“Three Days of Rain” is one of those trick plays in which (A) the members of the cast play two parts apiece, themselves and their parents, and (B) the action runs backward in time. In the second act, set in 1960, we meet Ned and Theo (Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper), a pair of budding young starchitects about to build their first house, and Lina (Julia Roberts), the Woman They Both Love. In the first act, set in 1995, we watch their grown children quarreling over who gets the now-famous Janeway House. This being a Richard Greenberg play, they all spend the evening foaming at the mouth with glib one-liners that aren’t half as clever as the author thinks (“My mother would be with us too, of course, but she’s, um, like, well, she’s sort of like Zelda Fitzgerald’s less stable sister”), while we spend it trying to guess which one of them will turn out to be gay.
Mr. Greenberg’s plays bore me silly, but they sure are popular: “Three Days of Rain” is the second of three to be produced in New York this season. This one puts Ms. Roberts on stage for the better part of two and a half hours, which is asking too much of someone who’s never done any live theater, much less a Broadway show. She’s not bad in the first act, in which she plays a haggard Boston matron with two kids and a dull husband, but as for the second…well, you can still see the smoke wafting upward from the crash site….
Seventy-one years ago this February, the Group Theatre, a preternaturally earnest ensemble of Stanislavsky-worshipping leftists, set up shop at the Belasco Theatre, where they presented a new play by an up-and-comer named Clifford Odets. On Monday “Awake and Sing!” returned to the Belasco in its first Broadway revival since 1984, just in time for the Odets centenary, in a flawed but sumptuously well-acted production whose defects do not conceal the play’s enduring excellence….
The Roundabout Theatre Company has just opened a production of “The Threepenny Opera” aimed at theatergoers who’d rather be seeing “Cabaret.” Alan Cumming, who played the emcee in the Roundabout’s much-admired 1998 revival of “Cabaret,” is back again, this time as Mack the Knife, the toughest thug in Soho, who has been magically transformed into a bisexual punk whose “girlfriends” include a drag queen (Brian Charles Rooney). Most of his colleagues are dressed in leather, and the décor is 100% neon. Did I mention that this “Threepenny,” like “Cabaret” before it, is being performed at Studio 54, once the most decadent disco of the ’80s?
All these oddities notwithstanding, it strikes me that Scott Elliott, the director, has made a good-faith attempt to update “Threepenny” while remaining faithful to the spirit of Bertolt Brecht’s ferocious parable of capitalism run amok. Wallace Shawn’s new translation, if not nearly so poetic (or singable) as the now-standard Marc Blitzstein English-language adaptation, successfully conveys the acrid flavor of Brecht’s German text, and Mr. Elliott’s staging is unmistakably Brechtian in style (albeit in an occasionally self-conscious way)….
No link, so get thee to a newsstand, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with on-the-spot access to the complete text of my review, plus plenty of extra art-related coverage.
"Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being 'somebody,' to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation. One can either see or be seen."
If you should happen to find yourself within reach of the 1996-2005 Best of the South collection of short stories, for goodness sake, pick it up and read the last story, Stephanie Soileau's "The Boucherie." It's only cricket for me to disclose that I knew the author way back when, and it's only true to say that way back then I already loved her writing, eagerly devouring any I could get my hands on, and foresaw great things for her. Her voice is fresh and easy and intoxicatingly funny in a way that's both sharp and gentle. Here are the opening paragraphs of this entirely wonderful story:
Of course it would be exaggerating to say that Slug had so estranged himself from the neighborhood that a phone call from him was as astonishing to Della as, say, a rainfall of fish, or blood, or manna, and as baffling in portent. Still, as Della stood, phone in hand, about to wake her husband, Alvin, who was sleeping through the six o'clock news in his recliner, she sensed with a sort of holy clearness of heart that what was happening on the television—two cows dropping down through the trees and onto somebody's picnic in the park—was tied, figuratively if not causally, to the call from Slug. "Mais, the cows done flew," she thought.
The anchorwoman for the Baton Rouge news announced that a livestock trailer carrying over a hundred head of cattle on their way to processing had plunged over the entrance ramp's railing at the Interstate 10 and Hwy 110 junction that morning. The driver had been speeding, possibly drunk, though definitely decapitated. More than a dozen cattle were crushed outright. Several others survived the wreck only to climb over the edge of I-110 and drop to their deaths in the park below, while the remaining seventy-or-so, dazed and frightened, fled down the interstate or into the leafy shelter of the surrounding neighborhoods, followed by a band of cowboys called in for the impromptu roundup.
As for the rest of the story, let's just say that one of those cows brings a neighborhood together in the most unexpected way, and that you should read it. "The Boucherie" originally appeared in StoryQuarterly, where it was spotted by Shannon Ravenel and selected for New Stories from the South 2005 before being selected by Anne Tyler from among the last ten volumes of New Stories for this super-anthology and earning the anchor position therein. Brava! We'll hear more from Ms. Soileau, I'm certain.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, April 20, 2006 | Permanent
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 either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
BROADWAY: • Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Lieutenant of Inishmore (black comedy, R, adult subject matter and extremely graphic violence, reviewed here, now in previews for a Broadway reopening on May 3)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult subject matter, 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 spring rush has started. I saw three plays last week, and this week I have four more on my plate: The Importance of Being Earnest tonight, Lestat on Thursday, The History Boys on Friday, and The Wedding Singer on Saturday. In between I’ve been chipping away at the fifth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong (the rough draft is finished, but I’ve only edited about half of it so far) and reading the newly arrived second volume of Stephen Walsh’s Stravinsky biography, which will be published on April 25. Next week I have three pieces to write and two more shows to see.
None of this is especially surprising. May 10 is the cut-off date for Tony Award eligibility, meaning that Broadway producers are cramming in lots of big-ticket opening nights between now and then. Having been The Wall Street Journal’s drama critic for the past three years, I’m used to it, or ought to be. It is, however, my first spring rush since my recent illness—or, to put it more precisely, since I recovered from my recent illness—and even though I’ve never felt better, I’m also more aware than usual of the potential dangers of running myself ragged, especially given the fact that I’m going to be doing more out-of-town reviewing this summer than ever before. (Look out, America, here I come!) To this end I’ve been husbanding my energies in between previews, deadlines, and visits to the gym: I'm staying home whenever possible and, as you’ve doubtless noticed, blogging less frequently.
Today is so beautiful, though, that I can’t very well ignore the blandishments of the weather, so I’m planning a picnic in Central Park with a friend, after which we might just stroll across the park to a museum and look at paintings. Or not: I’m in an improvisational mood. I don’t have any more deadlines until next Tuesday, and so long as I make it to Brooklyn by 7:15, it doesn’t matter what else I do. That’s a nice feeling.
Anyway, all this is simply a roundabout way of letting you know why you haven’t been hearing from me lately. I’m still here, I’m just fine, and I’ll be back.
"Happy are they who don't doubt themselves and whose pens fly across the page. I myself hesitate, I falter, I become angry and fearful, my drive diminishes as my taste improves, and I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well-proportioned paragraph."
Gustave Flaubert, letter to Maxime Du Camp (October 1847)
My current read is Allegra Goodman's Intuition, which is proving hard to put down. Here's a nicely crafted, gently damning paragraph in which Dr. Sandy Glass tries to comfort himself about his daughter's decision not to go to medical school:
So she'd get her master's degree in the history of science, Sandy mused. She'd finish up her little project and apply for medical school the year after. Robert Hooke was fine; he was eccentric; eccentricity was all the rage in med school applications. English majors, musicians, writers. Sandy had served his time on the committees. Harvard loved that kind of thing. She would be a doctor in the end. He knew it. Louisa was no soft-spoken library researcher. No math-fearing patsy. She was his son.
I love Goodman because she gives a character like this (father of three daughters, in case you hadn't guessed) every chance, really she does, and when they waste their chances, she so cleanly severs the jugular.
On Saturday afternoon I went to Studio 54, where I saw Alan Cumming and Nellie McKay in The Threepenny Opera. Then I strolled down to Penn Station and boarded a train that whisked me away to New Jersey, where I spent most of the rest of the weekend visiting another country, the land of babies and backyards and Weber grills, whose citizens commute to "the city" and work at nine-to-five jobs, then come back to the suburbs and their families. Except for the commuting part, it might almost have been Smalltown, U.S.A., the place where I grew up.
Once I expected to live a life like that, and even after I moved to Manhattan I thought I would someday return to a world not greatly dissimilar to the one into which I was born, the same way that so many of the people I met in my first years as a New Yorker ended up doing. It didn't occur to me that I was committed to a radically different way of living, or that by the age of fifty I would have traveled so far down another road that it was no longer possible to go back.
