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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, November 24, 2006
    TT: Hairdressers of the world, unite!

    Enough already with the leftovers—it’s time for the Friday Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. I render summary judgment on two off-Broadway shows in today's paper, Paul Rudnick's Regrets Only and a revival of Suddenly Last Summer:

    Paul Rudnick reminds me of Nuke LaLoosh, the rookie pitcher in “Bull Durham” who had a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head. If it’s jokes you want, Mr. Rudnick’s your man, and most of them are funny to boot. For a stand-up comedian, that’d be more than enough—but Mr. Rudnick is a playwright, and “Regrets Only,” his latest effort, proves yet again that it takes more than punchlines to make a play….

    Hank Hadley (George Grizzard), a ruggedly handsome fashion designer who just happens to be gay, is incensed when the husband (David Rasche) of his best friend (Christine Baranski) agrees to help President Bush draft a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage. Thanks to Mr. Rudnick’s jokes and the precision-tooled acting of his cast, “Regrets Only” stays afloat until intermission, at which point things get really, really stupid: Hank talks all the gays in Manhattan into going on strike, meaning that Broadway shuts down and nobody can get a hairdo. Curtain? Not quite, alas, for we have to sit through a semi-serious closing scene in which Mr. Rudnick whacks us over the head with his moral, which is that Gays Are People, Too.

    I wonder whether it occurred to Mr. Rudnick that the second act of “Regrets Only,” in which gays are portrayed as playwrights, actors, hairdressers, caterers, florists, and travel agents, is itself a mortifyingly quaint piece of stereotyping….

    Tennessee Williams is widely thought to be a great playwright—but not by me. Yes, he wrote one indisputably great play, “The Glass Menagerie,” and I can also see why so many people like “A Streetcar Named Desire” so much more than I do. Most of the rest of his vast output, however, strikes me as overblown and underbelievable, with “Suddenly Last Summer” locking up the booby prize for sheer absurdity. I’ve no idea how Williams’ reputation for seriousness survived its 1958 premiere, much less why the Roundabout Theatre Company has gone to the trouble of reviving what is surely the most unintentionally silly play ever written by a well-known author….

    No free link. To read the whole thing, pick up a copy of today’s Journal and turn to the “Weekend Journal” section. Alternatively, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you on-the-spot access to my review, plus plenty of other good stuff. (If you’re already a subscriber, the review is here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 24, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Ballet? Never heard of it

    In my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I cast a cold eye on the desperate state of dance in America. Just a quarter-century ago, ballet and modern dance were vital, exciting, and (above all) popular. Now they’re at a frighteningly low ebb. What happened—and what can be done to pump up the volume?

    To find out, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, November 24, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "You know, the Philistines have long since discarded the rack and stake as a means of suppressing the opinions they feared: they've discovered a much more deadly weapon of destruction—the wisecrack."

    W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, November 24, 2006 | Permanent link
Thursday, November 23, 2006
    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)
    Jay Johnson: The Two and Only (one-ventriloquist show, G/PG-13, a bit of strong language but otherwise family-friendly, 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)

    Heartbreak House* (drama, G/PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Dec. 17)
    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (drama, R, adult subject matter and nudity, reviewed here, closes Dec. 9)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, November 23, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "One can never pay in gratitude; one can only pay 'in kind' somewhere else in life."

    Anne Morrow Lindbergh, North to the Orient

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, November 23, 2006 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
    TT: Here I go again

    I’m off to Connecticut for a four-day Thanksgiving marathon, returning to New York on Saturday afternoon to embark on a week-long playgoing marathon. It’s all a bit too much, especially since I filed two Wall Street Journal columns yesterday. I wish I had the steam to post more extensively, but right now it’s all I can do to pack my bag. Expect the usual theater-related postings on Thursday and Friday, but otherwise I plan to lay low until next Monday. Apologies.

    In the meantime, let me leave you with some pieces worth reading:

    • Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post went to Atlanta to look at the High Museum’s Morris Louis retrospective and filed this first-rate report about the declining fortunes of a once-fashionable abstractionist who is now criminally underrated. I wasn’t greatly impressed with the High Museum when I visited Atlanta last July, but Gopnik’s piece made me want to jump on the next southbound plane.

    • Speaking of museums, Eric Gibson of The Wall Street Journal has written a tough and trenchant column on the latest round of deaccessioning. Here’s the nut:

    Just last week the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., announced that it was selling more than 200 objects from its collection to raise $15 million for the purchase of modern and contemporary art. "Deaccessioning," as the practice is known, used to be the tool of last resort for acquiring new art. But lately it's become the tool of first resort, with museums strip-mining their collections just to build a war chest….

    What's so disturbing about collection rentals and sales is that they violate the reason that museums are treated differently from businesses. Because of their transcendent importance, museum objects occupy a position outside the pressures of the marketplace. Yet more and more museums are treating these objects as financial assets that they can tap at any time.

    What he said.

    • Out of the Mouths of Babes Dept.: Joan Didion, who has written a stage version of The Year of Magical Thinking that will open on Broadway later this season, recently talked to an interviewer about the difference between screenwriting and playwriting:

    Once in a while there were things in screenwriting that taught me things for fiction. But there’s nothing in screenwriting that teaches you anything for the theater. I’m not sure I’ve ever fully appreciated before how different a form theater is….Something I’ve always known and said and thought about the screen is that if it’s anything in the world, it’s literal. It’s so literal that there’s a whole lot you can’t do because you’re stuck with the literalness of the screen. The stage is not literal.

    What she said.

    That’ll have to hold you for now—I need to go to bed immediately. See you around.

    P.S. Check out the new Top Fives.

    P.P.S. Happy Thanksgiving!

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 22, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Art is triumphant when it can use convention as an instrument of its own purpose."

    W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 22, 2006 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
    TT: Almanac

    "We who are of mature age seldom suspect how unmercifully and yet with what insight the very young judge us."

    W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 21, 2006 | Permanent link
Monday, November 20, 2006
    TT: From the sublime...

    I walked through Chicago’s Midway Airport last Thursday to the sounds of the King Cole Trio’s 1944 recording of Cole Porter’s What Is This Thing Called Love? It’s a masterpiece, one of the most perfect jazz piano recordings ever made, and hearing it in an airport instead of Muzak was a little miracle of serendipity.

    Now I’m back in Midway Airport, en route from St. Louis to New York. The airport management put up Christmas decorations over the weekend, and they’re playing Kenny G’s recording of “The First Noel.”


    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 20, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Out of the way

    I paid a visit last Thursday to a Frank Lloyd Wright house located in the suburbs of St. Louis. Known to specialists as the Kraus House, this two-bedroom, 1,900-square-foot home, completed in 1956, was painstakingly restored and opened to the public a couple of years ago. Most of Wright’s best-known houses are based on square or rectangular grids, but this one is an exception, a sly, witty study in triangles and parallelograms that fit together in unexpected, sometimes startling ways. It’s one of the few surviving Wright houses that contains all of the furnishings and fabrics that were custom-designed by the architect for the original owner. Of the smaller Wright houses I’ve visited, including the two I stayed in last year, it’s the one I like best—so far.

    From St. Louis I drove south to Smalltown, U.S.A., where I spent a long weekend hanging out with my family. The Web has become so graphics-intensive that it’s now difficult to view most newspaper sites and art-related blogs and newspaper sites without a high-speed connection, so instead of treading water in the frenzied present, I’ve been lazing around in the fondly remembered past. Among other things, my mother dug up a receipt for the Wurlitzer spinet piano that my father bought for me in 1970, the instrument on which I learned to play. Back then it cost $679.50, the equivalent of $3,423.26 in 2005 dollars. I’m glad I didn’t know then how much they paid for it, but my mother assures me that they got their money’s worth, and all things considered, I’m inclined to agree.

    It’s quiet in Smalltown, so much so that half-audible, half-remembered sounds are constantly catching my ear:

    • The hollow, rattly clunk of the back door of my mother’s house. (Nobody ever comes in through the front door.)

    • The rumble of the furnace fan each time it starts up.

    • The faint ticking and buzzing of the electric clock in my bedroom.

    • The lonely, distant wail of the freight-train whistle that blows at bedtime.

    One alien sound that I brought along with me is the ghostly whistle emitted by the modem of my iBook as it “shakes hands” with the dialup line via which I log onto the Web. “Are you playing music back there?” my mother asked when she heard it yesterday morning.

    The only work of art I’ve consumed since arriving in Smalltown (not counting my brother’s home-smoked pork loin) is Lonesome Dove, the four-part 1989 TV movie based on Larry McMurtry’s Western novel. An expansive, elegiac tribute to the hard men of the American frontier, it's every bit as good as I’d heard, and Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones are, if anything, better still. I’ve also been rereading Dawn Powell’s The Locusts Have No King and drafting a column for Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. Otherwise, I’ve been taking it fairly easy, and plan to keep on doing so after I return to New York on Monday evening. It's Thanksgiving week, and even a drama critic deserves some time off.

    Starting on Saturday, I’ll be spending the next nine days seeing High Fidelity, David Hare’s The Vertical Hour, Tom Stoppard’s Voyage, the New York premiere of David Mamet’s adaptation of The Voysey Inheritance, revivals of Company, Two Trains Running, and Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Antigone, and performances by the Amelia Piano Trio and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Gulp!

    Details to come, but first I have to drive back to St. Louis and catch a plane to New York. Don’t expect to hear from me again until Wednesday. In the meantime, go buy a turkey.

    P.S. This is where I took my family to eat on Sunday. It was fabulous.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 20, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "We had now arrived at the museum and our attention was directed to the pictures. Once more I was impressed by Elliott's knowledge and taste. He shepherded me around the rooms as though I were a group of tourists, and no professor of art could have discoursed more instructively than he did. Making up my mind to come again by myself when I could wander at will and have a good time, I submitted; after a while he looked at his watch.

    "'Let us go,' he said. 'I never spend more than one hour in a gallery. That is as long as one's power of appreciation persists. We will finish another day.'

    "I thanked him warmly when we separated. I went my way perhaps a wiser but certainly a peevish man."

    W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 20, 2006 | Permanent link
Friday, November 18, 2005
    TT and OGIC: The two of us

    In case you're new to this blog, two different people post here: Terry Teachout, who lives in New York City, and Our Girl in Chicago, otherwise known as Laura Demanski, who lives in, er, Chicago.

    The headlines on Terry's posts start out with "TT."

    The headlines on Our Girl's posts start out with "OGIC."

    Enough said. Read on. Enjoy.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Friday wild card

    As longtime readers know, I'm a big hockey fan, though tonight the sport made mincemeat of my nerves and left me, in the end, sad and wistful. (Thanks for the consolation call, Dad. I have the best dad.)

    As longtime readers also know, I occasionally smuggle in hockey content here, though I'm usually decently artful about dressing it up as arts content. Not today. This one's nakedly a sports post, though it does offer links to a number of good writers—on hockey, natch. But beyond the aesthetic attractions of words strung together nicely that include "goon" and "icing," this post is in no way arts-related.

    Because the vast majority of sports writing is so banal, good sports writing gives me more pleasure than perhaps any other kind of good writing. There's an element of happy surprise attached to finding something smart and interesting in a desert of hackwork, and there's a luxury as well to great writing about inconsequential things. At least as much as in the arts, I think, the invention of blogging has enhanced the quantity and quality of worthwhile sports writing out there. Something about the combination of the ephemerality of sports and the passion they inspire makes them a subject perfectly suited for blog coverage. For a hockey fan in this country where we're considered quaint curiosities, hockey blogs have become nothing less than a lifeline for me to like-minded souls. And since the end of the lockout and the game's return, it seems to me that the hockey blogging scene has grown especially vibrant and fun. So I share with you a few of the essential stops in my daily hockey blog tour:

    • The original: Eric McErlain's Off Wing Opinion is the granddaddy of hockey blogs, and covers notable news from throughout the sports world. Because Eric's one of the best known bloggers in all of sports and has a puck and a red line bannering his site, he does a great service to our sadly neglected (in the U.S.) sport, every single day.

    • While not, strictly speaking, a hockey blogger, Colby Cosh earns a place on this list because when he does blog hockey, he does it unbeatably. Colby knows a ton about everything, so his hockey posts tend to be, shall we say, broadly informed and inspired.

    • Jeff and Alanah at Vancouver Canucks Op-Ed are booksellers and hockey fans. What more need be said? I will say, too, that they're better than anyone I know at the art of the good-natured insult. This is a formidable skill, and their blog is a delight.

    • Dour is one word for Tom Benjamin, who runs the Canucks Corner NHL weblog out of Canucks Corner. Authoritative is another. Smart is another. Half the time you see his name on other blogs, it's attached to the word "cranky," but no one who says so would think of skipping his site.

    • This one's new, at least to me, but I'm crazy about Jes Golbez's Hockey Rants. It's endlessly entertaining. I look back on Jes's Halloween gallery of hockey ghouls with particular fondness.

    There endeth today's recruiting effort. Enjoy your weekend.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, November 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: All about Anna

    Speaking of Anna Karenina, which someone was in the post below, I heard a fantastic talk on Anna's suicide last week and wrote it up very briefly here.

    It has been at least fifteen years since I read Tolstoy's novel, and it's not a book I ever close-read. So Gary Saul Morson's observation that Anna, in her last scene, is consciously copying the death of the watchman in her first scene struck me like a jolt of electricity. I always took the rail accident of the first scene as just so much ill boding, which I believe is the standard lazy reading, but Morson exploded it by very simply pointing out that Anna remembers the accident and decides to follow suit: "And all at once she thought of the man crushed by the train the day she had first met Vronsky, and she knew what she had to do." (I'm quoting from this on-line edition.) That's not foreshadowing, it's the opposite. Rather than being ready-built as a meaningful sign, the watchman's death is only retrospectively endowed with significance by Anna and the decision she makes based on her sudden memory of it.

    If ever you have the opportunity to hear Morson speak, you should do so.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, November 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: The talented Mr. Watman

    Is anyone writing as sharply and accessibly on fiction right now, with so little fanfare, as Max Watman? When one of his refreshingly direct Fiction Chronicles pops up in the New Criterion, I can't click through fast enough. He covers the most gabbed-about books; he knows exactly what he thinks; and unlike many book critics, he is intensely reader-focused. There's an attention to the visceral experience of reading in his reviews that I greatly appreciate and don't find much of elsewhere, at least not in combination with such sound literary judgment and good writing (when I do, it is more likely to be on a favorite lit blog than in print). Watman seems to place a premium on conveying what it feels like to read a book while one is reading it, with results that are always helpful and frequently revelatory. Here, for example, is the beginning of his take on Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown:

    Early in Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown I felt a sense of awe. It wasn’t specific. It wasn’t tied to a single scene or a particular descriptive. It was as if the entire thing, the rhythm of the book, the pulse of the language was bigger than what I’d been reading. It was a change, there was more here. I felt as if I were a much younger man, or perhaps a child, flushed with the intensity of imagination in literature, cracking open Anna Karenina for the first time and being swept away. For now, we who read constantly find most of our pleasures in smaller ways, rereading a short shelf, or finding relatively small accomplishments in literature we like. Nothing seems comparable to the bedrock of one’s literary education, and it is a very rare reading experience that is remotely reminiscent of the Great Books of your private canon.

    Rushdie is so sure of himself, such a strong man of letters, that his language can capture that feeling of fullness. I don’t think it is only in comparison to the dithering and hedging of our constantly self-effacing, self-deprecating contemporaries that Rushdie’s hand feels steady pushing the story forward.

    I felt as if I were on my way to something good. And as soon as I felt it, it began to disintegrate.

    I read and reviewed that book. I was ultimately easier on it than Watman, partly because, in my experience, the feeling he nicely describes here survived the encroachments of the novel's faults. But the interesting thing is that while I felt just this sense of the novel's force, it never occurred to me to simply describe that. Instead I spent a lot of words trying to pinpoint what was producing it. That's a necessary and usually productive exercise, but it's also nice to find a reviewer simply reporting the impression. It's all too easy to skip over that step in the throes of analysis.

    In fact, I've been skipping over it throughout this post, so let me back up, take a hint from Mr. Watman, and simply say: when I read his work, I feel a sense of delight and engagement. There. I feel I've grown as a critic today.

    Also covered in Watman's piece are the following titles:

    • E.L. Doctorow, The March: "In the wake of poetry will come realism, efforts to re-assert the actuality of the thing, to bring back a focus on the true costs of war. Over time hell can be polished, and then someone comes along to put the hell back in. That’s what E. L. Doctorow has attempted in The March.…Doctorow’s characters are as flat as photographs, and a book made of snapshots is nothing. War is not just a scrapbook of atrocities and bad luck. It is not a series of alarming photographs. War is hell because it happens to people, and unfortunately there are no people in Doctorow’s book."

    • Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park: "The whole book swirls, surreally, pushing the limits of tolerable confusion while sending up laughably familiar horror story shticks. For a while, it looks as if nothing will be resolved. It works precisely because it is a ghost story, replete with eviscerated livestock, freshly dug graves, and messages written in ash—and because everything, ultimately, is resolved."

    • Rick Moody, The Diviners: "Why would anyone even bother to type the words 'imaginary pistachio trees, with their delights'?"

