Morton's recorded reminiscences in an unabridged form for the first time on an eight-CD set called "Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax." It is to jazz what the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is to American history—only more fun….

    No link. To read the whole thing, buy a copy of this morning’s paper, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal. It’s a steal.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 23, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Advance paid to William Faulkner by Smith & Cape in 1929 for The Sound and the Fury: $200

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $2,160.94

    (Source: Jay Parini, One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 23, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "It is now 16 years since my first book was published, & abt 21 years since I started publishing articles in the magazines. Throughout that time there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, & that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a book, or turning out 4 or 5 articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time. I can never get any sense of achievement out of the work that is actually in progress, because it always goes slower than I intend, & in any case I feel that a book or even an article does not exist until it is finished. But as soon as a book is finished, I begin, actually from the next day, worrying that the next one is not begun, & am haunted with the fear that there will never be a next one—that my impulse is exhausted for good & all. If I look back & count up the actual amount that I have written, then I see that my output has been respectable: but this does not reassure me, because it simply gives me the feeling that I once had an industriousness & a fertility which I have now lost."

    George Orwell, 1949 notebook entry (courtesy of Rick Brookhiser)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 23, 2005 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
    TT: Beating the bushes

    Just in case you didn't hear it the first time:

    On December 6, I’ll be teaming up with litblogger Maud Newton and Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker for a joint performance at Makor, the Upper West Side outpost of the 92nd Street Y. Our subject is “The Art of Online Criticism.”

    Says the press release:

    Cultural critics find themselves in the same predicament as other members of the traditional media who now must play a new game. Hear three influential critics who write both online and for print discuss how the cultural conversation is evolving and what the future holds when everyone's a critic.

    Bryan Keefer is the moderator. The show starts at seven p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.

    For more information, or to buy tickets online, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 22, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Total budget for NBC's original 1955 telecast of Jerome Robbins' musical version of Peter Pan: $700,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $4,809,290.57

    (Source: Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik, Watching TV)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 22, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "As soon as I realized that some lawyers were paid more than others, I knew there was no justice.”

    Frank Sheed (quoted in Wilfrid Sheed, Frank and Maisie: A Memoir With Parents)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 22, 2005 | Permanent link
Monday, November 21, 2005
    TT: Off the road again

    As usual, the joint's been jumping since last we met. I took Supermaud to hear Hilary Hahn at Carnegie Hall last Thursday. On Friday I went down to Broadway for the press preview of Edward Albee’s Seascape, then hopped a train to Baltimore the next morning to catch a performance of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever and visit Tim Page of the Washington Post, Dr. Paul McHugh of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (who has a major new book coming out next month), and Laura Lippman (whose latest mystery was published a few months ago).

    Needless to say, that was my idea of a relaxing weekend, and no less needless to say, it wasn’t. Yes, I enjoyed every minute of it, but I crammed way too much activity into not nearly enough time, and by the time I returned to the Teachout Museum on Sunday, I was right back where I'd started in the Great Slow-Down-And-Get-A-Life Initiative, i.e., Square One. Nor does it help that I have two Wall Street Journal pieces due before the close of business on Tuesday, arrgh.

    The good news is that I have nothing whatsoever to do on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, other than dining chez Good Enough to Eat (the ultimate concession to singletonianism) on Thanksgiving Day. What’s more, I mean to keep those seventy-two hours uncluttered by any means necessary, up to and including taking the phone off the hook and pouring molten lead on anyone foolhardy enough to knock on my downstairs door.

    For all these reasons, don’t be surprised if I don’t post too much this week, O.K.? When you're a workaholic, less is more.

    P.S. Found in a fortune cookie delivered to my apartment this evening:


    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 21, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Fee paid to Bernard Herrmann by RKO in 1940 for scoring Citizen Kane: $10,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $133,070.95

    (Source: Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fire's Center)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 21, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “Bigotry does not mean believing that people who differ from you are wrong, it means assuming that they are either knaves or fools. To think them so is an immediate convenience, since it saves us the trouble of analyzing either their views or our own. ‘Christians are right, pagans are wrong,’ says the Song of Roland. If we have to answer the other people and find that we can’t, then our bigotry grows more intense. It can turn to hatred: and one can reach the lowest point of all—measuring our loyalty to our own cause by our hatred of theirs.”

    Frank Sheed, The Church and I

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 21, 2005 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
    TT: Rearview mirror

    Alas, the time stamp on this posting is all too accurate: I just finished writing a Commentary essay on Haydn and still have to knock off another piece before I can pack my bag and make ready to fly back to Smalltown, U.S.A., where I’ll be spending Thanksgiving with my family. The car comes for me at 9:15, and I’ll be picking up a rental car of my own at the far end of my flight, there to drive two hours south to the house where I grew up. Seeing as how I don’t expect to spend much time in bed tonight, I’m likely to get a little sleepy on the way to Smalltown, and I’ve promised my mother that I’ll pull off the highway whenever I feel the telltale signs of somnolence. I will, too: I can’t think of anything much dumber than falling asleep at the wheel on your way home for Thanksgiving.

    Quite a few of you wrote to tell me that I made you cry yesterday, so I’m happy to report that I’m in a much better frame of mind this evening (or, rather, this morning). My mother got a good report from her doctor earlier today, and a half-hour after I talked to her, I got a call from a friend who just landed a job for which she’d been longing with all her heart. Even without those two pieces of news, I would have been properly thankful for my myriad blessings, but now I can go home with a genuinely cheerful heart, sleep or no sleep.

    You’ll have to do without me until next Tuesday: I’ve decided to be sensible and leave my iBook in Manhattan, where it belongs. Fortunately, Our Girl, who is out of town but not computer-free, just wrote to tell me that she plans to post a bit this week, so you won’t be entirely alone.