It's been a long time since I paid an overnight visit to suburbia, and I happily admit to having found it pleasant. I sat on a patio yesterday morning, sipping a drink, basking in the sun, and looking at a pair of robins. Then I came back inside the house, where two small children were sitting patiently in front of the TV, waiting for their mother to pop Alice in Wonderland into the VCR. I glanced at the screen and saw the quivering, slightly fuzzy image of a half-dozen ballet dancers.
"Huh," I said out loud. "That's 'The Unanswered Question.' It's from George Balanchine's Ivesiana."
"How's that again?" my hostess asked.
"Oh, nothing," I answered. "It's just a ballet I like." It was as if I'd been handed a telegram: COME HOME ALL IS FORGIVEN. She started up the movie and I drifted into the kitchen. A couple of hours later I made my way to the train station, full of home cooking and feeling unexpectedly wistful.
I suppose it's within the realm of possibility that I might move away from Manhattan someday, and it's even possible that I might take up residence in the suburbs, but neither course of action seems at all likely at this point. It appears that I've found my niche: I am a boulevardier, a middle-aged aesthete who lives in an art-crammed apartment half a block from Central Park and spends his weekends sitting on the aisles of Broadway theaters. Instead of raising a family, I write books. Would I have it any other way? No, though it might be more exact to say that I can't imagine it any other way—except when I catch a glimpse of the the life I might have lived. I doubt that very many of us are unselfconscious enough to be altogether free of second thoughts at times like that.
Even Louis Armstrong, a profoundly unselfconscious man who loved his life and had every reason to do so, sometimes wondered what it might have been like had he gone down a different road:
I’m always wondering if it would have been best in my life if I’d stayed like I was in New Orleans, having a ball. I was very much contented just to be around and play with the old timers. And the money I made—I lived off of it. I wonder if I would have enjoyed that better than all this big mucky-muck traveling all over the world….You know you don’t have no fun at all if you get too famous. I mean, for a lot of years now, I don’t have but a few nights off, and I can’t go no place they don’t roll up the drum, you have to stand up and take a bow, get up on the stage. And sitting in an audience, I’m signing programs for hours all through the show. And you got to sign them to be in good faith. And afterwards all those hangers-on get you crowded in at the table—and you know you’re going to pay the check.
If Satchmo could think such thoughts on occasion, surely I can be forgiven for admitting to harboring similar ones after spending a weekend in deepest New Jersey. But even though they crossed my mind yesterday afternoon, I still took the 3:50 back to Penn Station and returned in due course to the Upper West Side, where I spent the evening curled up on my couch, reading about Bertolt Brecht and listening to the Schumann D Minor Piano Trio.
That's my life, and I'm sticking to it, even if I never mow another lawn or own another car. You can't have everything—and I have enough.
Take a look at the “Sites to See” module of the right-hand column and you'll notice some drastic changes, mostly inspired by the fact that our roster of artblogs had grown unmanageably long.
As an experiment:
• We've broken the first section of the blogroll, formerly known as Artblogs, into seven different categories: Litblogs, Randomblogs (i.e., blogs that roam unpredictably across the cultural map), Schoolblogs (i.e., art-oriented blogs with a specifically academic slant), Screenblogs, Sightblogs (i.e., blogs about the visual arts), Soundblogs, and Stageblogs (i.e., blogs about theater and dance). If "About Last Night" were part of our roll, it'd be a Randomblog.
• The second section of the blogroll now contains three kinds of art-oriented non-blog sites: Artists, Critics, and Art Links.
• The third section is devoted to Other Blogs (i.e., interesting blogs that occasionally touch on artistic matters but are primarily about something else).
• The fourth, media-oriented section contains three categories: Media/Gossip, Radio (i.e., art-oriented sites maintained by radio stations or specific radio programs), and Print (i.e., art-oriented sites maintained by magazines and newspapers).
• Last is a section of miscellaneous Useful Sites.
Recent additions to the blogroll are followed by an asterisk (*).
Once again, this is an experiment, and thus subject to extensive tinkering. No doubt some blogs belong in categories other than the ones in which they’re presently found, and we’ll move them there sooner or later. In addition, we’ll keep on adding promising-looking blogs and sites on a trial basis as we stumble across them. (Don’t hesitate to tell us about anything you’d like to see on our blogroll.)
Above all, our hope is that subdividing “Sites to See” into a larger number of categories will help you use it more effectively. Conversely, our fear is that organizing the artblogs by subject matter will cut down on the frequency with which you explore blogs that might be slightly off your beaten path. Remember that the whole point of “About Last Night” is to encourage cultural cross-pollination. Keep that in mind as you troll up and down our blogroll.
Let us know what you think. We want “Sites to See” to be useful to you—and we read our mail.
UPDATE: OGIC just had a brainstorm, as a result of which we've changed "Randomblogs" to "Omniblogs." Much better.
I had a great week at the theater: three shows, three winners. Granted, I’d already seen and liked two of the shows in question, but good is good, right?
Anyway, here’s the weekly teaser for my Wall Street Journal drama column, which leads off with a slightly qualified but nonetheless definite rave for The Pillowman:
The National Theatre of Great Britain has shipped yet another show to Broadway, and unlike “Democracy,” this one’s a winner, if a weird one. Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” now playing at the Booth Theatre, is a loose-jointed, slightly rambling shocker by the author of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” performed by a cast of American actors led by Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum. I had my doubts at intermission, but by evening’s end I’d succumbed—though perhaps that isn’t quite the right word—to Mr. McDonagh’s tale of a writer whose darkest fantasies come to messy life….
It’s not entirely clear what Mr. McDonagh is up to in “The Pillowman.” Is it a postmodern metanarrative? A black comedy about life under Stalinism? A parable of the unintended consequences of the writer’s art? Beats me, and in the first act the unclarity is extreme enough at times to suggest a switchboard whose plugs are stuck in the wrong holes. Not so the second, more closely woven part, which builds to a predictable but still horrifying climax that hits you like…well, like a bullet in the back of the head.
As for John Patrick Shanley’s splendid Doubt, which has transferred to Broadway and won a Pulitzer Prize, I saw pretty much what I expected to see:
I’m pleased to say that it looks good, John Lee Beatty’s spare, suggestive set having been discreetly altered to fill the much higher opening of the proscenium stage of the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Brían F. O’Byrne and Cherry Jones have also heightened the scale of their bravura performances as Father Flynn, who may or may not have molested a young boy, and Sister Aloysius, who has no doubt of his guilt and is determined to muscle him out of her parish whatever the cost—including, if need be, her own soul. While I miss the charged intimacy they brought to the Off Broadway production, what they’re doing now is no less effective for having been expanded in emotional scale (and volume) to accommodate the needs of a much larger audience….
Collectively written by the six terrific Asian-American performers who make up Mr. Miyagi’s Theatre Company, “Sides” is a zany catalogue of everything that can possibly go wrong at an audition. Pretentious playwrights, sexually omnivorous casting directors, fresh-out-of-school actors caught in the chokehold of stage fright: all are portrayed with such demented gusto that you barely stop laughing long enough to catch your breath. Pay no attention to the inside-baseball title, which refers to the script handouts given to actors who try out for a role in a play, TV show or film. Civilians will find “Sides” fully intelligible—and rib-crackingly funny.
I first saw “Sides” two years ago at the New York International Fringe Festival, and since then I’ve been hoping that it would have an Off Broadway run. My wish has come true: It’s playing through May 1 at PS122. I’m sure this won’t be your last chance to see it, but why wait? Catch it now and in five years you can tell all your friends how you first saw Sekiya Billman, Cindy Cheung, Paul Juhn, Peter Kim, Hoon Lee and Rodney To back when they were still struggling actors.
No link, for reasons more than adequately explained here. To read the whole thing, buy today’s Journal at your neighborhood newsstand, or stride boldly forward into the new age of electronic media by going here.
My posting on Rupert Murdoch’s recent speech about new media and its implications for artists is starting to attract attention. In addition to links from such media-oriented sites as unmediated.org,
Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine, and Jay Rosen at PressThink, I’ve also been getting some very interesting mail. One reader, a Hollywood agent, wrote:
Am sending as many of my agents and clients as I can to your posting today, "Memo from Cassandra." I've been on the reinvention bandwagon with actors since 1995. In my trade the great lie is that once you are on the merry-go-round you are on it forever. Untrue! I've witnessed career after career dry up because of the actor's fear, masked by smugness, of change. Uncle Rupert put this incredible culture shift entirely into perspective. Bob Garfield pointed out similiar changes in television that warrant complete reinvention of the medium in a groundbreaking Advertising Age article just last week.