    • Benjamin Kunkel, Indecision, in a moment of reviewing the reviewers: "I may be unable to get out of my own postmodern/ironic way, but it seems that everyone has mistaken Kunkel for the character of his own creation. And while that doesn’t make his creation any more palatable, it is the best tribute to a first-person novel I can think of."

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, November 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Half-sister act

    Time again for my Friday-morning Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. I covered three shows this week—The Woman in White, Bach in Leipzig, and the Classic Stage Company’s Hamlet—and my guess is that you’re going to be surprised by my reaction to the first of them. I sure was:

    Andrew Lloyd Webber, once the infallible cash machine of big-budget musical comedy, lost his touch a decade ago and has been AWOL from Broadway ever since. Now he’s back—in both senses—with “The Woman in White,” a stage version of Wilkie Collins’ 1860 shocker about two half-sisters (Maria Friedman and Jill Paice) who fall into the clutches of a murderous pair of swindling noblemen (Ron Bohmer and Michael Ball). Ms. Friedman, who underwent breast-cancer surgery two weeks ago, returned to the show last Thursday in a front-page display of true grit. No less newsworthy, though, is Mr. Lloyd Webber’s own return to form. Not only is “The Woman in White” a solid three-base hit, but for much of its length it proves to be a highly impressive piece of musical theater as well.

    Not being a fan of Mr. Lloyd Webber’s high-priced brand of kitsch, I confess to having been taken aback by the first act of “The Woman of White,” whose witty domestic tone suggests a cross between “Pride and Prejudice” and “Dracula.” Far more than merely fluent, it is at once beautifully paced and unabashedly operatic in scale (so much so that the canned sound of the synthesizer-laden, overly loud pit orchestra does the score a great disservice). The second act, alas, is less memorable—Mr. Lloyd Webber’s big tunes, here as ever, are too obvious to be distinguished—but it holds together dramatically, and though I came away with an unmistakable sense of missed opportunities, “The Woman in White” is still an exceedingly well-made entertainment that will send you home sated….

    If you like super-smart silliness, head downtown to the New York Theatre Workshop and be ready to laugh until your ribs are sore. Comparisons between Itamar Moses’ “Bach at Leipzig” and Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” are inevitable—indeed, Mr. Stoppard wrote the preface to the published version of his younger colleague’s play—but the good news is that Mr. Moses is up to the challenge. In “Bach in Leipzig” he takes a typically Stoppardian historical situation (seven famous organists auditioning for the same high-profile church job in 18th-century Leipzig) and turns it into a who’s-on-first farce full of theatrical trickery and fizzy verbal slapstick….

    Michael Cumpsty, lately of “The Constant Wife,” is one of those ultra-reliable craftsmen whose name on a program always makes me perk up. Now he’s given us something much finer than mere craftsmanship: a Classic Stage Company production of “Hamlet” in which he turns in a thoroughly superior performance of the title role….

    No link, as usual. To read the whole thing, of which there’s a bit more than usual (the Journal kindly gave me extra space this week), buy a copy of this morning’s paper, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, an incredible and insufficiently appreciated bargain.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Rerun

    October 2003:

    I don’t blame Clint Eastwood a bit for having wanted to be one of the very few directors of importance to have scored one of his own films (has anyone else done it other than Charlie Chaplin?). Even if the results weren’t especially impressive, I admire him for trying. And I can’t imagine that he purposefully chose the idiom in which he worked—the glossy "symphonic score" beloved of film composers of the Thirties and Forties—in order to make Mystic River seem like an upper-middle-class cultural artifact. My guess is that he scored it that way simply because that’s the kind of film music with which he grew up, and with which he’s most comfortable.

    That the results ended up being wholly inappropriate to the film in question is, of course, another matter…

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

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Payment made to Benjamin Britten by the Koussevitzky Foundation in 1939 to support the writing of Peter Grimes: $1,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $13,120.80

    (Source: Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    When a girl would catch a fine lad,
    She’ll need one weapon to disarm him:
    She must charm him,
    And then never take her glance off him.
    She won’t need a ruffly gown
    Nor velvet shoulders to get him.
    Once she’s met him,
    She just has to charm the pants off him.

    Some girls have charm for all,
    Some girls have charm for few,
    But when a girl has charm for none,
    There’s not very much that she can do.

    And so I fear that I may be stuck
    In this same dreary situation,
    Maiden station,
    Passed up by every lad
    Unless I find some charm
    I didn’t know I had.

    William Roy, “Charm” (music by Roy)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 18, 2005 | Permanent link
Thursday, November 17, 2005
    TT: Kicking back

    That'll do it for the day, and for the week as well (except for the regular Friday drama-column teaser and the usual routine daily stuff). I'm going to try practicing what I've been preaching.


    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 17, 2005 | Permanent link
    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.

    Absurd Person Singular (comedy, PG, adult subject matter, closes Dec. 18, reviewed here)
    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)

    Orson's Shadow (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, very strong language, closes Dec. 31, reviewed here)
    See What I Wanna See (musical, R, adult subject matter, explicit sexual situations, strong language, closes Dec. 4, reviewed here)
    Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 17, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Combined advance paid to Ernest Hemingway by Scribner’s in 1926 for The Sun Also Rises and The Torrents of Spring: $1,500

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $15,849.36

    (Source: Jeffrey Meyers, Hemingway: A Biography)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 17, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "One must work, if not from taste then at least from despair. For, to reduce everything to a single truth: work is less boring than pleasure."

    Charles Baudelaire, Journal intime

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 17, 2005 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
    OGIC: Links for misanthropes

    I didn't plan it this way, but all the links I've hoarded lately seem to fit that description. They're also all from last week because I am living in the past.

    Ross at The American Scene makes the case for an HBO White House drama:

    It struck me that there's an opening for a show that gives our nation's capital the real HBO treatment--not the "Steven Soderbergh filming flacks with a handheld camera" approach, I mean, but the Sopranos/Deadwood/Rome approach. Start with the West Wing formula--idealistic, articulate people working in high-pressure jobs while keeping the nation's best interests close to their hearts--and shove it through the looking glass. Send an anti-hero to Washington, and follow him (or her) up the ladder, all the way to the Presidency (if he's a politician) or the Karl Rove role (if he's an operative). Make the characters twisted, depraved, power-hungry, sexually voracious, occasionally violent--and make them appealing, too. Give us Deadwood at the Palm, the Sopranos with their hands on the nuclear football, Rome in the capital of the modern Roman Empire.

    Outer Life stars in his own tale of--well, just go read it. I can't possibly do it justice and might well wreck it. Be prepared to laugh at the misfortunes of another, is all I'll say.

    At Cathy's World, Cathy Seipp's pal Sandra Tsing Loh chips in a magnificent rant. The object of her righteous ire? PEN USA:

    So. . . I was excited about the PEN Awards and marked my calendar. Then at my writer's group meeting yesterday, I asked my friend Samantha Dunn if she was going. She had indeed been honored with a gracious invite to join the table of David Ulin, but snorted a remark along the lines of: "$250? I ain't got it!"

    This gave me pause. Then I went to the PEN website, and realized, in good conscience, what was I thinking?  I really cannot go!

    In fact, if I had the babysitting I would be standing in front of the Biltmore in a placard literally PROTESTING this event.

    Loh is as funny on paper as on the air, plus the sailor in her gets a furlough.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, November 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "Pure and complete sorrow is as impossible as pure and complete joy."

    Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, November 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: All over the place (cont'd)

    As a rule, New York drama critics are admitted only to those Broadway shows to which they’re formally invited, which usually means a press preview just prior to opening night. (Sometimes we’re asked back later in the run to cover a major cast change.) Because I go to the theater so often, and because tickets cost so much, it’s very unusual for me to see a play more than once, whereas I normally see a film at least twice if I really like it. Until last Saturday, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was the only show I’d paid to see again since I started covering theater for The Wall Street Journal two and a half years ago. Well, not only did I do the same thing for Sweeney Todd, but I ordered my tickets immediately after coming home from the press preview. That’s how good I thought it was—and I felt the same way on Saturday. So did Ms. In the Wings, who was all but jumping up and down with excitement when the curtain fell at evening's end. “I could see it again right now!” she said as we filed out of the theater.

    I knew just what she meant. John Doyle’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece is so powerfully individual that you feel as if you’re seeing the show anew, no matter how well you think you know it—and I know Sweeney Todd very well indeed, having written about it in detail in A Terry Teachout Reader. I know some people, and even a few critics, have found the production disappointingly modest in scale, but I’m damned if I can see why that should stop them from appreciating the sheer audacity of Doyle’s concept, or the overwhelming punch with which his perfect cast brings it to life.

    • I finally started revving the engine down on Sunday, having hit all four of my accumulated deadlines and taken all but one of my scheduled out-of-town business trips through the end of 2005. (I’m going to Baltimore on Saturday afternoon to see Centerstage’s production of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, but that’s strictly a low-pressure overnight jaunt complete with relaxing train ride.) I brunched with a friend’s little sister at the Acme Bar and Grill (mmmm, cheese grits) and took her to a New York Theatre Workshop matinee of Bach in Leipzig, then spent the rest of the day blogging, straightening pictures, and trying to unwind, not very successfully. If only my sleep cycle would right itself at once after all that stress! Alas, it’ll take at least a week of sensible living, if not two, before I’m sleeping and breathing regularly again.

    • I can’t remember the last time I took an entire weekday off without leaving the city (or getting sick), but Ms. In the Wings, unlikely as it may sound, had never before paid a proper visit to New York City, so I devoted the whole of Monday to showing her the town, albeit in an idiosyncratic, low-keyed way.

    After a leisurely lunch at Café Lalo, we paid a visit to Zabar’s to browse among the smoked fish and cheese, then strolled through Central Park, where we rode two kinds of horses. Next was the Guggenheim Museum and two thought-provoking hours' worth of Russian art (about which much more later). From there we caught a cab to Grand Central Station and sipped cocktails at the Campbell Apartment, giggling wildly as we pretended to be haute something-or-other. Last came a long, utterly satisfying dinner at Blue Hill, during which we talked and talked and talked. Once in a while I’d catch myself thinking how nice it was not to be working, or worrying about work, but mostly I just surrendered to the passing moment, reveling in the company of my visitor and wondering why I don’t do this sort of thing more often.

    And that’s my story: a madly hectic week and a half of writing, travel, and art, capped by a perfectly happy Monday in my adopted home town. On Tuesday I went to the gym and did no work of any kind. Instead, I stuck close to home, called my mother, sent out for Vietnamese food, watched The Apartment on TV, and kept reminding myself that it takes more than one day for a middle-aged workaholic to recover from his prolonged and excessive labors.

    I’m not there yet, or even close, but at least I’m on my way.

    * * *

    (Go here for the first installment and here for the second.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Temporary insanity

    O.K., it's not that bad, but I don't have quite enough steam left in the boiler to write and post the concluding installment of "All Over the Place" before bedtime. It'll have to wait.

    In lieu of same, I've posted four new Top Fives to divert you. Much, much more tomorrow.

    First, though, a word from Morpheus....

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Fee paid to Neil Simon by Paramount in 1965 for film rights to The Odd Couple: $400,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $2,383,255.82

    (Source: Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg, Matthau: A Life)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "François Truffaut defined a great movie as a perfect blend of truth and spectacle. Now it's become bifurcated. Studio films are all spectacle and no truth, and independent films are all truth and no spectacle."

    Howard Franklin (quoted in Joe Morgenstern, “Hollywood’s Gambling Problem,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 12, 2005)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 16, 2005 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
    TT: All over the place (cont'd)

    • On Saturday I flew down to Winston-Salem, where Carolina Ballet was giving three performances of Robert Weiss’ Swan Lake (it was premiered last season in Raleigh, but I was too busy covering Broadway openings to come see it).

    The standard four-act version of Swan Lake, choreographed in 1895 by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, is too large in scale to be performed by medium-smallish companies. Weiss had long taken for granted that it was beyond the reach of Carolina Ballet, which employs only thirty-two dancers, until he ran across a children’s-book version of Swan Lake by the Viennese author-illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger in which the story of the ballet is turned into a fairy tale. Reading the book showed him how Swan Lake could be reconceived on an intimate, organically smaller scale. Zwerger gave him permission to use her Schwanensee as the basis for his production, and now Carolina Ballet has its very own two-act Swan Lake, one with just eight swan maidens instead of the usual twenty-four.

    Weiss’ Swan Lake is forty-five minutes shorter than the Petipa-Ivanov version and has been altered in a variety of other ways, some small and some significant (among other things, it has a happy ending, Tchaikovsky’s original intention). Above all, it's been completely rechoreographed in the fast-moving manner of Weiss' other full-evening story ballets. As I explained a couple of years ago in a Washington Post review of his dance version of Carmen:

    If you hadn't seen any full-length ballets other than, say, "Giselle," you probably wouldn't notice anything unusual about it, except that there aren't any boring parts—and that's the point.

    Having squirmed through far too many three-act kitschfests such as Ben Stevenson's "Dracula" (which the Houston Ballet inflicted on innocent Washingtonians earlier this month), I've lost patience with choreographers who cram the stage with high-priced scenery and costumes, then forget to add steps and serve hot. The emphasis in their faux-romantic pseudo-ballets is placed squarely on pantomime and pageantry, while the dancing, such as it is, must fend for itself. The results invariably end up looking static, the opposite of what a good ballet should be.

    Weiss has chosen a different model for "Carmen," as well as the similarly conceived, equally successful "Romeo and Juliet" that Carolina Ballet premiered last year. Both ballets are choreographed in the manner of Balanchine's 1962 adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which the plot is propelled, and the characters defined, through movement rather than mime. "I don't like seeing a lot of people standing around on stage doing nothing," Weiss says. Instead, he builds each scene around a carefully organized dance sequence, just as Balanchine did in his great Shakespeare ballet….He uses the standard steps and combinations of neoclassical ballet, but always to make specific narrative points.

    As a result, Weiss’ Swan Lake, though related to the standard Petipa-Ivanov version, doesn’t feel anything like a slimmed-down alternative. It's different not only in scale but also in shape and tone, and to my mind is wholly successful on its own terms. I saw it twice and couldn’t have been more impressed. Aside from the obvious artistic merits of Weiss’ version, it strikes me that he’s found a solution to the Swan Lake problem that other regional companies with similarly limited resources would do well to embrace.

    • I took Ms. Pratie Place to the Sunday matinee, about which she blogged at length last week, complete with illustrations. It was a heart-stoppingly beautiful day, so we had brunch at an outdoor café next to the theater in Winston-Salem and chatted about everything under the sun. (We’d been in touch via e-mail for some time, but this was our first meeting.) Ms. Pratie, a folk musician who lives in Chapel Hill and looks a bit like Emmylou Harris, is a peach, spunky and smart and wonderfully receptive, and had I not been planning to fly back to New York that same evening, I would have been more than happy to dine with her after the ballet as well.

    • Alas, the weather in New York caught me flat-footed. Late-breaking thunderstorms rendered LaGuardia inoperative, forcing me to spend the night in a grouchy little airport hotel in Greenboro. By then the accumulated stress of the week just past had rendered me inoperative, too, so I dined unmemorably in a nearby sports bar and spent the night sitting up in bed watching TV. (Warning: The Matrix is not suitable for viewing by the severely underslept.)

    • The skies finally righted themselves on Monday, and I flew back to New York that morning. No sooner did I unlock the door of the Teachout Museum than I plunged into four hellish days of work, none of which I’d be willing to repeat save at gunpoint. I wrote four tough pieces back to back: two columns for The Wall Street Journal, a review of Marion Rodgers’ Mencken: The American Iconoclast for The New Criterion, and an essay for the fiftieth-anniversary issue of National Review. In between deadlines, I chewed up a ton of snail mail, went to previews of Souvenir and Classic Stage Company’s Hamlet, and blogged about how I was either too tired or too wired to sleep—I forget which.

    • My frenzied activity finally came to a halt on Friday night when I fell into bed and slept as though drugged. The next morning I tidied up the apartment and went out to meet Ms. In the Wings, who was visiting New York for the first time and had put her itinerary in my hands. In case you’re wondering, she's just like her blog: fey, funny, and forever saying slightly off-center things that make earthbound types like me feel hopelessly wonkish and unfanciful.

    I gave her a tour of the Teachout Museum, after which we went to the Neue Galerie to have a snack in the oh-so-Viennese café and look over the Egon Schiele retrospective (very impressive, but that man was one way sick cookie). Then we strolled back across Central Park, dined at Kitchen 82, and went down to Broadway to catch the new revival of Sweeney Todd, she for the first time, I for the second. All I’d told her in advance was that we’d be seeing something cool, and when the cab pulled up in front of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, she agreed—not calmly—that I hadn’t been exaggerating.

    (To be continued)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 15, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: And damned well about time, too

    From DVD Journal:

    New from our friends at The Criterion Collection are four titles, all due in February. Jean Renoir's 1938 La Bęte Humaine will feature a new transfer of the original, uncut version, along with an introduction from Renoir, a new interview with Peter Bogdanovich, additional archive interviews with Renoir, stills, and a trailer (Feb. 14). Luis Buńuel's controversial 1961 comedy Viridiana will feature an interview with author and journalist Richard Porton, as well as a trailer and an essay by film historian Michael Wood (Feb. 14). Robert Hamer's 1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets starring Alec Guinness updates the previous Anchor Bay DVD release with two BBC programmes on Guinness and the history of Ealing Studios, stills, a trailer, and an essay by critic and historian Philip Kemp (Feb. 28). And finally, Whit Stillman's 1990 Metropolitan will offer a commentary from the director, editor Christopher Tellefsen, and actors Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols, outtakes and deleted scenes, and an essay from film scholar Luc Sante (Feb. 28). Also stay tuned for early 2006, when Orson Welles' 1955 Mr. Arkadin is expected to arrive under the Criterion folio.