    I should mention before I go that I count all of you among my blessings. I love this blog and I love your e-mail, some of which I actually managed to answer a few hours ago! I’m almost over the flu, too—I even made it to the gym on Tuesday morning, though I felt like a vampire who’d just crawled out of his coffin of native earth after an exceptionally long stay. Be that as it may, I’m out of the woods, for which still more thanks.

    Now I have to get back to work. My car will be arriving eight hours from now (it’d better, anyway!), and my guess is that I’ll need most of that time to get ready, if not all of it. I guess I’ll sleep in Smalltown. Meanwhile, like the Stage Manager says, you get a good rest, too. Good night.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 24, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o'clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-that's and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: 'Are you going to the Ordways'? the Herseys'? the Schultzes'?' and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

    "When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

    "That's my Middle West—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life."

    F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 24, 2004 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
    TT: Thanksgiving service

    Few happy days are entirely unspotted by melancholy. I just had an exceptionally fine one, and my mailbox overflowed with congratulations by the time it was done, but I couldn’t help thinking of departed friends with whom I would have rejoiced to share my good news, and how they would have rejoiced to hear it. As I remembered them, I thought of the stark confession Dr. Johnson made in the preface to his Dictionary: “I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.”

    Those are terrible words, and in Dr. Johnson’s case they might almost have been true, for he was thinking of his wife, who was forced to live in harsh discomfort because of the paralyzing sloth that kept him from finishing his great work until after her death. He was racked with guilt as a result, and the preface to the Dictionary reflects that guilt. But was it really true that he had “little to fear or hope from censure or from praise”? I doubt it. Dr. Johnson was a very great man, but great men are still men, and few of them are wholly indifferent to the kind words of friends and colleagues, even if they wish to be thought so.

    In any case, most of us, however curmudgeonly we may pretend to be, acquire at least a few younger friends as we grow older, in part because it is a comfort—a relief, really—to know people who take you at face value. Old friends know too much about you to do that. I noticed a few years ago that most of my closest friends were younger than I am (two of them are half my age), and briefly wondered what that said about me. Was I seeking to feed off their vitality? Did I hunger for the uncritical admiration of a student for his teacher? Or was I simply following the predictable path of a normal life, in the course of which we sort out our friends and acquaintances over time, picking new ones and pruning old ones in the light of our growing self-knowledge? All of the above, I suspect, and I’m not so sure that there’s anything bad about it. I love my new friends, sometimes selfishly and sometimes not, just as Dr. Johnson didn’t let his pretended indifference stop him from warming his hands at the fire of Boswell’s admiration.

    To be sure, the one thing a new friend can never do for you is say I knew you when, and I find it rather sad that there are so few people in my life who can speak those words. None of my closest friends in Manhattan knew me when: we didn’t meet until after I’d figured out who I was and what I wanted to become. On the other hand, the friends of our youth present their own problems. They are part of the train of memories that we all pull behind us, the one that grows longer with each passing day, and for that reason harder to pull. “The friend of your youth,” Robert Penn Warren wrote in All the King’s Men, ”is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist anymore, speaks a name—Spike, Bud, Skip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave—which belongs to that now non-existent face but by some inane and doddering confusion is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger." Old friends knew you when, but new ones know you now, and now is when it is and where you are.

    Which brings me full circle, back to those absent friends who will never know me now. I miss them all, one or two with a keenness undulled by the passage of time. How I wish they could have seen what they missed—just as I wish I could have seen what they missed. But there’s no point in longing for what you can’t possibly have, especially since I’m as grateful as a man can be for what I do have: the perfect job, a handsome apartment whose walls are crowded with beautiful works of art, and a couple of dozen beloved friends who give me more joy than I deserve. I’d trade every piece in the Teachout Museum for any one of them. They are what I treasure most.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 23, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult."

    Hippocrates, Aphorisms

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 23, 2004 | Permanent link
Monday, November 22, 2004
    TT: Consider yourself warned

    Says Modern Kicks:

    Anyone caught posting after, say, 7 PM Wednesday evening or before 1 PM next Monday is officially a pathetic, internet-addicted loser.

    Well, that tears it: I’m definitely not taking my iBook home for Thanksgiving!

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 22, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: I'm the Honorable Mr. So-and-So!

    I just got a call from the National Endowment for the Arts informing me that the Senate has confirmed my nomination to the National Council on the Arts by a unanimous voice vote. I’ll go to Washington to be sworn in some time between now and the next NCA meeting in March.

    I blogged about my nomination back in July, and you can read all about it here. Briefly, President Bush appointed me to the civilian panel that advises the NEA and its chairman, Dana Gioia. It is, needless to say, a great honor—an opportunity to give something back to the arts after a lifetime of pleasure and profit—and I will do my best to be worthy of it. I couldn’t be more grateful to the President, the Senate, and my old friend Dana.

    In case you’re wondering, I’ll still be writing about the arts for whoever cares to put up the money, and “About Last Night” will soldier on as outspokenly as ever.

    This part, by the way, will make you laugh: the NEA tells me that anyone who receives a presidential appointment that is confirmed by the Senate is thereafter entitled to be called “the Honorable,” as in the Honorable Terry Teachout. I myself prefer Nancy Mitford’s less formal usage: I’m a Hon!

    And now…back to work. I still have a few counter-Hons to slay before I can go home for Thanksgiving, and just because I’m now a Hon doesn’t mean my three deadlines have been extended by presidential fiat. We’ll crack open the champagne later.

    UPDATE: I've already gotten one phone call from a friend asking if I can also be called "The Right Honorable Terry Teachout." Straight answer: I think that usage is strictly for Brits. Funny answer: Only when I am.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 22, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: The latest syllables of recorded time

    A diary of recent events in Teachoutworld:

    FRIDAY: Spoke about All in the Dances at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and was given a private view of “Ballets Russes to Balanchine: Dance at the Wadsworth Atheneum,” a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of original costumes and set designs for such legendary ballets as Les Noces, Prodigal Son, and Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps (including a costume hand-painted by Matisse). More next week, but for the moment I’ll just say that anybody with more than a casual interest in twentieth-century ballet will find this show, which runs through Jan. 2, jaw-droppingly good.