Funny how it's just as difficult to sell the "reinvention" concept in '05 as it was in '95, especially to actors. It's odd too that the artists who portray characters that represent and sometimes even create cultural shifts wouldn't know a cultural shift if they fell over it.
Thank you for this.
My pleasure (though perhaps that's not quite the right way to put it!). I mean to keep writing about this, by the way….
I’m six thousand words into the first chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong (I’ve already written the eight-thousand-word prologue), and I’m so pleased at how well it’s going that I’m almost afraid to admit it. Writing The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken was agony in slow motion—sort of like spending a decade skinning yourself with a butter knife—and I wrote All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine so quickly that the pain didn’t have time to register until the book was in production. Not so Hotter Than That, which is coming very easily. Your response to the snippet I posted the other day has been wonderfully encouraging, though the truth is that I haven’t needed a whole lot of encouraging, at least not this week: I can hardly wait to sit down at my iBook each morning. I especially like a comment that Our Girl passed on from her father, who told her, "The beginning of Terry's book reads like a novel." Yes!
I know it won’t always go this well, if only because my reviewing schedule often prevents me from getting any work done on the book for a week or two at a time. For the moment, though, I'm still in the land of bliss, and with a little bit of luck I’ll have the first chapter finished by Monday, after which I plan to blow town for a couple of desperately needed days of untheatrical, computer-free down time at my favorite undisclosed location. (I called yesterday to make a reservation. The manager, bless her, asked, “Where’ve you been all winter?”)
As for today, I’m planning to write four or five pages of Hotter Than That, hit a couple of galleries and have dinner with a friend, then come straight home and knock out another couple of pages before crashing. Another thrilling night in the life of a cosmopolitan drama critic? Maybe not, but I’ve got the muse sitting on my shoulder, and I intend to make the most of her presence before she flies away.
"The one infallible symptom of greatness is the capacity for double vision. They know that all absolutes are heretical but that one can only act in a given circumstance by assuming one. Knowing themselves, they are skeptical about human nature but not despairing; they know that they are weak but not helpless: perfection is impossible but one can be or do better worse. They are unconventional but not bohemian; it never occurs to them to think in terms of convention. Conscious of achievement and vocation they are conscious of how little depends on their free will and how much they are vehicles for powers they can never fully understand but to which they can listen. Objective about themselves with the objectivity of the truly humble, they often shock the conceited out of their wits: e.g. Goethe's remark 'What do the Germans want? Have they not me?' Knowing that the only suffering that can be avoided is the attempt to escape from suffering, they are funny and enjoy life."
W.H. Auden, "The Double Focus: Sandburg's Lincoln" (Common Sense, March 1940)
Yes, I've noticed that whenever I post a message saying that posting today is going to be light, it tends to be followed by a flood of additional postings. And no, I haven't figured out what mysterious kink in my psyche is responsible for this phenomenon.
Anyway, I'm probably not going to post very much on Friday, unless I change my mind and decide to post a whole lot of stuff.
No matter what you think of Rupert Murdoch, you need to read the speech he gave yesterday to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Jeff Jarvis has posted a fileted version, plus a link to the full text. Some pertinent excerpts:
We need to realize that the next generation of people accessing news and information, whether from newspapers or any other source, have a different set of expectations about the kind of news they will get, including when and how they will get it, where they will get it from, and who they will get it from….
What is happening right before us is, in short, a revolution in the way young people are accessing news. They don’t want to rely on the morning paper for their up-to-date information. They don’t want to rely on a God-like figure from above to tell them what’s important. And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don’t want news presented as gospel.
Instead, they want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it. They want to question, to probe, to offer a different angle….
In the face of this revolution, however, we’ve been slow to react. We’ve sat by and watched while our newspapers have gradually lost circulation. Where four out of every five Americans in 1964 read a paper every day, today, only half do. Among just younger readers, the numbers are even worse, as I’ve just shown….
There are a number of reasons for our inertness in the face of this advance. First, for centuries, newspapers as a medium enjoyed a virtual information monopoly – roughly from the birth of the printing press to the rise of radio. We never had a reason to second-guess what we were doing. Second, even after the advent of television, a slow but steady decline in readership was masked by population growth that kept circulations reasonably intact. Third, even after absolute circulations started to decline in the 1990s, profitability did not.
But those days are gone. The trends are against us.
So unless we awaken to these changes, and adapt quickly, we will, as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans or, worse, many of us will disappear altogether.
I venture to say that not one newspaper represented in this room lacks a website. Yet how many of us can honestly say that we are taking maximum advantage of those websites to serve our readers, to strengthen our businesses, or to meet head-on what readers increasingly say is important to them in receiving their news?
If you’re reading this blog, you know what Murdoch means. Newspapers are in trouble, yet they show few signs of rethinking what they do and how they do it. My own guess is that most of them won’t. It seems to me highly unlikely that whatever eventually replaces newspapers—and they will be replaced, sooner rather than later—is going to be invented by the same people who are currently publishing newspapers. Established institutions rarely if ever transform themselves, least of all in response to external threats to their existence. (Here’s an exception.) Instead, they are replaced by brand-new institutions that spring up in response to those same threats, seeing them as an opportunity.
Like I said, you already know what I'm talking about. But if you’re an artist, ask yourself this: how are you using the new media to interact with your audience and spread the word about your work?
• Do you have a Web site? If so, do you update it regularly with fresh news of your activities, including links to stories about you that are published or broadcast in the mainstream media, or on other Web sites?
• Is your performance calendar up to date?
• Do you have an e-mailbox on your site? How often do you check it?
• Does your site contain a wide-ranging assortment of downloadable print-quality photographs of you and/or your work?
• Do you make prominent mention of the URL of your site whenever and wherever possible? Have you considered putting up a banner at your public appearances that has your URL on it in big, bold letters? Is the URL easy to remember—i.e., www.yourname.com?
• Can people who visit your site read, view, or listen to free samples of your work?
• Do you make your work available for sale through the site? If you’re a visual artist, do you sell original works or prints via the Web? If you’re a musician, is it possible to download recordings of your music? Do you know what ArtistShare is?
• Have you considered starting a blog, or keeping an online journal?
I’ve said this before, but it can’t be said often enough: the mainstream media aren’t especially interested in serious art, and such interest as they do have is diminishing daily. If you’re looking to big-city newspapers to start reviewing more literary fiction, or to PBS to telecast more ballet and modern dance, or to your local radio station to continue carrying the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday broadcasts, you’re kidding yourself. They don’t care. Which leaves you with two options. You can sit around complaining about their indifference—or you can do an end run around them and use the new media to reach out directly to your audience, both existing and potential.
Again, you know all this. Right? But what are you doing about it?
Here’s Murdoch again:
Like many of you, I’m a digital immigrant. I wasn’t weaned on the web, nor coddled on a computer. Instead, I grew up in a highly centralized world where news and information were tightly controlled by a few proprietors, who deemed to tell us what we could and should know. My two young daughters, on the other hand, will be digital natives....
The peculiar challenge then, is for us digital immigrants – many of whom are in positions to determine how news is assembled and disseminated – to apply a digital mindset to a set of challenges that we unfortunately have limited to no first-hand experience dealing with.
I know exactly what he means. I, too, am a middle-aged digital immigrant—but I’m here, now, communicating directly with you via a medium that barely existed five years ago. No, it wasn’t easy, but I’ve rethought my expectations about what the mainstream media can do for me, and now I’m starting to do some of it myself. You can do the same thing, so long as you let go of your preconceptions about the dominant role of the old media in your professional life. (If I were an Internet entrepreneur instead of a writer, by the way, I'd launch a business devoted to creating a state-of-the-art presence on the Web for busy artists who don't know their way around a computer.)
Here’s a model of an effective, well-designed Web site. And here’s something Jeff Jarvis posted today about how local newspapers might rethink the way they do business in light of the emergence of new media. It’s a thought experiment, an attempt to shake off the chokehold of the this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it mindset. Read it. Then try applying the same kind of thinking to the way you do business as an artist.
I'm in New York, writing about Louis Armstrong. OGIC is in Chicago, hacking away at a short stack of deadlines. If it's fresh postings you want, go to the right-hand column, scroll down to "Sites to See," and start clicking. If you can't find something you like there, you don't like enough stuff.
I had dinner earlier this evening with my friend and neighbor Paul Moravec, a composer whose music is mentioned not infrequently in this space. Something you may not know about Paul (other than that he does a terrific impersonation of John Lennon) is that he has a long history of clinical depression, by which I don’t mean occasional periods of moderate melancholy. As he explained in an interview earlier this year with the San Francisco Chronicle, he has “been suicidal, hospitalized twice for clinical depression and, 10 years ago, was treated with electroshock therapy.”