    My birthday is (ahem) February 6.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 15, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • William Holden’s fee in 1957 (plus ten percent of the profits) for playing in The Bridge on the River Kwai: $300,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $2,038,819.84

    (Source: Piers Paul Read, Alec Guinness)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 15, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    Time is a very strange thing.
    So long as one takes it for granted, it is nothing at all.
    But then, all of a sudden, one is aware of nothing else.
    It is all about us, it is within us also,
    In our faces it is there, trickling,
    In the mirror it is there, trickling,
    In my sleep it is there, flowing,
    And between me and you,
    There, too, it flows, soundless, like an hour-glass.
    Oh, Quinquin, sometimes I hear it flowing
    Irresistibly on.
    Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night
    And stop all the clocks, all, all of them.
    Nevertheless, we are not to shrink from it,
    For it, too, is a creature of the Father who created us all.

    Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier (music by Richard Strauss, trans. W.H. Auden)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 15, 2005 | Permanent link
Monday, November 14, 2005
    TT: All over the place

    That’s the phrase dancers use to describe a performance that is…well, a bit erratic. It’s one of my favorite pieces of professional argot, not to mention a pretty good way to sum up the past week and a half. I’ve been all over the place, seen all sorts of things, written far too many pieces, and hung out with some of my favorite people—including two bloggers whom I was meeting for the first time, even though I already “knew” them well from cyberspace.

    Here are some snapshots from the maelstrom:

    • It all started two Wednesdays ago when I went to a press preview of Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, a new jukebox musical that I loathed, very much in contrast to the collective opinion of the audience and—as it turned out—most of my colleagues.

    No, I didn’t care for the music, but that’s not the main thing wrong with the show. After all, I don’t like the music in Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do, either, but I adored the movie. So what’s the problem? I’ll start with an e-mail that a smart friend sent to me after reading my review:

    my youth in the mid-60s was spent at jones beach with other families who had very little, eating pb&j sandwiches with ears pressed to transistor radios radio counting down the top 20. the four seasons were nyc's stick-ball answer to the beatles and the beach boys and the energy level was very new york back then (63-68-ish). the four seasons compared to the beatles and beach boys was almost race music. it was pure subway. now, with sinatra dead and tony all but a wax museum piece (when was he not), seems valli is perfectly poised to become the patron saint of all things mall….

    Jersey Boys tells you all this, but it doesn’t show you any of it, because it isn’t a play but a string of first-person monologues separated by occasional stretches of stilted dialogue (just like Lennon, which was even worse). That’s why it’s so dead on stage. Even a one-person show, which in a sense is all in the telling, has to find a way to break free of mere narration—otherwise it never comes to life. There’s a reason why we call a show a show.

    • On Thursday morning I arose at 4:45 and caught a six a.m. train to Washington for the winter meeting of the National Council on the Arts, which began at nine. I slept all the way down and arrived on time (well, almost).

    Our closed sessions are strictly confidential, so I can’t tell you anything about what we discussed on Thursday. Instead, I’ll fast-forward to the Washington Ballet performance I attended that evening at Kennedy Center, accompanied by my friend Ali. She’d never seen George Balanchine’s Serenade, which opened the program. I looked at her when it was over, and I'm fairly sure I saw a tear or two. Then she smiled. “Couldn’t we just see that one twice more instead of the other pieces on the program?” she asked. I know how she felt. I remember my first Serenade, which I saw eighteen years ago from the cheap seats of New York’s City Center, courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem. It had the same effect on me. It has the same effect on everyone.

    • The next morning I returned to the Old Post Office to join my fellow council members for a public session. Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, always makes sure that our meetings include some kind of performance—even if it’s nothing more than the playing of a suitable record—so we started the day by listening to Louis Armstrong’s 1933 recording of Basin Street Blues, thereby paying tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the determination of the survivors to bring art back to New Orleans. It was a lovely, utterly appropriate moment.

    Midway through the meeting we paused to make the acquaintance of Wayne Henderson, a guitar maker from a very small town in Virginia (pop. 7, or so he says) who is the subject of Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument, a new book by Allen St. John. Henderson, a short, shy, unassuming man, is an NEA National Heritage Fellow. He played “Wildwood Flower” and “Black Mountain Rag” on one of his own handmade guitars, and as I listened, I delighted in the fact that my government had had the wisdom to pay official homage to so deserving an artisan.

    At meeting’s end Dana noted the death of Shirley Horn, one of last year’s NEA Jazz Fellows, who had been buried the day before in Washington. Then we listened in silence to her recording of “If You Love Me.” The silence grew thick as an early-morning fog as she sang the last verse:

    When at last our life on earth is through,
    I will share eternity with you.
    If you love me, really love me,
    Let it happen, I won't care.

    I was thinking about the haircut I’d gotten in New York earlier in the week. The barber tied a dark blue apron around my neck, and it seemed as if all the freshly trimmed hair falling on it was either gray or white. So here it is at last, the distinguished thing, I told myself with an invisible shrug of pretended indifference to the all too visible evidence of the downward slope. Of course there are worse things than being on the verge of your fiftieth birthday—starting, needless to say, with the alternative—but that doesn’t make it any cheerier to contemplate, or easier to explain to younger friends still full of great expectations and innocent of grim foreknowledge. In middle age you find yourself saying goodbye to all that, a dream at a time, until one day the winds grow colder/And suddenly you’re older….

    “The one hundred fifty-sixth meeting of the National Council on the Arts is now adjourned,” Dana said softly, and banged his gavel once. A half-hour later I was on a train bound for New York.

    • A few hours after that, I was sitting on the aisle at Brooklyn’s BAM Harvey Theater, getting ready to watch Propeller perform Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, accompanied by another young friend who was unexpectedly understanding of the night thoughts churning around inside the head of a tired critic with miles to go before he slept.

    “Omigod, Terry, you look awful,” she said. “Aren't you getting any sleep? Are you going to make it through the week in one piece?”

    “Oh, sure. I always do, don't I? I have this, you know,” I replied, waving one hand at the stage. “It's what I live off. It’s just about the only illusion you get to hang onto. Friends die, marriages end, staircases grow steeper—but we still have that perfect world down there, and we can live in it for a couple of hours at a time. You'd be surprised how much it helps.”

    All at once I heard Shirley Horn’s soft, slow, thick-grained voice in my mind’s ear, and sighed. “Ah, Elly, do you have any idea what I’m talking about?”

    “Kind of,” she said, putting her unlined hand atop mine and giving it a comforting pat.

    (To be continued)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 14, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Live and in three persons

    On December 6, I’ll be teaming up with Maud Newton (lovingly known around these parts as Supermaud) and Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker (whom I’ve never met, weirdly enough) 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 @ Monday, November 14, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Rerun

    October 2003:

    I’m not saying that all good new art has to be simple, or that I only like simple art. Nor am I saying that all great art is destined in time to be swallowed up and spit out by Madison Avenue. But as I grow older, I find myself increasingly suspicious of the long-term viability of self-consciously "difficult" art. This is part of what I meant when I observed a little earlier today that the first responsibility of art is to give pleasure. Of course it is our reciprocal responsibility to be open to the new. What seems strange now may soon come to seem beautiful—but I very much doubt that a lifetime’s puzzling over Finnegans Wake will cause it to seem anything other than pointlessly complex. There’s a reason why the greatest artists dissolve into simplicity as they grow older.…

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

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 14, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Alec Guinness’ fee in 1976 (plus two percent of the producer's profit) for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: $150,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $514,978.46

    (Source: Piers Paul Read, Alec Guinness)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 14, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "In the city as nowhere else we are reminded that we are individuals, units. Yet the idea of the city remains; it is the god of the city that we pursue, in vain."

    V.S. Naipaul, The Mimic Men

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 14, 2005 | Permanent link
Friday, November 19, 2004
    TT: Just another day in New York City

    I lunched on Wednesday with a friend of mine who recently went to work at the Museum of Modern Art, whose brand-new midtown headquarters will be opened to the public tomorrow. The flu had laid me too low to attend any of the preceding week's press previews, so when she asked me if I’d like to take a quick peek at the galleries, I was—well, torn. I was worn out from a hard night's book-plugging and knew I really needed to go home and grab a nap, but I couldn’t imagine passing up a chance to see the new MoMA before the crowds arrived, so I took a deep breath and said, “You bet. Let’s go.”

    No doubt every art and architecture critic in the known universe will be holding forth this week and next about MoMA. (The New York Times even has a special page on its Web site devoted to the opening.) Opinions published to date range from the ecstatic to the apocalyptic. For my part, I feel neither inclined nor qualified to lay down the law based on a single brisk walkthrough. The new MoMA is going to be around for a long time, and my feelings about it will evolve each time I come back to see it again. The sheer bigness of the public areas, for instance, struck me as offputting at first glance. “This’d be a great place for a roller derby,” I told my friend as we entered the first-floor lobby. But I realized in the next breath that they’d look different—radically so—once they were filled to capacity with excited museumgoers, and immediately resolved to suspend judgment.

    Most of the artbloggers who’ve written about MoMA have concentrated on the contemporary galleries and their contents. (Modern Art Notes is posting fresh links on a regular basis.) I was more interested in how MoMA’s “narrative” of the development of modernism had been revisited and reshaped by John Elderfield and his team of curators. Again, my reactions are strictly provisional, but here are some of the things that struck me as I sprinted through the galleries for the first time:

    • In the old MoMA, Picasso was the big cheese. Now it’s Matisse. (Suits me.)

    • Visitors to the old MoMA had only one way to experience the unfolding of modernism: in a sequence carefully controlled by the entrances and exits to the successive galleries. The new floor plan, by contrast, is much more open. MoMA still tells a highly idiosyncratic "story" about modern art, but you can read the chapters in whatever order you choose.

    • In the old MoMA, prewar American modernists were all but ignored, except for the ones whose work either related to European surrealism (Joseph Cornell) or prefigured abstract expressionism (Milton Avery). Nor were such postwar representationalists as Fairfield Porter given the time of day. Alas, nothing has changed. Justin Davidson and Ariella Budick nailed it in their Newsday review:

    Every museum has its omissions, but MoMA's disregard for Americans who don't fit the official line is all the more breathtaking because of the building's scope. Two floors of painting and sculpture are still not ample enough to include Fairfield Porter, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Philip Pearlstein, or Alex Katz. Even Larry Rivers' "Washington Crossing the Delaware," one of the museum's marquee paintings, is absent.

    These omissions are all the more striking to me in light of the fact that my own collection of works on paper by American artists focuses on precisely those artists whom MoMA fails to take seriously. I originally conceived of the “Teachout Museum” as a kind of counter-canon of American modernism—a reply to MoMA, so to speak. The fact that the old MoMA was too small to exhibit more than a fraction of its vast holdings made me wonder whether the new MoMA might possibly be planning to rethink its cramped view of American art before 1945. No such luck. At least for now, Elderfield & Co. haven’t even tried.

    • If you want to sum up MoMA’s occasional fits of provincialism in a single sentence, you could do worse than this one: it owns at least four major Morandis, but none of them is on view.

    • One of the best things a smart curator can do is hang works of art together in such a way as to make you say, Wow! I never thought of that. The new MoMA offers more than a few such double-take moments. The gallery devoted to minimalism, for instance, also contains a large circle painting by Kenneth Noland. To see it hanging across the room from a Donald Judd sculpture is eye-opening in the best possible way. Likewise the now-notorious stairwell in which Matisse’s "La Danse" looks down on Avery’s “Sea Grasses and Blue Sea” (which used to hang next to the cloakroom!) and a Richard Diebenkorn “Ocean Park” canvas. No, I don’t like the way the Matisse is hung, not one little bit—it's cute, if you know what I mean—but I love the juxtaposition.

    A thought-provoking afternoon, in short, and I was bone-tired when I headed for home, got on my back for a couple of hours, then cabbed down to the theater district to hear the Phil Woods Quintet at Birdland, an event I'd been eagerly awaiting for weeks.

    Woods is one of those jazz musicians who is extravagantly admired by his peers without ever having enjoyed the general acclaim he deserves (except for the too-brief period in the Seventies when he sat in on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” and Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu” and recorded under his own name for RCA). He is that rarity of rarities, a second-generation bebop saxophonist who learned the lessons of Charlie Parker without choking on them, and now that he’s reached the threshold of old age, his playing is purer and more compelling than ever. Yes, Woods is still hot enough to burn a hole in a girder, but the hard-edged style of his youthful days has given way to a warmer, richer sound—perhaps he picked up a touch of Benny Carter somewhere along the way. Of course he’s also a great virtuoso, one of the greatest in jazz, but you never get the feeling that he’s showing off: everything is casual, even offhand, as though he were playing for a roomful of friends.

    It doesn't hurt that Woods has been working with the same bassist and drummer, Steve Gilmore and Bill Goodwin, for thirty years. To say all three of them are on the same page is the blandest of understatements—they finish each other’s sentences—and trumpeter Brian Lynch, who joined the group in 1992, fits in no less seamlessly. Among a thousand other things, I love the way they rely on only the most minimal amplification, letting their individual sounds blend naturally in the air. (Microphones have always been a formality for the mammoth-toned Woods.) As for Bill Charlap, who signed on in 1995 and has continued to appear with the quintet from time to time even after his own career mushroomed, I simply can’t say enough good things about him, try though I do; I go to hear Charlap as often as possible, and he never fails to spin my head around. On Wednesday he did it with a solo version of David Raksin’s “The Bad and the Beautiful” that sounded as if he were breathing into an Aeolian harp instead of caressing the keys of Birdland’s Cadillac-sized Bösendorfer grand.

    I first heard Phil Woods in person in 1979 from a distance of about five feet, back in the days when he looked like the hippest of hipsters. (Now he looks more like the partner of a film-noir detective, the guy who gets popped in the first reel.) He came to Kansas City to perform with my college jazz band, and since our saxophonists couldn’t cut all of his charts, he did several tunes with the rhythm section alone. I was the bass player that night, and I was so scared that I needed a diaper, but Woods smoothed the way with his kindness and generosity, and I ended up playing way over my head. After the gig, I asked him to autograph my copy of Live at the Showboat, the 1977 double album that had put him on the map. “Good playing with you,” he scrawled. I haven’t kept very many souvenirs in my life, but I still have that album.

    As I mentioned yesterday, I brought Sarah to Birdland with me. I'd been wanting to make up for the truly awful play to which I’d subjected her the last time she was in town, and since Sarah is one of the most sharp-eared civilians I know (among other things, she spotted the quote from Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” cadenza that Brian Lynch tossed into an original blues), I thought a night at Birdland might possibly even the score. We’d both been struggling with viruses, but no sooner did the band kick off “A Foggy Day” than the music pulled us out of ourselves and we forgot all about being sick.

    The very first thing I wrote about on this blog was a Central Park concert by Luciana Souza and the New York Philharmonic. “Nights like this,” I said, “are why you live in a preshrunk apartment and pay outrageous rent and grope around to make sure your wallet's still there every time you get off a crowded subway car. Feel free to remind me the next time you catch me griping about New York.” The miracle of New York City is that such occasions are far from uncommon; I’ve written about more than a few of them in the past year. Still, Wednesday was special even by the exalted standards to which I’ve become accustomed. I hope the day never comes when I take my charmed life for granted. I doubt it ever will.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 19, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Sound bite

    You may not know that Condoleezza Rice is a serious amateur pianist (she’s good enough to have played in public with Yo-Yo Ma a couple of years ago). In light of this posting, I thought I’d pass along a fascinating quote from a profile of Rice that appeared in Wednesday's New York Times:

    I love Brahms because Brahms is actually structured. And he's passionate without being sentimental. I don't like sentimental music, so I tend not to like Liszt, and I don't actually much care for the Russian romantics Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, where it's all on the sleeve. With Brahms it's restrained, and there's a sense of tension that never resolves.

    I myself take a different view of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff (though not Brahms), but it’s obvious that our incoming Secretary of State has strong and coherent musical opinions. I’d love to sit down and chat with her about them one of these days….

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 19, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: One show only

    This is your final warning: I'll be appearing tonight at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, to talk about All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. My illustrious interlocutor is Francis Mason, dance critic of WQXR-FM and co-author of Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets.

    The show starts at six o’clock, but do come early so that you can get a leisurely look at “Ballets Russes to Balanchine: Dance at the Wadsworth Atheneum,” which tells the story of a great museum’s involvement with dance in the Thirties. The galleries close at five p.m., which gives you plenty of time to grab a bite to eat, come back, and watch us perform.

    For more information, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 19, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Talking shops

    Time again for my Wall Street Journal drama column. The Broadway previews are coming hot and heavy this month and next, and today I wrote about three high-profile shows, none of which knocked me out, though my unenthusiastic review of Democracy cut sharply and (for me, anyway) unexpectedly against the conventional wisdom:

    Once or twice a season, Broadway makes room for a play, usually an import, that gets tagged by the press as egghead-friendly. Last spring it was “Jumpers,” and now it’s Michael Frayn’s “Democracy,” which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. A huge hit in London, “Democracy” has been transplanted to New York in Michael Blakemore’s original National Theatre production, but with a new, all-American cast led by James Naughton and Richard Thomas. It is, as advertised, smart and thoughtful, and if good intentions counted for anything in the theater, “Democracy” would be a great play. But they don’t, and it isn’t.