    SATURDAY: A triple-decker day. Went to Knoedler & Company and looked at Onrushing Waves, the Milton Avery exhibition. Then to the nearest movie theater to see Sideways, about which Our Girl was soooo right: it couldn’t have been better. Then to Broadway for a preview of Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance, followed by dinner and a fast cab home, where I watched two stockpiled episodes of What’s My Line? on the DVR (Steve Allen just joined the panel) and went to bed way too late.

    SUNDAY: Maccers, my blogstalker, came to my Barnes & Noble signing last Tuesday (incognito, but I found her out), so I e-mailed her an invitation to a Broadway preview. She turned up her fine nose at a glitzy musical, forcing me to up the highbrow ante several thousand notches with Sheridan’s The Rivals, to which she said yes. Updated the Top Five with four fresh items, including a heartfelt paragraph about the Avery show. (See the right-hand column for details.) Lunched quickly and dirtily on the fly, called my mother in Smalltown, U.S.A., from the street, then saw two back-to-back off-Broadway shows, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and Woody Allen’s A Second Hand Memory. Called Our Girl the second I got home to discuss Sideways. Knocked out a quick posting for Monday (you're reading it). The loft beckons.

    And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? Well, I have three pieces to write (two shorts and a long) before I head for LaGuardia on Wednesday morning to fly home to my family for Thanksgiving. Between meals, I plan to sleep. No blogging, though—you’ll be on your own from Wednesday through next Tuesday.

    How about you?

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 22, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "If acting is a creative art—if it is—then it is perfectly reasonable to demand for it conditions similar to those of the painter or the writer: the right, that is, to make a mess, to splash around, to make drafts and sketches, to have a wasterpaper bin at your side. In any creative activity, art is madness, craft is sanity. The balance between them makes the work."

    Simon Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 22, 2004 | Permanent link
Thursday, November 27, 2003
    TT: Almanac

    "A bad word from a colleague can darken a whole day. We need encouragement a lot more than we admit, even to ourselves."

    Orson Welles, letter to Peter Bogdanovich, c. 1968-72

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 27, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Out of here

    I'm shutting down the shop until Sunday night, and so far as I know Our Girl won't be posting until then, either (though I'll be delighted if she does).

    If you're around on Friday, be sure to buy a Wall Street Journal and look up my review of Wonderful Town, which will run in that day's "Weekend Journal" section. I can't tell you what it says, but I promise it'll be worth reading.

    In the meantime, have a happy Thanksgiving. We'll see you next week.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 27, 2003 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
    TT: The new centurions

    We just registered our 100,000th hit. I wonder who it was? Anyway, yay!

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 26, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Fair's fair

    A reader writes:

    With regards to your skeptical blog post about Bill Clinton's favorite books, you might want to take a peek at this old story about a dinner between Bill Clinton and Gabriel García Márquez.

    By all accounts, Clinton knew his great books inside and out, and I'd be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

    Click the link—the piece is definitely worth reading, and even taking seriously, up to a point.

    On the other hand, it also leads me to suspect that like most artists, Seńor Márquez doesn’t know a tongue bath when he’s on the receiving end of one. Neither, of course, did the artists whom John Kennedy, by all accounts a first-class philistine, buttered up so assiduously back in the days of Camelot.

    Here's a word to the wise. When receiving praise from politicians, sing along with me: it ain't necessarily so....

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 26, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Classics and commercials

    In case you've forgotten or hadn't heard, my most recent book, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, is now out in trade paperback—and still available in hardcover. Either way, it makes a good gift (or so I’ve been told).

    If you like "About Last Night," I’d say there’s a better-than-even chance that you’ll like The Skeptic, and that your friends will, too. Don’t take my word for it, though: the reviews were staggeringly enthusiastic, as you can see for yourself by going here.

    I blog for free but write for a living. If you’d like to support both causes, think about giving The Skeptic for Christmas, or buying a copy for yourself if you don’t already have one.

    To purchase the paperback, click here.

    To purchase the hardcover edition, click here.

    We return you now to our regularly scheduled blog.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 26, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Everybody likes the idea of Cary Grant. Everyone thinks of him affectionately, because he embodies what seems a happier time—a time when we had a simpler relationship to a performer. We could admire him for his timing and nonchalance; we didn’t expect emotional revelations from Cary Grant. We were used to his keeping his distance—which, if we cared to, we could close in idle fantasy. He appeared before us in his radiantly shallow perfection, and that was all we wanted of him. He was the Dufy of acting—shallow but in a good way, shallow without trying to be deep. We didn’t want depth from him; we asked only that he be handsome and silky and make us laugh."

    Pauline Kael, When the Lights Go Down

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 26, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Out there on your own

    A reader writes, apropos of a posting about reviews in which I suggested that "reviews should be read after the performance, not before, mine included":

    I don't agree completely with your point about reading a critic only after the performance. If you've followed a critic for any substantial length of time, you know with some precision where your tastes and his intersect and where they diverge. You know his enthusiasms, his antipathies, his idiosyncrasies. In short, you can often tell from what he thinks of a work whether or not you're going to like it. In this way, he can be quite useful to you as a consumer guide. And reliable guidance about what is worth seeing or reading is essential, for how is the ordinary guy (who doesn't have the time or resources to make many mistakes) to know which new novelist to pick up or which new cabaret performer to seek out without the help of his favorite critics?…

    But of course you should always return to a good critic after experiencing the work. He can illuminate it, enlarge the experience, or put his finger on why you found it unsatisfying. For me, comparing insights and thoughts with my favorite critics is half the fun.