Fortunately, Paul not only survived but prevailed, and even managed to compose a remarkable piece of music, Mood Swings, that was directly inspired by his illness. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize last year, he's started talking publicly about his successful struggle, and he mentioned at dinner that he’s been struck by the number of people who got in touch with him after reading his San Francisco Chronicle interview in order to tell him of their own experiences with depression. Unlikely as it may seem, many Americans continue to shy away from frank talk about mental illness, and Paul’s correspondents have been going out of their way to praise him for his candor.
Paul said something else that stuck in my mind. He told me that he was troubled by the fact that the word “depression” has come to be used more or less interchangeably to describe both persistent sadness and a form of mental illness so virulent as to be life-threatening. “What we need,” he added, “is a different word for clinical depression—a new word. One that has the same emotional impact as, say, leukemia.”
Deliberate attempts to alter established linguistic usage rarely get anywhere. As every blogger knows, newly coined words must be organically absorbed into the language by way of everyday usage. Some words, like blog itself, catch on quickly because of their simplicity and self-evident utility, whereas too-clever coinages like bleg remain on the fringes of common usage and in time are dropped and forgotten. Still, I think Paul has a point. Clinical depression really is a thing unto itself, qualitatively different from the milder mood disorders that are so frequently lumped together with it. Perhaps we do need a better word for clinical depression, something that more clearly suggests its devastating, incapacitating intensity.
Alas, I have no brilliant ideas, nor am I announcing a word-coining contest. Successful new words are not created by smart people sitting around a cybertable tossing out ideas. On the other hand, the Web is a never-ending demonstration of what has come to be known as the butterfly effect. As Edward Lorenz wrote in the 1963 paper in which he coined the phrase, “One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull's wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever.” Perhaps someday we’ll all be using an indelibly vivid word for clinical depression whose coinage can be traced back step by step to this posting, a not quite offhand flap of the wings of an interested party who just happened to have a blog....
“I have yet to meet a poetry-lover who was not an introvert, or an introvert who was not unhappy in adolescence. At school, particularly, maybe, if, as in my own case, it is a boarding school, he sees the extrovert successful, happy, and good and himself unpopular or neglected; and what is hardest to bear is not unpopularity, but the consciousness that it is deserved, that he is grubby and inferior and frightened and dull. Knowing no other kind of society than the contingent, he imagines that this arrangement is part of the eternal scheme of things, that he is doomed to a life of failure and envy. It is not till he grows up, till years later he runs across the heroes of his school days and finds them grown commonplace and sterile, that he realizes that the introvert is the lucky one, the best adapted to an industrial civilization, the collective values of which are so infantile that he alone can grow, who has educated his phantasies and learned how to draw upon the resources of his inner life. At the time however his adolescence is unpleasant enough. Unable to imagine a society in which he would feel at home, and warned by some mysterious instinct from running back for consolation to the gracious or terrifying figures of childhood, he turns away from the human to the non-human: homesick he will seek, not his mother, but mountains or autumn woods, friendless he will mutely observe the least shy of the wild animals, and the growing life within him will express itself in a devotion to music and thoughts upon mutability and death. Art for him will be something infinitely precious, pessimistic, and hostile to life. If it speaks of love, it must be love frustrated, for all success seems to him noisy and vulgar; if it moralizes, it must counsel a stoic resignation, for the world he knows is well content with itself and will not change.”
From the New York Times obituary of Stanley Sadie, editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, who died the other day of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis:
Mr. Sadie had spent three weeks at a hospital in London, but was intent on returning home in time for the first concert in a music series that he and his wife run in a church near their home. The concert, on Sunday evening, was an all-Beethoven program performed by the Chilingirian String Quartet. Mr. Sadie was able to stay for the first half, but felt unwell and went home to bed. At the conclusion of the performance, the quartet went to Mr. Sadie's house, set up quietly in his bedroom, and performed the slow movement of Beethoven's Quartet No. 16 in F (Op. 135) as he drifted in and out of sleep.
This is the first paragraph of the first chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. I hope you like it.
* * *
To the northerner New Orleans is another country, seductive and disorienting, a steamy, shabby paradise of spicy cooking, wrought-iron balconies, and streets called Elysian Fields and Desire, a place where the signs advertise such mysterious commodities as po-boys and muffuletta and no one is buried under ground. We’ll take the boat to the land of dreams, the pilgrim hears in his mind’s ear as he prowls the Vieux Carré, pushing through the noisy hordes of tipsy visitors, wondering whether the land of his dreams still exists, or ever did. Rarely does he linger long enough to pierce the thick veneer of local color with which the natives shield themselves from the tourist trade. At the end of his stay he knows little more than when he came, and goes back home to his bookshelf to puzzle out all that he has seen and smelled and tasted. A.J. Liebling, a well-traveled visitor from up north, saw New Orleans as a Mediterranean port transplanted to the Gulf of Mexico, a town of civilized pleasures whose settlers “carried with them a culture that had ripened properly, on the tree.” He knew what he was seeing, but Walker Percy, who lived and died there, cast a cooler eye on the same sights: “The ironwork on the balconies sags like rotten lace. Little French cottages hide behind high walls. Through deep sweating carriageways one catches glimpses of courtyards gone to jungle.” Unlike Liebling, he also caught the scent of decay....
"Those who say that their childhood was the happiest period of their lives must, one suspects, have been the victims of perpetual misfortune in later years. For there is no reason to suppose that the period of childhood is inevitably happier than any other. The only thing for which children are to be envied is their exuberant vitality. This is apt to be mistaken for happiness. For true happiness, however, there must be a certain degree of experience. The ordinary pleasures of childhood are similar to those of a dog when it is given its dinner or taken out for a walk, a behaviouristic, tail-wagging business, and, as for childhood being care-free, I know from my own experience, that black care can sit behind us even on our rocking-horses."
"I have always taken an almost intoxicating delight in 'perilous laughter,' that is to say laughter which, either from good manners or fear, has to be controlled at all costs. The kind of laughter which, on solemn occasions or in the presence of the great, sometimes wells up within one with such violence that the human frame is nearly shattered in the course of its suppression."
I spent pretty much the whole morning and afternoon working on Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. The result was 2,000 polished words that carry Louis from 1905 to 1913—the formative years of his childhood. Not only am I hugely pleased with the day’s work, but I'm still hot enough that I could probably keep on pushing forward until two or three in the morning. Instead, I've decided to shut the shop down and resume work tomorrow afternoon. This cuts sharply against the grain of my workaholic nature, suggesting that it's exactly what I ought to do.
No writing to do, no show to see, no dinner date…what will I do with myself? Well, here are four possibilities that sound especially good:
"Sometimes it seems like writing novels has become a contemporary form of expression, expression of self. Much like being a Renaissance gentleman writing a sonnet. It's seen as a thing that anyone with a reasonable amount of education can do, and it's your duty as a citizen to write a half-dozen novels."
An open letter I can get behind. Even though I never finished Preston Falls and might choose to phrase things a bit differently, I do love me some Jernigan. That guy will make you laugh ("I had my usual thoughts about everything being debased") and make you laugh and cry:
I ran into the house but Rick was already in there shouting into the telephone, and back outside a crowd had gathered around the car and the van. But nobody was getting too close. It looked like a scene out of an old Twilight Zone, neighbors on some little suburban street looking at the flying saucer whose arrival would soon reveal what fascists they all were. Pretty inappropriate thing to be thinking, but. The whole thing, in fact, looked as if it were in black and white. I should have gone and pushed through the crowd and done something. Later they told me it had been over instantly: no blame. Right. But at any rate, I walked around the end of the garage instead and back to the pool, now deserted. I climbed the steps up onto the deck, felt like I was going to black out, quick sat down on something, and when the shiny flecks stopped swimming in front of my eyes I looked down and saw her wet footprints fading.
Well, I remember being awfully impressed with that last image when I first read this book as a young 'un, anyway—I remember sucking my breath in at it. Now I'm not so sure. It doesn't affect me to nearly the same degree, whether simply because I'm more discerning now or because it's the sort of thing that rings the bell only the one time you don't see it coming.
Jernigan is an amazing book in any case, and alone makes Gates fair game for Mr. Demko's, er, encouragement.