    Like Mr. Frayn’s “Copenhagen,” “Democracy” is a fictionalized docudrama. It tells how Willy Brandt (Mr. Naughton), the first left-wing chancellor of West Germany, was forced out of office when it was disclosed that Günter Guillaume (Mr. Thomas), his personal assistant, was in fact an East German secret agent. The play is about the complex relationship between the two men, but since Mr. Frayn has chosen to give it a real-life setting, we also hear from Guillaume’s Stasi controller (Michael Cumpsty) and seven of Brandt’s colleagues, who discuss the ins and outs of West German politics at squirm-making length. In addition, Guillaume spends far too much time speaking directly to his controller, often switching hats in mid-sentence. The results are at once cluttered and static: Everybody talks, but nothing happens….

    Nor was I much impressed with The Good Body:

    Eve Ensler, the author of “The Vagina Monologues,” is moving up in the world: Her new play is about stomachs.

    “The Good Body,” which runs through Jan. 16 at the Booth Theatre, is a monologue about Ms. Ensler’s midriff and how she learned to live with it, just as you can live with yours, assuming you’re a woman who hates the way she thinks she looks...

    The real trouble with her show is twofold. In the first place, it’s not exactly stop-press news that lots of women are neurotic about their bodies, meaning that long stretches of “The Good Body” sound like “Bridget Jones’ Diary” recycled. Furthermore, Ms. Ensler, who identifies herself as a “radical feminist” on the second page of the script, spends the next hour and a half whining ŕ la Woody Allen about her own neuroses. Only at the very end does she assure us—unconvincingly—that she’s finally succeeded in raising her own consciousness to the point of accepting her stomach as “the goodest part of me.” (It looks perfectly normal, by the way.) Somehow that doesn’t strike me as a compelling argument for radical feminism….

    Not even Edie Falco, whom I normally adore, was capable of ringing my bell with her performance in the new revival of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer-winning ’night, Mother:

    Ms. Falco plays a depressed, epileptic small-town Midwesterner who spends virtually the whole of the play explaining to her mother (Brenda Blethlyn) why her life is no longer worth living (“Maybe if there was something I really liked, like maybe if I really liked rice pudding or cornflakes for breakfast or something, that might be enough”), then locks herself in her bedroom and blows her brains out. Even if I found this scenario plausible, I’d expect the women in question to be presented with at least a moderate amount of subtlety, whereas Ms. Falco and Ms. Blethlyn play their parts flatly and uninvolvingly, accents and all. When first-class actors are so far off the mark, chances are that the director is to blame, and the track record of Michael Mayer, most recently seen on Broadway as the perpetrator-in-chief of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s’s atrocious revival of “After the Fall,” doesn’t inspire confidence….

    No link, so if you’ve a mind to read the whole thing, go buy a paper, or (much better yet) go here to subscribe to the online edition of The Wall Street Journal, one of the best bargains in newspaperdom.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 19, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Caught in the act

    Enough said.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 19, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    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.

    D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, and Scott Rosenberg, screenplay for High Fidelity

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 19, 2004 | Permanent link
Thursday, November 18, 2004
    TT: ...and live to blog another day

    This was a day made for blogging. Not only did I get an unexpected sneak peek at the new Museum of Modern Art, but I spent the evening at Birdland listening to the Phil Woods Quintet, with Bill Charlap sitting in on piano. That’s an only-in-New-York story raised to the umpteenth power.

    Alas, I’m still a few feet under the weather, as is Sarah, who met me at Birdland and was duly blown away by Woods and company. Seeing as how we both have time-consuming stuff on our plates tomorrow (Sarah is sitting on a panel with Maud, while I have to write a speech in the morning and give it in the evening), we decided to be mature, sensible adults and hang it up early.

    Actually, it was Sarah who was mature and sensible. Left to my own devices, I probably would have stayed up half the night writing and paid the price tomorrow, but she set me straight.

    “Should I blog tonight, or should I go to bed?” I asked her in the cab after the gig.

    She looked at me with open-mouthed horror. “Are you kidding?” she replied, all but wagging a stern finger in my face. “Go home and go to bed. You can write this up on Friday—if then.”

    I knew when I was licked. I have lots and lots of thoughts to share with you, but they’ll keep until Friday—or longer.

    In the meantime, the Phil Woods Quintet is at Birdland through Saturday. If you’re loose, go. If you’re not, get that way. If you can’t, order this album and eat your heart out.


    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Guest almanac

    “'I want to influence people so they’ll do what I think it’s important they should do. I can’t get ’em to do that unless I let ’em bore me first, you understand. Then just as they’re delighting in having got me punch-drunk with talk I come back at ’em and make ’em do what I’ve got lined up for ’em.’

    “’I wish I could do that,’ Dixon said enviously. ‘When I’m punch-drunk with talk, which is what I am most of the time, that’s when they come at me and make me do what they want me to do.’ Apprehension and drink combined to break through another bulkhead in his mind and he went on eagerly: ‘I’m the boredom detector. I’m a finely tuned instrument. If only I could get hold of a millionaire I’d be worth a bag of money to him. He could send me on ahead into dinners and cocktail parties and night clubs, just for five minutes, and then by looking at me he’d be able to read off the boredom coefficient of any gathering. Like a canary down a coal mine; same idea.’”

    Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (courtesy of Modern Kicks)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 18, 2004 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
    OGIC: The five hundred twenty

    In the comments over at Mad Max Perkins's excellent newish publishing-insider blog, commenter Marjorie offers this startling perspective:

    By my reckoning, I read about two books a month. (It used to be more, but children have an odd way of needing a lot of attention.)

    My financial adviser informs me that I must die when I am 87 because I will run out of money at that point. So, assuming she is right, at two books a month I will read only 520 books more in my lifetime. Do I want to waste one of those precious allotments on an award-winning book that I find neither enjoyable nor enlightening? I do not.

    Screw the awards and their fallible human judges. I start with reviews and word-of-mouth. Then I go to the book jacket and read a page or two at the bookstore or on Amazon. Then I buy it and give it 50 pages. If I'm not laughing, crying, or learning something by page 50, out it goes, guilt-free. Life is too short to read a book that doesn't give me something in return for my time, energy, and money.

    520: astonishingly finite and sobering, that figure. I'm reminded of last year, when the Booker Prize went to a book I'd never heard of by a writer also unknown to me. On impulse, I ducked into a bookstore on my way home the day of the announcement and bought a cloth copy of D.B.C. Pierre's Vernon God Little. I would never get beyond chapter 2. So at least I still had my time, save a few minutes. But had I held off and read a few of the reviews that soon followed, I would also still have that particular $20. Whoops.

    My own expected number of books-yet-to-be-read is higher than 520. But that doesn't make it any less stark, wherever it may fall. This is why I want to know if Critic X didn't think a book was the best of the year as reputed, and why I don't want critics to pull their punches. It doesn't mean I implicitly trust any one critic's judgment (well, maybe Wood's, tried and true), but, like Marjorie, I do want as much varied input as possible, and I want critics to write with readers, not authors, in mind. The 2003 Booker showed me that awards committees can be every bit as fallible as critics; I hasten to add that the converse is also true. All we can ask of each is frank and searching judgment, and to please keep in mind the (shudder) 520.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, November 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: In case you think I'm a total highbrow

    My new iTunes program contains a screen called "Top 25 Most Played" that tells me which songs I've listened to most frequently since I installed it. Here are the tracks at the top of the current chart:

    • Erin McKeown, "A Better Wife"
    • Frank Sinatra, "Witchcraft"
    • George Strait, "I've Come to Expect It from You"
    • Toto, "99"
    • Marvin Gaye, "Got to Give It Up"
    • Ahmad Jamal, "New Rhumba"
    • Couperin, "The Mysterious Barricades" (played on guitar by Göran Söllscher)
    • Jo Stafford, "Early Autumn"
    • Suzanne Vega, "Caramel"
    • Zero 7, "In the Waiting Line" (from the Garden State soundtrack, of course)

    For the past couple of days, though, I've been too tired to decide what to play, so I've been putting iTunes on "shuffle play" and allowing it to supplant my free will. At the moment it's serving up Count Basie's "Jive at Five," immediately preceded by Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock."

    Go figure.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: By the way

    In case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm letting the blogmail pile up, in the hopes of finding buried treasure when I answer it all over the weekend (but mainly because I just don't have enough steam in the boiler to open it right now).

    As always, thanks for your patience. I really don't like being sick, even when I'm getting better....

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Peddling the book

    I just got back from my joint appearance with Bob Gottlieb and Robert Greskovic at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square. It went well. The house was nearly full, the crowd asked terrific questions, and we sold and signed a pile of books afterward. One woman bought a copy of All in the Dances for her young daughter, who had School of American Ballet stamped all over her. Sure enough, it turned out that she’ll be dancing in New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker this season, so I inscribed it to “Lisa, who carries the torch.”

    Her mother smiled when I handed back the book. “She won’t understand it just yet,” she said, “but someday she will.” That's a nice thought, isn't it?

    I was pleased to spot several friends in the audience, among them a critic, a biographer, three musicians, and fellow bloggers Sarah and Beatrice. Their presence buoyed me up, seeing as how my steam was already running low by the time I crawled up to the dais. Needless to say, Wednesday promises to be at least as hectic—lunch with a MoMA curator, followed by Phil Woods and Bill Charlap at Birdland, to which Sarah is accompanying me—so I’d better head for bed right now.

    Don’t expect any earth-shakingly brilliant postings tomorrow. I’m nowhere near my picture-perfect best (it actually took me two hours longer than usual to write my Friday drama column this morning), so I doubt I’ll be generating any more prose until Thursday, when I have to write a speech. For the moment, I’ll be more than happy just to get another good night’s sleep.

    Oh, one more thing: now that you’ve all bought my book, don’t forget to buy Bob Gottlieb’s George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, just out from HarperCollins. It’s good, too!

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “One of the constant minor joys of reading Trollope is coming across descriptions of little gestures which reveal character in much the same way as a good actor does, either deliberately or half-consciously. There is an example early on in The Way We Live Now in his description of Father John Barham, a young, overenthusiastic, gentlemanly Catholic priest. ‘He had thick dark brown hair, which was cut short…but which he so constantly ruffled by the action of his hands, that, although short, it seemed to be wild and uncombed…In discussions he would constantly push back his hair, and then sit with his hand fixed on the top of his head.’ I have seen many highly strung intellectuals do the same thing. The pleasure lies in recognizing, today, habits which were to be found among us a hundred and twenty years ago however much the mores and manners have changed; and a hundred years before that, and before that as well. The sense of continuity, going both backwards and forward, I find endlessly rewarding.”

    Alec Guinness, A Positively Final Appearance

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 17, 2004 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
    OGIC: Lending Library

    Last week I had the pleasure of hearing the poet and Johns Hopkins English professor Allen Grossman read from his work. He is a thoroughly arresting speaker and reader, and appears at the University of Chicago this Thursday, November 18th. Highly recommended to you Chicagoans.

    Here's the poem I liked best in the reading, "Lending Library (Mpls. Xmas, 1943)."

    At her Lending Library on Lake Street, Minnepaolis,
    mother Beatrice rented out books to ladies.
    But she read them first. That way she knew whether
    there was not, or (better still) was, anything "disgraceful"
    in any of the books. (There were two kinds of ladies.)
    The result was mother owned the second and third volume
    of many novels (e.g., Scott's Ivanhoe), but not the first

    which was gratefully taken to heart by her customers.
    That's why I know a lot about how things come out
    and don't know very much about how they begin.
    But mother Beatrice ("B" for short) never read
    the book called GOLDEN MEXICO (because
    it was not to be loaned or sold)—until Xmas, 1943,
    when a voice, out of the blue, said: "'B,' read that one."

    After she read it, "B" said: "How things look in the heart
    of Jesus I don't know and, frankly, don't want to know.
    But I do know that only those Jews who are stirred
    by the question of their own existence can
    answer the claim he makes…. Allen, my dear, who does
    know? To whose sentence can we say, "Yes! That's true"
    —and add to the wonder of it belief."

    "Beatrice," I asked her, "what do you really want to know?"
    "Allen, what was the first book you ever read?"
    "Beatrice, before I learned to read I could not read;
    but I did know about reading, and it never happened
    (thanks to you, for good or ill) that there wasn't any book.
    But I could not read in the heart of Jesus,
    so the first book I read was GOLDEN MEXICO.

    Now I read because light does not reveal itself
    (not even on a bright wash day), but it lies hidden
    in a cloud until summoned—like the heart.
    It was the gold cover of the book named
    GOLDEN MEXICO that drew me in at first. Then,
    I added what I could add to that wonder.
    No book I read was ever written until I added that."

    Outside the Lending Library, Xmas 1943, a voice—
    maddening, relentless, phonographic—began to sing
    "Silent Night," and did not stop at "heavenly peace"
    but started over, again, and again, and again.
    It was the ladies' triumph—a best seller,
    a virgin birth, the babe who added to the
    wonder of it all, belief. Three days of that

    drove "B" crazy. Beatrice stood up, gathered her books,
    and locked the door of her Lending Library. "Let them buy,"
    she said. And her voice was heard, despite the singing,
    across the gentile lake by itinerant Thoreau
    where he rested on the far shore, high up the cliff
    on a rock and caught the cold that killed him.
    —There's no Lending Library on Lake St., Mpls., any more.

    How then ever know the way things begin,
    remembering as we do nothing! None of our books
    will tell, certainly not this one. But take the question
    to heart, nonetheless, because I write the wonder of it all
    and by the poem called LENDING LIBRARY solicit belief:
    There was a road by which we came this way.
    There is another by which we shall depart.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, November 16, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Doctor's orders

    I’ve suspected for the past couple of days that I was on the mend, but one important thing was missing: a good night’s sleep. Though I slept for twelve hours on Saturday, it was the kind of shallow, disordered sleep that fails to refresh an ailing mind and body, and I hardly slept at all the next night, a dead giveaway that I hadn’t quite turned the corner.

    Yesterday was different. I was double-booked—a movie in the afternoon, a play in the evening—and by the time I finally got home I was so exhausted that I threw my coat on the floor, curled up in a ball on the couch, and turned on the TV to unwind. I quickly found myself nodding off, so instead of following my usual end-of-day blogging routine, I went straight to bed to read. The book fell out of my hands after a few minutes and landed on my face, and I stayed conscious just long enough to turn out the light. There followed nearly ten hours of deep, restorative sleep, the kind in which you dream so intensely and continuously that you’re aware of it while it's happening. At one point I actually dreamed that I was hanging out with a bass-playing friend of mine in the carport of a ranch house in Smalltown, U.S.A., telling her about how deeply I’d slept the night before. I remember verbatim one thing I said to her: “It felt as though I had an electric plug sticking in one ear.” That’s exactly how it felt—like I was recharging an empty battery.

    I felt stunned when I woke up a half-hour ago, but in a good way. Gradually my wits returned to me. I remembered that I had a Wall Street Journal review to write this morning, plus a bit of blog-tending. I remembered that I’d cancelled my lunch with Maud so that I’d be fresh for tonight’s appearance at Barnes & Noble. Under other circumstances I might have gone screaming into action immediately, but today I know better. My next move will be to sit down at the kitchen table with a bagel and some fruit, clear my head of the lingering fumes of deep sleep, and permit myself to revel in the sensation of starting to feel better. The world can wait.

    If you don’t have anything better to do, come see me hold forth this evening. (For details, click on the link.) I may look a little pale around the edges, but I’m pretty much myself again. That’s the one worthwhile thing about having been sick: it feels so good to get well.

    UPDATE: Look at page 87 of this week's New Yorker, in the middle of David Denby's piece about Pedro Almodóvar, and you'll see something cool: an ad for All in the Dances. It's the first time a book of mine has been advertised there.

    I know, I know, ads don't sell books, booksellers do, but it's still cool, damn it.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 16, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “For me there are two salves to apply when I feel spiritually bruised—listening to a Haydn symphony or sonata (his clear common sense always penetrates) and seeking out something in Montaigne’s essays. This morning, in spite of the promise of a bright cloudless day, I woke curmudgeonly and disapproving of the world and most of its inhabitants. Montaigne pulled me up sharply. ‘What we call wisdom is the moroseness of our humours and our distaste of things as they are now…Age sets more wrinkles on our minds than on our faces.’ I don’t care about the facial blemishes but the wriggly, acid convolutions of the brain must be smoothed away somehow. Two or three days in a Benedictine monastery might do the trick.”

    Alec Guinness, A Positively Final Appearance

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 16, 2004 | Permanent link
Monday, November 15, 2004
    TT: Sounds like fun to me

    A friend writes:

    I thought of a possible game you might like: What did you read when? It was prompted by a friend, who reported that his wife said their mid-teenage kids better read Ayn Rand quick, or they will be too old for her.

    I was thinking of reading the Alexandria Quartet about a dozen years ago, in my early thirties, when my wife, who had loved it, waved me off: I was too old.