    My correspondent has a very good point. I sometimes forget that I don’t pay to see Broadway shows (or anything else, except movies). In a perfect world, everybody would experience art without first having it explained: no program notes, no wall labels, no interviews with the author, and—above all—no reviews. You’d go simply because you were interested, because you made a habit of going to see new things. Then, after the immediate experience, you’d seek out further information to help you put that experience in perspective (or, as my correspondent remarks, simply for fun). I think it’s hugely important to make a serious and sustained effort to come to new works of art this way. But in order to do so, especially when you’re talking about Broadway shows, you’ve got to have (A) a lot of spare time and (B) a lot of spare money. Otherwise, it’s essential to call your shots, if only to avoid bankruptcy, and good reviewers can help.

    Can, I said. How often do they help? How often do consumers routinely use reviews in that way—as a "consumer guide"? For me, the problem is less one of money than time. It's my job to attend all Broadway openings, so I don’t need a guide to theater, nor do I typically look to reviews to point me in the direction of a new symphony or jazz album or museum exhibit. Movies, yes, in certain circumstances: there are one or two critics whose word is enough to send me to a new film. (I saw Next Stop Wonderland solely because of Stephen Holden’s review in the New York Times.) More often, though, it’s a profile of an artist that stimulates me to see or hear something I would otherwise have passed up. (That’s why I went to see Ghost World—because of a New Yorker profile of Daniel Clowes that appeared prior to the film’s release.) Sometimes I go because a description of the plot made me curious (as in the case of Chasing Amy), or because the buzz has become too loud to ignore (as in the case of Lost in Translation). Most often, I go to new things at the urging of friends whose taste I know and trust, Our Girl foremost among them.

    So I suppose I was offering a counsel of perfection when I suggested that reviews should be saved for after the fact. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to at least approximate the ideally receptive state that comes from experiencing art objects stripped of the intervening scrim of words. Above all, try to trust yourself, to feel what you feel, not what you think you ought to feel. Granted, if you don’t like Bonnard or The Four Temperaments or Falstaff or The Great Gatsby (the book, not the opera) or Charlie Parker’s "Embraceable You," you’re the problem, not the art—but that’s no reason to pretend you feel otherwise, merely to keep trying to see what others see.

    I’ll close with another almanac encore, this one from Kingsley Amis: "All amateurs must be philistines part of the time. Must be: a greater sin is to be coerced into showing respect when little or none is felt." Yes.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 26, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Light up the sky

    "About Last Night" received approximately 4,000 page views on Tuesday, a thousand more than our previous all-time record, set last Friday.

    What's more, Our Girl and I expect to rack up our 100,000th hit at some point in the next day or two (that's since we first went live on July 14).

    Those numbers are pretty amazing for a new arts blog. Really amazing, in fact. So much so that I don't quite know what to say other than thanks to you all, from the bottom of my heart.

    Having said that, I must now add that you probably won't see many new postings here, if any, on Wednesday. OGIC has pet problems, and I'm beset by two very bad deadlines. Still, I'll try to get something up, if only out of gratitude.

    And now to bed. Look what time it is! I have pieces to write, and I need to get some sleep. See you later.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 26, 2003 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 25, 2003
    TT: Which Edward Gorey book are you?

    Go here to find out, if you dare. (I wanted to be The Lavender Leotard, naturally, but it seems I’m The Gashlycrumb Tinies, sigh.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 25, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: The price of eggs

    One of the most interesting aspects of Jane Austen’s novels is that she always makes sure you know how much money the characters have—only how much is it, really? I recently caught up with a posting on the Web site of an economist that poses, and answers, this question in one celebrated case:

    So how rich is Fitzwilliam Darcy, anyway? What does ten thousand (pounds) a year in the aftermath of the Napoleonic War mean, really?

    I have two answers, the first of which is $300,000 a year, and the second of which is $6,000,000 a year….

    Read the whole thing here.

    While I’m at it, kindly allow me to plug one of my favorite Web sites, Inflation Calculator, an on-line form which (in the words of its inventor) "adjusts any given amount of money for inflation, according to the Consumer Price Index, from 1800 to 2002." That may sound dry as dust, but spend just 30 seconds playing with Inflation Calculator and I bet you’ll have it bookmarked in 35. I used it frequently in writing The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, and I commend it wholeheartedly to any writer—novelist, journalist, whatever—who ever has occasion to compare what things cost in 1865, or 1925, or five years ago, to what they cost now.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 25, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT and OGIC: New around here, stranger?

    It's another mega-heavy-traffic day here at "About Last Night," meaning it's more than likely that some of you are visiting us for the first time. To find out more about where you are and who we are, click here to read an archived posting that tells all. Or simply work your way down the right-hand column, which is crammed full of information about this page and its two co-bloggers.

    Either way, we’re delighted you stopped by. If you liked what you saw, come back tomorrow...and bring a friend. The easy-to-remember alternate URL is www.terryteachout.com, which will bring you here in a jif (as, of course, will the longer address now visible in your browser).


    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 25, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Other rooms

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about Joni Mitchell, a greatly gifted artist to whom I no longer warm, in part because of her self-absorption and humorlessness. (The older I get, the more distance I try to put between myself and anyone who lacks a sense of humor.) Yet once in a while a song of hers bobs to the surface of my consciousness—usually because somebody else is singing it—and I remember why I used to spend hours and hours listening to her music, back when the world was young.

    I mention this because a jazz musician I know has been singing "Black Crow" (from Hejira), and now I can’t get its angular tune and strangely off-center harmonies out of my head:

    There's a crow flying
    Black and ragged
    Tree to tree
    He's black as the highway that's leading me
    Now he's diving down
    To pick up on something shiny
    I feel like that black crow
    In a blue sky

    I took a ferry to the highway
    Then I drove to a pontoon plane
    I took a plane to a taxi
    And a taxi to a train
    I’ve been traveling so long
    How’m I ever going to know my home
    When I see it again
    I’m like a black crow flying
    In a blue, blue sky

    I love the Great American Songbook with all my heart—and yet there are so many other songs that long to be played and sung. This is one of them.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 25, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Hugh Kenner, R.I.P.

    How ironic that Hugh Kenner’s obituaries should be appearing on the same day that I published a piece about Warner Bros. cartoons that made mention of his elegant little monograph about Chuck Jones, creator of the Road Runner. He was a distinguished critic and a great gentleman, and will be greatly missed.

    Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s New York Times obituary, incidentally, ends with the following paragraph:

    Nor, surprisingly, did he deplore the decline of print as our main medium. "We forget that most of what people read when everybody read all the time was junk — competent junk," he told U.S. News & World Report. "Now they get it from television. The casual entertainment people get in the evening from the box was what they used to get from the short fiction in The Saturday Evening Post. That magazine and others like it were the situation comedies and cop shows of their era. It is not a cultural loss that this particular use of literacy has been transferred from one medium to another."

    A very smart man.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 25, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: A gaffe is when someone tells the truth

    Everybody in the theater business is going to be talking about this New York Times interview with Ned Beatty, who is co-starring (brilliantly) with Ashley Judd and Jason Patric in the current Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:

    Ned Beatty is a movie star himself, though not the big box-office kind. And he says Broadway has come to rely too heavily on celebrities, thrusting them into challenging roles they do not have the acting chops to handle.

    Tucking into a plate of shrimp scampi after a recent matinee — hold the angel-hair pasta, per the Atkins diet, please — Mr. Beatty engaged in a candid assessment of his co-stars. He said he very much liked his glamorous colleagues personally: Mr. Patric, best known for the film "After Dark, My Sweet," and Ms. Judd, who starred in "Ruby in Paradise." He simply thinks, he said, that they are ill equipped for their parts: Brick, a brooding, boozing former athlete mourning his friend's death, and Maggie, his long-suffering wife who craves his attention.

    Mr. Beatty said of Ms. Judd: "She is a sweetie, and yet she doesn't have a whole lot of tools. But she works very hard."

    And of Mr. Patric: "He's gotten better all the time, but his is a different journey."

    Read the whole thing here, instantly.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 25, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: I even managed to quote Santayana

    My Wall Street Journal piece about Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes Golden Collection is in print, as of this morning. Here’s a snippet:

    "What an ultramaroon." "You’re…dethpicable." "Hmm. Pronoun trouble." "Of course you know this means war."

    Ring any bells? No? Well, try this one on for size: "Ehh, what’s up, doc?"

    If that phrase doesn’t make you feel like gnawing a carrot, you’re probably not a likely buyer of "Looney Tunes Golden Collection," a four-DVD set containing 56 of the finest Warner Bros. cartoons from the golden age of big-studio animation. Otherwise, get ready to laugh yourself silly.

    The Warner animated shorts of the ’40s and ’50s have long been a gaping hole in the fast-growing DVD catalogue. No more. Now you can revel in crisp, clear prints of such classic cartoons as "Rabbit of Seville" and "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century," plus a full set of the bells and whistles without which no self-respecting DVD set is complete….

    The future of animation belongs to the wizards of Pixar, and the day will surely come when they triumph over their computer-enhanced technique instead of being swamped by it. But when the last ink bottle is empty and the last paint brush has been put away for good, Bugs and Daffy will still be with us, one sly, the other spluttering, just as Wile E. Coyote will never stop chasing the Road Runner. They are as obsolete as a silent movie by Buster Keaton—and as imperishable.

    There’s lots more where that came from. Read the whole thing here.

    If for some inexplicable and unacceptable reason you haven’t yet purchased Looney Tunes Golden Collection, purge yourself by clicking here.

    Don’t be an ultramaroon—do it now.

    P.S. If that's not enough to hold you for one day, 2 Blowhards has a really smart post on Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 25, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Don't read the whole thing there!

    A witty, well-read reader with a macabre streak who noted my dislike of Dickens e-mailed me the following excerpt from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, a favorite book I haven’t revisited for a number of years:

    One day, running his thumb through the pages of Bleak House that remained to be read, Tony said, "We still have a lot to get through. I hope I shall be able to finish it before I go."

    "Oh yes," said Mr. Todd. "Do not disturb yourself about that. You will have time to finish it, my friend."

    For the first time Tony noticed something slightly menacing in his host's manner. That evening at supper, a brief meal of farine and dried beef, eaten just before sundown, Tony renewed the subject.

    "You know, Mr. Todd, the time has come when I must be thinking about getting back to civilization. I have already imposed myself on your hospitality for too long."

    Mr. Todd bent over his plate, crunching mouthfuls of farine, but made no reply.

    "How soon do you think I shall be able to get a boat?…I said how soon do you think I shall be able to get a boat? I appreciate all your kindness to me more than I can say but…"

    "My friend, any kindness I may have shown is amply repaid by your reading of Dickens. Do not let us mention the subject again."

    "Well I'm very glad you have enjoyed it. I have, too. But I really must be thinking of getting back…"

    "Yes," said Mr. Todd. "The black man was like that. He thought of it all the time. But he died here…"

    If you know the book, you know the moral of the story. Terrible things can happen to those who read Dickens! Don't let them happen to you....

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 25, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Those who cannot do, write novels

    Apropos of all our recent postings on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a reader sent me this wonderful story from the San Francisco Chronicle about Patrick O’Brian, on whose Aubrey-Maturin novels the film was based:

    The vivid, seafaring novels of Patrick O'Brian have been getting lots of attention since the release of the big-budget movie "Master and Commander." And they were doing all right without the movie: According to O'Brian's editor at Norton, Starling Lawrence, even before the movie came out O'Brian's books sold 4 million copies. "We're not exactly under a rock," he says.

    But as popular as the tales of Lucky Jack Aubrey and his notoriously unseaworthy friend and shipboard physician Stephen Maturin are among readers, they are especially revered by real wind-and-mast sailors. To them, O'Brian speaks the secret code of the sheeted main, the furled jib and the main topgallant staysail.

    "I've sailed all my life," says Bay Area venture capitalist Tom Perkins, speaking by phone from his vacation home in England, "and O'Brian never made a mistake about the wind or the sails."

    Which is why it was such a surprise that when Perkins took O'Brian on an extended sailing trip, he had a startling revelation. O'Brian didn't have a clue about how a sailboat worked.

    "That was the amazing thing," Perkins says today, still a little incredulous. "He didn't know anything about sailing."…

    Read the whole thing here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 25, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "I am sad today over the death of Lady Elgar. I am very fond of Edward, and I know that, whatever people may say, to a man of his fine and sensitive nature, the severance of a long tie like this must inevitably mean much bitterness and suffering, much dwelling in the past and self-reproach. We always seem heavy debtors to the dead: we feel they have not had their chance and that life has given us an unfair advantage over them."

    Ernest Newman, letter to Vera Newman, Apr. 7, 1920

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 25, 2003 | Permanent link
Monday, November 24, 2003
    TT: Post hoc

    A reader writes, apropos (I think) of my Wall Street Journal piece on The Producers:

    My $85.00 evening at the Ahmanson, Los Angeles, was very enjoyable. I laughed, giggled, and smiled. I am so glad that in my many years of theatregoing I have never read a review prior to seeing the production.

    Amen to that! I think reviews should be read after the performance, not before, mine included. And even then, don’t let critics tell you what to think. I’ve known too many critics to take their opinions too seriously. A critic’s point of view is just that—a point of view. The theory, of course, is that he knows more than you and thus can enhance your enjoyment of the art object under consideration, but it ain’t necessarily so. Here’s an almanac encore, from C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism, a book I passionately commend to your attention: "If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him."

    Having said that, though, I must add that a goodly number of the people who wrote to me about my comments on The Producers, possibly including my present correspondent, have somehow gotten the mistaken impression that I didn’t think the show was funny. When readers misunderstand me, I usually take it for granted that I failed to make myself clear, but in this case I don’t think I’m to blame. I said The Producers was out of date, not unfunny, and I described it as "nothing more (or less) than a virtuoso reminiscence of the lapel-grabbing, kill-for-a-laugh shtickery on which so much of the stand-up comedy of my youth was based." Does that really sound like I didn’t think it was funny?

    I sometimes wonder whether the professional deformation of bloggers is the sort of black-or-white opinionizing that leaves no room for carefully shaded qualifications. Around here, OGIC and I do our best to say exactly what we mean, at least at the moment we're saying it.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 24, 2003 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Chicagocentric

    Next Wednesday afternoon, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris will speak about his work at the University of Chicago, an event that is free and open to the public. Details are here. Later that night, the university's Doc Films will present a special screening of Morris's new film The Fog of War, which comes highly recommended. As far as I can tell, tickets to the screening will be available following the lecture and can't be ordered ahead of time. No ticket price is mentioned; sounds free to me.

    I'm skipping town tomorrow, but the aforementioned Doc Films has a full plate of good stuff for the Chicago-bound this turkey week: there's Satyajit Ray's The Branches of the Tree Tuesday, Peckinpah's Wild Bunch Wednesday, a Hitchcock/Buńuel double feature on Thanksgiving, and last summer's sleeper Swimming Pool Friday.

    I'd like to be better about keeping on top of all the fabulous cultural events going on around this fair city, but it's going to remain pretty catch-as-catch-can. For literary events, however, Sam at Golden Rule Jones has you covered. His site offers a frequently updated list of readings and talks, and some nice literary coverage to boot. An instant bookmark for Chicago litworm types.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, November 24, 2003 | Permanent link
    OGIC: The heiress?

    I'm such a hopeless hedgehog. Probably half my blogging on About Last Night has been about Henry James or Lost in Translation, and I've been trying to give these topics a rest. But there's too much interesting stuff about James floating around the internet lately to pass up.

    Aaron Haspel over at God of the Machine has a brilliant little piece—provoked by what Terry and I wrote here and here—on why Henry James continues to be so popular in the books-into-movies game:

    James only seems literary because, especially in the late novels, he is constantly trying to catch the precise attitudes of his characters toward each other, reflected not just in their conversation but their gestures and thoughts and tiny inflections.

    Having given a sample passage from The Awkward Age, he goes on:

    The passage is lovely in its way, but James is attempting something to which what James Baldwin called the "disastrously explicit" medium of prose is completely ill-suited. Half of it is stage directions, and it could be done better, and more compactly, with movie actors who can follow such directions-which admittedly is asking a lot. James tried, unsuccessfully, to write plays, but the stage, where the actors have to project to the back row, is still too histrionic for what he has in mind. What he needed was the talkies. If James had been born a century later I'm guessing he would have done most of his writing for film, and maybe tossed off a few novels in his spare time.

    This sounds right, and after reading it I was struck with sudden insight into my love of Lost in Translation: Sofia Coppola's movie is a really very Jamesian pleasure. It does in visual language what James, in Aaron's account, bumped up against the limits of prose trying to do in his novels.

    Aaron's account of James's modus operandi sheds real light on the success of Lost, which is clinched in the final scene. That scene is just saturated with feeling, and despite all its layers—joy, grief, hope, irony, loss—it manages not to be crushing, but somehow aloft. It is a rich, extraordinary moment. But it is made possible by the accumulated emotional content of many ordinary scenes that preceded it, in which nothing seemed to happen (golfing, flower-arranging, a great deal of staring out of windows).

    Doesn't this start to sound like the classic complaint about James? Nothing happens—and it takes pages and pages not to happen. But I think he was up to something very much like Coppola is. He tried to capture in detail the psychic weather in which his characters acted. He did so by making the reader familiar with even their most fleeting, fugitive sensations and associations—to the extreme fatigue of many readers, but not mine. In the later novels, if you pay your dues, and follow the tortured syntax and absorb all of the complex relations, then you stand to be rewarded at the end, when a simple gesture, look, or word—loaded with meaning beforehand—makes everything fall apart or come together. It can blow you right over.

    I'm as surprised as anyone to find myself comparing Henry James to Sofia Coppola, but I'm convinced that the movie is Jamesian in both narrative strategy and temperament. Furthermore, I would love to see Coppola try her hand at writing and filming an adaptation of one of the more recalcitrant James works, like What Maisie Knew or "In the Cage" (which has made me cry). Both of these highly interiorized works consist almost entirely of those "gestures and thoughts and tiny inflections" that Aaron pinpointed, and yet both have tremendous dramatic capacity. So how about it, Sofia?

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, November 24, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: That other prize

    In all the welter of blogosphere postings about the Stephen King-Shirley Hazzard dustup at the National Book Awards ceremony, insufficient attention has been paid to Carlos Eire, who won the nonfiction award for Waiting for Snow in Havana (I was one of the judges). Now the New York Times has rectified that—somewhat—by publishing an excellent interview with Eire:

    For most of his adult life Carlos Eire had tried to run away from Cuba. The island was his only briefly, for 11 years, before the Cuban revolution ushered in a world of heartache in which he was separated from his parents and spent years of hardship in the United States.

    "I still think it's an evil place, and there's nothing I can do to fix it," said Mr. Eire, the new winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction for "Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy" (Free Press/Simon & Schuster). "The best thing I could do was to think that it was an accident I was born there."

    Read the whole thing here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 24, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Backstage pass

    Last week, I got a call from a record-company publicist who asked if I’d be willing to do an "EPK" with a well-known musician—I’ll call her Jane Doe. "Duh, what’s an EPK?" I replied, and was informed that it stands for "electronic press kit," the canned celebrity interviews that are made available to TV and radio producers in lieu of face-to-face personal appearances. The actual interviewer—that is, the person asking the questions—is carefully scissored out of the videotape, leaving only the talking head of the celebrity in question.

    I’m a journalist, not a publicist, and I normally wouldn’t have thought twice about saying no, but Jane happens to be an old friend of mine (we met before she became successful). Since she spends most of her time on the road, we rarely get to see one another, so I agreed to be the mystery interviewer, and the record company promptly messengered over a top-secret "white-label" advance copy of Jane’s new CD, which will be released next spring.

    I put the album on, and was staggered. I knew it would be a major stylistic departure for Jane—I’d talked to her longtime producer about it a few months ago—but even so, I wasn’t fully prepared for how self-revealing, even confessional, her music had become. As I listened and marveled (for the album is extraordinarily beautiful), I thought to myself, How on earth am I going to talk to Jane about this in front of a TV camera?

    The record company sent a big black car to pick me up Sunday morning, and the driver whisked me to the discreet front door of a boutique hotel on a midtown side street. I made my way to a chic sardine can of a room into which had been stuffed an entire video crew. A few minutes later, Jane arrived, trailed by her assistant and her stylist. (Don’t laugh—famous women musicians never step in front of cameras without first being fussed over by a stylist.) We hadn’t seen one another for two years, but no sooner did she walk through the door than we were hugging and chattering, just as if she were fresh off the bus, hoping to make it in the big city. I told her I'd become a drama critic, and she giggled and said, "Not like Addison DeWitt, I hope!" (Jane has seen All About Eve more times than any straight person I know.) Once her makeup was in place, we sat down in a pair of high chairs, and after what seemed like a half-hour’s worth of tinkering with the lights, the cameraman rolled the tape.

    Like many performers, Jane is shy, which sometimes causes her to seem standoffish. In addition, she’s learned from hard experience to be on her guard when talking to journalists. For her to speak frankly about so personal a work of art would thus have been difficult under the best of circumstances. Yet there we were, brightly lit and surrounded by a tight knot of technicians and handlers, and for a brief moment my heart sank. Then I screwed up my courage and asked a question, and within a matter of minutes we might just as well have been sitting together in an empty room, swapping stories and passing a bottle. We talked about the record, the experiences that inspired her to make it, and everything else that came into our heads. She came close to getting choked up at one point, and my own eyes filled with tears in response.

    The cameraman signaled for us to take a break so that he could change reels. "Omigod, was that too much?" Jane asked. "I feel weak in the knees after talking about all that stuff. I’ve never really talked about it like that. Was I rambling? Did I sound dumb?" She ran to the bathroom to fix her face, and I let out a sigh. As a Kingsley Amis character once put it, I felt as if I’d just sat through a complete performance of La Traviata compressed into one and a half minutes. (It took a little longer than that, but you know what I mean.) Jane returned, the cameraman rolled the tape again, and we wrapped up the interview. More chatter, more hugs, then I descended to my waiting car and we went our separate ways.

    As I headed home, I recalled a passage from one of my favorite books, André Previn’s No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood:

    I have never heard of a jazz musician complaining, "You never even called me once," or "Where have you been?"

    It’s not for lack of caring or that they aren’t glad to see you, but chances are they haven’t been that easy to find either, so why be accusatory? Only six months ago I went back into a recording studio to make the first jazz album I had made in twenty-five years, and I had taken out fail-safe insurance in the presence of Ray Brown, the indefatigable and brilliant bassist, and Joe Pass, a guitarist whose technique and inventiveness leave his colleagues open-mouthed. I knew them both well, I had worked with both of them a generation earlier, and we had been friends at that time. I walked into the studio, a quarter century of classical concerts later, and was instantly received with the kind of relaxed warmth usually based on twice-weekly dinners. Lots of jokes, some reminiscing, some future planning, and a great deal of music making. I can’t remember an easier record to make, and I went home in the early hours of the morning with my nerves quiescent, my blood pressure down, and in a generally euphoric fog.

    Most of my friends are musicians of one kind or another, and I used to be one myself, so I know what Previn is talking about. I didn’t go home feeling euphoric—the interview had been too intense for that—but once again, I marveled at the mysterious ability of artists to pick up the threads of friendship after a long separation. I marveled, too, at the way in which Jane and I had somehow managed to shut out the world and talk. Perhaps this, too, is a special gift of performers, the gift of emotional concentration, for it is something they must do nearly every night of their lives.

    At any rate, it’s an amazing album. And yes, I really do have the best job in the world…except for my friend Jane. She’s got me beat.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 24, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Gentlemen, do you want to know the secret of living? Have deep principles and then improvise."

    Leopold Stokowski, quoted in Oliver Daniel, Stokowski: A Counterpoint of View

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 24, 2003 | Permanent link
Sunday, November 23, 2003
    TT: A message from the skies

    Click here to read what Greg Sandow wrote the other day about the experience of listening to Jean Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Then go thou and do likewise. If you don’t have a recording, this is the best one. (I’m listening to it right now.) When you hear it, you’ll understand what Sibelius meant when he wrote, "God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony."

    Thanks, Greg.

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, November 23, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Concordance

    Dear OGIC:

    I'm with you, almost completely. None of the artists you mentioned rings the bell for me, least of all Godard (whom I've always thought to be wildly overrated). As for Picasso, I said my say about him when I reviewed the Museum of Modern Art's "Matisse Picasso" show for The Wall Street Journal:

    In the visual arts, the race has always been between Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and Picasso has always been the front-runner. Certainly Americans, with their puritan distrust of beauty, have typically favored his relentless experimentation to Matisse’s less obviously innovative stylistic pilgrimage. Even now, Picasso’s paintings look modern to the least tutored eye—you can’t help but come away from them secure in the knowledge that you’ve been challenged with a capital C—whereas it is perfectly possible to skate happily atop Matisse’s luscious, angst-free surfaces without feeling the slightest need to come to grips with the existential problem of…well, anything. (That’s why Picasso’s "Guernica," which wears its antiwar message like a bumper sticker, is far better known than any Matisse painting. It’s modern art for modernists who don’t like art.)

    Rarely has an artist done more harm to his own reputation than Matisse did when he declared that he wanted his work to serve as "a kind of cerebral sedative as relaxing in its ways as a comfortable armchair," a remark as subtle and misleading as T.S. Eliot’s observation that Henry James had "a mind so fine no idea could violate it." You have to think hard about it to understand how profound it is, just as you have to look hard at Matisse’s paintings to see how radically original they were, and are....

    Picasso’s painting is the work of a spiritual contortionist who twists the visible world into angry patterns that betray his interior fury; Matisse, the disciplined sybarite, tells us instead of his joy.

    My Dickens problem, on the other hand, vexes me. I know I'm missing something good, and can't seem to find a way around it (whereas I'm perfectly happy to be deaf to whatever good there is in the music of Wagner). Maybe you can set me straight.

    Obviously I now need to up the ante by making a confession of significantly higher voltage. So, um...well...how about this? I wouldn't lose a bit of sleep if all the German paintings in the world vanished first thing tomorrow morning. Poof.

    Top that, you piker.

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, November 23, 2003 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Laying it on the line

    Dear Terry:

    In answer to your challenge issued here, I've sweated a bit, but I'm ready to come clean. And, by the way, Michael Blowhard's original post is an excellent and useful reminder that we don't have to bend our tastes to love everything of value. I'm sure you've noted all the interesting responses he's been getting in his comments section. Some definite patterns have emerged (and things have gotten more than a little heated).

    For writers, I'll play my Virginia Woolf and William Blake cards.

    Painters? Picasso, Renoir, Gauguin. Several years ago I might have said Monet, but the big show that passed through Chicago a while back reminded me that his paintings are not equivalent to their bland reproductions on a million coffee cups and mouse pads. But I might still cite his series paintings—making an exception for those enormous, very late water lilies.

    Among filmmakers, I've seen a lot of Godard movies without chomping at the bit to see any of them again (well, maybe Breathless, but just for its iconicity). Films that fall into this category are harder for me to think of than anything else. It's a seductive medium. And, more so than with other art forms, I tend to believe that if I don't like a film, it's just not that good. Can you make any sense of that?

    On Dickens we'll have to agree to disagree. Maybe we're reading different Dickens, but that man makes me laugh out loud. When he is sharp, he is very, very good, but when he's sentimental he's horrid. For me, the former outweighs the latter.

    Whack—back into your court!

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Sunday, November 23, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Rarely on Sunday

    I could change my mind, but I'm not planning to post anything new today, having been obsessively active yesterday. Instead, I've updated the "Teachout's Top Five" and "Teachout Elsewhere" modules of the right-hand column (and yes, I know it took me long enough). Browse at your leisure. I'll be back tomorrow.

    Rumor has it that OGIC has something up her elegantly tailored sleeve, but I could be wrong. She never tells me anything! So I'll know when you do....

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, November 23, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "One speaks flatly, without thinking, of a Platonic or Aristotelian system, or of a Thomasic system, in spite of the fact that these thinkers would have raised their hands in horror at the idea that their empirical exploration of reality could ever result in a system. If anything was ever clear to a thinker like Plato, who knew to distinguish between the experiences of being and of not-being and acknowledged them both, it was that for better or for worse reality was not a system. If therefore one constructs a system, inevitably one has to falsify reality."

    Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, November 23, 2003 | Permanent link


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