Dove's massive giveaway of a book of Oprah Winfrey's magazine columns, in exchange for free advertising inside the book, is neither the first nor the most consequential instance in American publishing history of books selling soap. I quote from Rosemary Ashton's introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition of Mrs. Humphrey Ward's triple-decker novel Robert Elsmere:
Published in 1888, when its author was aged 36, the work became an immediate and enduring bestseller. It went on to achieve even greater sales, mainly in pirated editions, in America. Within a year of its publication, Robert Elsmere—less a mere book than "a momentous public event," as Henry James put it—appears to have sold about 40,000 copies in Britain and 200,000 in America. So extraordinary was the behaviour of American booksellers and entrepreneurs, one of whom gave the book away free with every purchase of a bar of Balsam Fir Soap, that the case for pushing through at last an International Copyright Bill was made largely with reference to the fortunes of Robert Elsmere in America. The bill came into effect in 1891.
So what's Mrs. Ward's piracy-smashing and just-plain-smashing success all about? No sensation novel hers, but "a long, serious, detailed account of the loss of orthodox faith of a young clergyman, Robert Elsmere, and the consequent straings on his marriage to an Evangelical wife." That's Ashton again. I'm sorry to have to borrow her words, since I actually did read this book once upon a time, though strictly out of duty when I was a student of British fiction of this period. My memory of Elsmere is highly sketchy, my book itself dutifully underlined and check-marked, though not, I see, much festooned with actual notes. As a novel it's more than competent but unremarkable. If you are in the market for a quickie history of nineteenth-century religious issues in England, however, it's probably as cushy a ride as you're going to find.
Perhaps the most popular novel of its age, now forgotten by all but scholars. I wonder what will be the Robert Elsmere of our time? More to the point, I wonder what won't.
Here's a new webby, bookish project (my favorite kind) that I'm part of: the Litblog Co-op. Idea's this: four times a year the participating bloggers will throw their collective influence behind a book they really, really like—something that's not poised to get a great deal of attention from the print media. The real beauty of the concept? Twenty highly opinionated individuals, enabled by technology to settle on a single book without any actual brawling! Of course, I could always drive to Golden Rule Jones's to kick him if absolutely necessary. But the rest of the far-flung LBC are probably safe.
I just came back from Budapest, and on Wednesday, March 30th, went into
the Museum of Fine Arts (known in Hungarian as
Szépmuvészeti Múzeum). At the top of the entrance stairs is an outdoor cafe and a
loudspeaker was playing, just a few miles from the Danube—"Up the Lazy
River," with Louis Armstrong singing and playing. The Museum is located on Hosök tere,
which means "Heroes' Square," a fitting place for our great Louis!
I spend more time waiting for people in front of theaters, concert halls, and nightclubs than anyone I know. The reason is that I'm always given two press tickets to the shows I see, and I always invite a friend to fill the second seat. (Actually, I didn’t have the nerve to ask anyone to accompany me to All Shook Up, but that was an exception.) Since I’m at shows of one kind or another at least three nights a week…well, you figure it out.
I try not to get my knickers in a twist when little things go wrong, and I think I've become fairly good over the years at avoiding needless exasperation. (I used to be awful at it.) On the other hand, I really can't be late to the shows I see, since I’m there for professional reasons, so I start to get antsy whenever a guest fails to arrive at 7:45. After years of pointless suffering, I finally started giving the same speech to all my escortees: Meet me in front of the theater fifteen minutes before curtain time. If you’re not there five minutes before curtain, I’ll leave your ticket at the box office in your name and meet you inside.
My fifteen-and-five plan made it possible for me to consider the behavior of my friends from a detached, even sociological point of view, and I soon noticed that only one of them, a woman in publishing who makes a fetish of punctuality, can be counted on to show up at 7:45 on the nose. Another is habitually early. (She is, unlikely as it may sound, a jazz singer.) The rest are late to varying degrees. Most show up at some unpredictable point between 7:50 and 7:54, looking mildly anxious as they push their way through the crowd on the sidewalk and catch my waiting eye. A few like to arrive at 7:55:30, usually as I’m scrawling their name on the ticket preparatory to depositing it at the box office.
This leaves five friends who usually come to the theater between 8:03 and 8:05. (No eight o'clock curtain in New York ever rises before 8:05.) They are, in ascending order of delinquency:
• Two writers from the outer boroughs who work at home and come straight from their desks to the theater, thus exposing themselves to the caprices of mass transit.
• A reporter who has a way of getting stuck on the phone just as she's getting ready to leave the office.
• A civilian who is so notoriously unreliable that at one time I made it a rule never to take her to a show without our dining together first, thus ensuring that I’d know where she was at curtain time.
• An artist (I won't identify her medium, though she knows who she is) who has never been on time for anything in her life, though she always has interesting, sometimes spectacular excuses for her lateness. I’ll never forget the time she called me on my cell phone from the wrong theater six blocks up the street, then ran all the way to the right one. (Thank God she works out.)
Back in the benighted days before I came up with the fifteen-and-five plan, I used to get irritated at these five delinquents. Then I realized that to do so was pointless, since they clearly weren’t going to change their lifelong habits for me (or, I assume, anyone else). I didn’t want to deprive myself of the pleasures of their company, so I figured out how to manage their chronic lateness in such a way as to make it tolerable. Now it doesn’t bother me, except in the case of the artist, who cuts it closer than anyone I know. More than once she’s run down the aisle and dropped into her seat just as the house lights were dimming. She drives me crazy, if not quite enough for me to stop taking her to shows. Quite. Yet.
Most people don’t have this kind of perspective on their circle of friends, just as most people have never been unlucky enough to edit an anthology
containing essays by a dozen of their best friends. (I’m pleased to say that I managed to do so without alienating any of the friends in question, though I did consider murdering two of them.) But I do, and what puzzles me after all these years is this: why is it that only two of my friends meet me on time? Because none of the others do, not ever. As in never. N-E-V-E-R. And you know what? Even though I know they’re going to be a little late, and have an ironclad policy in place ensuring that I'll be in my seat when the curtain goes up, I still get antsy waiting for them, every damn time.
Might it possibly be that I'm the one who’s in need of an attitude adjustment? Surely not. That would be blaming the victim, right? No?
“Why does it happen so quickly? You throw a stone into the air and it has to overcome gravity, so its rise is slow, and that is why the days of childhood are so long and leisurely. But as the stone falls, it goes faster and faster, with a velocity of thirty-two feet per second, so that your sense of time finally is that of a rush into death. As the Book of Job puts it, ‘My days fly faster than the weaver’s shuttle.’ Towards the end you rush towards the earth, towards death. What does this acceleration signify? Why is it that the days of childhood seem to last for years, whereas in old age the days resemble those flutter books you used to buy in ‘specialty’ shops—you rippled the pages with your thumb and you’d see a comic performance—a hula dancer or a dog at a hydrant. That’s how fast it goes. And the question is what happens to your original sense of being when the thumb of time flutters your penultimate pages? Everybody, I believe, will know exactly what I am talking about.”
Saul Bellow, quoted in Salmagundi, Spring-Summer 1995 (courtesy of Jess Joseph)
I listened to Studio 360 this morning, then went out for brunch with a friend. By the time I got back, I already had a deskful of e-mail and phone messages, plus a link from Maud (whose blog I plugged on the air, along with some others that ended up on the cutting-room floor). This was my first hearing of the edited version, and I was hugely impressed by the skill with which Kurt Andersen and his superb producers compressed and tightened up our lengthy conversation about criticism without distorting its sense in any way. It's not for me to say whether the final product was worth hearing, but I enjoyed listening to it, and I hope you do, too.
If you live in or near New York City, you can listen to a repeat broadcast at seven p.m. Sunday night on WNYC-AM (820). In addition, Studio 360 is carried by NPR affiliates across the country. For a complete list of local stations and air dates, go here. You can also download the show or listen to it via streaming audio by visiting Studio 360's audio archive.
"When I was a kid, I wanted a five-dollar watch, then a ten-dollar watch, then a hundred-dollar watch. When I made money, I wanted a Rolex, then a Patek-Philippe. Now I realize that the real luxury is not to know the time."
Jack Straus, quoted in A. Alvarez, The Biggest Game in Town
• I just got back from the Village Vanguard, where I heard the Bill Charlap Trio play a good-sized chunk of Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein, their new CD (my Washington Post review is here), along with such Charlap-type standards as Gerry Mulligan’s "Rocker" and Stephen Sondheim’s "Uptown/Downtown."
I showed up early enough to grab a seat five feet from Kenny Washington’s end of the bandstand. I can’t think of many jazz drummers to whom I’d care to sit that close, but Washington is the man, and he was in stupendously good form. In fact, I’ve never heard a drummer swing as hard as he did on "Nobody’s Heart" (and who else but Charlap would have had the wit to turn that fragile Rodgers-Hart ballad into a medium-tempo swinger?). Right now I feel like sitting down and knocking out a dissertation entitled "The Use of the Hi-Hat in Kenny Washington’s Drumming." If they asked me, I could write a book, though I'd rather wait until I've recovered from writing the last one….