    There are books that can only be read when we're young; books that can only be read when we're old; and books that can be read at all ages, but which change as their readers do. Maybe there are also books that are the same for everybody (genre fiction? Wodehouse?).

    I'm on the fly all week and won't have time to play the first round myself, but this is obviously a superior game, so I've decided to pass the word to any of you who feel like jumping into the pool. I'll get back to it once things slow down and my lungs clear up (the second of which seems to be happening, about which more later).

    For now, gotta run. Just got back from The Incredibles (also AWML) and now have to change clothes for an off-off-Broadway preview waaaaay downtown. More anon.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Words to the wise

    An out-of-town reader just back from a visit to New York writes:

    I strolled over to TKTS to check things out. Everything, it seemed, was on half-price sale. If you take a chance on previews, and if you want to see nearly everything else, including THE PRODUCERS, it's available for the reduced rate. And that included much of off-Broadway.

    My correspondent is a high-octane theater buff. In case you don't know what we're talking about, TKTS is the Theatre Development Fund's Times Square kiosk that sells same-day discount tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway shows.

    Go thou and do likewise.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Stranger than fiction

    Everybody in the blogosphere seems to have something to say about this year’s National Book Award fiction nominees (Our Girl weighed in last week, and Maud links to some of the latest reactions here). I’ve said nothing, for the very good reason that I haven’t read any of the novels in question, nor am I familiar with the past work of any of the authors. Nor have I said anything about this year’s nonfiction nominees, for the equally good reason that I was one of the five judges on last year’s panel. To comment on the work of my successors would be just plain rude.

    Having said all that, I confess to being puzzled by certain aspects of the ongoing hoopla. Maud also links to MobyLives’ speculative spoof about the thinking of a prominent member of the fiction panel:

    I slapped him hard across the face. It was enjoyable so I did it again. "Snap out of it!" I told him. "Now start from the beginning. What the hell happened?"

    "I don't know!" he cried. "I thought we were doing what they said. I mean, they said not to pick more than one token book from a small or independent press, because that would decentralize power and be good for the book business on the whole, which they just can't have, because everybody knows that diversity just blows…"

    Once again, I have no opinion about any of this. I don’t know Rick Moody or any of the other fiction judges, nor do I have any continuing contact with the National Book Foundation. (Once you’ve served as a judge, you’re never asked to do so again.) Still, I can’t help but recall the experience of picking last year’s nonfiction winner, which I described in this space shortly after the fact:

    We considered 436 books (some of them very, very briefly, but they all got talked about at some point in the past few months). We never raised our voices, never argued with one another, never got angry. Our deliberations were civilized, collegial, and great fun. When we met yesterday afternoon to make our final selection, it was the first time all five of us had been in the same room at once—we mostly deliberated via e-mail and in conference calls—and the atmosphere, far from being tense, was positively festive.

    What we didn’t do was engage in horsetrading or logrolling, speculate on how our picks would be received by the literary community, or attempt to Make a Statement. I don’t mean to sound like Pollyanna in Bookland—I know such things do happen, and always will—but in our case they didn’t, period. We simply tried to choose a wide-ranging slate of worthy nominees, and to pick from them the one book we thought best.

    Perhaps we missed a bet, since neither our nominees nor our final selection attracted more than a modest amount of attention from the press. All anybody seemed to want to do was talk about Stephen King and Shirley Hazzard. Nevertheless, we thought we did a good job. To be sure, Carlos Eire may not have been on the literary world’s collective lips in the wake of our deliberations, but my guess is that Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy will be read and remembered long after the current controversy over the NBA fiction nominees is filed and forgotten.

    I think we did our job the way such jobs ought to be done, and I like to think that’s the way most literary judges endeavor to go about their difficult business. Don’t ask me, though: I’d never before served on such a panel, nor have I since. Maybe we were all Pollyannas.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: What I'm reading

    For the first time in months, I don't have any book reviews in the pipeline, mainly because I'm up to my ears in Broadway and off-Broadway previews (three a week between now and Christmas, yikes!), so for once I'm reading purely for my pleasure. Alas, I've felt too crappy in recent days to embark on anything new, but I just finished rereading nearly all of Evelyn Waugh's books, and expect to say something about the experience later in the week.

    At the moment I'm rereading Alec Guinness' memoirs, diaries, and commonplace book, excerpts from which will soon be showing up in my almanac entries.

    What next? It's up to you, dear readers! I'm in the market for something short, intelligent, amusing, reasonably easy to find, and no more than modestly demanding (the opposite of Finnegans Wake, in other words). Interesting and/or unexpected recommendations will be posted in this space.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: All things to some people

    A reader writes:

    I have read "About Last Night" and followed your articles elsewhere for at least a year, and over that time you have introduced me to: Pelléas et Mélisande, Benjamin Britten, Flannery O'Connor, Stephen Sondheim, Willa Cather, The Rules of the Game, film noir, Alex Ross, Philip Larkin, Looney Toons, Chinatown, Patrick O'Brian, anchovies (really!), Shostakovich, jazz, Fauré, Evelyn Waugh, Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker and the 1812 Overture excepted), W.H. Auden, Four Last Songs, twentieth-century classical music generally, Barbara Pym and a host of other things I can't recall right now. I love George Balanchine already, even though I haven't seen a ballet other than The Nutcracker in my life, and intend to rent the choreography DVDs you recommended as soon as they arrive at my university library. At your recommendation, I've gone to see Assassins and The Threepenny Opera and The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (I'm a political philosophy student at the University of Chicago, but my family lives in New York).

    I've often been tempted to write to you, although I've never had even the slightest inclination to write to anyone I don't know. I think that this is because of the nature of weblogs: I feel as if I do know you, and that I'm obliged to thank you for all the wonderful things you've shown me.

    I'd also like to ask a favor. I saw Kevin Costner's Open Range at your recommendation, and quite enjoyed it (although it was indeed too long). Besides that, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, I have never seen any westerns. Your description of Randolph Scott's movies in A Terry Teachout Reader was tantalizing, but they are unavailable. I'm somewhat embarrassed to have to ask, but could you recommend some good, old-fashioned westerns?

    What I like best about this e-mail is that it sums up exactly what Our Girl and I have tried to do with “About Last Night” from the very beginning. As our mission statement says:

    Clement Greenberg, the great art critic, believed that "in the long run there are only two kinds of art: the good and the bad. This difference cuts across all other differences in art. At the same time, it makes all art one….the experience of art is the same in kind or order despite all differences in works of art themselves." We feel the same way, which is why we write about so many different things. We think many people—maybe most—approach art with a similarly wide-ranging appreciation. By writing each day about our own experiences as consumers and critics, we hope to create a meeting place in cyberspace for arts lovers who are curious, adventurous, and unafraid of the unfamiliar.

    Letters like this suggest that we’re succeeding. That’s a good feeling.

    As for Westerns, I posted a list of my eleven favorites a year or so. Go here to read it. Except for Ride Lonesome, all of these films have been officially released on videocassette, and five are also available on DVD. (Some of the former are currently out of print but can be rented at well-stocked stores.) A good-quality off-the-air videocassette dub of Ride Lonesome, along with the rest of the Westerns Randolph Scott made in collaboration with Budd Boetticher, can be purchased from Comet Video.

    Incidentally, I gave a talk about Westerns to a group of teenagers just the other day, and showed them Ride Lonesome as an example of the Western at its purest and most classical. (It's only 73 minutes long, making it ideal for lecture purposes.) I’m pleased to say that they all paid close attention and showed no visible signs of boredom.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Once more, with feeling

    Just in case it's slipped your mind, I'm making two public appearances this week to promote All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, the first in New York City and the second in Connecticut.


    • Robert Gottlieb and I will be appearing next Tuesday, Nov. 16, at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square (the address is 33 E. 17th St.) to discuss the life and work of George Balanchine with Robert Greskovic, the dance critic of The Wall Street Journal. Gottlieb, the dance critic of the New York Observer, is the author of George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, just out from HarperCollins. We’ll be signing copies of our books after the talk. (If you've already bought All in the Dances, bring it along and I’ll inscribe it with pleasure.)

    The show starts at seven o’clock. For more information, go here.

    • On Friday, Nov. 19, I’ll be coming to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford to talk about Balanchine and his legacy with Francis Mason, dance critic of WQXR-FM and co-author of Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets. The show starts at six o’clock, but if you come early, you can see “Ballets Russes to Balanchine: Dance at the Wadsworth Atheneum.” The galleries close at five p.m., time enough to go out to dinner, then come back and hear us talk.

    For more information, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble."

    Samuel Johnson, The Rambler (July 2, 1751)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 15, 2004 | Permanent link
Saturday, November 22, 2003
    TT: The daily grind

    When I was first getting started in professional journalism, every writer I knew dreamed of becoming a syndicated columnist. Back then, columns really did shape the political conversation, and to a lesser extent the cultural conversation as well (though the Eighties, lest we forget, were very political, to the point of virtually excluding art and culture from what got written about on op-ed pages).

    I don't think younger writers feel that way any more, and one sign of the sea change is the fact that you simply don't see all that many younger syndicated columnists. I started to notice this as early as the Nineties, at a time when I shared the responsibility for editing a major op-ed page, that of the New York Daily News. We were constantly looking for new faces, but the syndicates weren't offering any, and it never occurred to me that the problem might be a lack of interest on the part of younger journalists, much less a lack of interest on the part of young people in journalism.

    Now we all know better. Of late, the only significant change in the op-ed scene has been the hiring of David Brooks by the New York Times, and Brooks isn't a new face but a well-established writer of a certain age (mine). What's more, I don't get the impression that his column is causing all that much of a stir outside narrowly politico-journalistic circles. I don't think that's because of the quality of his work, either: I think it's because op-ed pages in general are losing their traction. I may be wrong, but it's not my impression that any newspaper columnist, syndicated or otherwise, is capable of stirring up any vast amount of talk nowadays.

    You won't be surprised to see where I'm heading: my guess is that the buzz in opinion journalism has shifted to the blogosphere, partly because it's new and partly because it's so much less rule-bound. You can say anything you want on a blog (though I'm sure the day is not far off when one of the big bloggers will get sued for libel, which will doubtless cool things off considerably). Just as important, you can say it right now, not next Tuesday. Needless to say, none of this is true on an op-ed page, or anywhere else in a newspaper, for that matter.

    Sooner or later, existing newspapers will make themselves over in response to the challenge of the Web. Probably later, though, because they're intensely bureaucratic institutions and thus are reflexively resistant to change. The New York Sun is an interesting case in point. It's a daily paper of conservative hue that was started from scratch a couple of years ago in an attempt to provide an opinion-driven alternative to the New York Times. In this respect, it's failed almost completely: the Sun's paid circulation remains trivially small next to that of the Times. Why, then, didn't its founders simply do an end run around the insurmountable difficulties of launching a newspaper in New York and instead conceive of the Sun as the first on-line daily paper? That would have gotten them instant attention, not to mention slashing their overhead to pieces. Yet not only did the Sun stick to the old printed-paper model, but it has lagged consistently behind the Times in establishing a meaningful Web-based presence. (At first, the Sun didn't have any Web site at all.)

    The reason, I suspect, is that the Sun was launched by newspapermen who never gave any serious thought to making a complete a break with the traditions in which they were raised. The blogosphere, by contrast, is for the most part the creation of non-journalists and amateurs for whom such time-honored traditions carry no weight. Instead, it has arisen naturally from the organic properties of the Web.

    I write for The Wall Street Journal, so you can take what I'm about to say with a stalactite of salt, but I think the Journal's Web site (which turns a profit) is the most potentially significant thing to happen to the newspaper business in decades. Yet the Journal is a quintessential establishment organ, the kind you'd assume would find it impossible to break with the past. That it has done so fascinates me. That no other newspaper has done so doesn't surprise me in the slightest. Which is why I'm betting that the first successful on-line "paperless" daily paper will be started by some 25-year-old hotshot who's never worked on a newspaper, and thus has nothing to unlearn.

    As for the coming revolution in opinion journalism, it's already happened. I like David Brooks (he's an old friend), but I think maybe he got on the wrong boat. Not that I blame him in the least: after all, he gets paid for his opinions, which naturally matters to a family man. But for any writer who's more interested in changing minds than making money, the blogosphere is the place to be.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, November 22, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: While I'm at it

    Is it just me, or are any of you out there offended by the tone of the countless clever-clever op-eds, think pieces, and thumbsuckers of the past couple of days that have sought to "interpret" and pseudo-intellectualize the Michael Jackson story? Jackson's arrest isn't a Media Phenomenon, nor is it a sign of the times. It's a news story about an alleged pedophile, one who has spent millions of dollars to keep himself out of jail. And I don't give a good goddamn about the social significance of his mug shot, either. If he did what he's said to have done, I want to see him in a jail cell, and once he's there, my interest in him will be over and done with.

    As for the interest of the mass media, my guess is that at some point fairly soon they'll wake up and realize that the youthful target market after which they lust so desperately couldn't care less about Michael Jackson. His arrest may be news, but his music is yesterday's news, if not the day before. Big Media is so Eighties.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, November 22, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: For what it's worth

    I was a small-town second-grader on November 22, 1963. My teacher, Jackie Grant, told the class that the president had been shot and killed, and then we all went home. For me, home was a block away from the classroom door, but my mother still drove to the school to pick me up, and my family spent much of the rest of the long weekend watching television. That much I remember, but I have no direct recollections of any of the TV images, except for this: I went to the kitchen to get a glass of milk just before Oswald was shot, and returned to the living room to find chaos on the screen.

    That's it. Not many memories, and no trauma at all. Which makes sense: I was born in 1956, the exact midway point of the baby boom, making me just too young to have been marked by the JFK assassination or to have served in Vietnam. In both of those respects, we younger baby boomers are more like Gen-Xers than our older brothers and sisters.

    I described the difference, as I understand it, in a 1990 essay:

    The line of eligibility for military service in Vietnam divides the baby boomers almost exactly in half. The older boomers, the ones who faced the dilemma of whether or not to serve in Vietnam, are the people you usually think about when you hear the term "baby boomers," and Vietnam seems to have broken them. They were the ones who lost their nerve and were never heard from again. Were they victims of the damage the war did to America's national self-image? Or was it that most of the boomers didn't serve in Vietnam, that an entire generation of spoiled middle-class brats never had to undergo any kind of testing experience at all? I can't tell you. But it's clear beyond question that the older boomers, whatever their reasons, simply gave up somewhere down the line.

    I didn't include that essay (it's called "A Farewell to Politics") in A Terry Teachout Reader because I don't think it's held up very well. Among other things, I completely failed to predict Bill Clinton, or anyone like him. But I do think I was right to differentiate pre-1956 boomers from post-1956 boomers. The older ones were touched by the Kennedy assassination, while the younger ones merely remember it, and not very well, either.

    Today, of course, We Are All Boomers Now, at least in the eyes of the Gen-Xers and their younger brothers and sisters. I have lots of friends in their thirties and several in their twenties, and for them, JFK is...history. Likewise Vietnam and LBJ and Nixon, and even Ronald Reagan. And, of course, the older boomers are history, too. Clinton was their last hurrah, the exemplary figure who summed up in his person and actions the ethos of the pre-1956 boomers. Even before he came along, I didn't partake of that ethos, which may explain why I have so many younger friends.

    For me, nostalgia is a powerful emotion (if it can properly be called an emotion), and many of the things for which I feel most intensely nostalgic took place in the Sixties. Yet I feel no nostalgia for The Sixties: The Decade, none whatsoever, no desire to hop in the time machine and check out all the things I was barely too young to have experienced at first hand. I'm much more interested in our current nicknameless decade, this astonishing age of anxiety and possibility, of terrorism and Two Americas and the Web.

    As for John F. Kennedy, he doesn't mean a thing to me. As I wrote earlier this year in a review of the latest Kennedy biography:

    Once he was a young, glamorous president-martyr whose posthumous reputation was scrupulously tended by the journalists and intellectuals he had so assiduously courted while he was alive. Then a new generation of scholars born too late to be seduced by Kennedy’s charm took a closer look at his life and legacy, and discovered that the crown prince of Camelot was a reckless womanizer who installed a secret taping system in the Oval Office, was soft on civil rights and won the Pulitzer Prize for a book he hadn’t written.

    And, needless to say, the victim of an assassin's bullet, a dark day in American history that I barely remember. It's...history.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, November 22, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Many are called

    A reader writes with further reflections on Stephen King, Shirley Hazzard, and the National Book Awards. Hazzard, you’ll recall, told King that literature is not a competition, to which my correspondent replies:

    Of course literature is a competition. Writers compete for prizes and readers and laurels, and anyone who fails to get all three (which is just about everyone) suspects the game is rigged in favor of the other, whoever the other might be.

    But the real competition is for longevity, and this contest is the great equalizer. There are NBA winners that will fade into obscurity, just as there are million-book sellers who won't outlast their own lifetimes.

    King chose to champion popular bestsellers. (Oh, and primarily men, in genres he likes, as opposed to women writing romance, which outsells everything else.) But what about midlist writers working in genre? What about the one-in-a-million self-pubbed writer who has something to say? I agree with Hazzard on this point: this was not the time or place to give others a reading list.