• My personal Barbara Pym celebration is drawing to a close: I started rereading her last novel, A Few Green Leaves, over a plateful of pre-Vanguard sushi.
• Earlier today (or, to be exact, yesterday), I watched an hour-long interview with James Garner, an episode of Turner Classic Movies’ Private Screenings series that was repeated earlier this week in honor of the network’s tenth anniversary. As I mentioned
a few months ago, I’m a huge Garner fan, but I’d never seen an interview with him—it seems he doesn’t like giving them. I can’t imagine why, since he’s charming, articulate, and pretty much just like the character he plays in most of his films and TV shows. If I had any steam left, I’d watch one right now, but the loft beckons.
• Now playing on iTunes: Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, as performed by the Hollywood String Quartet. I’m hoping that it’ll ease me dreamward.
And yes, I know I promised a bunch of choice links yesterday, but my unexpected houseguest threw me slightly off course. Maybe this afternoon, maybe tomorrow. Either way, I haven’t forgotten you!
One more reminder before the Thing Itself: I’ll be appearing this weekend on Studio 360, talking to Kurt Andersen about the art and/or craft of criticism. In New York, the program airs Saturday at ten a.m. on WNYC-FM (93.9) and Sunday at seven p.m. on WNYC-AM (820).
For more information, including links for out-of-town and Web-based listeners, go here.
It’s Friday, so I’m in The Wall Street Journal with a review of Sixteen Wounded, which opened last night. I didn’t much care for it:
Whenever I hear anyone call a Broadway show "controversial," I know there’s sucker bait dangling at the end of the line. Take "Sixteen Wounded," in which Eliam Kraiem, a young Jewish playwright from California, makes his Broadway debut at the Walter Kerr Theatre with the story of a Palestinian refugee who invites a Jewish baker to become the godfather of his illegitimate son. Yes, there’s a sting in the tail, since the refugee in question previously blew up an Israeli bus and killed three children. But Mr. Kraiem’s stalwart attempt to humanize the face of terrorism is just the sort of thing guaranteed to please Manhattan playgoers, who like nothing better than poking smugly at the limits of their tolerance. If Satan himself were to materialize in Times Square at high noon tomorrow, you can bet that by 12:05 the streets would be crammed with Upper West Siders eager to hear his side of the story, so long as he promised to check into the Betty Ford Clinic the next day….
If "Sixteen Wounded" were about something other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I’d be rather more inclined to praise its carefully balanced ambiguities. But, then, that’s the trouble with political plays: No matter how artful they are, most people usually end up judging them in part by whether they agree with the author’s conclusions. Theatrically speaking, Tim Robbins’s "Embedded" is a piece of trash, but it obviously charmed large numbers of viewers who cared more about its heart-on-sleeve politics than its inept craftsmanship. "Sixteen Wounded," by contrast, frames a serious issue—the permissibility of terrorism—in slickly theatrical terms, and thus ends up seeming evasive, even shifty.
No link (but you knew that, right?). Skip your morning doughnut and buy a Journal instead. Admiring e-mail will be read with pleasure. The other kind will be…read.
I haven’t plugged A Terry Teachout Reader recently (well, not that recently) because I was waiting for the perfect moment to make this staggering revelation: the book contains a hidden clue to the secret identity of Our Girl in Chicago. Some purchasers have already guessed correctly! How can you possibly resist? Click here and order a copy.
I just ran across this sentence in Howell Raines' Atlantic Monthly article about why he is God and the New York Times will never be the same without him:
The Times's image as a bastion of quality had become even more important as tabloid television, Britain's declining newspaper values, and the unsourced ranting of Internet bloggers polluted the journalistic mainstream of the United States.
Perhaps they'll carve it on his tombstone. Whoops—too late! Mistah Raines, he history...and we're still here.
• Wednesday was a dark night, as we theater people say—no scheduled performance, nor did I improvise one. Instead, I wrote my Wall Street Journal column for Friday, took a nap, blogged, performed miscellaneous accumulated chores, then had dinner with an unexpected house guest who is currently asleep on my inflatable mattress. As a result, I consumed next to no art, save for a few pages of John Wayne: Americanread over lunch for relaxation.
• Now playing on iTunes: Dizzy Gillespie’s 1948 recording of "Manteca," reissued on Dizzy Gillespie: Greatest Hits. I never tire of hearing Chano Pozo whack those congas.
That’s it for now—I plan to be in bed within the hour, but I’ll be posting a slew of fine links much later today.
I don't have any, but my brother just e-mailed to tell me that he is now mayor pro tem (that is, vice-mayor) of Smalltown, U.S.A., the Missouri town where we grew up and where he still lives. That's really something.
Don't get me wrong—I'm proud of the course my own life has taken and wouldn't erase a day of it—but seeing my brother's name on the front page of our hometown paper means every bit as much to me as seeing A Terry Teachout Reader in the neighborhood bookstore. He is way cool.
The next time I go home for a visit, I plan to park my mother's car in a no-parking zone. I have a friend at City Hall, you know.
"Mr. Chamberlain, with Lord Salisbury following steadily on behind, championed the cause of the Outlanders. On paper and for democratic purposes the case was overwhelming. But you can never persuade anyone by reasonable argument to give up his skin."
Just in case it's slipped your mind, I'll be appearing this coming weekend on Studio 360, Kurt Andersen’s weekly radio series on art and culture, talking about criticism and critics (mainly me). New Yorkers can hear the program at ten a.m. this Saturday on WNYC-FM (93.9), or at seven p.m. this Sunday on WNYC-AM (820).
No matter where you live, you can also listen on the Web in live streaming audio by going here. In addition, Studio 360 is carried by NPR affiliates across the country. For a complete list of local stations and air dates, go here.
Once the show has been broadcast, it’ll be archived here so that you can hear it at your convenience.
One way or another, tune me in, O.K.? I'm excited.
"Writing is a muscle," I tell my students. "The more you use it, the stronger it gets." If that's so, then I recently acquired an alarming new insight into what you might call the athletics of writing. I wrote most of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, which is 40,000 words long, in February and March (I spent most of January working my way out of a false start). Other than scaling back sharply on my blogging, I did so without giving up any of my other regular writing commitments. I had to make an April 1 deadline, not only because of the exigencies of book production but also in order to pay my taxes, Harcourt having previously agreed to disburse this year’s chunk of my Balanchine-Louis Armstrong advance on delivery of the finished manuscript. (Such is the freelance writer’s life!) So unlike most deadlines, which can be surprisingly elastic, I knew this one was the real wrong thing.
What made the last few days of work especially hard was that four of my print-media deadlines, including my regular Washington Post and Commentary articles and a Wall Street Journal theater review, happened to fall in the last week of March. In addition, I had a long-standing commitment to fly to North Carolina on April 2 to look at Carolina Ballet. I'd been hoping to get at least one piece out of the way early, but as the end of the month drew ever nearer, I realized that I'd painted myself into a corner: I’d have to write all four pieces in four days, starting as soon as All in the Dances was in the bag. I cancelled as many evening engagements as I could and made a point of going to bed as early as possible each night, but beyond that there wasn’t much I could do except keep on working.
I did, however, have a bit of time for introspection, and as April 1 approached, I realized, somewhat to my surprise, that everything was getting easier. The last three chapters of the book seemed to write themselves, and the four pieces poured out of my head without incident. Not only did I line-edit the complete manuscript of All in the Dances in a single ten-hour marathon, but on April 1, the day after I delivered the manuscript to Harcourt, I wrote a 4,000-word essay for Commentary in one day-long sitting, correcting the proofs the next morning as I waited for my plane. (My Commentary essays normally take two or three days to write.)
What happened? Was it simply that my mind had been concentrated wonderfully by the prospect of a hanging? Or might it be that the more you work, the more you can work? I think both factors probably played a part. Whenever the going gets tough, my friends typically hear me mutter James Burnham's mantra, "If there’s no alternative, there’s no problem." I must have said it at least a couple of hundred times last month. But I also believe that simply by virtue of the fact that I had been exercising my writing muscle so regularly for so extended a period of time, the act of writing came more easily to me. Granted, I have the gift of facility, and daily blogging has honed it still further (I don't think I could have finished All in the Dances in three months if I hadn't spent the preceding six months writing "About Last Night"), but I can’t remember any other time in my life when I’ve been so prolific for so long a period.
When it was all over, of course, I crashed. I was so wired that first weekend that I watched two back-to-back performances of Robert Weiss’ Messiah without blinking, but within a day or two of my return to New York, I was sleeping for ten hours at a stretch. I could barely bring myself to write anything at all. Only in the last few days have I started to feel more or less like myself, and I’m still not quite back at the top of my game: it took me twice as long as usual to write this week’s theater column, nor have I yet resumed anything remotely approaching my usual performance schedule.
All this makes me wonder about the ultimate capacity of the brain for work. People who write for a living know that writing is at least partly a physical act (my body temperature goes up when I’m working). At the same time, the role of the mind in writing is unpredictable, often weirdly so. I’ve always admired those businesslike novelists who rise early each weekday and hammer out a thousand words before lunch, but I’ve never been one of them: I start writing shortly before a piece is due, almost always at the last practicable moment. And while years of daily journalism long ago broke me of writer’s block, I frequently feel an aversion to the act of writing, a species of accidie that can be all but impossible to overcome. Is it a simple failure of will? Or might it be a signal from my mind that I’m not quite ready to start writing a piece and need to lay fallow a little while longer?
It may be that my nightmarish February and March gave me a distorted glimpse of what it would feel like to be a thousand-word-a-day man, churning out prose according to a strict schedule. Or perhaps what I was experiencing was closer to an addiction, one so powerful that all other aspects of life receded before the categorical imperative of satisfying the daily craving. Whatever it was, I didn’t like it—or, to be exact, I don’t like it. During that last week of intense work, I felt exhilarated and exhausted at the same time. Now I feel as if I were a machine that overheated, or bent a gear after being run too fast. I don’t much care to think of myself as a machine, but it comes pretty close to describing the sensation of having written far too much for far too long.
Unless some IRS wag has playfully planted fortune cookie material somewhere deep in the pages of 2003 1040 Instructions, you can expect to hear from me again no sooner than tomorrow.
(Oh, and p. 23, sentence 5, in case you were wondering: "Do not include interest earned on your IRA or Coverdell education savings account.")
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, April 14, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Time machine
I came home from Broadway a little while ago and was too wired to go to bed, so I turned on the TV, started channel-surfing, and suddenly found myself watching a snippet from The Sound of Jazz, the famous 1957 show still widely (and rightly) regarded as the finest jazz program ever telecast. Ben Webster was playing a slow blues in F, with Gerry Mulligan nodding in the background, and as the camera panned to Billie Holiday, I realized that the song was "Fine and Mellow" and that the next face I saw would be Lester Young, sick unto death. Sure enough, he stood up, raised his tenor saxophone to his lips and blew one heartbreaking chorus of the blues, spare and fragile and a little bit flat. As he played, the director switched back to Holiday, her face aglow with memories of a time when she and her musical soulmate were at the peak of their powers, long before life ground them under its unforgiving heel. The chorus ended, the screen faded to black, and all at once I was watching a commercial for a product I didn't want or need.
How strange it is to watch TV in the information age, skipping from channel to channel in search of momentary diversion, mostly settling for dross but sometimes stumbling across a fleeting image so simple and true that it makes you catch your breath. I wonder how many people happened to see Lester and Billie at the same moment I did, and how many knew who and what they were seeing. Perhaps I was the only person in the world who saw that flickering black-and-white picture and knew it was a kinescope of The Sound of Jazz. Perhaps there were a dozen of us, or a hundred, or ten thousand. Perhaps one of my fellow viewers will visit "About Last Night" today and read these words, and know he wasn't alone.
UPDATE: Doug Ramsey writes:
In 1992, I toured in Germany and recently liberated Eastern European countries for the United States Information Service as part of its American Speakers program. I was assigned to speak in the afternoons about free press and first amendment issues and in the evenings about jazz. The USIS sent me to Hamburg, Bonn, Frankfurt, Prague, Brno and Bratislava. When, in several cities, the same people showed up for both talks, it struck me that they may have seen the freedom connection between the two subjects that many Americans do not.
My only supplement to the jazz talks was a tape of the kinescope of The Sound Of Jazz. One of my strongest impressions of the jazz evenings was that, in every case, when Lester Young played that almost unbearably beautiful blues chorus and the camera lingered close on Billie's face, I heard a collective sigh from the audience. CBS, the current incarnation of which probably doesn't know that it owns this monument to America, should show The Sound Of Jazz annually in prime time.
That'll be the day. On the other hand, I think the copyright to The Sound of Jazz has lapsed—the various DVD reissues appear to be in the public domain—so perhaps somebody else will do the honors.
POST-UPDATE: I just heard from a reader who was tuned in at the same time. What a wonderfully small world we blogospherites inhabit....
"Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do. (2) Things we've got to do. (3) Things we like doing. I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of these reasons, things like reading books they don't like because other people read them."
• Last night I saw the press preview of a new play, Sixteen Wounded, which I’ll be reviewing in Friday’s Wall Street Journal.
• I’ve been reading Carlos D’Este’s Patton: A Genius for War, from which I learned that George C. Scott’s portrayal of Patton in the 1970 biopic was mostly true to life, as was the film itself (except that the real Patton had a high, squeaky voice).
• Now playing on iTunes: Benny Goodman’s Six Flats Unfurnished
(which wormed its way into my ear some time in mid-afternoon and wouldn’t go away, so I finally listened to it for real in an attempt at exorcism).
I had lunch today with a friend who reads out loud to his wife (and she to him). They’ve been doing it for years, and are quite ambitious in their choice of material. Not long ago, they finished reading Don Quixote to one another—but not in its entirety. They skipped most of the self-contained episodes not involving the Don and Sancho Panza, and my friend guesses that they ended up reading only about 80% of the book, if not a bit less. Even so, it took them roughly two months to wrap the whole thing up.
This got us to talking about the question of loooong books, and whether or not it’s proper to abridge them, or read abridgements of them. One celebrated case in point is Boswell’s Life of Johnson, a book I love with all my heart, but which I now prefer to read in the ruthless abridgement Louis Kronenberger made for inclusion in Viking’s Portable Johnson & Boswell (long out of print, though it shouldn’t be). Similarly, any number of plays and operas are customarily staged with cuts, and I see no reason for zealous producers to discontinue that merciful practice. Even Shakespeare benefits from trimming.
All this makes me wonder whether my attention span might possibly be shrinking as I grow older. I suspect it is, and I suspect I know why. For one thing, younger people have energy to burn, as well as the idealism necessary to propel themselves from one end of Siegfried to the other. After all, they’re still getting their cultural cards punched. My card, by contrast, is pretty well punched out, though I still have yet to read The Possessed, or see a production of Peer Gynt. What’s more, my appetite for the new is sufficiently strong that I’m disinclined to see yet another Tristan or Giselle. I already know how those masterpieces go, and I doubt I’ll be changing my mind about them at this point in my life, at least not to any significant degree.
Besides, how many more novels do I have time to read, or plays to see? If I’m lucky, I’m somewhere on the far side of the middle of life, meaning that every book I read brings me that much closer to the dark encounter (or, as Henry James called it, the distinguished thing). This knowledge doesn’t fill me with the desire to read nothing but great literature between now and then—man cannot live by classics alone—but it does make me less willing to devote disproportionate tracts of time to the consumption of individual works of art that violate the iron law of aesthetic economy. Do I really want to read Proust again before I die? The answer is yes, but I have my doubts about Moby-Dick, nor do I have the faintest intention of revisiting Lohengrin.
The older I get, the more I treasure those artists blessed with the twin gifts of terseness and lightness. Oddly enough, these gifts aren’t always granted in tandem: James’ middle-period novels, for instance, are long and light, which is why I can still read them with pleasure. Likewise The Marriage of Figaro, though I freely confess that I prefer the much shorter Falstaff. When I say "light," by the way, I don’t mean "frivolous." I’m talking about texture. There’s nothing the least bit frivolous about The Moviegoer, but Walker Percy’s prose isn’t thick—it flows with ingratiating ease. Similarly, George Balanchine was the most serious of artists, but he never beat you over the head with his profundity. Symphony in C is a supremely great work of art so light that it seems to fly past the eye in a matter of seconds. I could watch it once a week.
Which brings us back to one of my unpunched holes: I’ve never read Don Quixote. As I listened to my friend describe the pleasure that he and his wife got out of reading it to one another, I found myself sorely tempted to give it a go—but if I do, I'll skip at will, and I’d be perfectly happy to read a well-made abridgement. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, says the Good (and Long) Book, do it with all thy might. That’s good advice, but so is this: The night cometh when no man can work. It was one of Dr. Johnson’s favorite Biblical verses, and as Boswell informs us, "He scarcely ever read a book through from cover to cover in his life, but he had the faculty of seizing the essence of any work of literature by judicious skipping." As usual, I’m with Johnson. I’d rather have read some of a lot of books than all of a few.