    By the way, I never understood the outraged reaction to King receiving an award that had previously gone to Oprah Winfrey at an event that’s been emceed by Steve Martin. I wonder if those who objected so vociferously to King have ever looked at the complete list of NBA winners over the years, which in 1980 recognized mysteries and westerns. John D. MacDonald is an NBA winner. As is Lauren Bacall, for her autobiography.

    I’d noticed that Winfrey (not to mention Ray Bradbury) was among the previous winners of the lifetime-achievement award received by King, but I hadn’t looked at more than the last couple of years’ worth of National Book Awards. Very nice catch.

    My correspondent is Laura Lippman, whom I cited the other day as a genre writer whose books I read, enjoy, and admire. If you haven’t read any of Laura's Tess Monaghan novels (there are several) and want to try her out, you might consider starting with her latest book, Every Secret Thing, which is her first non-series novel. (Laura might not agree with me about this, but I think the Tess books, like the Aubrey-Maturin novels—or any other roman fleuve, for that matter—profit from being read in sequence. If that piques your curiosity, the first one is Baltimore Blues.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, November 22, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Limited modified hangout

    A reader writes, apropos of yesterday’s posting on Bill Clinton’s favorite books:

    In re books & favorite books, I think in this case everybody is right, or nearly enough right. Greenfield, Clinton, and you. Most politicians would name the Bible and, if pressed, the Gettysburg Address (I know it's not a book, but you get the idea). Their favorite car is any model American, a dwindling option. Their favorite food, hot dogs, fried chicken, or whatever inedible dish renowned in their constituency. Clinton at least came up with enough titles to start a neighborhood library, OK, a small neighborhood library. And I suspect that he has read them all, unlike me. That's not to say that Greenfield's and your skepticism is not well-founded. I spent 20 some years working in the Congress and I can testify that it is. In fact, I wrote a few of those lists.

    Like I said, here’s hoping.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, November 22, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: A girdle round about the earth

    An hour or so ago, "About Last Night" was being read in 12 different time zones around the world (there are 24, duh).

    That’s a nice number, but here’s a nicer one: OGIC and I racked up just short of 3,000 page views on Friday, an all-time record for this site. And we did it without benefit of any links from non-arts blogs.

    The distinction is significant. Our previous sky-high days have been fed by one-time mentions on such heavily trafficked warblogs as Instapundit, Lileks, andrewsullivan.com, and BuzzMachine. Yesterday was different. "About Last Night" posted its best numbers ever solely because of a profusion of links from the arts-related sector of the blogosphere.

    This puts legs under my growing conviction that blogging might end up being the most important thing to happen to fine-arts journalism in my lifetime. It's not that, not yet, but when a four-month-old blog has a 3,000-hit day, something's happening out there.

    To every arts blogger who mentioned us on Thursday and Friday, Our Girl and I thank you and thank you and thank you. And to every reader who visited us for the first time as a result, thanks for coming…and please come again.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, November 22, 2003 | Permanent link
Friday, November 21, 2003
    TT: Father knows best

    Dear OGIC:

    ODID is absolutely right, and I squirm to admit it. (Nobody's father should be right.) To be sure, Stephen Maturin is a more than sufficiently interesting character in the earliest books, but I do think it took O'Brian a bit of time to start identifying personally with Maturin. Once he did—and in particular when he began writing about Maturin’s obsession with Diana, the love of his life—the focus of the series shifted.

    Incidentally, here’s a story I’ve always wanted to tell in public. In my New York Times Book Review piece about O’Brien’s The Yellow Admiral, I made the following comment:

    If Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell (or Anthony Trollope, for that matter) had been writing these books, the curve balls would have started flying several volumes back; Diana, for example, might have been killed off, and Stephen's resulting grief used to deepen our understanding of his personality. But Mr. O'Brian coddles and cossets his darlings instead of murdering them, a sure sign of loss of nerve: there are by now at least a dozen untouchable continuing characters in the series, all of whom must be tended, watered and trotted out for their annual star turns.

    And do you know what? Somebody really important died in the very next volume, The Hundred Days. (I won’t say who, since you’re clearly teetering on the verge of Aubrey-Maturin addiction.)

    Anthony Trollope wrote in his Autobiography about how he went to his club one day, overheard a pair of clergymen complaining about one of his recurring characters, then went straight home and killed her off in the book he was writing, The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire. Ever since The Hundred Days was published, I’ve always wondered whether I might have similarly contributed to the demise of…well, never mind.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 21, 2003 | Permanent link
    OGIC: A man made of paper

    Our Dad in Detroit on Tuesday, me on Wednesday, Terry on Thursday: we fell like dominoes this week before Peter Weir's majestic vision of Aubrey-Maturin. Didn't matter whether we'd read Patrick O'Brian's books before (Terry and ODID) or not (OGIC). But ODID has just written to register a slight caveat to Terry's view that "the essence of Patrick O'Brian's books…is the inner life of Stephen Maturin." ODID thinks the books evolve in that direction but don't start there, and he puts it most interestingly:

    I'm not sure I totally agree that the books are about Maturin's inner life. I think there is more of that in the later books than the earlier ones, Master and Commander, Mauritius Command, Desolation Island, and a couple of others. Maturin is a complex character, and I believe that O'Brian fell in love with developing his story as the saga went on.

    The notion that O'Brian created this character, set him loose in the novels, and proceeded to fall in love with him and let his story take over, makes me want to read those novels even more. The whole idea of literary characters having, or acquiring, a life of their own, apart from the mind of the author, is of course a seductive one. I may have first encountered it in Edward Gorey's first book, The Unstrung Harp, or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel, where the tortured author, uncomfortably mid-book, is confronted by his characters at the top of his staircase in the middle of the night. They hover there, mutely imploring him to do something with them.

    But when the character is in a series—i.e., the relationship is long-term—then serious emotional involvement must threaten to supplant mere stalking. So what do you think, TT? Does O'Brian fall for Maturin in media res? And how does Aubrey feel about that?

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, November 21, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: A not-so-little list

    Click here to read a list of Bill Clinton’s 21 favorite books, which includes, among other things, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Hillary Clinton’s Living History, Thomas ŕ Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society.

    Once you’ve looked at the whole list, which is quite spectacularly impressive, tell me this: whatever your political beliefs or your personal opinion of Bill Clinton, do you really, truly believe these are his 21 favorite books?

    I’m not saying they aren’t. But having spent a good number of years writing editorials about politics for a New York newspaper—and thus having spent quite a bit of time talking to politicians of all kinds—I’m also not disposed to take such a list at face value, even when it comes from a man who’s known to be unusually smart. Politicians, after all, rarely make any public statements not precisely calculated to enhance their popularity in as many quarters as possible.

    Don’t take my word for it. Take this person’s words for it:

    A walking, talking person-shaped but otherwise not very human amalgam of "positions," that familiar, tirelessly striving figure interviewed on the evening news who resoundingly tells you what he is thinking—and you keep wondering whether you should believe a word of it. These are people who don’t seem to live in the world so much as to inhabit some point on graph paper, whose coordinates are (sideways) the political spectrum and (up and down) the latest overnight poll figures.

    That’s from Meg Greenfield’s Washington, a memoir written in secret by an old Washington hand (she ran the editorial page of the Washington Post for years) who made sure it wouldn’t be published until after her death. She mentioned a few exceptions to the rule, but not many, and Clinton wasn't one of them.

    I’d very much like to think that Bill Clinton has read and reflected on each and every one of those high-voltage books. I loathe living in a time when most people’s snap reaction to such a list is to reflexively assume the converse. I don’t like being cynical about politicians. I’d dearly love to suppose that a former President of the United States had read Homage to Catalonia. And perhaps this one has. Here’s hoping, anyway.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 21, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT and OGIC: New around here, stranger?

    We seem to be having a veritable traffic explosion today, so if you’re visiting "About Last Night" for the first time and want to know more about it—and us—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 proprietors.

    Either way, we’re glad you stopped by. If you had fun, come back tomorrow...and bring a friend. The easy-to-remember alternate URL is www.terryteachout.com, which will bring you here lickety-split (as, of course, will the longer address currently visible in your browser).


    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 21, 2003 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Friendly reminder

    The film 21 Grams opens in a few cities today, and the critics are divided. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal love it; Salon is torn; and The New Yorker feels much as I did about it. You can read my not-so-smitten review, first posted last week, here.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, November 21, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Oh, all right, one more thing

    Here’s Lileks on the proposed designs for the World Trade Center memorial:

    I wanted statuary. A broad wall with the name of the dead. A monument with allegorical figures, thank you. Grief and Pain Comforted by Hope – sure, make it that obvious. As much as I like some of the designs, especially the Garden of Light, they seem too high-maintenance. You can already imagine the sign on the door: The Garden of Light is closed today for repairs. Statues tell the story when the power goes off; statues don’t need sheltering from the elements. Statues stand for a hundred years, and I cannot imagine any of these memorials lasting that long. There are memorials in Fargo for the First World War, and if they’d required electricity and gramophone cylinders they long ago would have fallen into disrepair. But the statue of the GAR soldier still stands in Island Park. He’s not going anywhere. Don’t even try.

    Well said.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 21, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Plumb tuckered

    I'm about blogged out for this week. I might post something else later today, and I might not. It all depends. As for OGIC, she might post something later today, and she might not. Fridays are like that.

    Come back and see for yourself. A little suspense never hurt anyone. And there's plenty to read either way!

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 21, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: King's X

    A lot of ink has been spilled (or whatever the information-age version of that figure of speech might be) over what Stephen King said at Wednesday’s National Book Awards ceremony in New York, and what Shirley Hazzard said right back at him.

    Of all the many reactions I’ve seen, this one struck me as especially worthy of note:

    When is it appropriate to make lists and start lecturing and when is it wiser to keep a steady campaign going, to talk about books one loves, to highlight what makes genre fiction so good and complementary, even, to literary fiction?…

    Good writing is the key. It’s in places we don’t necessarily expect it to be, and comes in many different forms. Let’s keep our minds open and welcome all the possibilities. No, literature isn’t a "competition," as Hazzard put it, and neither should people feel any sense of guilt that they aren’t reading the authors King recommends. These things take time, obviously. But labels are just that, designations often arbitrary. If it’s good, then that’s all that should matter.

    Read the whole thing here. It’s by Sarah Weinman, who blogs at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, where she writes regularly (and smartly) about mysteries and other related matters.

    What struck me about this posting is its openness to the full range of potential aesthetic experience—an openness that Shirley Hazzard, as fine a writer as she is, appears to lack. Like Hazzard, I’ve never read any of Stephen King’s books (though I mean to), but I do read a moderate amount of genre fiction, and I think some of it deserves to be taken quite seriously. Raymond Chandler and Patrick O’Brian, for instance, both merit that kind of consideration, and so do James M. Cain and Rex Stout, albeit on a lesser level. I haven’t read much of Georges Simenon, but what I’ve read I’ve found compelling. Among living writers, I enjoy Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake (about whose Parker novels I posted just the other day). And I’m lucky enough to count Laura Lippman, a first-rate mystery writer whose latest book is something more than that, as a friend.

    As for Stephen King’s speech, I think it was misguided at best. You don’t change people’s minds by calling them names, which he came perilously close to doing on Wednesday. If King changed any minds at the National Book Awards ceremony, I’m not aware of it. More likely, he hardened still further the resistance of his highbrow listeners to considering the possibility that he might have had a point—which he did.

    To my way of thinking, genre fiction is by definition limited in its expressive possibilities, but those limits are a lot less restrictive than many, perhaps most people realize, especially by comparison with much of what is now thought of as "serious" fiction. Back in 1997, I wrote an essay called "Real Cool Killers" about Crime Novels: American Noir, a two-volume set published by the Library of America. (Yes, it’ll be in A Terry Teachout Reader.) Here’s part of what I said:

    The Library of America, a nonprofit publisher whose dust jackets declare it to be "dedicated to preserving America’s best and most significant writing in handsome, enduring volumes," has brought out Crime Novels: American Noir, a pair of volumes containing eleven examples of what has lately come to be called "noir fiction," after the cinematic genre of the Forties known as film noir. No such fancy name was applied to these short novels when they first appeared in paperback, bedecked with cheesy cover art and tumescent blurbs promising their semiliterate purchasers the cheapest of thrills. Forty years ago, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and Charles Wileford’s Pick-Up were smut; now they belong to the ages.

    Arrant relativism? Well, yes, and then some. But while the noir novelists scarcely deserve to be ranked among America’s best and most significant writers, their harsh tales are infinitely more readable than the chokingly tedious output of a thousand American writers of impeccably correct reputation, and I venture to guess that people will still be turning the pages of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man long after the likes of Toni Morrison and Allan Gurganus are remembered only by aging professors of literary theory who wonder why nobody signs up for their classes any more.

    Does that put me in Stephen King’s camp? I think not. I don’t think The Long Goodbye is as good a book as The Great Gatsby, and I believe the difference between the two books is hugely important. But I also don’t think it’s absurd to compare them, and I probably re-read one as often as the other.

    The point is that I accept the existence of hierarchies of quality without feeling oppressed by them. I have plenty of room in my life for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, for Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong, for George Balanchine and Fred Astaire, and I love them all without confusing their relative merits, much less jumping to the conclusion that all merits are relative.

    In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s part of what this blog is all about—a big part.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 21, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: The old-fashioned way

    I gave Anna in the Tropics a rave in this morning’s Wall Street Journal:

    When coolness is all, nothing is so deadly as to be declared old-fashioned. So please don’t get me wrong when I say that Nilo Cruz’s "Anna in the Tropics," which opened Sunday at the Royale Theatre, is old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. It’s melodramatic, unabashedly poetic and perfectly serious—and it won a Pulitzer Prize from a panel of judges who’d never seen it on stage, a circumstance that left me wondering whether it could possibly be any good, especially in light of the suspiciously convenient fact that Mr. Cruz was (quoth the press release) "the first Latin American to win the coveted prize for drama." Nobody ever went far wrong questioning the motives of Pulitzer judges, but this particular bunch, God knows how, managed to hit the target. "Anna in the Tropics" touched me as much as anything I’ve seen since I started writing this column….

    I also very much liked the new production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV that just opened at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, directed by Jack O’Brien and starring Kevin Kline as Sir John Falstaff:

    He’s properly sly and unctuous, and if his Falstaff is perhaps a bit too much the roguish clown, he nonetheless rises with ease to the terrible moment when Prince Hal (Michael Hayden) betrays him. "I know thee not, old man," declared the newly crowned king, and the audience gasped—I’m not exaggerating—as Mr. Kline reeled at the shock of his public humiliation.

    As I say, there’s much else to like about this "Henry IV." Mr. O’Brien imposes no high directorial concepts of his own, dressing his players in conventional period garb and letting Shakespeare be Shakespeare….It’s Shakespeare for moviegoers, in short, "popular" in the same pleasing way that "Anna in the Tropics" is old-fashioned. It runs through Jan. 11, and you won’t be sorry to see it.

    No link, so to read the whole thing (including my two cents’ worth about Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which closed after one performance, which was one too many), buy today’s Journal and look me up in the "Weekend Journal" section, which is worth reading for all sorts of other reasons.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 21, 2003 | Permanent link
Thursday, November 20, 2003
    TT: I wish I'd blogged that

    From 2 Blowhards:

    1) You don't have to love everything you're told is great, 2) You don't have to claim greatness for everything you love, and 3) You don't have to dispute the greatness of the works and artists you dislike.

    This is part of a posting in which Michael Blowhard offers a list of "great art he doesn’t get," and invites his co-blogger Friedrich to do the same. (Read the whole thing here.)

    Care to play, OGIC? My allergy to Wagner is no secret, to put it mildly, and I’ve confessed to not getting Dickens in this very space. I’m prepared to make further admissions, but only if you ante up.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 20, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Totally on board

    Dear OGIC:

    I tore myself away from the iBook this afternoon and went to see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I'm going to be writing about it next week, so I don't want to give the game completely away, but here's what I thought in a nutshell: it's all wrong...and all right.

    No, Master and Commander doesn't reproduce the essence of Patrick O'Brian's books, which is the inner life of Stephen Maturin. (See this recent post for more details.) It's a completely exteriorized view of the Aubrey-Maturin novels. But what a view! I know the novels intimately, and I'm stunned by the evocative precision with which Peter Weir has made them manifest on screen. Sure, he's turned a Trollopian roman fleuve into an action movie, but the action is completely consistent with the tone (and values) of the books. What's more, Russell Crowe is as good an Aubrey as could possibly be imagined. He looks right, sounds right, acts right. From now on, I'll see him in my head when I read the books.

    Much more later, but for now I'll add just one thing, which is that I saw Master and Commander in the company of a woman friend whom I thought might not like it, not least because it gets quite bloody from time to time. She was completely enthralled. Me, too. I want to see it again, soon.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 20, 2003 | Permanent link
    OGIC: The sea, the sea

    So, while Mr. Teachout was keeping score at the National Book Awards dinner last night—and I'll be damned if I don't pry a lot more scuttlebutt out of him—I was getting my first taste of Patrick O'Brian, albeit by way of Peter Weir. I felt really grandly entertained at Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, though it seemed clear that the famous Aubrey-Maturin friendship was not captured in anything like all of its nuance and complexity in the books. Make no mistake, this is an adventure movie, and it's more about the general experiences of being English, at war, and at sea than about specific characters or relationships.

    This isn't to say that the characters aren't nicely individuated and very believably human. Weir does sketch out the emotional contours of a couple of the shipboard relationships in very broad but deft strokes, and this seems just enough specificity to animate what is essentially a more general evocation of a time and place—and, of course, a great yarn.

    The storytelling is terrific, offering up plenty of the sort of well-chosen, toothsome details that make a narrative memorable. There's a model ship that is a small wonder, both as a material object and as a plot pivot. Later in the movie you get a (literally) breathtaking glimpse of a real ship from far enough away that it, too, looks like a toy—and the plot again turns decisively. I loved the benign, wise-looking beasts of the Galápagos Islands, and the depiction of the tools and methods of the Romantic-era naturalist.

    If much has been cut loose in the translation of O'Brian from page to screen, it seems to have been for the best. Master and Commander may be cinema first and O'Brian only second, but isn't that as it should be? After all, it hasn't replaced the books; not only are they still out there, but I feel now more than ever that I'd like to read them, and haven't the slightest worry that it will be a redundant experience.

    So there you have my uninitiated take on Master and Commander. I'm curious to find out how it stacks up against Terry's view (forthcoming, I presume), but I can report that it is almost identical to that of the ultra-initiated Our Dad in Detroit, who mourned O'Brian's more complex Stephen Maturin a little, but found the spirit of the books intact and, like me, had the time of his life.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, November 20, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Apples, oranges, and other fruit

    A reader writes, apropos of the National Book Awards, but before my first-person account (see immediately below) was posted:

    Do you think that personal memoir and narrative nonfiction based on journalistic reconstruction should be in the same category? I suppose that might be like asking whether historical fiction and contempory fiction should be in the same category, yet I can't help but feel that these forms are very different from one another. I guess this begs the question of what, exactly, is it that you judge when viewing art? Is it the impact upon the viewer/listener/reader? And if the content is inherently more emotional in one work than another, does that skew the comparison? I think, too, of actors. The embodiment of a highly charged character seems to have an edge over a masterful embodiment of a more subtle character, even when I suspect the latter requires much more skill.

    Right on all counts, say I. All five of the NBA nonfiction judges were troubled by the fact that we had to render a single judgment on so disparate a group of books, and we have made our feelings known to the powers-that-be at the National Book Foundation. On the other hand, I don't think there should be a dozen National Book Awards: if there were, nobody would pay attention to them. (It's hard enough to get the mass media to pay any attention to a literary prize.) Still, disaggregating history from biography, as do the Pulitzer Prizes, seems to me an important step.

    On the other hand, to do that would bring us right back to another horn of the dilemma posed by my correspondent. Can you really compare a scholarly biography to a personal memoir? I mean, of course you can, you can compare anything to anything else, but ought they to be considered part of the same category for purposes of prizegiving?

    Without telling tales out of school, I can say that my fellow judges and I spent a lot of time talking about precisely these issues. We took them with the highest possible seriousness. But at the end of the day (as they like to say in Washington), we had to perform our assigned task, which wasn't made any easier by the fact that the National Book Foundation instructed us not to split the first prize between two books. We had to pick one, and we chose Waiting for Snow in Havana. As John Wayne is supposed to have said (though I think the quote is as spurious as "Play it again, Sam"), a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Better one prize than none.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 20, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: At the National Book Awards

    I don’t know how much ink the National Book Awards would have gotten under normal circumstances, but given the events with which today’s papers (on and off line) are understandably crowded, it’s a wonder they got covered at all. Given the brevity of the various news stories about this year's awards, though, I thought I ought to supply a few more details.

    The ceremony was held at the Marriott Marquis, one of the super-monster hotels in the theater district of Manhattan, and a good thing, too—some 900 people showed up. The crowd at the reception was so thick that you could barely get a drink, and it was for all intents and purposes impossible to find anyone you knew (I ran into one of my fellow judges, but only by accident). Inside the ballroom, the tables stretched on and on and on, thus making informed table-hopping similarly impossible. Hence the dinner wasn’t nearly as social an occasion as I’d expected.

    The ballroom was full of security—tough guys in tuxes, wearing Secret Service-style earpieces and talking into their hands. I don’t know whether this was standard operating procedure or arose from the fact that Stephen King is in the middle of a much-publicized bout with a stalker, but it seemed clear to me that his presence was part of the reason for their presence. I tried to say hello to him, and a big bruiser shoved himself in front of me and said, "Hey, Mac, you can’t talk ta Mr. King." On the other hand, he backed down immediately when I told him I was a judge, and I was permitted to pay my respects to the guest of honor.

    Of the 900 other guests, only about 120 were authors. I was the lone writer at my table—everybody else was from the business side of publishing. This, too, was a little disorienting, as I’d expected the mealtime chat to be rather more literary in tone, though I did get into a worthwhile conversation with a fellow from RR Donnelly Publishing (they’re the ones who actually manufacture books) about the prospects for e-books (he was skeptical). The food, incidentally, was quite good for a gathering of this sort—I wasn’t counting on rack of lamb.

    The fiscal orientation of the audience may help to explain why Stephen King received two standing ovations as he was presented with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. As one of the Donnelly execs said to me during Standing Ovation No. 1, "That man has made a lot of money for a lot of people in this room."

    King’s speech was interesting. He was clearly moved by the honor—he choked up. He was funny and unpretentious when paying tribute to his wife and talking about the "vulnerability" to self-doubt of poor, struggling authors (such as himself when young). I suspect he was the first National Book Award laureate ever to say "Oh, shit!" in his acceptance speech (he was describing the way an honest author might portray a terrified character in extreme circumstances). And he was simultaneously a bit defensive and more than a little bit aggressive when he informed the crowd that they’d be making a mistake if they treated their decision to give him the prize as an act of "tokenism." He said (repeatedly) that he didn’t write for money, that genre fiction deserved to be taken seriously, and that the judges of the National Book Awards had an obligation to read the best-selling books that are shaping American popular culture (I’m paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist of his complaint). "Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and literary fiction," he declared, and to that end he supplied us with a long reading list of popular novelists whom he commended to our attention, among them Elmore Leonard and John Grisham. (He also mentioned Patrick O’Brian.)

    The confrontational tone of King’s speech startled me—I’d never heard him talk before. Had it been adequately reported this morning, I think it would already be stirring up no small amount of controversy in the literary sector of the blogosphere. The reason why I approached him, by the way, was to ask if he’d made arrangements to publish it. He was polite (just) but brisk when he said that he thought somebody "already had dibs" on it. I hope it gets into print in some form or other, because it deserves to be talked about extensively.

    King didn’t give the only attention-getting speech of the night. Carlos Eire spoke at unexpected length—eloquently and effectively—upon being given the nonfiction award for Waiting for Snow in Havana. He, too, was moved to the point of tears, but he wasn’t so disconcerted as to forget to point out to us that had he published Waiting for Snow in Havana in Cuba rather than America, he wouldn’t have been receiving an award in New York—he’d be locked up in one of Fidel Castro’s prisons. It was a surprising speech to hear at a gathering of New York literary types, who aren’t accustomed to being reminded that to be an honest writer in Cuba is to run the constant risk of being thrown into a jail not fit for animals (Eire’s words).

    Polly Horvath, who received the prize for Young People’s Literature, gave a speech that lasted for about 15 seconds, and her brevity amazed and delighted everyone at my table. C.K. Williams, the poetry winner, read one of his poems in lieu of giving a speech, and it, too, was short. (I very much admired his nerve.)

    Then Shirley Hazzard stole the show. Here's how the New York Times described her acceptance speech:

    She accepted the award before a crowd of 900 writers, editors and publishers, and urged American writers to remain aware of their immense power in the world and their consequent responsibility not to degrade the language they had been given.

    "We're drowning in explanations," she said. "What we need is more questions."

    What the story didn't say is that Hazzard was chiding Stephen King—politely, but by name, and she made no bones about it—for telling the NBA judges what they ought to be reading. My guess is that she is more accustomed to weighing her words than speaking off the top of her head, for her remarks, though brief, weren’t nearly as pointed as they seemed, and you could tell she was torn between her obligation to be tactful and her desire to tear a piece off King. Nevertheless, it was an unambiguously confrontational moment, and an electric one.

    That’s about the size of it, though I do want to add a few last words about the experience of being an NBA judge. We considered 436 books (some of them very, very briefly, but they all got talked about at some point in the past few months). We never raised our voices, never argued with one another, never got angry. Our deliberations were civilized, collegial, and great fun. When we met yesterday afternoon to make our final selection, it was the first time all five of us had been in the same room at once—we mostly deliberated via e-mail and in conference calls—and the atmosphere, far from being tense, was positively festive.

    Yes, it was hard work, and I really wish the NBA would break up the nonfiction award into at least two parts: it isn’t easy or fair to directly compare histories, biographies, and memoirs, as we had to do. But we did it, and though I’m sworn to secrecy as to the particulars of our discussions, I think I can speak for the whole panel when I say that we were collectively pleased and proud to give the prize to Waiting for Snow in Havana. I gather that not all literary prizes are awarded in so companionable an atmosphere, so I hate to disappoint you by not reporting any fist fights, but the sad truth is that I had a wonderful time being a judge for the National Book Awards.

    UPDATE: More details of the ceremony are getting into print. For a reliable wire-service account (by way of Maud) with good quotes from the King and Hazzard speeches, go here. Looks like the Times punted on this one....

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 20, 2003 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 19, 2003
    TT: Cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river

    Here are the winners of the 2003 National Book Awards, as announced earlier this evening:

  • NONFICTION: Carlos Eire, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy

  • YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE: Polly Horvath, The Canning Season

  • POETRY: C.K. Williams, The Singing

  • FICTION: Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire

    I have stories to tell about the ceremony, especially about Stephen King’s speech in acceptance of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which was, to put it mildly, an unapologetic defense of popular genre fiction—and which inspired Shirley Hazzard to reply, quietly but firmly, at evening’s end. But…it’s raining in Manhattan, there aren’t any cabs, the subway took forever, I’m soaked to the skin, and it’s time to get out of this wet tuxedo and under a warm comforter. So I’m going to bed. Come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you everything.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 19, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Out of here

    I'm off to the top-secret conclave at which I and my four fellow judges will choose the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction. The five finalists, in case you've forgotten or didn't know, are Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History, George Howe Colt's The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, John D'Emilio's Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, Carlos Eire's Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.

    Then, after a change of costume (off with the false mustache, on with the black tie), I'll be heading for tonight's NBA dinner, where all the winners will be announced.

    More later, probably tomorrow.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 19, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Here's how

    I went to a classical concert last night about which you probably haven’t yet heard—though I expect you will.

    The Elements String Quartet, a comparatively new ensemble (it was founded in 1999), recently commissioned 16 composers to write short pieces for string quartet inspired by evocative photographs of the composers' own choosing—wedding photos, pictures of their parents, candid snapshots, vacation scenes, whatever. The Elements Quartet has been previewing these pieces throughout 2003, and on Tuesday the group played all 16 at Manhattan’s Merkin Concert Hall.

    Here are some striking things about "Snapshots," the title given by the quartet to this project, which was underwritten by a foundation called Premiere Commission, Inc.:

  • The string-quartet literature is all but devoid of short, free-standing pieces. Quartet programs generally consist of three or four large-scale works. The 16 "Snapshots" pieces, by contrast, can be used invidiually to open or close a program—or played as encores—in addition to being performed as a full-evening unit. They can also be programmed in smaller groupings of three or four pieces at a time.

  • The "Snapshots" pieces are widely and exceptionally varied in style. Some are light, others fairly weighty (though never ponderous). A few of the composers, like John Corigliano and David Del Tredici, are well known in the classical-music world, but most are less familiar. Several of the pieces are by non-classical composers, including Lenny Pickett, the musical director for Saturday Night Live, and jazz musicians Regina Carter and John Patitucci.

  • All 16 pieces are immediately accessible to the untutored ear. (Most, in fact, are unabashedly tonal.)

  • The members of the Elements Quartet talked to the audience from the stage about several of the pieces and the photos that inspired them, and introduced all the composers who came to the concert. This sort of thing is standard operating procedure for the group, which is known for its informal on-stage demeanor.

  • Theater designer Wendall K. Harrington took the 16 photos and wove them into a handsome-looking evening-long video that was shown during the concert on a large screen placed on stage behind the Elements Quartet. (The actual photos were hung in an upstairs gallery where a post-concert reception was held.)

  • Merkin Hall was full. I’ve never seen so large and enthusiastic a crowd at a program consisting entirely of new music for string quartet.

    What about the music? Well, I liked eight pieces, disliked four, and didn’t feel strongly either way about the other four—a staggeringly high batting average for a new-music program. I was particularly impressed by Justine Chen’s "Ancient Airs and Dances," John Corigliano’s "Circa 1909," Daron Hagen’s "Snapshot: Gwen and Earl’s Wedding Day, December 20th, 1951," Paul Moravec’s "Vince and Jan: 1945," and Chen Yi’s "Burning" (the only 9/11-inspired work), all of which I want to hear again as soon as possible. Also noteworthy was Sebastian Currier’s "REM," the shortest work on the program, a brilliantly effective little scherzo that will make a terrific encore piece.

    Aside from the music, what struck me most forcibly about "Snapshots" was the extent to which it departed from prevailing norms of classical concertizing without degenerating into silliness or pandering. Unlike the Kronos Quartet in its heyday, the members of the Elements Quartet don't wear outré clothes (I’d call their outfits dressy-casual) or play "Purple Haze." Yet the feel of the evening was anything but sober-sided.

    It’s no secret that classical music is in increasingly dire straits. The recording industry is all but dead and the average age of concertgoers goes up every year. I myself don’t attend very many classical concerts anymore, for reasons that I explained at length in "Death of the Concert," an essay included in A Terry Teachout Reader, out in April from Yale:

    By the mid-Sixties, it was possible to purchase high-quality [recorded] renditions of virtually every important piece of classical music composed prior to 1910. Similarly, good-sounding hi-fi systems had become cheap enough for anyone to own. An entire generation of music lovers thus became accustomed to experiencing classical music not in the concert hall but at home. As the Horowitzes and Bernsteins died off, these listeners began to question the need to attend any public performances of the classics, whether by callow young artists or by middle-aged celebrity performers who had already committed their repertoires to disc one or more times….

    Beethoven cycles and Tchaikovsky nights continue to draw crowds, and the celebrity system is still the backbone of the classical-music business. But the point of diminishing returns, especially outside the largest urban areas, has clearly been reached, and the recent experience of the classical-recording industry suggests that it is no less essential for soloists and orchestras to rethink the way they do business.

    If they do not, the concert hall will someday become a place where old men and women gather forlornly to listen to the same symphonies and concertos they first heard a half-century ago, while their children, if they are interested in classical music at all, will stay home and listen to compact discs or whatever newer marvel is destined to replace them.

    I wrote that essay in 1998. Not much has changed since then, though Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are by all accounts galvanizing local concertgoers with unexpected combinations of old and new music, beautifully performed and imaginatively presented. But they’re a conspicuous exception to the numbing rule. I no longer go to hear the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel, for example. I’m sure they play well, but I simply don’t feel the need to see them live. I have more interesting things to do with my evenings. Similarly, I haven’t been to a single classical concert at Carnegie Hall or Avery Fisher Hall all season long—and I’m a middle-aged listener who loves classical music passionately. Granted, I’m just one person in a big city, but if I’m not going to classical concerts, who is? And who will?

    That’s why "Snapshots" was so potentially significant an event. Unlike the New York Philharmonic, the Elements String Quartet went out of its way to offer a musical experience I couldn’t even begin to duplicate in the comfort of my living room—which is why I made a special point of coming out to hear it on a dreary November night. So did a whole lot of other people, and judging by the eavedropping I did during the two intermissions and at the post-concert reception, most of them had a hell of a good time.

    I don’t think I need to append a moral to this story. As the Romans used to say, the thing speaks for itself. Let’s just hope somebody out there is paying attention.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 19, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Grand master

    Today, the National Endowment for the Arts announces the recipients of its Jazz Masters awards for 2004. One of them is Jim Hall, my favorite living jazz musician, whom I interviewed last week for a piece published in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s the lead:

    In jazz, all fame is strictly relative. Jim Hall, the greatest living jazz guitarist, has been making records for close to a half-century. He’s worked with everybody from Sonny Rollins to Pat Metheny and played everywhere from the Village Vanguard to the White House. His colleagues view him with something approaching outright awe. But Mr. Hall, like most jazz musicians, is unknown to the public at large—a fact that doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. "It’s a privilege to be able to make a living playing jazz," he says firmly. "Not too many people listen to me, but maybe I’d be nervous if I were a million-seller. I’d say, uh-oh, I did something wrong."

    Read the whole thing here.

    If you’ve never heard Hall play, click here to purchase Jim Hall Live, the CD mentioned in the piece. Recently reissued by Verve, it’s one of his own favorites—and the first Jim Hall album I ever bought, a quarter-century ago. I still love it.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 19, 2003 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 18, 2003
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "I think that if I get into the habit of writing a bit about what happens, or rather doesn't happen, I may lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me. My circumstances allowing of nothing but the ejaculation of one-syllabled reflections, a written monologue by that most interesting being, myself, may have its yet to be discovered consolations. I shall at least have it all my own way and it may bring relief as an outlet to that geyser of emotions, sensations, speculations and reflections which ferments perpetually within my poor old carcass for its sins; so here goes, my first Journal!"

    Alice James, diary, May 31, 1889

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, November 18, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: The road to hell

    Just a reminder that Our Girl and I are separately swamped with deadlines and other similarly pressing stuff. (I just finished writing my drama column for this Friday's Wall Street Journal, and I'll be tied up with the National Book Awards throughout most of Wednesday.) Good things are in the pipeline, but it may be a day or two before we can get them up on the page. Check this space for details. We'll be back!

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 18, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Up there on a visit

    Ingmar Bergman has fallen from fashion, but I well remember when he was the very model of a Foreign Filmmaker, the man whose movies embodied everything that wasn’t Hollywood. Those, of course, were the days when Hollywood wasn’t cool: if you wanted to impress your date, you took her to a Bergman. (A little later on, it was O.K. to take her to one of Woody Allen’s ersatz-Bergman movies.) Now he belongs to the ages, and I know more than a few self-styled film buffs who’ve never seen any of his work.

    I don’t mean to sneer. Except for Smiles of a Summer Night, I hadn’t seen any of Bergman’s early films since my college days—not until last night, when I watched the Criterion Collection CD of Wild Strawberries in the company of a film-loving friend. We’d been planning to get together for weeks to watch it, and a hole opened up simultaneously in our schedules, so we sent out for Vietnamese food, planted ourselves on the couch, and let ’er rip.

    Here are some fugitive observations gleaned from our evening:

  • Wild Strawberries is much lighter in tone than I recalled, and actually made me laugh out loud quite a bit. (It’s rather like the middle-period novels of Henry James, which always turn out to be funnier than you expect.)

  • The surrealistic dream sequences—especially the examination scene—haven’t aged well. To contemporary eyes they seem obvious, even quaint.

  • The pacing is slow—not painfully, but noticeably.

  • The lighting is superlatively good.

  • When I was young, Wild Strawberries struck me as exactly what old age must be like. (Had it been a novel, I would have scribbled neatly in the margin of the last page, "This is true.") Now that I’m middle-aged—and eight years older than Bergman was when he made it—I know better. It’s far too benign, albeit gorgeously so. It reminds me of what an old music critic once said to me about Der Rosenkavalier: "It’s by a young man pretending to be an old man remembering his youth."

    As soon as I got home, I looked Bergman up in David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, where I found the following paragraph:

    Many people of my generation may have joined the National Film Theatre in London to see a retrospective survey of Bergman’s early films after The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries had come to represent "artistic" cinema. The first critical articles that I struggled with—as reader and writer—were on Bergman. Inevitably he suffered from being so suddenly revealed to a volatile world. Looking back, it seems no coincidence that those two films are his most pretentious and calculating. Within a few years he was being mocked and parodied for his earnestness and symbolism. The young cineastes led to the art houses were rediscovering the virtues of the American films that had delighted them as children. The new French cinema endorsed that love of development and replaced Bergman’s concentration with improvisation, humor, offhand tenderness, and a non-Northern feeling for the beauty of camera movements as opposed to the force of composition.

    I quote Thomson at length because I couldn’t have said it better myself, though I wouldn’t have put it quite that harshly. Wild Strawberries is a beautiful movie—one that knows how beautiful it is, and wants you to know, too. The older I get, the less readily I warm to that kind of art, be it film, painting, music, the novel, or what have you. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy revisiting Wild Strawberries after a quarter-century. I did, very much. But I don’t know whether I’ll ever feel the need to see it again, whereas I rarely let a year go by without watching The Rules of the Game. Which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about me, aesthetically speaking.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 18, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "He was the first important composer since Mozart to show that seriousness is not the same as solemnity, that profundity is not dependent upon length, that wit is not always the same as buffoonery, and that frivolity and beauty are not necessarily enemies."

    Constant Lambert (on Emmanuel Chabrier), Music Ho!

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 18, 2003 | Permanent link
Monday, November 17, 2003
    TT: The verdict is yours

    Felix Salmon, who knows infinitely more about blog-techy stuff than I, writes to suggest (rather emphatically) that Our Girl and I should "change [our] default settings on About Last Night and make links open in the same, not a new, window." Felix has complicated reasons for making this suggestion, mostly relating to something called "tabbed browsing" about which I am deeply clueless.

    It'd be easy enough to make the switch, but I'm not going to do it just because one (1) reader thinks it'd be a good idea. What say the rest of you? If you have an opinion, send it to us at "About Last Night" (with the phrase DEFAULT SETTING in the message field). OGIC and I will happily abide by your collective preference on this matter.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 17, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Eau de nuit

    I was thinking about Crossfire, a 1947 film noir with a dream cast (Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame, thank you very much), when a synapse fired in my brain and I finally remembered something I’d always meant to post.

    I took down Lee Server’s Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don’t Care" from my bookshelf, turned to the chapter about Crossfire, and there it was—a wonderful little "found poem" that Server stumbled across in the screenplay. It’s a list of the film’s settings, compiled for the use of the production department:

    Int. Cheap Rooming House
    Ext. Police Station
    Int. Hotel Washroom
    Ext. Park Bench
    Int. Hamburger Joint
    Int. Moviehouse Balcony
    Int. Bar
    Int. Ginny’s Bedroom
    Int. Street of Cheap Rooming Houses

    Has there ever been a pithier summary of what makes film noir noir?

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 17, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: All right we are two non-bloggers

    It might just be a slowish week here at "About Last Night." Our Girl is up to her elegant neckline in life-related for-profit activity, and I'm kind of busy myself. Yesterday I saw a four-hour-long play. Today I’ll be writing a non-theater piece for the Wall Street Journal (can't say more, details to follow). Tomorrow I write my drama column for Friday’s Journal (I saw two really good shows and a stinker). Wednesday will be totally devoted to the National Book Awards. I vote on the nonfiction prize in the morning, then I’ve got to run home, put on a black tie, and go to the Big Fancy Dinner that evening. On Thursday I plan to see Master and Commander, and I'll be checking into a rest home the following morning. (Just kidding.)

    The point is that postings this week may possibly be sporadic and/or erratic. Or not. You never can tell around this joint. At any rate, I posted quite a few items in the past couple of days, including the latest on the Great Blogosphere Contretemps, about which infinitely more below—the air is full of links—so there’s no shortage of stuff to read.

    Which reminds me: if the Great Blogosphere Contretemps has brought you to "About Last Night" today for the very first time, go here to read an old posting explaining who we are and what we do. Alternatively, you can browse the right-hand column, starting at the top. Either way, all will be made manifest.

    Contrary to any impression you may have gotten from the newspapers, we’re glad you stopped by. Please come again—and bring a friend.

    P.S. To those who inquired, my Wall Street Journal piece about the Looney Tunes Golden Collection is finished but not yet published. I’ll let you know when it hits. (And yes, I do have some fresh Top Fives up my sleeve. All I have to do is write them and code them and post them and love them….)

    P.P.S. To those of you who've been running into me at parties and asking who Our Girl is, she is beautiful and mysterious and wanted in at least seven countries. That is all you know and all you need to know.

    P.P.P.S. Our Girl is finally getting her very own e-mailbox, possibly as soon as this week! Watch this space for details.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 17, 2003 | Permanent link
    OGIC: By the way

    Reports of my innocence have been greatly exaggerated.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, November 17, 2003 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Blogger down…

    But not out. It’s only a temporary thing—"it" being an angry swarm of deadlines that’s had me in solitary confinement all weekend. If I were a quarterback, this week would be a blitz, and I’m trying to do a little better than just throw the ball away. And I’m not yet quite out of danger of being sacked (strictly metaphorically speaking, I think). (Speaking of football, congratulations to the Edmonton Eskimos on winning the Canadian Football League’s storied Grey Cup, which, as Colby Cosh explains here, has it over the Lombardi Trophy for colorfully checkered history and sheer longevity: number XCI!)

    I almost forgot to link to last week's Washington Post appreciation of one of my favorite guilty pleasures, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee crime novels. I discovered McGee some years ago when a friend brought The Long Lavender Look to my sick bed. I was skeptical, but the only alternative was my course reading, which was probably Fredric Jameson or some such thing. And the epigraph caught my eye:

    When I play with my cat, who knows but that she regards me more as a plaything than I do her? —Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

    The hook had grazed me. Twenty pages into the mystery proper, I was on the line for all twenty books in the series.

    I even got Terry to read the McGee novels. He was not very impressed, but even his more discerning critical judgment was not enough to keep him from gobbling them up like so much buttered popcorn. Terry’s some fast reader; I think he gave over three or four days of his life to McGee, cursed me heartily, and moved on.

    But I’ll never be done with McGee, and Jonathan Yardley’s piece gives a vivid sense of why this is. While the romanticized, impossible Travis “I bed at least one new girl every book, but I’m a highly principled gentleman” McGee may be a silly character (Parker would eat him for lunch), the plots of the novels give off the authentic whiff of mundane reality. They are Floridian through and through, revolving around prosaic real estate development schemes and small-time swindles. The book Yardley focuses on, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, is a very good choice. But you’re going to have to read all of them anyway, so why not take his advice and start at the beginning with The Deep Blue Good-By?

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, November 17, 2003 | Permanent link
Sunday, November 16, 2003
    TT: Present at the creation

    From Instapundit, who is referring to the Washington Post article about arts blogs which I discussed (and linked) here:

    THE BLOGOSPHERE IS, LIKE, TOTALLY INBRED: Er, except that I haven't ever heard of most of these blogs, which are nonetheless a big thing in their part of the sphere, I gather.

    There are more things in the blogosphere, Jennifer Howard, than are dreamt of in your articles….

    Er, you, too, Instapundit. For as this post reminds us, the "warbloggers" (i.e., the political bloggers who mostly sprang to life in the wake of 9/11) and the arts bloggers (i.e., Our Girl and I and all the other folks mentioned in Jennifer Howard’s article) don’t seem to overlap all that much. To be sure, there’s lots and lots more of them than there are of us. "About Last Night"’s traffic has gone through the roof on the infrequent occasions when the warblogging sector of the blogosphere has taken note of our activities. But for the most part we arts bloggers go our own way quite happily, gradually building an audience of interested readers, some of whom also visit the warblogs (as I do) and some of whom don’t.

    Meaning what? That many more people are interested in politics than art (surprise!). That it’s a big pool, with plenty of room for everybody. Above all, that the Web has the power to create and foster far-flung, widely dispersed "communities" of strangers with common interests—and to do it on the cheap.

    Jeff Jarvis, who blogs at BuzzMachine, reported yesterday (in near-real time, no less!) on a speech given by Andrew Sullivan, one of the pioneer bloggers, to the Online News Association. Here are his notes:

    What sets apart weblogs, [Sullivan] says, is economics: He talks about the economics of thoughtful journalism: The New Republic has never made money and loses more. The Nation doesn't make money.

    "And then I experienced blogging as an alternative. It staggers me to realize that last week, AndrewSullivan.com... is now reaching more people online than the magazine I used to edit, which is still losing... hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. That's a big deal... We haven't just made the economics of journalism cheaper.... We haven't just lowered the barriers to entry to journalism, we've completely revolutionized it."

    "The overhead is minimal and the reach is almost infinite."

    The fact that Andrew Sullivan is English may be relevant in this connection. In the U.S., journalism came over the past half-century to be viewed as a "profession"—something you can't do without formal training and, preferably, an academic degree. In Europe, it's something that can be and is done by any literate person for whatever reason—to make money, to help shape the cultural conversation, even just for fun.

    I think the second model makes more sense, and also makes for better, livelier journalism. Most newspaper and magazine editors disagree, and prior to the emergence of the blogosphere, they ran things. Now they don't. Which might just be the most important thing about blogs: they have brought about a wholesale revival of "amateur" journalism, in the very best sense of the word.

    That’s the lead—not that Instapundit hasn’t heard of Maud, or that Jennifer Howard thinks TMFTML is too snarky. This is new. And it matters. And you're here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, November 16, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Alternative alternatives

    Two readers write, apropos of my recent postings about Joan Kroc’s $200 million legacy to NPR.

    The first is Cinetrix’ ’Fesser:

    I confess that I am ambivalent about this $200m gift. It seems to me as if a huge gift to the central NPR will only accelerate the homogenization of public radio. At the left end of the dial, NPR is a behemoth that squeezes out marginally alternative radio, leaving only the raggedy fringe of college stations. The certitude of hearing "Car Talk" and Scott Simon from coast to coast, while pleasant for homesick Bostonians, for a few moments at least, does not really offer a serious alternative to commercial media. NPR, the national organization, may raise the bar, but they lower the ceiling. In essence, the problem in my eyes is the replacement of small p, small r public radio with NPR. The difference is like that between coffeehouses and Starbucks.

    Also, the contretemps of a few years ago over Christopher Lydon's "Connection" revealed that the talent at Boston's WBUR was making serious, six-figure money. I am reluctant to brown-bag it for a week so that I can pay for one of Tom and Ray's cufflinks. I support public radio by throwing a few bucks to my favorite music station when I can, and I don't feel too guilty about listening to NPR when I want news. In any event, given the constant sponsor plugs and contests to win Apple iPods, Toyota Prii, or Pat Metheny tickets, the absence of Paul Harvey is the only way to tell you are not listening to AM news radio.

    As for the Kroc gift, given the source of the money, it seems as if it would have been more appropriate for her to throw some cash to an organization that is trying to do something about the obesity epidemic in this country.

    My second correspondent hails from the suburbs of Philadelphia:

    I see you say that you don't listen to classical music on the radio. I would greatly miss it.

    In and around Philadelphia and Trenton, Mercer County Community College's WWFM "empire" provides a terrific classical service. It has a network of translators and smaller stations that stretch from north of Easton, Pa. to Cape May. Much of its music is locally programmed and often non-hackneyed (the other day, during the afternoon, I heard David Diamond's Violin Concerto No. 2). From 12-3 pm and midnight-6 a.m. they use Peter van de Graaf from Chicago's marvelous WFMT (the best arts station in the U.S.) and he is a joy. Sure, he plays Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Ravel's La Valse and other greatest hits, but he also plays French baroque opera, 20th-century Dutch minimalism, Swedish chamber music and all kinds of unusual repertoire and off-the-beaten track tidbits (did you know that Beethoven wrote an Andante and Variations for Mandolin and Harpsichord? I didn't until PvdG played it). Last night at 3 a.m. (I work nights, sleep days) he played an entire one-act Rossini comic opera—what a treat and a real discovery for me! No, I had no idea what was going on; my Italian is a tad rusty. But the joy and effervescent delight that is Rossini came through clearly and really made my night.

    I have over 2,000 classical CDs and a fine system to play them on, and I do often play them. But the radio has a spontaneity and excitement that I enjoy and I would miss the discoveries—things I would never hear any other way. I feel sorry that such listening opportunities are not available in so many places—so many potential classical fans may never hear the music.

    They certainly won't on NPR, either. In Philadelphia, the NPR outlet loves talk so much it REPEATS shows. They play Fresh Air at 3 and then again at 7. They repeat All Things Considered's first 1/2 hour 2 hours later. There's no room for music, but they can run reruns? NPR and its partner in crime, PBS, should be ashamed for their total retreat from the fine arts. Keep hounding them about it!

    These two e-mails are variations on the same theme, and very much to the point of what public radio ought to be about, at least in my opinion. The operative word is "non-commercial," which brings us back to my original posting. Public radio runs on subsidies—some direct, some indirect, some voluntary, some not. But its claim to any kind of subsidy, whatever the source, arises from its non-commercial character. To the extent that NPR allows its programming to be driven by purely commercial considerations, it violates that tacit "agreement" with the public.

    Two other points are worth noting. As the ’Fesser notes, non-capitalized "public radio" augments the fast-shrinking diversity of broadcast content in America, while NPR’s increasing emphasis on centralized talk-driven programming diminishes it. And my Philadelphia correspondent makes a point that simply hadn’t occurred to me, which is that one of the most important reasons to listen to classical music on the radio is the element of surprise. My own life as a working critic provides plenty of that, but those who aren’t at concerts and other performances five and six nights a week are in a different boat. Alex Ross said much the same thing in another context a few weeks ago when he wrote to chide me for undervaluing the significance of BAM as "a filter for those who are baffled by the sheer superfluity of choices out there" (and yes, Alex, I know I owe you an e-mail!).

    It may be that my correspondents are I are kicking against the pricks—that the centralizing forces to which terrestrial radio is being subjected are irresistible. It may also be that Web-based "radio" is the long-term alternative to the encroaching homogenization of the airwaves. And it’s puzzling that none of us has heretofore suggested that possibility. The genius of the Web is that it lowers the overhead for individuality. Hence blogging, which is nothing if not individual. If I weren’t having so much fun blogging (and weren't so damn busy writing for profit), I might well be tempted to launch a Web-based radio station of my own…but don’t ask me!

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, November 16, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "What fascinates me about acting is when a beautiful talented actress can come on the stage and give a performance that makes your blood curdle with excitement and pleasure, yet she can make such a cracking pig of herself over where her dressing-room is or some such triviality, for which you hate her. Intelligent actors never do that, but then they're seldom as good as the unintelligent ones. Acting is an instinct. A gift that is often given to people who are very silly as people. But as they come on to the stage, up goes the temperature."

    Noël Coward, quoted in Charles Castle, Noël

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, November 16, 2003 | Permanent link


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