So much ALN love for Ed today! His ears may be burning, but I can't pass up passing along his link to this Donald Westlake Dortmunder shortie, which contains such marvels as this:
Rollo the bartender, observing the world from a three-point stance—large feet solidly planted on the duckboards behind the bar, elbow atop the cash register drawer—seemed too absorbed either by the conversation or in contemplation of the possibility of health to notice the arrival of a new customer. In any event, he didn't even twitch, just stood there like a genre painting of himself, while the first regular said, "Well, whatever the word is, the point is, if you got your health you got everything."
"I don't see how that follows," the second regular said. "You could have your health and still not have a Pontiac Trans Am."
Some of my favorite scenes in the Dortmunder novels take place in this selfsame O.J. Bar & Grill. Thanks to Ed for pointing it out, and to Mr. Westlake for generously sharing the story with his website's readers. It's more than enough to make me go buy the book in which it appears.
Playing the game that Ed has sent coursing through the blogosphere like a virus, I picked up Samuel Johnson's Literary Criticism, and came up with a veritable fortune cookie:
"The present life is to all a state of infelicity; every man, like an author, believes himself to merit more than he obtains, and solaces the present with the prospect of the future; others, indeed, suffer those disappointments in silence, of which the writer complains, to shew how well he has learnt the art of lamentation."
• This is the most obsessive Web site I’ve ever seen.
• Says Ed, who got it from Caterina.net:
1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
RESULTS:The Great Gatsby, in The Viking Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald: "’I can’t complain,’ answered Wilson unconvincingly."
Sorry, Ed. I guess it’s back to my morning bagel….
• Now playing on iTunes: "Tour’s End," a "Sweet Georgia Brown" contrafact (that’s musicologist talk) from Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio. It swings like hell—and without a drummer, thank you very much.
(Incidentally, a reader writes to tell me that Matchbook, the Ralph Towner-Gary Burton CD I listened to yesterday, is in print in Europe and can be ordered by going here.)
"But our successful novelist of to-day begins when he is two- or three-and-twenty. He 'catches on,' as they say, and he becomes a laborious professional writer. He toils at his novels as if he were the manager of a bank or the captain of an ocean steamer. In one narrow groove he slides up and down, up and down, growing infinitely skilful at his task of making bricks out of straw. He finishes the last page of 'The Writhing Victim' in the morning, lunches at his club, has a nap; and, after dinner, writes the first page of 'The Swart Sombrero.' He cannot describe a trade or a profession, for he knows none but his own. He has no time to look at life, and he goes on weaving fancies out of the ever-dwindling stores of his childish and boyish memories. As these grow exhausted, his works get more and more shadowy, till at last even the long-suffering public that once loved his merits, and then grew tolerant of his tricks, can endure him no longer."
Cultural critics may lack the depth of knowledge that comes with specialization, but Terry Teachout's self-issued carte blanche to submerge himself in whatever he wants (he is the music critic of Commentary, the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, and ''critic-for-hire'' on everything from opera to television for many other publications) has left him with an unusual and singular perspective on the last 15 years of American cultural activity. Now that the country has crossed its ''great cultural and technological divide,'' Teachout writes, as well as finally left postmodernism behind, he hopes his collection will ''have some value as a chronicle, a road map of how we got from there to here.'' That the 58 engaging essays in ''A Terry Teachout Reader,'' on subjects ranging from Dawn Powell and Louis Armstrong to David Ives and Martha Graham, tell us as much about America as they do about Teachout's evolving sensibility makes the book an intellectual memoir by way of enthusiasms. His detailed snapshots of bygone cultural moments are introduced by a thoughtful history of our cultural climate over the last half-century.
If you haven’t yet ordered a copy, go here and do so.
MILWAUKEE -- Joseph J. Zimmermann Jr., who invented the telephone answering machine in 1948 and patented it a year later, has died at age 92.
Mr. Zimmermann, who died March 31, said in a 1949 interview with the Milwaukee Journal that he got the idea for the device as the owner of an air-conditioning and heating company when he could not afford to hire a secretary to take calls while he was out of the office.
The first machine, the Electronic Secretary Model R1, was made up of a box that lifted the telephone receiver from its cradle when the phone rang; a box containing a control panel with a 78-r.p.m. record player inside that played a recorded greeting; and a wire recorder on top of the second box for recording a series of 30-second messages.
Mr. Zimmermann teamed with businessman and fellow engineer George Danner to start Waukesha, Wis.-based Electronic Secretary Industries. More than 6,000 answering machines were in use in 1957 when the two sold the company, and the patent rights, to General Telephone Corp., which later became GTE.
"The only modern inventions that have been of any real use to me are the typewriter and the Pullman car," H.L. Mencken told a reporter for Life in 1946. Kurt Andersen asked me the other day whether I thought Mencken would have taken to blogging. I think it’s possible (just), but I’m absolutely sure he would have bought an answering machine. I’ve used one for the past quarter-century, and I can’t imagine how I ever got through the day without it. I even bought my septuagenarian mother her first answering machine, and though it took her a year or so to get used to it, she now finds it indispensable. Can you think of a postwar invention with a higher ratio of social significance to cost?
I’m not the first blogger to link to Chicha’s devastating takedown of The Swan, but just in case you haven’t read it yet, do so at once:
Other shows have had equally shallow and enraging premises—remember Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? But the premise always drew equally shallow and enraging contestants, while the contestants on The Swan don’t seem shallow so much as insecure and clueless. The show itself is the villain, the only target for our hatred. But the question is, is The Swan purposefully loathsome, or just deeply hypocritical?…
The answer is yes.
Speaking of reality TV, Tom Shales, the Washington Post’s TV critic, also "reviews" broadcast news coverage, and his comments
on Condoleezza’s Rice testimony are worth pondering:
If it were to be viewed as a battle, or a sporting event, or a contest -- and of course that would be wrong -- then Condoleezza Rice won it. Indeed, the national security adviser did so well and seemed so firmly in command of the situation yesterday, when she testified under oath before the 9/11 commission, that one had to wonder why the White House spent so much time and energy trying to keep her from having to appear….
I’ve long had mixed feelings about this kind of reviewing, but I’m also well aware that in a world where most people get their news by watching TV, every occurrence is a performance, and to ignore that fact is to disregard the nature of reality in the age of information.
As it happens, I had lunch with a Washington Post editor the same day Shales' piece appeared, and I asked him, "The only thing I can’t figure out is this: why didn’t the Post start it up front instead of in the Style section?"
"Because it was an opinion piece," he replied.
So it was—and so what? I don’t see the Post on paper, so I don’t know what was on its front page last Friday, but my guess is that Shales’ piece was far more to the point of the day’s events than at least some of the news stories deemed worthy of page-one placement. Is there really so great a difference between unabashed opinion journalism and the "news analysis" (sometimes labeled as such, sometimes not) regularly published on the front pages of most major papers? Bloggers don’t think so—which I suspect is one of the reasons why their audience is growing daily, while the readership of newspapers continues to shrink.
Critical Mass liked my recent posting on reading lists (the one that inspired me to launch "Consumables").
Here’s what she said in preface to posting her own list:
In a much earlier incarnation of this blog, I used to maintain a running list of my own reading. I was always surprised by how much traffic my reading list page attracted. I liked contemplating the list just as I like contemplating my own (vastly overcrowded) bookshelves--there's a sort of mnemonic quality to both activities that is at once soothing and inspiring--but I was quite intrigued to see how many other people were also interested in the list. As Terry says, such lists are approximations of people's shelves, and as such they offer both insight into the lister's mind and suggest new directions the reader of the list might take in his or her own reading….
Not surprisingly, her readers are posting their own lists as comments.
• On Saturday night I went to seeEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (now maybe Our Girl will tell me what she thought of it!), and last night I watched Joel McCrea in Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown—ideal Easter fare for a small-town boy who loves Westerns.
• Continuing on my Barbara Pym kick, I’m now readingAn Unsuitable Attachment, whose characters include Faustina, one of my all-time favorite fictional cats.
• Now playing on iTunes: Ralph Towner’s "Icarus," recorded by Towner and Gary Burton on Matchbook, one of the most beautiful duo albums ever made. Vibraharp and acoustic twelve-string guitar may sound like an odd match on paper, but on this CD they go together like strawberries and champagne. (Lots of other people think so, too, as you’ll find out when you click on the link and see how much a second-hand copy costs.)
UPDATE: I’d forgotten that OGIC already wrote about Eternal Sunshine.
"One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited His goodness, you are done with Him. The Aylmers whom Hawthorne saw as a menace have multiplied. Busy cutting down human imperfection, they are making headway also on the raw material of good. Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus’ hero cannot accept the divinity of Christ, because of the massacre of the innocents. In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber."
Flannery O’Connor, introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann