About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, August 11, 2006
TT: WASP nest
I review two shows in today’s Wall Street Journal drama column, one in New York, one out of town, both favorably.
A.R. Gurney’s new play, Indian Blood, just opened off Broadway at Primary Stages:
Like most of Mr. Gurney’s plays, “Indian Blood” is peopled with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who are variously conscious of their loss of cultural ascendancy. Here as in “Ancestral Voices,” the 1999 play to which it is a companion piece, the WASPs in question are actual members of the Gurney family, and the story is a wry semi-autobiographical vignette in which Eddie (Charles Socarides), the youthful narrator, draws a dirty picture, passes it around to his classmates, and promptly runs afoul of the Law of Unintended Consequences when a priggish relation (Jeremy Blackman) threatens to show it to his genteel grandmother (Pamela Payton-Wright).
Unlike “Ancestral Voices,” which began as a book and evolved into a staged reading, “Indian Blood” is a full-fledged play performed, like “Our Town,” without a set or props, a self-evident fact that the narrator (Charles Socarides) calls to our attention so often that it becomes annoying (once would have been more than enough). Save for this sole lapse of taste, it’s a sweet little tale with overtones of rue that recall the novels of John P. Marquand….
When the thermometer closes in on the century mark, wise New Yorkers head north. I recommend a day trip to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival to see Terrence O’Brien’s joyously dotty outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” staged in the style of “3rd Rock From the Sun,” complete with space invaders and a flying saucer. Mr. O’Brien, the festival’s founder and artistic director, isn’t overly concerned with thematic consistency, and his “Midsummer Night’s Dream” also contains such interpolations as a dance routine choreographed by Lisa Reinhart in which Titania (Nance Williamson) leads the cast in a frenzied mambo, lip-syncing to the music of Yma Súmac, the mad diva of Peru.
Don’t let any of this scare you off: It’s all funny, and Mr. O’Brien’s cast hurls itself into the maelstrom with happy abandon….
"A kind of horror came over the master of Georgetown then, a sudden chilling intimation of the underlying ruthlessness of the native character. Ireland had all the cosy warmth of the reptile house in a zoo, he thought: you were lapped in blarney and butter until the moment your means of livelihood were seized or your father was shot."
There is a special relationship between the words here--minimal, sharp, observant but not effusive, descriptive but not lingering or self-conscious--and the experience they describe, which is not only essentially non-verbal, but elementally impersonal. The pleasure evoked by these descriptions is not a linguistic pleasure, or even a particularly thoughtful one, though it is a knowledgeable and aware one. You might call it a modest pleasure, or at least one that is not in the least ego-centric. There is no self in White's entries, though there is an outlook; he reduces himself to a pair of eyes and impartially records what they see.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, August 10, 2006 | Permanent
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows strongly 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.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, August 10, 2006 | Permanent
"'I am only to be a reporter,' Henry assured him. 'I shall simply write what I see.'
"'Then I don't suppose they will print it,' the Rector said shrewdly."
Honor Tracy, A Number of Things
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, August 10, 2006 | Permanent
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
OGIC: Larkin's birthday
Frank Wilson reminds us all that today is Philip Larkin's birthday. He commemmorates it by linking to "Church Going." I'll link to the uncharacteristically happy "Coming" (here with a comment from the poet), where failure of understanding is a condition of the happiness on offer—but in Larkin we take whatever happiness we can get.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, August 9, 2006 | Permanent
OGIC: Selborne, August 1771
When the world is too much with me, I reach for Gilbert White. The eighteenth-century naturalist made 10,000 daily records of the flora and fauna, weather and harvests of his Hampshire village, Selborne. These are his notes from August 1771.
Aug. 5. Young partridgers, strong flyers. Soft showers. Swifts. Pease are hacking.
Aug. 6. Nuthatch chirps; is very loquacious at this time of the year. Large bat appears, vespertilio altivolans.
Aug. 7. Rye-harvest begins. Procured the above-mentioned specimen of the bat, a male.
Aug. 8. Rain in the night, with wind. Swifts. Sultry & moist: Cucumbers bear abundantly. Showers about. Procured a second large bat, a male.
Aug. 10. Flying ants, male & female.
Aug. 11. Heavy clouds round the horizon. Lambs play & frolick.
Aug. 16. Rain, driving rain, dry. Four swifts still.
Aug. 18. No dew, rain, rain, rain. Swans flounce & dive. Chilly & dark.
Aug. 19. Swifts abound. Swallows & martins bring out their second broods which are perchers. Thunder: wind.
Aug. 22. Bank-martins [sand-martins] bring out their second brood. Swifts. No swifts seen after this day.
Aug. 23. Young swallows & martins come out every day. Still weather. Wheat-harvest becomes pretty general.
Aug. 25. Wheat not ripe at Faringdon. Winter weather. Oats & barley ripe before wheat.
Aug. 26. Nuthatch chirps much. No swifts since 22nd.
Aug. 28. Dark, grey, & soft. People bind their wheat.
Aug. 29. Fog, sun, brisk wind. Sweet day. Wheat begins to be housed.
Aug. 30. Young Stoparolas abound. Swallows congregate in vast flocks. Wheat housed.
I really do bliss out reading these journals. The above, for me, is a story, a poem, and a picture all at once, minimally wordy but maximally expressive, piquing every sense.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, August 9, 2006 | Permanent
"He had previously had no idea of the difficulties and frustrations of a correspondent's life. All one did, he had believed, was to collect the facts from people anxious and willing to give them accurately and then, after due reflection, to write the piece. Now he had to learn about the different kinds of lying, that of the official, that of the press relations officer, the lies of men with grievances or axes to grind or something to conceal, or who simply preferred lying to the truth."
Honor Tracy, A Number of Things
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, August 9, 2006 | Permanent
In between novels in A Dance to the Music of Time, I'm reading around in Anthony Powell's captivating Memoirs. As in the fiction, the portraits here are sharp and indelible, and several are of notable writers. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald at the MGM commissary in 1937:
He was smallish, neat, solidly built, wearing a light grey suit, light-coloured tie, all his tones essentially light. Photographs—seen for the most part years later—do not do justice to him. Possibly he was one of those persons who at once become self-conscious when photographed. Even snapshots tend to give him an air of swagger, a kind of cockiness, which, anyway at that moment, he did not at all possess. On the contrary, one was at once aware of an odd sort of unassuming dignity. There was no hint at all of the cantankerous temper that undoubtedly lurked beneath the surface. His air could be thought a trifle sad, not, as sometimes described at this period, in the least brokedown.
...Fitzgerald took a pen from his pocket, and a scrap of paper. On the paper he drew a rough map of North America. Then he added three arrows pointing to the continent. The arrows showed the directions from which culture had flowed into the United States. I am ashamed to say I cannot now remember precisely which these channels were: possibly the New England seabaord; the South (the Old Dominion); up through Latin America; yet I seem to retain some impression of an arrow lancing in from the Pacific. The point of mentioning this diagram is, however, the manner in which a characteristic side of Fitzgerald was revealed. He loved instructing. There was a schoolmasterly streak, a sudden enthusiasm, simplicity of exposition, qualities that might have offered a brilliant career as a teacher or lecturer at school or university.
Not only that, but the day Powell lunched with him, Fitzgerald began his scandalous affair with Sheilah Graham. Next is Ford Madox Ford:
Another Duckworth author, though only intermittently, was Ford Madox Ford. As the work of an old acquaintance, Gerald Duckworth was prepared to publish Ford's books from time to time, but they were not popular with Balston [a Duckworth director], who did not regard their small sales as redeemed by the author's undoubted interest in literary experiment. Ford's novels usually deal with a similar social level to those of Galsworthy, though Ford is far more aware of the paradoxes of human nature, the necessity, at that moment, of exploring new forms of writing. An immense self-pity—in general an almost essential adjunct of the bestseller—infected Ford adversely as a serious novelist, while at the same time for some reason never boosting his sales. His misunderstandings and sentimentalities on the subject of English life (half-German himself, he very nearly opted for German nationality just before 1914) make him always in some degree a foreigner, marvelling at an England that never was.
And, at length, George Orwell:
Orwell was in his way quite ambitious, I think, and had a decided taste for power; but his ambition did not run along conventional lines, and he liked his power to be of the éminence grise variety.That preference was no doubt partly owed to a sense of being in some manner cut off from the rest of the world; not allowed, as it were by an irresistible exterior influence, to enjoy more than very occasionally such few amenities as human existence provides. This did not prevent his strong will and natural shrewdness from making him an effective negotiator. Indeed, his genuine unworldliness—in the popular sense—was used by him with considerable effect when handling those who were rich or in authority. He would somehow unload on them the whole burden of his own guilt, until they groaned beneath its weight. He was not at all afraid of making himself disagreeable to persons whom he found, in their dealings with himself, disagreeable. "If editors, or people of that sort, tell you to alter things, or put you to a lot of trouble," he used to say, "always put them to trouble in return. It discourages them from making themselves awkward in the future."
It is interesting to speculate how Orwell's life would have developed had he survived as a very successful writer. The retirement to Jura, even at the preliminary warning signs of financial improvement, was probably symptomatic. Orwell, I suspect, could thrive only in comparative adversity. All the same, one can never foresee the effect of utterly changed circumstances. Prosperity might have produced unguessable alterations in himself and his work. It would inevitably have invested him with more complex forms of living; complications which, in accordance with his system, would have to be rationalized to himself, and weighed in the balance.
Orwell's gift was curiously poised, as suggested earlier, between politics and literature. The former both attracted and repelled him; the latter, close to his heart, was at the same time tainted with the odor of escape. He once said that he could not write a line without a specific purpose. On the other hand, so far as day to day politics were concerned, he could never have become integrated into any normal party machine....
He was easily bored. If a subject came up in conversation that did not appeal to him, he would make no effort to take it in; falling into a dejected silence, or jerking aside his head like a horse jibbing at a proffered apple. On the other hand, when Orwell's imagination was caught, especially by some idea, he would discuss that exhaustively. He was one of the most enjoyable people to talk with about books, full of parallels and quotations, the last usually far from verbally accurate....
The Orwell myth, now substantially launched in a shape scarcely amenable to modification, presents on the whole a tortured saint by El Greco (for whom Orwell would certainly have made an admirable model), a figure from whom all human qualities have been removed. Periodically fierce arguments rage as to precisely where he stood politically. I am not here concerned with that side of him, although it is worth remembering that it took courage—in that now largely forgotten post-war period, when Stalin was still being held up by the Left as a genial uncle—to fire an anti-Communist broadside like Animal Farm that placed a permanent dent in the whole Marxist structure; especially courageous on the part of a writer, himself of the Left, laying his professional reputation open to smear and boycott, which those he so devastatingly exposed hastened to set about.
The lovely Cinetrix took herself to see Little Miss Sunshine and confirms my strong preconception based on a viewing of the trailer: not so much indie-rific or indie-lightful as indie-rivative. (And. Can we talk about those terribominable Snickers ads that are dumbing up our freeways this summer and apparently causing me to write stuff like that? I mean, honestly: "Satisfectellent"? Tear them down now, please.)
Anyway, not only does the Cinetrix remove any lingering doubts I might have had about my summary dismissal of Little Miss Sunshine, she gives a welcome nod to a TT and OGIC fave from way back, The Daytrippers. We both liked this movie on general principles, but that Hope Davis-Parker Posey combo really hits Terry where he lives. Understandably enough—they're both wonderful actresses, and casting them as sisters was a truly inspired move.
UPDATE: Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe is on the case of Snickers' recent crimes against the English language:
Satisfectellent, similarly, is a monster mashup of an adjective. If it's satisfaction plus excellent, then what's the fect? And where's the X that excellent so badly needs? Fectellent sets the analogizing mind adrift in the realm of infection, repellent, and other not-so-XLNT associations. Still not salivating here!
Yep, I had insect repellent rattling around in my head after seeing that one, too. Messaging mission unaccomplished, I'd say.
"Dame Polly required but two things from the novelist's art, a rattling good yarn or a jolly good laugh. She declined to read books by girls of fifteen, proletarians or aliens, subtle evocations of childhood were thrown at cats in her garden, exquisitely sensitive portrayals of lunacy served as fuel for the boiler and a whole literature of protest by crazy mixed-up kids of forty-two lay cemented beneath the Chinese pagoda on the bank of her stream."
I know, the One Book meme is sooooo last week, but here I go anyway...
• One book that changed your life. I've blogged about it a lot already, but I'm going to say Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus. Maybe to say it changed my life is a little melodramatic, but I can say that it changed my sense of the possibilities of the realist novel. No, it changed my sense of the possibilities of language. Yes, language. I kept pinching myself while reading it—not literally, but you get the idea.
• One book that you’ve read more than once. A friend recently told me that he's reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time, and I realized that this is a condition I aspire to. In other words, I wanted for a second to claw his eyes out, but the second passed and I masked my jealous rage nicely, I thought. It used to be every Christmastime that I read P&P. Now my readings are further spaced out, every three or four years instead of every single one as I try (without hope) to regain a state of innocence vis-ŕ-vis this particular book. (Note: I'm in good company on this count.)
• One book you’d want on a desert island. I know what you think I'm going to say, but I'll take a fat blank book (and a supply of pens).
• One book that made you laugh. Randall Jarrell's campus satire Pictures from an Institution always makes me laugh, again and again, savagely. See for yourself: "If you had given a Benton student a pencil and a piece of paper, and asked her to draw something, she would have looked at you in helpless astonishment: it would have been plain to her that you knew nothing about art. By the time a Benton artist got through exploiting the possibilities of her medium, it was too dark to do anything else that day; and most of the students never learned that there was anything else to do." Etc., etc., ad infinitum.
• One book that made you cry.The Furies by Fernanda Eberstadt. The tragedy that ends this novel is shocking and sad, but what pushed me to tears was the terrible logic of it. (In addition, this book not being reprinted in paperback makes me want to cry. It's worth the price of the cloth edition, though.)
• One book that you wish had been written. A novel by Alice James. Don't you think she'd have given Henry a run for his money?
• One book that you wish had never been written. Just one? I'll get back to you on this. It may require a whole post.
• One book you’re currently reading. I'm still reading Anthony Powell, as reported here, and will be for some time. But for variety's sake I'll say that I'm also reading another Powell: Dawn Powell's Angels on Toast. After reading half and inexplicably putting it down a few years ago, I'm starting again at the beginning. This is no reflection on the book; I did the same thing with Anna Karenina three times before I finished it!
• One book you’ve been meaning to read. Proust's book. You know the one. And in French, no less. (I'm on page 3, so I'll still count this as an intention rather than underway.)
Now that I spend so much time on the road, I have to take my workouts where and when I can find them. That's why I went straight from Penn Station to my Upper West Side gym last Friday at eight-thirty, an hour when I'm usually sitting on the aisle of a Broadway theater. It felt more than a little bit weird. Manhattan is full of busy people whose schedules oblige them to operate at oblique angles to the clock, but even so, a gym still isn’t the sort of place where most of us care to be seen on a Friday night. I caught myself looking out of the corner of my eye at the other refugees from normal life who were taking exercise after hours, and wondered whether they in turn were looking at me and muttering to themselves, Poor guy, he can’t get a date! Smiling wryly, I inserted my Ultimate Ear in-ear monitors, fired up my iPod, and withdrew from the world for the next forty-five minutes, tugging violently at the handle of a rowing machine in order to defer for as long as possible my ultimate appointment with the distinguished thing.
I spent Saturday and Sunday chewing through a mountain of piled-up mail, straightening out my reviewing calendar, dining with Supermaud, and going to a couple of plays, one in Manhattan and the other in New Jersey. I was pleased to find in the mail a copy of the bound manuscript of Somewhere, Amanda Vaill's forthcoming biography of Jerome Robbins, and promptly set to reading it in between appointments. One of the pleasures of my line of work is that I get to read books like Somewhere prior to publication and listen to CDs in advance of their street dates. (In recent weeks I’ve been sampling a stack of preview copies of soon-to-be-released albums by Ani DiFranco, Bill Frisell, Roger Kellaway, Diana Krall, Audra McDonald, and Chris Thile.)
Just as I was getting ready to pick up a Zipcar on Saturday and drive out to Madison to see the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, I got a call from a TV producer who wanted to know whether I’d seen World Trade Center and would come to the studio to chat about it. “No and no,” I told her. As I mentioned in this space the other day, I haven’t gone to the movies since I got out of the hospital, and I saw no good reason to break that record for a movie about 9/11, no matter how fine it may be, and least of all in order to talk about it on TV. Most TV “conversations” are semi-staged pseudo-debates whose participants are picked with the intention of generating heat rather than shedding light. Me, I prefer radio, where you're occasionally allowed to speak without interruption for more than ten seconds in a row and there’s a pretty good chance that your interviewer doesn’t already know what you’re going to say.
Truth to tell, though, I didn’t really want to be doing much of anything at that particular moment. I love flying from city to city to see new shows, but I also like to spend a certain amount of time curled up on my living-room couch, looking at the Teachout Museum and thinking about nothing in particular. I’ve learned how to get things done on planes, trains, and buses, but they’re always going somewhere, and sometimes I prefer to be going nowhere.
I'm definitely going somewhere today: I have an appointment with my cardiologist, after which I'm headed for Connecticut, where I’ll spend the middle part of the week working on Hotter Than That. (Reading the manuscript of Somewhere whetted my creative edge.) I’ll be leaving the blog in the capable hands of Our Girl until Friday, so don’t be alarmed by my disappearance. On Friday it’s back to New York for The Fantasticks, Mr. Dooley’s America, and Fame Becomes Me. That’s my life, and I like it, usually.
Just in case you’re wondering, you’ll find me at the gym in between shows. Dead men write no books, nor do they get to curl up on their living-room couches and look lovingly at their lithographs. Given the alternative, I prefer sitting on a rowing machine and listening to my iPod. The Teachout Museum will keep.
UPDATE: Maud just blogged about her latest visit to the Teachout Museum. And my cardiologist (bless him) says I'm in the pink.
"He had plenty more drinks and then supped and retired early to bed, where for the first time for many many nights he enjoyed the kind of deep, refreshing slumber that little children have, and the very good, and the very wicked."
Friday again, and time for my weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser (posted by remote control from Chicago with the help of OGIC—I'm still on the road). I devoted most of this week's column to a rave review of the Irish Repertory Theatre's superlative production of Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come!:
Mr. Friel's play is, of course, a modern classic, one of the outstanding English-language plays of the postwar era. Written in 1964, it's a textbook example of how to take an over-familiar situation—the inability of a bright young man to communicate with his stolid, emotionally closed-off father—and make it blazingly fresh and immediate. In a stroke of ingenuity that only seems obvious in retrospect, Mr. Friel has split Gar, who is leaving “the land of the curlew and the snipe” to seek his fortune in far-off Philadelphia, into two people, one public (Michael FitzGerald), the other private (James Kennedy) and invisible save to his flesh-and-blood companion. It is the private Gar who gives voice to the public Gar's interior monologue, a “Lucky Jim”-like stream of frustrated, coruscating mockery directed at the hapless residents of the village in which he lives, and above all at his father, S.B. “Screwballs” O'Donnell (Edwin C. Owens), a gloomy widower who cannot bring himself to express his love and pride for the son he is about to lose….
I could go on and on about the cast, each member of which deserves a separate paragraph of lavish praise (though I mustn't fail to make particular mention of Mr. Owens, who triumphs in the daunting task of illuminating the soul of an all-but-inarticulate man). David Raphel's shabby décor is impeccably exact, right down to the cardboard suitcase into which Gar stuffs his earthly goods. As for the staging of Ciarán O'Reilly, the company's co-founder and producing director, it's so subtle as to be invisible: all you see is the play itself….
No link. To read the whole thing (which also contains a review of Lincoln Center Festival 2005's now-closed production of Yukio Mishima's Modern Noh Plays), buy a copy of Friday's Journal and turn to the “Weekend Journal” section, where you'll find all kinds of good stuff about matters artistic and cultural. Or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which I strongly recommend—it's one of the best deals in electronic journalism.
1. A dinner coat looks better than full dress.
2. There is as yet no law determining what constitutes trespass in an airplane.
3. Six hours of sleep are not necessary.
4. Bicarbonate of soda taken before retiring makes you feel better the next day.
5. You needn't be fully dressed if you wear a cap and gown to a nine-o'clock recitation.
6. Theater tickets may be charged.
7. Flowers may be charged.
8. May is the shortest month in the year.
Robert Benchley, "What College Did to Me"
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, August 4, 2005 | Permanent
“Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.”
Susan Sontag, On Photography
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, August 4, 2005 | Permanent
Wednesday, August 3, 2005
OGIC: Fortune cookie
Things I Learned Junior Year
1. Emerson left his pastorate because he had some argument about communion.
2. All women are untrustworthy.
3. Pushing your arms back as far as they will go fifty times each day increases your chest measurement.
4. Marcus Aurelius had a son who turned out to be a bad boy.
5. Eight hours of sleep are not necessary.
6. Heraclitus believed that fire was the basis of all life.
7. A good way to keep your trousers pressed is to hang them from the bureau drawer.
8. The chances are that you will never fill an inside straight.
9. The Republicans believe in a centralized government, the Democrats in a de-centralized one.
10. It is not necessarily effeminate to drink tea.
Robert Benchley, "What College Did to Me"
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, August 3, 2005 | Permanent
I'll try to check in tomorrow, and to answer my email too. Thanks for your patience in the meantime—the computer and air conditioner are in different rooms.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, August 3, 2005 | Permanent
I got up very, very early yesterday morning to write my Washington Post column for this Sunday, went to the gym, then staggered back home to write a piece about Me and You and Everyone We Know. I wrote four hundred words, then fell asleep at my desk. A few minutes later (at least I think it was a few minutes) I woke up and took a peek at the screen of my iBook. This is what I saw:
For the moment, though, American filmgoers remain trapped in a transitional perioddddddddddddddddddddddddddd
The funny part is that the first four hundred words were actually pretty good....
Never before have I fallen asleep in the middle of writing a piece, but in every other way the events of the past few days have been all too typical. This is what happens when I have too much to do in not enough time: I stay up too late, get up too early, and blog compulsively in between deadlines. That's the weird part. You'd think I wouldn't blog at all under such dire circumstances, but as soon as the adrenalin starts to flow, I reach for my iBook, and the only thing that will turn off the tap is sheer exhaustion.
I'm not done yet—I still have to finish the Me and You piece, write and file my Wall Street Journal drama column for this Friday, and correct the galleys of the Commentary essay I wrote on Monday morning—but at least the end really is in sight. The rest is silence: I have a rendezvous with a Zipcar. (I even remembered to buy sunblock for my left arm!) Our Girl will post my Friday drama-column teaser and such almanac entries as I manage to upload before hitting the road. Otherwise, you won't be hearing from me again until Monday.
See you later—and when you speak of me, speak well.
I knocked out nearly three thousand words for Commentary yesterday morning. One piece down, three to go, and then I'm soooo out of here...but I didn't forget about you, not even in the general welter of cash-generating activity. In addition to all the lovely bloglinks to be found immediately below, take a peek at the Top Fives and you'll find four brand-new picks. (I also put up a new "Teachout Elsewhere" item.)
Two weeks with a dialup connection left me starving for a nice long high-speed blogtroll as soon as I got back to New York. I just pulled my line out of the water, and here's some of what I fished up:
• To start with, I stumbled across two very different responses to my recent postings from Smalltown, U.S.A., penned by a pair of preferred bloggers.
• Mr. Gurgling Cod quotes one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite books:
I have eaten bouillabaisse at Marseilles, its cradle and its temple, in my youth, when I was easier to move, and it is mere belly-fodder, ballast for a stevedore, compared with its namesake at New Orleans!
Guess who? (Hint: his favorite color is yellow.)
• Jonathan Yardley reconsiders another of my favorite books, and finds it better than ever. Me, too:
I came back from my trip with enough money to order me another pair of swans. They are on their way from Miami and Mr. Hood, the incumbent swan, little suspects that he is going to have to share his feed dish. He eats out of a vase, as a matter of fact, and has a private dining room. Since his wife died, he has been in love with the bird bath. Typical Southern sense of reality.
No one else but the party in question could possibly have written that paragraph.
• Speaking of southerners, Mr. Godsbody takes the TCCI and has a belated epiphany: Johnny Mercer really is better than Cole Porter. (Told you so.)
• Everyone I know who cares about the state of American film is talking about this interview with David Thomson, the best of all possible film critics:
I think what we're talking about here is a much bigger, much sadder problem, which is that the mainstream of American movies has been terribly disappointing in recent years. The question that faces anyone who loves the medium is whether this is a cyclical thing—a passing dip, so to speak—or whether there might be something much more worrying. I notice that the business itself is beginning to get quite anxious about declining attendance: There has been a big drop-off [in ticket sales] this year. And God knows how much bigger it would have been but for the final Star Wars film. If we didn't have that film—which I think gives a sort of artificial boost to the figures—the first six months of this year would be pretty gloomy. There's a lot of evidence to suggest two things—which could, in fact, be working [in tandem]: that films don't mean as much to audiences anymore, and that they don't mean as much to filmmakers anymore, either….
• On a cheerier note, stop the presses—drive-in theaters are back! Read all about it here.
• Messrs. 2 Blowhards start off with foie gras and end up with this trenchant meditation on an irritating aspect of the American national character:
Perhaps what drives some Americans around the bend is our native tendency to ignore, repress, or deny the aesthetic dimension of life. We debate it. We politicize it. We get literal-minded and pretend not to know what's being talked about.
Being a gung-ho, hard-charging people, we sometimes exploit the aesthetic dimension. We often seem to want to use the promise of satisfaction and/or transcendence to spur ourselves on. We often prefer not-quite-attaining satisfaction to the actual experience of satisfaction. We take our legitimate yearnings and channel them into self-help, into new products that promise to solve problems, into hard-driving ad campaigns, into fantasies of stardom, and into crazy beliefs ranging from New Age cults to the conviction that somewhere there's a job that will make me happy. It's as though we're determined to frustrate ourselves. We doom ourselves to not making it to where we say we want to be….
I think this also explains a lot about some of the deficiencies of American art at its message-driven worst. Our Puritan strain is never very far below the surface.
• Mr. Playgoer explains why there's no point in fixing Broadway, least of all by starting a National Theatre...
• …Mr. Modern Art Notes explains how to avoid crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art…
• …and Jeff "BuzzMachine" Jarvis (who understands new media better than just about anyone) explains why TV Guide's decision to drop local listings is “an important moment in the history of TV, pop culture, and publishing."
• Speaking of the end of the world, Greg Sandow tells off a classical-music advocate:
A while ago, I heard someone give a keynote speech about classical music, and why it deserves a bigger audience. He was lively, smart, impassioned, witty, a master (among much else) of unstoppable one-liners.
And yet nearly everything he said was wrong. He talked about the superiority of classical music, and about how much our culture needs it. “Everything else is loud!” he said (or words to that effect). We're mezzo-forte music in a fortissimo culture.” Only classical music, he said, gave people room for thought and reflection.
• The apocalypse continues: Ms. Killin' Time Being Lazy proves her literary snobbery by turning up her nose at amazon.com's Top 25 Authors. (Talk about depressing lists!)
• Finally, Mr. Rifftides describes a great CD you've never heard...
• ...and Alex Ross pays a tribute to the late David Diamond, one of America's least sufficiently appreciated composers, that is a miracle of journalistic compression. It says everything that needed to be said in two crisp paragraphs. Read, then listen.
“To write what you are interested in writing and to succeed in getting editors to pay for it, is a feat that may require pretty close calculation and a good deal of ingenuity. You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings; you have to develop a resourcefulness at pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitous subjects; and you have to acquire a technique of slipping over on the routine of editors the deeper independent work which their over-anxious intentness on the fashions of the month or the week have conditioned them automatically to reject.”
Edmund Wilson (quoted in Louis Menand, “Missionary,” The New Yorker, Aug. 8 and15, 2005)
1. A good imitation of measles rash can be effected by stabbing the forearm with a stiff whisk-broom.
2. Queen Elizabeth was not above suspicion.
3. In Spanish you pronounce z like th.
4. Nine-tenths of the girls in a girls' college are not pretty.
5. You can sleep undetected in a lecture course by resting the head on the hand as if shadng the eyes.
6. Weakness in drawing technique can be hidden by using a wash instead of black and white line.
7. Quite a respectable bun can be acquired by smoking three or four pipefuls of strong tobacco when you have no food in your stomach.
8. The ancient Phoenicians were really Jews, and got as far north as England where they operated tin mines.
9. You can get dressed much quicker in the morning if the night before when you are going to bed you take off your trousers and underdrawers at once, leaving the latter inside the former.
From Louis Menand's essay on Edmund Wilson in the current New Yorker:
Wilson did not engage well with literature at the level of the text. He was also not at ease or reliable at the meta-level. He had a journalist’s suspicion of abstractions, and he did not think theoretically. When he tried for the broad view—when he undertook to explain the demise of verse as a literary technique, or to describe the alternation of periods of realism with periods of romanticism in modern literature, or to interpret art as compensation for a psychic “wound”—his criticism got reductive very quickly. But he was unsurpassed at the level of the writer and the work. When he gives his tour through “Das Kapital” or “Finnegans Wake” (a book he was excited by) or “Doctor Zhivago” (which he also admired extravagantly), it is as though the book’s interior had suddenly been lit up by a thousand-watt bulb. Even readers who thought they already knew the book can see things that they missed, and they realize how partial and muddled their sense of it really was. And the hyper-clarity of the description is complemented by a complete grasp of the corpus, each of the writer’s strengths and flaws laid out with juridical precision, no matter how large or problematic the body of work. The result is something better than microscopic analysis; anyone can look through a microscope. The result is a satellite picture....
One of the reasons why I like this description so much (other than that it's perfect) is that it also sums up some of the things I try to do in my own writing, which was deeply influenced by Wilson's back in the days when I was setting up shop as a critic a quarter-century ago. I don't read him much anymore, partly because I once read him so closely that I remember his work too well. But Menand's essay has created in me a fresh appetite for revisiting Wilson, which strikes me as one of the essential attributes of a great piece of literary journalism.
1. Charlemagne either died or was born or did something with the Holy Roman Empire in 800.
2. By placing one paper bag inside another paper bag you can carry home a milk shake in it.
3. There is a double l in the middle of "parallel."
4. Powder rubbed on the chin will take the place of a shave if the room isn't very light.
5. French nouns ending in "aison" are feminine.
6. Almost everything you need to know about a subject is in the encyclopedia.
7. A tasty sandwich can be made by spreading peanut butter on raisin bread.
8. A floating body displaces its own weight in the liquid in which it floats.
9. A sock with a hole in the toe can be worn inside out with comparative comfort.
10. The chances are against filling an inside straight.
11. There is a law in economics called The Law of Diminishing Returns, which means that after a certain margin is reached returns begin to diminish. This may not be correctly stated, but there is a law by that name.
12. You begin tuning a mandolin with A and tune the other strings from that.
So the big orange bible, otherwise known as the Chicago Manual of Style, has its own Web site, complete with questions answers from the editors. Which raises the question: how big a blue-pencil-wielding geek am I? Sizable enough, it turns out, to have read through the entire archive of questions and answers during the last week like a junkie. Yes, it's exactly that bad. But the CMS editors made it easy on me; they address everything thrown at them with clarity, good grace, and considerable wit, making for some surprisingly diverting reading—if, you know, you're a giant blue-pencil-wielding GEEK. Say it with me: One of us! Gobble Gobble!
Send them your burning style question, or just browse the archives for some excellent advice:
Although the sign was incorrect, I’m not sure you should annoy the person who provides the enchiladas.
I'm a huge fan of and proselytizer for the Elmore Leonard-Steven Soderbergh match-made-in-heaven Out of Sight. If someone enters my home not having seen this movie, they find it a tricky thing to leave in the same pure state. My own capacity to watch it has shown no signs of shrinking. So I was gratified to see Quiet Bubble's smart appreciation (thanks to CultureSpace for the pointer). Quoth Bubble:
All of the dialogue, in fact, sings. Since the movie is based on an Elmore Leonard novel, this isn’t a surprise. Soderbergh plants great running jokes that build on themselves, so that the payoff for a joke often comes twenty minutes after its inception. Narrative twists and character revelations percolate, so that you have a firm sense of a character’s nature and the space s/he takes up in the movie. Even Zahn, the clear buffoon of the movie, is introduced through a hilarious phone conversation between Clooney and his ex-wife (Catherine Keener)—we’re prepared for him long before we actually see him.
The Miami of the movie’s first half is drenched in sunlit oranges and pastel yellows, and the camera saunters like the overcooked populace. As the plot gets (slightly) darker in tone, so does the color tone. Out of Sight’s Detroit, cast in sludgy brown ice and stark blue hues, feels cold and foreboding. The contrast between the two cities is striking, and the film blessedly doesn’t try to make them move in visually similar ways.
When Clooney and Lopez sip bourbon and flirt wantonly in a hotel bar, however, the two strains come together beautifully. Lopez’s honey-skinned face, candlelit and lovely, looks out a window at white snowflakes and their pale blue reflections on the glass—they blend into the city’s night lights so that I can’t tell the difference between the two. It’s a gorgeous scene, most of all because it shows that Soderbergh could have made Detroit look warm and friendly, but decided not to.
Check, check, and check. What a luxury to have one's own taste validated and explicated.
I slept for nine hours Saturday night—the first really good night's sleep I'd had in two weeks. Outside of going to see Yukio Mishima's Modern Noh Plays at the Lincoln Center Festival, I spent the whole day digging myself out from under two weeks' worth of accumulated mail, finishing at one-thirty in the morning. Then I set to the agreeable task of returning my Upper West Side apartment to its normally pristine state. By the time I finally climbed into the loft and turned out the light, the two dozen pictures that hang on my walls were straightened and the piles of Louis Armstrong-related books on the floor of my office neatly squared off (my cleaning woman doesn't believe in right angles). My drama calendar was up to date and the incoming mail had all been read, sorted, and filed, save for a beautifully penned, much-appreciated letter from the West Coast that I put aside to savor at my leisure. It was pure pleasure to arise the next day knowing that the natural order of things had been restored.
Now comes the greater challenge of completing the work I left undone during my visit to Smalltown, U.S.A. I managed to do a certain amount of writing while I was home, but not much. As of this moment I have to finish three and a half pieces and see a play and an art exhibit between now and noon on Wednesday, when the last piece, my drama column for this Friday's Wall Street Journal, comes due. Then I'll pick up a Zipcar
from the garage around the corner and vanish for three days. I know where I'm going, but nobody else does, and I mean to keep it that way. The world is too much with me, a disorder for which I've prescribed the best of all possible cures, the sound of running water. I hate to wish time away, but I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to picking up that car and driving over the George Washington Bridge to parts unknown (except to me and my innkeepers).
Like I said, I'll be around between now and then, and I'll probably even do some blogging, though not right away—today is likely to be a trifle hectic. But come Wednesday at noon, I'm shutting the shop down and handing the keys to OGIC. If I pass you on the highway, don't tell anybody you saw me.
The day that some old friend
Said something sad about you,
I knew right then
I was no longer mad about you.
For I'd always gone to pieces
At the mention of your name,
But all that I could say this time was,
"Isn't that a shame?"
Sue Miller and Alice Hoffman are critical darlings and big sellers, and for the most part the novels they released this year have been typically warmly received. I review these books, Lost in the Forest and The Ice Queen, in today's Chicago Tribune and find neither quite what it's cracked up to be: one of them disappointed me substantially, the other vastly. Read all about it here.
Why do we read? "General principles!" my dad would say. Can't argue with that. But over at Erin O'Connor's Critical Mass, they're getting a little more specific. Erin and her readers are having a lively discussion about some issues raised in Mark Edmundson's New York Times Magazineessay from last week, "The Risk of Reading." Edmundson's is the latest, and I think the best, of a recent flurry of big-media articles springing from discontent with the more insipid varieties of book boosterism. (Christina Nehring's NYTBRpiece last month was another.) In the process of addressing the issues Edmundson raises—principally, "Why read?"—Erin recalls a great scene from Cynthia Ozick:
I am reminded of a passage from Cynthia Ozick's Puttermesser Papers, in which the eponymous heroine dreams about a heaven that consists of an eternity spent reading an unending stack of books while consuming an inexhaustible supply of chocolate. It's an image of consumption without consequence (Puttermesser's teeth will never rot, she will never grow fat), cost (in paradise, the books are free, chocolate is free, and there is all the time in the world), or return (Puttermesser never aims to talk about what she reads, or to share her books with others, or to write something herself, or even to stop consuming long enough to digest what she has read). Ozick's portrait of a reader's paradise is a picture of indiscriminate gobbling, and as such it is both profoundly anti-social and massively regressive: book as breast. It's a funny image—but in its sheer extremity it reveals a lot about how readers, and reading, are often regarded in a society that is as wrapped up in the display of work and work-related social performances as ours is.
Erin then raises the following questions for her readers:
How social is reading? Is it an isolating, anti-social activity, or is it, in its quiet way, a profoundly communal act? Is there a value merely in the act of reading, independent of content? If so, how would you describe that value? Why read? Why do you personally read—or, why do you personally not read?
Their answers are illuminating. Hop on over and put your two cents in.
A Boy at the Hogarth Press is Richard Kennedy's slender, unassuming memoir of the time he spent working at Leonard Woolf's publishing house in 1928, when Kennedy was sixteen. As the flap copy has it:
He provides a delightful glimpse into the everyday comings and goings of the Bloomsbury Group and an affectionate recollection of Leonard and Virginia Woolf at work; and, like Lely's portrait of Cromwell, this record does not omit the warts.
"Affectionate" may be going a bit far. Both Woolfs come off here as more than a little cold, self-absorbed, and even absurd. Bevis Hillier, who provided the book's brief introduction, notes:
[Kennedy] was of no consequence to the paladins of Bloomsbury. There was no reason to exercise their wit and charm on him. He saw them at their most unguarded and least artificial. That is what makes his account so fascinating.
And it is, both as a irreverent sketch of Leonard and Virginia and as a glimpse of coterie publishing in 1920s London. It takes the form of a diary, despite having been written forty years after the fact, and Kennedy nicely captures the breezy capriciousness that can characterize both diary-writing and sixteen-year-old boys.
Here's a taste:
I went to supper with the Woolfs. We had strawberries and cream. Mrs W was in a very happy mood. She said she had been to a nightclub the night before and how marvellous it was inventing new foxtrot steps. I thought LW's back looked a bit disapproving as he was dishing out the strawberries. The other guest was George Rylands, a very good-looking young man who had worked for the Woolfs before going to university. We were publishing a book by him called Words and Poetry and McKnight Kauffer had done a design for the cover. George Rylands egged Mrs W on to talk about how much she enjoyed kicking up her heels. I couldn't help feeling a little shocked.
Some people came in with huge bundles of flowers to give her. They had been commissioned to write an article about dirt-track racing. As they were very hard up, they were very anxious to get the job, but the editor had turned down their manuscripts. Mrs W had come to their rescue and written a description of the sport, in which she had compared the roaring machines and the arc lights to a medieval tournament.
Some more people came in after supper. Mrs Woolf started rolling her shag cigarettes. She gave one to an American lady who nearly choked to death.
She started talking about the Hogarth Press in a way that I thought didn't please LW very much, saying it was like keeping a grocer's shop. I think she is rather cruel in spite of the kind rather dreamy way she looks at you. She described Mrs Cartwright as having the step of an elephant and the ferocity of a tiger, which gives a very false impression as Ma Cartwright has no ferocity at all, although she does charge about everywhere. She also described her sliding down the area steps on her bottom, during the frost.
I consider it bad form to laugh at your employees.
All goes well enough until the young Kennedy makes a mistake that gums up Hogarth's plans for a uniform edition of a Very Important Author: Virginia Woolf herself.
LW had returned from Rodmell in a towering rage. Apparently the whole Uniform Edition project has been ruined by me because I have unwittingly instructed Spalding & Hodge to cut the paper the wrong size.
LW brought back a number of sacks of apples and potatoes from Rodmell and I tried to help him hump them up the stairs, but he would not accept any assistance from me. He refuses to speak to me. He had Gossling in and gave him a terrific tongue lashing. Gossling's cheeks went quite pale.
I suppose I have really got the sack. LW says I can't be trusted to do anything but wrap up parcels and that I am the most frightful idiot he has ever had the privilege of meeting in a long career of suffering fools.
I know, I know: beware the testimony of bitter, sacked employees. What made me trust Kennedy's account, though, is that he doesn't pretend to have been better than his famous employers. His faults and foibles are less magnified than theirs because they aren't indulged by everyone around him. But the narrator of this diary is generally callow, petty, insecure, and just plain clueless. Because Kennedy is not at all invested in making his younger self seem very likable or reliable, it's paradoxically easier to credit his unsparing portraits of others. When I finished the book I wasn't thinking "Oh, nasty Woolfs" so much as "Oh, foolish humans." A Boy at the Hogarth Press is a nifty little book, and of course a must-read for Bloomsbury fans.
NEW YORK, NY: August 5, 2004 – The 92nd Street Y has named jazz pianist and Blue Note recording artist Bill Charlap artistic director of the Jazz in July festival, beginning in the summer of 2005. Dick Hyman, the pianist and arranger who has held the post since the festival’s founding in 1985, announced in May that he was stepping down after 20 years. He will continue to direct the Y’s annual winter jazz program, Jazz Piano at the Y.
Mr. Hyman enthusiastically endorsed Charlap, who has performed at the festival many times over the last 15 years. Says Hyman, "I can’t think of anyone better suited to help move Jazz in July into the next phase of its life than Bill Charlap. He is a tremendously talented pianist and musician who has a terrific relationship with the 92nd Street Y audience. He is also an accomplished musical director who has recorded and performed extensively with his own trio."…
Charlap plans to retain Jazz in July’s focus on traditional and mainstream jazz and the festival’s commitment to presenting New York’s best jazz performers, with some new variations. His preliminary plans include tributes to George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Nat "King" Cole; an evening devoted to – and featuring – a jazz elder statesman whose life and work link his musical generation and influences with the current crop of players; Charlap’s own version of what has become a staple of Jazz in July, the annual "piano party," with a half-dozen pianists representing a wide range of styles; and an evening of small-group, "hard-bop" ‘50s and ‘60s jazz featuring the compositions of Kenny Dorham (1924-1972) and Horace Silver (b. 1928). The performers will be a mix of Jazz in July regulars and Charlap colleagues new to the festival.
As I mentioned yesterday, Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes posted a list of his ten favorite painters as of that moment, and invited other artbloggers to do the same. (Here’s the followup posting.)
I usually jump at the chance to make lists of this kind, but for some inexplicable reason I found this one paralyzing. My ten favorite painters of all time? Ever? No sooner did I start typing names than I clutched—but I still wanted to play. So I decided instead to do something that is both easier and, in a way, potentially more revealing. Here’s a complete list of the artists represented in the Teachout Museum:
• Milton Avery (drypoint)
• William Bailey (aquatint with hard ground etching)
• Max Beerbohm (drawing with watercolor wash)
• Nell Blaine (one color lithograph, one painted tile)
• Pierre Bonnard (black-and-white lithograph)
• Stuart Davis (color serigraph)
• Helen Frankenthaler (color serigraph)
• Jane Freilicher (aquatint with hard ground etching)
• Arnold Friedman (black-and-white lithograph)
• Wolf Kahn (monotype)
• Alex Katz (color lithograph)
• John Marin (etching)
• Joan Mitchell (color lithograph)
• Fairfield Porter (four color lithographs)
• Paul Taylor (assemblage)
• John Twachtman (etching)
• Neil Welliver (woodcut)
• Jane Wilson (pastel)
What do I long for most that isn't there? A Vuillard color lithograph, a Hans Hofmann print (that one got away, too), a Kenneth Noland monoprint, and something good (but affordable) by Richard Diebenkorn. As of this moment, anyway.
As regular readers know, I saw two out-of-town plays last week, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center, and Noël Coward’s Design for Living, performed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. I wrote about both in this morning’s Wall Street Journal—enthusiastically.
First, The Glass Menagerie, in which everything and everybody was good:
The Kennedy Center’s "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival, which struck out last month with an unevenly cast "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," has covered itself in glory with Gregory Mosher’s spare, unmannered production of "The Glass Menagerie." It’s a winner in every way—not least because of Sally Field. Miscast movie stars have killed many a promising show, most recently last year’s Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," in which Ashley Judd crashed and fizzled. But Ms. Field, brief though her stage resume may be (she made her Broadway debut just two years ago in Edward Albee’s "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?"), plays the famously difficult role of Amanda Wingfield not in the overbearing fashion of a slumming celebrity but with the simplicity and directness of a true artist.
It helps, of course, that "The Glass Menagerie" is Williams’ best play—to my mind, the only first-rate thing he wrote—and that Ms. Field is but one part of an evenly matched ensemble. I wish I had three times as much space in which to rave about Jason Butler Harner (Tom), Jennifer Dundas (Laura) and Corey Brill (the Gentleman Caller), each of whom brings something uniquely personal to Williams’ autobiographical portrait of three lost souls trapped in a shabby St. Louis apartment, longing to change their pinched, cramped lives. For that matter, I’m half tempted to say that John Lee Beatty’s set, a desert island of dark-brown drabness fenced in by rusty fire escapes and lit by the glaring neon signs of movie houses and dance halls, is as much the star of the show as any of the actors….
Design for Living had one weak link, but otherwise it was a delight:
Campbell Scott, who hasn’t been seen on Broadway since 1988 (he’s been busy making such fine films as "The Secret Lives of Dentists"), gives a performance worthy of Alfred Lunt, who created the role of Otto in 1933. Cracker-crisp and coolly witty, he hits the bull’s-eye with every punch line. As Leo, Steven Weber makes no attempt to imitate Coward, opting instead for a Bertie Woosterish silly-ass tone that plays off nicely against Mr. Scott’s suavity. Marisa Tomei, alas, is never quite right as Gilda—she seems at times to be doing Katharine Hepburn, and not very believably, either—but she’s sufficiently decorative and doesn’t get in the way. Stir in suitably elaborate sets by Hugh Landswehr and a solid supporting cast (Jack Gilpin is especially good as Ernest) and what do you get? Pure pleasure….
No link, so if you want to know what else I had to say, either buy today’s Journal or subscribe to the online edition by going here.
"He is a man who has lied and dissembled, and a man who has crawled. He knows the taste of boot-polish. He has suffered kicks in the tonneau of his pantaloons. He has taken orders from his superiors in knavery and he has wooed and flattered his inferiors in sense. His public life is an endless series of evasions and false pretenses. He is willing to embrace any issue, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principle, however sound, that will lose them for him. I do not describe the democratic politician at his inordinate worst; I describe him as he is encountered in the full sunshine of normalcy. He may be, on the one hand, a cross-roads idler striving to get into the State Legislature by grace of the local mortgage-sharks and evangelical clergy, or he may be, on the other, the President of the United States. It is almost an axiom that no man may make a career in politics in the Republic without stooping to such ignobility: it is as necessary as a loud voice."
Parabasis took part in the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, and has now posted on his blog a long report about his experiences there. It’s a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in the state of American theater.
I especially liked this item:
Writers and directors are slowly starting to be more honest about their antipathy towards each other. It sort of seems to break down like this—directors feel shackled by writers and writers feel exploited by directors. To directors, a production is just one production and the text is a living document not a closed system, so doing something other than what’s in the stage directions or the writers’ head is not only okay but might be devoutly to be wished. To writers, a play might be alive, but the writer is the only one who has to live with it after the director and actors are done with it. One visiting artist put it best when he said, "When you’re doing the first production, you should do make the playwright’s vision come to life. But after that, you shouldn’t be constantly reviving the same version of a show. Then the show is dead. Like how Streetcar is dead because everyone is essentially doing Kazan’s version." I think I’m growing to agree with that assessment. The problem is, so many directors’ visions are bad.
Medved had on his show a fellow who wants people to make new sex partners promise not to vote for Bush in exchange for hot monkey love. Or something like that. He insists that this is just a means of "starting the conversation," which I hear from artists all the time. As if we’re all just standing here making mute gestures and shrugging, unable to discuss something unless the idea is put forth in Handy Art Form. He also wanted to "remind us of the connection between politics and sex," which officially made him the most dreary fellow I’d heard so far this week. These people always want to remind us of the connection between politics and everything. Politics and hot dogs. (Work conditions in the slaughterhouse!) Politics and lawn mowers. (Illegals keep our grass short!) Politics and Smurf fetishes. Politics and nose picking. It all goes back to that phrase I hated the first time I heard it - the personal is the political. No, the personal is the personal. I remember sitting in a booth at the Valli arguing with someone about the political implications of Mozart – he made music for the ruling class, ergo you had to see it in the context of 18th century Esterhazy intrigue, etc. etc. What an impoverished view of the world. These people can’t play "Chopsticks" on the piano without worrying whether they’re feeding into some Yellow Peril stereotype from the gilded age. Hey! It’s a pentatonic tune! Chinese music is pentatonic! Chinese culture uses chopsticks! It’s OKAY!…
(For further thoughts on this subject, see yesterday’s almanac entry.)
On Monday I was thinking out loud about how an art-loving New Yorker might seek to profit from the knowledge that terrorists were planning to attack his home town in the near future:
It happens that my life was turned inside out in all sorts of ways in the immediate wake of 9/11, but no matter what fears I found myself facing, I almost always managed sooner or later to slip out of the fearful present and immerse myself in the blessed world of art, responding all the more passionately because of my renewed consciousness of life’s brevity. Strange that it so often takes a catastrophe, whether personal or public, to make you face a fact that was no less true on 9/10, or 9/12.
So what did I do when I heard the news on Sunday afternoon? I threw myself into correcting the page proofs of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, which had arrived in the mail shortly before I left town for a long weekend of playgoing in Massachusetts and Washington. In a sense, I didn’t have much choice—the corrections were due on Monday—but it still struck me as odd that I should have been pouring so much mental energy into so mundane a task in the midst of an orange alert. Granted, it wasn’t as if I’d just been told that I’d be hanged the next day, but even so, correcting my proofs somehow seemed an unsuitable response to the news I’d just received.
On the other hand, what should I have been doing? Listening prayerfully to Das Lied von der Erde or the Schubert Cello Quintet? Reading a never-before-read classic—or, alternatively, rereading an especially beloved one? Looking at and meditating on the contents of the Teachout Museum? What would you do if you knew you had only a day to live? A week? A year? If a piece of unfinished work rested reproachfully on your desk, would you feel obliged to finish it? If you knew you couldn’t get it done in the time remaining, would you try to do as much as you could? Or would you put it aside, smiling wryly at the vanity of human wishes, and spend your last hours communing with better minds than your own?
I wish I could say I stopped to ask myself one or more of these questions, but I didn’t. When duty calls, philosophy must wait. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work, and at some point in the middle of the night I corrected the last page of All in the Dances, e-mailed my changes to the San Diego office of Harcourt, Inc., put the proofs aside, and fell into bed, there to sleep fitfully for what remained of Sunday night and Monday morning.
Needless to say, no truck bombs exploded in Manhattan on Monday, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time since then reflecting on first and last things. It occurred to me somewhere along the way that I’d just learned a valuable lesson about my personal priorities, one neither good nor bad but simply revealing. After all, I don’t have any illusions about All in the Dances. It’s a short critical biography of a great choreographer, not a philosophical treatise, and while I do think it’s a damned good book, I can’t imagine that it’ll be read a hundred years hence, nor would I dream of suggesting that its publication will help make the world a significantly better place. So why did I work so hard on it at what might reasonably have been thought to be an inappropriate time? Because I believe deeply in the ennobling sanctity of craft. Because I agree with Ecclesiastes’ preacher: Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might. Because it’s mine.
I was watching Howard Hawks’ Red River yesterday afternoon, a film in which John Wayne has occasion to "read from the Book" over the grave of a man he has just shot to death. He says what movie cowboys usually say on such grim occasions: "We brought nothing into this world, and it's certain we can carry nothing out." As the Duke spoke those words, I looked up from the TV screen at the prints hanging on the wall of my living room. I can’t take them with me, either, and though I’ve arranged to leave them to friends in the event of my death, those well-laid plans would very likely go awry if terrorists struck anywhere near my Upper West Side apartment. Were I to flee for my life, I might possibly think to cram my smallest work of art, a painted tile by Nell Blaine, into my shoulder bag—but probably not. More likely I’d lock the door, run like hell, and never see any of the Teachout Museum again.
Is it, then, a foolish vanity for me to be correcting proofs and collecting art at a time like this? Or is it a pledge of allegiance to the dual republic of beauty and craft? "Art, which resists decay, and the summer lightning of happy love, are all that we can cling to in our lives." So said Alexander Herzen, and I think he was pretty close to the mark. Perhaps nobody will care to read All in the Dances a hundred years hence, but now that I’ve finished correcting the proofs, Harcourt can and will bring it out even if I get blown up by a truck bomb or choke on a piece of steak, thereby making it possible for somebody, somewhere, to read my posthumously published words and be inspired to go see his first Balanchine ballet. That's a good thing, don't you think? And as for the Teachout Museum, it may indeed be destroyed by fire or picked over by looters, but until that dread day it will continue to give pleasure to me and to my guests—and, should it survive me, to my heirs and assigns.
At any rate, I’m finished with All in the Dances. Or, to be exact, almost finished. I still have to write the dust-jacket copy and sign off on the photo insert. Just two more things to do, both of which could be omitted in a pinch, and my next book can go to press. Ecclesiastes’ preacher had something to say about that, too: And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. He sure got that right.
It’s been way too long since I conducted a tour of the blogosphere. Even when I was feeling thoroughly crappy (i.e., yesterday), I continued to surf the Web and bookmark cool stuff I found along the way. Here's some of it:
• Eat your hearts out, film buffs: Celluloid Eyes has a great list of "movies I am dying to rent/own on DVD and cannot" because (gnashing of teeth) they aren’t available on DVD. As she remarks in passing:
Many of these hard-to-find movies are my favorite kind of movie: those delightful, witty, frothy, often surprisingly relevant, sometimes surprisingly naughty American movies from the 1930s.
Why hasn’t anybody told me about this blog?
• Zoilus gleans this Elvis Costello quote from the New York Times:
"You're kidding yourself if you believe it when people say, `Oh, that's a political song,' " Mr. Costello said. "No. A political song is one that if you played it to Donald Rumsfeld, he would give up his career and enter a monastery. That would be a political song — one that affected him so deeply that he would renounce his view of the world. I don't think anybody alive is capable of writing that song. So all you're doing is writing things that matter to you."
To which he appends numerous disagreements, concurrences, and amplifications, among them:
Costello's right, though, that some sort of potentially transformative experience should at least be nosing around the edges of a properly political song - political speech is primarily persuasive, right? And I think…that in art the best mode of persuasion is empathetic, to bring the audience through the experiences that shape the point of view rather than to argue the point of view. (Does arguing ever do anything ever?)
• From the Daily Telegraph by way of artsjournal.com, our invaluable host, a smart interview with Stephen Sondheim on the latest London revival of Sweeney Todd:
I remember when I was at college, one of the English professors made what seems an obvious point, but it wasn't obvious to me at the age of 17, that one of the things that keeps Hamlet alive is that every generation brings something new to the performance. It isn't just the poetry; it's that every time you do Hamlet you can take a different view of it - and that's what keeps theatre alive.
With musicals, the audience tend to want to see what they've seen before. Whereas people who go to Hamlet want to see something different.
• I love smart lists, and my super-smart artsjournal.com colleague Tyler Green, who blogs at Modern Art Notes, has published a fine one:
Here are my ten favorite artists. Or at least my ten favorite artists as of when I typed this. And to make this an even sillier exercise, I'll give a one-word summary of what I like best about each artist….
Go see for yourself. Four of Tyler’s listees would either make my list or come damned close. One of them makes me run screaming from the room.
• Speaking of lead-with-the-chin lists, Alex Ross, the classical music critic of The New Yorker, has posted a list of 20 non-classical albums he loves (or, as he says, "an irrational series of powerful attractions") on his blog, The Rest Is Noise. I like or love 11 of them. One of these days I’ll see Alex and raise him….
• And speaking of The New Yorker, did you see John Updike’s essay about Philip Larkin? It contains this beautifully balanced pair of clauses: "Larkin, though modest in manner and production, achieved major eloquence and formal perfection…"
• Advertising can be deceptive—both ways. On my recent visit to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, I spent the night at the Porches Inn, which is located right across the street from MASS MoCA (the too-cute acronym for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). I loved Porches and intend to stay there again whenever I return to the festival, but had I read this description on the inn’s Web site, I might well have thought twice, or maybe even three times, about checking in:
Porches is the most visible manifestation, to-date, of the changes sparked by MASS MoCA. Its 50-plus rooms of retro-edgy, industrial granny chic ambiance make a spirited lodging statement in New England and beyond.
That’s got to be a prime candidate for Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner.
• Memo to Frank Lloyd Wright buffs: have you stayed here yet?
• The Buck Stops Here has a lovely little tribute to the sheer niceness of classical guitarist Christopher Parkening. I suspect—I hope—that a lot of us have similarly sweet stories about similarly thoughtful celebrities. I know I do.
• One of the participants in Michael Dirda’s recent Washington Post online chat turns out to have been a fan of this blog and several of its brethren. Dirda thinks the Web is incompatible with "bookishness." The chatter begged to differ:
One of the most delightful and unexpected developments on the WWW in the last year or so is the development of a community of literary blogs. These are creating a very real conversation about serious books, including many of those serious books that only infrequently are reviewed in the WP and NYT (and even then are often confined to the genre-ghetto roundups).
Some of my favourites: Terry Teachout occasionally takes a break from reviewing art and plays to write about the very particular joys of reading Donald Westlake. Teresa Nielsen Hayden, an editor at Tor books has a long-standing blog covering inter alia publishers' slushpiles, pygmy mammoths and sf fandom. It's a small gem -- well worth browsing the archives. Jessa Crispin's Bookslut is an indispensable source of literary gossip and astute judgements on the merits of recent releases. Maud Newton's taste in literature is eclectic but unfailingly good, while her writing style is both direct and elegant. Scott McLemee -- an authority on obscure Marxist sects, Dale Peck and the MLA. All considered, there's never been a better time to seek out good, interesting conversation about books.
To which Dirda, a columnist for Washington Post Book World, replied:
I'm glad you disagree with me, and your tastes in blogs is certainly discriminating, if only because I'm a great Westlake fan (having reviewed him frequently and interviewed him onstage at the Smithsonian). But, despite this chat, I personally find that the Internet sucks up too much time. I enjoy doing this for an hour a week; indeed, might enjoy it for an hour a day. But I'm fundamentally a loner and my communing tends to be with books and their authors rather than my fellow readers.
But this is just me. I'm perfectly sociable and charming, but my streak of puritanism is so strong that I can't help but see online discussions as simply fooling around. For a writer it even feels like throwing away good material. But then I probably don't have as many ideas as most bloggers and need to carefully marshal the few I do have.
I of course think otherwise. More than that, I suspect Dirda doesn’t look at enough blogs to know what they’re really like. For me, "About Last Night" is occasionally a burden (at which times I hand over happily to OGIC), more often a stimulus. As for blogs "sucking up too much time," I wonder if Dirda would say the same thing about magazines….
A man who on the same day can quote
Cardinal Newman and Paul Goodman (an unfairly neglected good poet) can be assured I will keep reading him daily.
Not only did I get a kick out of that e-mail, but it occurred to me as I read it that my correspondent had come up with a pretty good mission statement for "About Last Night." Between us, Our Girl in Chicago and I specialize (or try to) in unexpected juxtaposition. We love all the arts, and within each art form we love a large and varied assortment of artists and artworks. It’s never seemed to either of us that such things are best appreciated in isolation. Hence the curve balls we throw as often as we can, some big and some, like this one, little. Nor do you have to know anything about Newman or Goodman to enjoy the fun. Nothing pleases me half as much as knowing that something I’ve written inspired somebody who read it to go read a book he’s never read before by an author he’s never heard of—or, better still, to go see his first ballet or visit his first art gallery or jazz club. Or whatever.
Maybe that's the best way of describing our specialty here at "About Last Night": whatever, and lots of it.
I'm going to be covering the New York International Fringe Festival for my Wall Street Journal drama column later this month. This year's festival, which opens August 13, is presenting shows by 197 "emerging theatre troupes and dance companies." That is, how you say, an impossible task, there being only one of me and I having only enough time to go to a dozen shows at most. What's more, the hardest job is picking the shows. Every once in a while the buzz on a particular performance becomes overwhelming, but for the most part I find myself sifting through a stack of press releases in search of inspiration, wondering if I might do better to use a dart board.
This time around I've decided to enlist the help of those "About Last Night" readers with an interest in theater. So if you know of a particular Fringe show that you expect to be good, either because you're in it or you know somebody who's in it or you've simply heard good things about it, please make haste to send me an e-mail saying so. Be brief, but not too brief (i.e., tell me in a sentence or two why I should see it). I don't promise to take your advice, especially if I get a lot of it, but I do promise to pay attention to it and be grateful for it. Besides, who knows? You might be responsible for my writing a rave of a show I wasn't planning to see as I write these words. Wouldn't that be cool?
Don't delay—I'll be scheduling and booking my Fringe visits early next week.
Who'd have thought it? I'm still struggling with the persistent remnants of last week's chest cold, exacerbated by my recent travels to Williamstown and Washington, and after spending most of Tuesday writing a piece that refused to come easily, I found myself without enough steam to open a doll's envelope. So I gave myself the night off, very possibly followed by a day off. If you don't hear from me again until Thursday, that's why. My head is full of wonderful postings (doubtless the source of all that gooey congestion), but they'll just have to stay in there until I feel like doing more than absolutely nothing.
"Americans as a whole do not really care for poems or novels or plays as such, as individual works of art each of which is to a certain extent self-contained and autonomous. They like the generalisations that can be drawn from them or put into them, the messages, the bits of uplift or downpush, the statements, the large imponderables reached as soon and as directly as possible without niggling, limiting, specialising detail (seen in things like character, story, setting, motivation, etc.) and proclaimed as loudly and eye-catchingly as possible."
You didn't really think I could keep on blogging like that for two whole days in a row, did you? I'll be spending most of today hammering away at my Wall Street Journal drama column for Friday, but I'll be back at some point with a Festival of Cool Links accumulated during my two-week intermittent absence from "About Last Night," plus whatever else the spirit moves me to post. Keep an eye peeled.
In the meantime, check out the "Second City" and Top Five modules of the right-hand column, both of which have been updated with the very latest stuff.
"Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second, then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred."
Joseph Epstein, a passionate and eloquent Jamesian if ever there was one, reviews Colm Toibin's novel of Henry James, The Master, at the Weekly Standard. He's appreciative of Toibin's talent, but not sold on either the book or the general project of fictionalized biography.
Apropos of today’s posting
on life in New York now and after 9/11, a friend writes:
1. I went last night to dinner ten blocks from the stock exchange. then I walked down to see how much security there was. not that much! a few trucks. a few police cars. The tunnels were all open, the FDR full like on a Sun night. In new york last night from 6p to midnight I saw all the traffic and people on the streets shopping and eating in outdoor restaurants and thought: we ARE getting like Israelis, no one's scared if someone's gonna blow up a building. A nuke would scare them -- but then nukes scare Israelis.
2. I never wanted to be an Israeli!
3. I find the past few months I'm thinking of the scene late in the book "On the Beach," maybe the movie too. It's when the radiation cloud or whatever is coming, and everyone in Australia decides to go do what they love -- they're all at fishing camps and camping out. And they're singing raucous songs -- Waltzing Matilda. In a little way we're like that -- a lot of people are trying to have more fun and take deeper pleasure -- but it lacks that desperate/frantic quality in "On the Beach," thank goodness.
I agree. Back then, life here had an edge to it, even at the most tender and poignant moments. Now it doesn’t—yet.
Jazz giant Bob Brookmeyer, a loyal (and frequently mentioned) reader of this site, is bringing his new group, Quartet East, into the Jazz Standard on Wednesday for a four-night stand. Accompanied by Brad Shepik on guitar, Drew Gress on bass, and John Hollenbeck on drums, Brookmeyer will be playing whatever suits him, which I expect will also suit me, he being the best valve trombonist
under the sun, a composer
of the first rank, and a pretty damn good pianist to boot. (Yes, life is unfair.)
Of course I’ll be there. Who won't? For details, click here.
I’m not sure whether cuisine qualifies as art (forgive me, Nero Wolfe!), but either way I had to pass on this, er, delicious item from MidHudsonNews.com:
While Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, and their families were having a "lite" lunch at Wendy’s in the Town of Newburgh Friday, drumming up local support right after the national convention in Boston, their real lunches were waiting on their bus.
A member of the Kerry advance team called Nikola’s Restaurant at the Newburgh Yacht Club the night before and ordered 19 five-star lunches to go that would be picked up at noon Friday. Management at the restaurant, which is operated by CIA graduate chef Michael Dederick, was told the meals would be for the Kerry and Edwards families and actor Ben Affleck who was with them on the tour.
The gourmet meals to go included shrimp vindallo, grilled diver sea scallops, prosciutto, wrapped stuffed chicken, and steak salad. The meals came to about $200....
Sen. Kerry sure didn't have much luck with that particular Wendy’s, did he? Maybe he should try eating his shrimp vindallo on the record next time. (What is shrimp vindallo, by the way?)
I can’t tell you how good the skyline of Manhattan looked as the Acela Express rolled through Newark yesterday afternoon. Life has kept me jumping of late—a family reunion in Smalltown, U.S.A., a scary stack of post-reunion deadlines, a miserable summer cold, two hasty overnight excursions to the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Kennedy Center—and for the past few days I’ve longed for nothing more than to come home to the Teachout Museum, unpack my bag, unplug the phone, curl up on the couch, and watch a few movies. Instead I came home, booted up my iBook to put myself back in touch with the world, and learned that al-Qaida had been planning a little surprise for my adopted home town.
I winced, and thought about how best to reassure my anxious mother back in Smalltown. Then it occurred to me to remind her that nothing much had changed. After all, it’s been pretty much taken for granted ever since 9/11 that al-Qaida would hit New York again if it possibly could. The only difference is that we now know, or think we know, some of the specifics of their plans. As for me, I rarely have occasion to go anywhere near Wall Street (I write my Wall Street Journal drama column from home), and I can’t remember the last time I set foot in Citicorp Center. Why should I be any more worried now than I was yesterday?
Unhelpful worry is one thing, and I’ll do my best to keep it to a minimum. But what about the possible benefits of learning that the chances of New York’s being attacked by terrorists are significantly greater than you'd previously thought? Cardinal Newman’s Gerontius, after all,
wisely reminds himself on his deathbed to "use well the interval," the unknown and unknowable amount of time that separates him from the fast-approaching hour of his demise. How, then, might I take advantage of the knowledge that my own interval could conceivably turn out to be a good deal shorter than I’d planned?
Like most New Yorkers, I thought a lot about that question in the weeks and months following 9/11, and I also had occasion to write about it at monthly intervals in "Second City," my Washington Post column about the arts in New York. I don’t keep a diary, so I took a look at some of those old columns yesterday, and I was struck by a theme that wove through them:
• "We’re all right, thanks. It took a week or two for us to pull ourselves together, but New Yorkers have finally started to emerge from their holes, looking for all that art offers in times of trial: inspiration, diversion, catharsis, escape. Some of the bustle has gone out of Times Square, and I have yet to visit a jazz club that’s been more than two-thirds full. A lot of artists I know are anxious about future fundraising, though they don’t like to talk about it, and what you’ve heard about Broadway is all too true—some shows have closed and many others are struggling, victims of the dried-up tourist trade. Still, I saw a dozen hardy optimists lined up at the box office of ‘The Producers’ a half-hour after curtain time one evening last week, hoping to snag returned tickets. Good for them!"
• "The Film Forum showed a handsome-looking print of ‘The General’ two weeks ago as part of its recent Keaton retrospective, and people were lined up halfway down the block to get into the 7:30 showing, which featured live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner. No doubt the audience was lousy with film-studies majors, but that didn’t keep them from laughing themselves silly at Keaton’s divine foolery. Where there are laughs, there is hope."
• "I went to the Paine Webber Art Gallery to look at ‘Expanding on a Legacy,’ a small but choice exhibition of American painting and sculpture on loan from the Montclair Art Museum, which is closed for renovations. Anthrax spores had been discovered in Gov. Pataki’s Manhattan office an hour or two before, so the guards were understandably antsy, but that didn’t stop me from spending a half-hour basking in the intense silence of Edward Hopper’s ‘Coast Guard Station’ and George Inness’ ‘Delaware Water Gap.’ Then I turned a corner and found myself face to face with ‘Snowbound,’ a masterpiece of American impressionism in which John H. Twachtman’s Connecticut house can just be made out through the thick white drifts of a blizzard. Suddenly I was snatched out of the absurd world around me and wafted into the calm paradise of art. Right now, I can’t think of a better place to be."
• "Sometimes the beaten path is the best place to be. I spent the night after Thanksgiving watching New York City Ballet’s lavishly decorated ‘Nutcracker,’ surrounded by ecstatic children and cool-headed critics (the former are more fun). I couldn’t have had a better time, especially when Jennie Somogyi came fizzing onto the stage of the New York State Theater to dance the role of Dewdrop more boldly and high-spiritedly than I’d seen it done since Kyra Nichols was in her prime. I brought a couple of full-grown ‘Nutcracker’ novices along with me, and they looked like they’d won the lottery. So they had—and so had I.
"But man cannot live by stars alone, and it struck me that I’d been spending quite a lot of time of late traipsing from institution to institution, gawking at all the usual suspects. I know why: I got caught out of town on September 11, and once I finally made my way back to Manhattan, it meant the world to me to go to places like Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum and see for myself that they were still alive and well."
• "I also dropped by the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel to hear Paula West, a West Coast cabaret singer who is tough and hard-swinging, though she has a soft touch of vulnerability and a vivid way with words. At the piano was the infallible Bill Charlap, on whose magic carpet she rode with self-evident pleasure. I caught them at a Friday-night late show, when the crowd was smaller and the mood was right for ‘I Remember You.’ West sang Johnny Mercer’s perfect lyric with understated passion, and all at once I found myself wrapped up in dark-blue memories of my own. The Algonquin can do that to you, especially when you’re listening to a really good singer at midnight, sitting next to a friend who knows what’s on your mind and thinking about what most of us are thinking about these days. Be it in an oak-paneled cabaret or a Park Avenue church, I doubt that beauty has ever meant so much to New Yorkers as it does this very moment."
• "Nor will I soon forget my visit to Avery Fisher Hall to hear Ivan Fischer and the New York Philharmonic perform Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a vast mural of anguish that is almost too much of a muchness. I hadn’t been listening to Mahler since I returned to New York in September after being stranded in the Midwest—I don’t know that you need to deliberately jolt your emotions when they’re already vibrating like a plucked string—and I doubt I would have gone if a singer friend of mine hadn’t mentioned to me at lunch one day that September 11 had left her unable to cry, even after she visited Ground Zero. It struck me that the Fifth Symphony might be just what she needed to break up her interior logjam, so we went, and were stunned—that’s the only possible word for it. I think it was an extraordinary performance, but I’m not quite certain, because I was so carried away by the music that I forgot how it was being played. All I know for sure is that it poured off the stage like an avalanche."
Could it be that I—we—were living more intensely in those days? It happens that my life was turned inside out in all sorts of ways in the immediate wake of 9/11, but no matter what fears I found myself facing, I almost always managed sooner or later to slip out of the fearful present and immerse myself in the blessed world of art, responding all the more passionately because of my renewed consciousness of life’s brevity. Strange that it so often takes a catastrophe, whether personal or public, to make you face a fact that was no less true on 9/10, or 9/12. Strange, too, that this knowledge inevitably recedes from your awareness: one can no more think incessantly about such things than one can gaze for an hour at the noonday sun. I don’t know exactly when it was that my hunger slackened, but a time must have come when I returned at last to "normal," responding in an everyday manner to the endless beauties of the fragile city in which I still choose to live.
Will I be any different today because of what I found out yesterday? I’d like to think that I might possibly recapture some of that febrile intensity, that I will learn yet again the lesson no one learns once and for all. Henry James put it best: "Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?"
For my part, I have had much in my life—much success, much love, many friends—and I have beheld countless times what Paul Goodman was writing about in this poem:
Such beauty as hurts to behold
and so gentle as salves the wound:
I am shivering though it is not cold
and dark as in a swoon.
I hope with all my heart that I live long enough to recall those lines ten thousand times more. I also hope I remember each day that I might not be so lucky, and try to live accordingly—and if not each day, then at least this one and the next. May we all remember, here and everywhere.
Needless to say, I'd revel in the company of all three men, whether separately or together. In addition to being famously companionable, they were good talkers—not to mention eaters and drinkers—and I’d be tempted to ask each of them an endless string of questions in between bites. Alas, cross-examination is a thoroughly unsound basis for a dinner party, and since Mencken had no interest in ballet and dismissed jazz as "undifferentiated musical protoplasm, dying of its own effluvia," it’s possible that the conversation might grow a little bumpy if left to its own devices.
Instead, I’d start by nudging my guests toward the safer ground of classical music, to which they were all passionately devoted. With the arrival of the wine steward, I’d encourage a discussion of the relative merits of alcohol and marijuana: Mencken, who once declared himself "omnibibulous," and Armstrong, who rarely let a day go by without getting high, would surely have had fun kicking that topic around. Then I might mention Isadora Duncan, for whose dancing both Balanchine ("To me it was absolutely unbelievable—a drunken, fat woman who for hours was rolling around like a pig") and Mencken ("A mass of puerilities, without any more rational basis than golf or spiritualism") had nothing but contempt. I’m not aware that Armstrong had any strong views about modern dance, but he certainly knew plenty about dancing in general, being a jazz musician, and I’m sure he’d chime in to interesting effect.
Over dessert, the talk would likely turn without prompting to women. Balanchine and Armstrong were both married four times, and though Mencken only tied the knot once, he had his fair share of girlfriends, going so far as to write a book called In Defense of Women. Between the three of them, I dare say quite a bit of light would be shed on the ever-intriguing subject of romance and its discontents.
Don’t you think that adds up to a pretty good conversational menu?
"About Last Night" is on the air! What’s more, I think I’m starting to figure out how to keep the top spinning without wearing out my wrist—this week was easier than last, and by next Friday I expect to be leaping tall buildings at a single bound. In the meantime, here are today’s topics, from subjective to objective: (1) Meeting a masterpiece. (2) After Cole Porter, what? (3) Are you new to the blogosphere? If so, you’re not alone. (4) A poem for the grossly impure of heart. (5) The latest almanac entry.
Those of you who’ve been here from the start will remember that in my very first posting, I referred to this blog as an "experiment." So far, the experiment appears to be succeeding, but it still remains to be seen whether I can draw and hold an audience large enough to make a dent in the world of art. To do that, I need your help. Every time you tell a friend or colleague about "About Last Night," you’re tossing a pebble into the pool. The Web amplifies the ripples. The next person you introduce to "About Last Night" could tell five more people about it, or 50—or post to a list that might bring in 500 new readers.
The address to remember is www.terryteachout.com. No matter what URL you’re currently using, that one will always bring you here.
Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, which became all but moribund in the Nineties, is now showing fresh signs of life. One is the upcoming production of Mozart’s Il re pastore (it’ll be seen next Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday) directed by Mark Lamos, in whose work I take wild delight (he’s the guy who directed the Met’s Wozzeck and New York City Opera’s Turn of the Screw). Another is the presence of the Mark Morris Dance Group, which has been performing Gloria and V, two of Morris’ most important dances, at the New York State Theater (the last show is tonight at eight).
I went on Wednesday, mainly to see V, Morris’ staging of the Schumann Piano Quintet. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to catch the premieres of a half-dozen or so works of art that I immediately recognized as great. That’s how I felt about V when I saw its New York premiere two years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I’ve seen it four more times since then, and I haven’t changed my mind. By now, I know V well enough to be able to talk in a fairly specific way about what makes it so good. But how did I know how good it was the first time I saw it? What made me so sure it was a masterpiece?
These questions aren’t as simple as they sound. I mean, it’s not as if I'd been sitting in my aisle seat that night, ticking off boxes on the Masterpiece Checklist. (The 18th-century neoclassicists tried to draw up just such a checklist, which is one reason why their art is so dull.) In fact, I tend not to do much thinking about a great work of art when I’m experiencing it for the first time. Instead, I become swept up in what Robert Warshow called the immediate experience. In the face of mastery, analysis is impossible—it’s something you do after the fact.
C. S. Lewis wrote a wonderful little book called An Experiment in Criticism in which he suggested that in order to understand the nature of greatness in literature, we might try approaching it in reverse:
Literary criticism is traditionally employed in judging books. Any judgement it implies about men’s reading of books is a corollary from its judgement on the books themselves. Bad taste is, as it were by definition, a taste for bad books. I want to find out what sort of picture we shall get by reversing the process. Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary. Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.
With that in mind, I asked myself these questions on Wednesday: How did I feel as I watched V for the first time? Did I feel the same way as I watched it for the fifth time? And might those feelings tell me something about the nature of a masterpiece?
I was a bit surprised (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) to discover that I still had fairly easy access to the sensations I experienced at the New York premiere of V. What’s more, I remembered having had similar sensations on such other occasions as the New York premiere of Paul Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera and my first viewing of Kenneth Lonergan’s film You Can Count on Me, both of which I also recognized as masterpieces at first sight.
Here’s what I felt:
Immediate involvement. More often than not, it takes a few minutes to become fully engaged by a work of art. You have to shut out the rest of the world, and that isn’t always easy, especially in a noisy place like New York. With V, on the other hand, I felt as though the dancers had reached out from the stage and grabbed me as soon as the curtain went up.
The perception of competence. Early on in a masterpiece—often very early indeed—something unexpected happens that makes me shake my head with pleasure and surprise. I realize that the person who made it knew exactly what he was doing, and I say to myself, I’m in good hands.
The opposite of boredom. Harry Cohn, the boor who ran Columbia Pictures in the Forties and Fifties, is supposed to have said that whenever he caught himself squirming in his seat as he watched the rushes of a movie, he knew there was something wrong with it. Herman J. Mankiewicz, the drunken sage of Hollywood (and the author of the screenplay for Citizen Kane), is supposed to have replied, "Imagine—the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass!" I don’t know anything about Harry Cohn’s ass, but a quarter-century on the aisle has taught me that whenever my attention flags midway through a new work, the chances are good that there’s something wrong with it. That never happened with V. I was completely involved—"present," as actors say—from start to finish. I didn’t squirm once.
Performance anxiety. Roughly halfway into V, I realized that I was nervous. It took a little longer before I realized why: what I was seeing on stage was so beautiful that I was afraid something would go wrong, that Morris would fumble the ball. When I say "afraid," I really mean it. I felt extreme anxiety, not for Morris or me, but for the dance itself, as if it were a living thing for whose health I feared.
Consummation. That anxiety disappeared toward the end of the last movement, at the exact moment when Schumann launches a fugue-like musical episode and the dancers run out from the wings and start to embrace one another. Right then, I knew Morris had "solved" the dance—that he had successfully worked out its internal logic and was demonstrating the solution on stage—and my eyes immediately filled with tears.
All these sensations came back to me as I watched V on Wednesday night. This time around, of course, they were accompanied by a clearer intellectual understanding of the way the dance works, how it grows out of Schumann’s music and creates a visual counterpart to the tonal architecture. But I didn’t need to understand any of these things to know that V was a masterpiece the first time I saw it. I just knew.
As A. E. Housman famously said, "Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act." I know what he meant. Instead of analyzing V, I read its quality off myself, the same way you can read the seismographic chart of an earthquake and know how strong it was. Or—to put it more simply—I knew how good V was because of the way it made me feel.
P.S. My fellow artsjournal.com blogger Tobi Tobias, who is no dummy, doesn't like V at all. To find out why, go here. I wasn't even slightly convinced, but you should definitely see what she says.
Some of my best friends are old crocks. No offense meant—I hope to be an old crock someday. Besides, I tend to think they’re right when they grumble about how things ain’t what they used to be. But if you’re one of those Gershwin-loving Luddites who thinks nobody knows how to write a really smart song lyric anymore, kindly go here.
Johnny Mercer it isn’t, but I still can’t get this song out of my head.
Obviously, all of you know what a blog is, but am I right in supposing that some of you hadn’t seen one prior to your first visit to "About Last Night"? I didn’t invent arts blogging (see the right-hand column for further details), but when I started telling friends, acquaintances, and colleagues in the art world about my plans to launch www.terryteachout.com, I was struck by how many of them had never heard the word "blog," and thus had no idea of what I intended to do. Once they saw the site, they got it, but it was more difficult to explain than I expected.
I know my experience is not unique, because I got an e-mail the other day from a writer friend who’s been talking me up. "I mentioned ‘About Last Night’ on a small AOL board," she told me, "and one woman admitted she had never heard of blogs before now."
My own feeling, for what it’s worth, is that as the print media become increasingly obsessed with reaching the mass audiences necessary to keep them profitable, serious arts commentary and news coverage are destined to migrate to the Web, which is the ideal medium for niche marketing and niche journalism (and we arts-crazed folk are definitely a niche, though not the smallest one in the world, either).
That’s why I started www.terryteachout.com—I wanted to get there first, or at least not last—and I’m glad you decided to come along for the ride. Stick around. (And while you're at it, see today's BuzzMachine for some provocative thoughts on the future of blogs, occasioned by the second birthday of InstaPundit.)
"I admit that it would never occur to me to ask a question of an electronic brain, chiefly because I’d be incapable of it. The interrogated electronic brain very quickly generates thousands, if not millions, of responses, and among those thousands of millions of responses, only one is right. Rather than bother with an extremely burdensome apparatus and spend months formulating a question, isn’t it quicker to have a stroke of genius and find the right solution right away?"
Olivier Messiaen, Olivier Messiaen: Music and Color
We’re over the hump of the week here at "About Last Night," the 24/7 arts blog, and I have goodies for you. Today’s topics, from classic to modern: (1) Ground Zero, silly artists, and the strange case of the vanishing opera house. (2) Daffy Duck is one step closer to a mailbox near you. (3) Paul Taylor, free for the asking. (4) The latest almanac entry.
I also have news for you, which is that "About Last Night" racked up more than 1,400 page views yesterday, an all-time record for this three-week-old site, though the numbers have been climbing every day since artsjournal.com installed a site meter. I guess it didn't hurt that Matt Lauer mentioned my Andy Warhol piece on Today, though I'm told he identified me as "Tom Teachout." (A friend writes: "The funny thing was, he made a specific comment that he hoped he was pronouncing your name right!") I also appreciate the many plugs from and links by my fellow bloggers. But of course the credit really belongs to all of you who visited yesterday and came back for more this morning....
You know what I’m going to say now, right? Well, do it. Life has no savor without www.terryteachout.com. How can you bear to see your friends go hungry?
A reader writes, apropos of various recent postings about the possibility of New York City Opera’s moving to a new house at or near Ground Zero:
About the opera house on Ground Zero—I admire the idea, and would certainly think it moving. But really, how long would it be before some sort of play or production was put on commiserating with the plight of the poor oppressed hijackers? Or possibly a reading by some famous Jihadist poet? I'd love to see great art at Ground Zero, but the other possibilities make me fear the idea just as much as I love it.
Point taken. I myself have written testily on more than one occasion about what one might euphemistically call the wide-ranging responses of quarter-witted artists here and abroad to 9/11, and I’ve no doubt that somebody, somewhere, would dearly love to do just what my pessimistic correspondent fears most.
On the other hand, Paul Kellogg, who runs City Opera, is a man of taste, and I’ve also no doubt that anything he presented in a Ground Zero Memorial Opera House would be worth seeing—which doesn’t necessarily mean that I’d like it, of course. But if I required artists to make only works of art with whose underlying premises I agreed, I’d be an unhappy soul indeed. Kellogg, for example, is a fan of Jake Heggie’s operatic version of Dead Man Walking, which City Opera performed last season. I disagree, to put it mildly, but I also recognize that it’s a serious piece of work (as opposed to, say, the bisected pigs of Damien Hirst), and so I respected his intentions in producing it. If I didn’t—if I thought City Opera were in the hands of a cultural politician who didn’t give a damn about beauty—I wouldn’t be backing the company’s plan to move to Ground Zero.
So I guess the smart-ass answer to this perfectly reasonable question would be something like Opera houses don’t kill opera, opera directors do. Which is also a perfectly reasonable answer, when you think about it.
The Looney Tunes Golden Collection, a four-CD set containing 56 extremely well-chosen Warner Bros. cartoons from the Forties and Fifties (plus a couple of gazillion DVD-type special features), is now available for pre-ordering on amazon.com. Click here to do so. It'll be on the street Oct. 28.
The amazon.com page also contains a customer review from an animation fanatic with inside skinny:
It's hard to believe, but Warner Brothers is reportedly not sure that these cartoons can sell. This set is a test to see whether DVD collectors are in the market for Looney Tunes fully restored and presented with in-depth extras. If the set sells well, there will be more big boxes like this one, with still more cartoons (including earlier classics that are still in the process of restoration). If it doesn't sell, all we'll get is bare-bones samplers aimed at kids alone. So don't buy the bare-bones "Premiere Collection," a poorly presented kid-oriented release with no extras and only half of the cartoons on this set….Help make "The Looney Tunes Golden Collection" a best-seller and you'll not only be helping the cause of classic animation on DVD, you'll be getting some of the best comedy films ever produced, animated or live-action. You'll be getting fascinating extras and supplements. You'll be getting hours and hours of great entertainment. What could be better than getting great entertainment in a good cause? Buy this set, and if enough people do, we'll get to see more sets of Bugs, Daffy, and the rest, to enjoy at home as often as we want—and believe me, we'll want to watch it often.
Clearly, the Golden Collection is the set to buy. For a full table of contents that proves the point, go here. (And yes, I’ve put my money where my blog is.)
The Paul Taylor Dance Company will be performing for free next Tuesday and Wednesday at Damrosch Park, in between the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York State Theater, as part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors series. Both performances start at eight p.m. For those of you who know about modern dance, that’s all I need to say. (Did I mention the word free?)
For everybody else, a word of explanation: Paul Taylor is the world’s greatest living artist, irrespective of medium. I don’t deny that I’ve been known on occasion to exaggerate, but I happily stand by every word of that high-octane statement. If you want further details, I wrote the foreword to the 1999 paperback reissue of Private Domain, Taylor’s autobiography, in which I summed up my opinion of his work as concisely as possible. (Private Domain is a wonderful book, by the way, by far the best memoir ever written by a choreographer.) His dances are serious and funny, lyrical and frightening, harsh and poignant—sometimes by turns, sometimes all at once. If you’ve never seen any of them, go and be blessed.
P.S. Not to scare you off, but these are free performances, so try to get to Damrosch Park at least an hour before curtain time if you want to snag a halfway decent seat.
You are now entering "About Last Night," the blog where art is long and life is short. Pump up the volume—here come today’s topics, from chromatic to diatonic: (1) The guilty pleasures of critical savagery. (2) Mistah Warhol—he dead. (3) Toward less boneheaded Hollywood journalism. (4) Brightness falls, accompanied by extremely cool music. (5) Don’t let your mom clean out your closet if you’re still in it. (6) More on Finding Nemo and modernism. (7) A complete guide to cartoon censorship. (8) "In the Bag" spreads like a cancer through the blogosphere. (9) Your daily snarkiness supplement. (10) The latest almanac entry.
I’m still boggling at the bar graphs my site meter is spitting out. Heavy traffic ahead—especially if you tell a friend or three about www.terryteachout.com. What are you waiting for? Like I said, ars longa, vita brevis!
A reader writes, apropos of last week’s posting on vicious critics, in which I argued that "sometimes it’s your duty—your responsibility—to drop the big one. But you shouldn’t enjoy it, not ever. And you should always make an effort to be modest when writing about people who can do something you can’t, even when you don’t think they do it very well." He thinks otherwise:
Why not take pleasure in "dropping the big one" on works that are truly hateful? (I'm thinking of stuff like Ancient Evenings, the films of Ken Russell or Peter Greenaway, The Night Porter, Piss Christ.) These works present issues that go way beyond quality of execution. They are fundamentally anti-human, not to mention anti-art. As such, their infliction on the culture should evoke righteous anger and disgust from any critic with blood in his veins. As I see it, identifying the false, the mindless, or the pretentious (which so often are taken for the real thing) is no less important than heralding the beautiful and the wise—and should afford the critic no less satisfaction. Of course, I don't have in mind here works that are bad in a trivial or routine way. I'm speaking of stuff that is importantly or dangerously bad.
I think this is a fair distinction, and I won’t deny that I smiled quietly as I piled up dynamite around, say, Franco Zeffirelli’s Metropolitan Opera production of Carmen, with which I dealt rather summarily in the New York Daily News a few years ago:
The Met chorus covered itself with glory, but the orchestra was out of sorts, and James Levine conducted as if his mind were elsewhere. I sympathize: Mine was, too. I kept thinking, "Has everybody at the Met forgotten that 'Carmen' is a French opera?" Evidently so: Thursday's performance featured a German Carmen, a Spanish Don José, a Romanian Micaela, a Russian Escamillo and an Italian director. The results were as confused as the casting. Bizet's elegant, deadly opera is a feather-light soufflé with a pinch of cyanide; this production is a Wiener Schnitzel smothered in red sauce. Too bad the Met can't send it back to the kitchen.
That was fairly nasty, and we’re not even talking anti-human anti-art, just a piece of gold-plated junk. So sue me. (No, don’t.) But I will say this in my own defense: now that I mostly pick and choose my own assignments, I find I want to spend as little time as possible putting myself through hell on the aisle. I’ve come to feel that as a rule, the thing I do best is point people in the direction of that which and those whom I love. Let somebody else ice Piss Christ—I’d rather spend my remaining hours on earth telling you how beautiful The Open Window is, especially if you’ve never seen it before. In the long run, silence may be the most powerful form of negative criticism.
Incidentally, please don't bother to remind me of what I just said the next time you catch me beating up on a bad play in The Wall Street Journal. I mean, you don’t have to sit through it, right?
P.S. For those youngsters who only know Randy Newman as a composer of sappy movie scores, he’s had his moments, as the title of this post recalls.
Today is Andy Warhol’s 75th birthday, and I noted the occasion in this morning’s Wall Street Journal:
Andy Warhol would have turned 75 today, had he been careless enough to live that long. Fortunately for him, he died in 1987, thus evading the sad fate of those superannuated pop stars who crumple into prune-faced reminders of the distant decade that spawned them. Mick Jagger is a walking joke now, but Warhol is still Warhol, young and decadent and way, way cool. When you think of the ’60s, you think of him….
I trolled through the blogosphere, and what did I see?
Felix Salmon gently applies a buzzsaw to Newsweek’s coverage of the next Harry Potter movie.
God of the Machine has a nice posting about Thomas Nashe’s great poem "Summer’s Last Will and Testament," source of the oft-quoted line "Brightness falls from the air," whose authenticity GOTM shrewdly questions. (Did you know, by the way, that Constant Lambert, my favorite chronically underrated composer, set this amazing poem to music?)
My Stupid Dog is up and blogging again with a posting about what happens when the very straight parents of a very gay graduate student pay a visit and give his apartment, haircut, eating habits, and bookshelves a makeover. It’s called "Straight Eye for the Queer Guy," and it’s really, really funny.
Forager 23 has some impressively well-informed reflections on last week’s post about Finding Nemo and the problem of realism in animated cartoons.
The following is a guide to the cuts and edits which have been rendered to the classic cartoons of Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount, and other studios when broadcast on television…Gags that are deemed inappropriate for children, racist, violent, etc. are simply edited out of the affected cartoons. Here is a guide to these "lost" moments.
O.K., it’s a bit obsessive, but interesting all the same.
Tuesday already? This looks like a job for "About Last Night," so let’s cut right to today’s topics, from port to starboard: (1) How to start a biography without really thinking. (2) PBS, enemy of high art. (3) A death sentence that didn’t kill anybody (except maybe with laughter). (4) Bill Clinton’s favorite film, and other exercises in megalomania. (5) The latest almanac entry.
Big Brother, my site meter and traffic counter, tells me that you’ve been very good about introducing your friends to www.terryteachout.com. Keep it up. I know when you’ve been sleeping, I know when you’re awake….
I’ve been reading a lot of biographies in recent weeks (I’m judging a literary award), and I’m struck by the fact that so many of them, including several of the best ones, start out more or less like this:
"In an old barn fixed up to serve as a studio, Arshile Gorky backed away from the canvas on his easel."
"Alexander Hamilton realized instantly that he would die."
"Guilty. He heard the verdict and flinched."
"'I am going to Washington Saturday night to make a speech at the Gridiron Club dinner,’ H. L. Mencken wrote to a friend on December 7, 1934. 'This is a dreadful ordeal for me, and I bespeak the prayers of all Christian people.'"
In case you didn’t guess, the last of these books is my own The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, so I think I can poke fun at this particular stylistic quirk with a fairly clear conscience. Yes, jumping in at the deep end can be a fine way to lure the reader into the tent, but it’s also becoming a trifle overfamiliar, and I wonder if perhaps the time has finally come to put it out to pasture, once and for all.
I don’t mean that starting a book in medias res can’t still be effective, even brilliantly so. Virtually all of Kingsley Amis’ novels begin that way ("’They made a silly mistake, though,’ the Professor of History said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory"), propelling the reader into the midst of the action in much the same way you might shove a nervous paratrooper out the hatch. But biographies aren’t novels, much less magazine articles, and there’s something to be said for launching them in a no-nonsense manner. Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers (out of print, believe it or not) has the best of both worlds, leading off with a conventional fanfare, then slipping in a blue note: "Jay Vivian Chambers was born on April 1, 1901—April Fool’s Day, as he liked to point out." Very neat.
As for the best of all possible biographies, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, it gets underway with a preamble worthy of a Haydn symphony:
To write the Life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others, and who, whether we consider his extraordinary endowments, or his various works, has been equalled by few in any age, is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.
To paraphrase what John Coltrane once said about Stan Getz, we’d all write like that if we could. Failing that, we do the best we can, and I will confess that as of this moment, my brief life of George Balanchine will probably begin with the premiere of one of his greatest ballets, Serenade. I could always change my mind, though, and I’m inclined to start my Louis Armstrong biography on the day he was born (which wasn’t July 4, 1900, alas, though Armstrong liked to pass off that superlatively resonant date as his bonafide birthday).
Courtesy of my fellow artsjournal.com blogger Greg Sandow, I read this terrific piece from Opera News about the gradual disappearance of opera on public television. It seems the ratings just aren’t there—nobody wants to watch opera on TV, or on PBS, anyway. (And it’s not just opera. When did you last see a first-rate ballet on public TV?)
Two telling quotes. The first is from John Goberman, who produces Live at Lincoln Center for PBS:
In a way, we're denying the use of our airwaves to a gigantic number of people by not offering something that more will find appealing. I'm not necessarily talking about pandering. I just feel it's my obligation to deal realistically with our potential audience. I wouldn't put an opera on that I thought would appeal to practically no one, or even an opera people thought they might want to see but if they saw it, I thought they would hate it. Is Porgy and Bess an easier sell than Dead Man Walking? Yes. With television, you have to keep in mind that you're dealing with access to the greatest number of people. In the same way that you wouldn't put on a specialized opera in Madison Square Garden or at Yankee Stadium, there is the same sort of calculation with what we're doing here.
The second is from Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director of New York City Opera and the man responsible for making NYCO the most interesting big-city opera company in America:
Lincoln Center and Live from Lincoln Center and PBS are all interested in works that have a very broad public appeal. When I first came here, six years ago, John Goberman said we would have the final word on what we would broadcast. Well, we did wind up broadcasting a couple of things that were not of huge public interest—Lizzie Borden and Paul Bunyan. I was idealistic in those days. I still am, but back then I certainly thought these operas would have an audience, that a loyal audience that turned on Live from Lincoln Center for whatever was on would become involved. But that is not how this works. So, increasingly, what television audiences are asking for—and this is being responded to by the network and the sponsors and the whole enterprise of Live from Lincoln Center—are operas that have a name and a broad public appeal. I don't use the word "warhorses." I would say, things that are generally known to a wide public. This year there's just nothing in our repertory that works. I would love to broadcast Dead Man Walking. It is and would be TV-friendly. But we are one of many constituents who make up Lincoln Center. And Live from Lincoln Center now determines what it is that it wants to broadcast.
Read the whole piece—it’s a must. But I want to add two things:
(1) Three cheers to Paul Kellogg for telling the truth. Not many people in his position would do that in public.
(2) If this is the kind of calculation PBS is making about its arts coverage, then there’s no justification whatsoever for the existence of PBS—that is, for a subsidized, "public," non-commercial TV network that presumably exists to do what the commercial networks won’t do, starting with the dissemination of high art. None. Zero. I'm picking up a strong whiff of hypocrisy here, and I don't like it one bit. To hell with Live at Lincoln Center. Screw Ken Burns. Pull the plug and leave the job to the commercial arts channels, which don’t pretend to be anything other than profit-making entities. At least they're honest about it. PBS isn't.
Theodore Dalrymple is in a fine old change-and-decay-in-all-around-I-see mood in the current issue of City Journal, wherein he manages to blame everything from Marilyn Manson to S&M on the 1960 unbanning of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a book he describes as "radically humorless," placing a few choice examples in evidence. To be sure, plucking dumb sentences out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is like shooting dead fish in a small barrel, but Dalrymple goes unerringly to the worst line in the book, which also happens to be my personal candidate for the title of Silliest Sentence Ever Emitted by an Allegedly Major Writer: "Sir Malcolm gave a little squirting laugh, and became Scotch and lewd."
If my memory is functioning correctly, this is the very sentence Max Beerbohm had in mind when he pronounced his immortal epitaph on the creator of Lady Chatterley and her lascivious gamekeeper:
Poor D. H. Lawrence. He never realized, don’t you know—he never suspected that to be stark, staring mad is somewhat of a handicap to a writer.
I really, really, really wish I’d said that.
Here’s a great fact—the film screened most frequently at the White House during the past half-century was High Noon. (Bill Clinton saw it 20 times.) Bravo is airing a documentary this Thursday about movies at the White House, and it’s full of similarly toothsome facts, courtesy of Paul Fisher, the official White House projectionist, who kept a log of the 5,000 movies he showed there between 1953 and 1986.
Another statistic worth recording for what it’s worth, if anything: Jimmy Carter watched 580 movies, more than any other president.
This is the hundredth posting I’ve made to "About Last Night" since going live for the first time three weeks ago. Right from the start, I’ve been amazed—and inspired—by your response. It looks as though there’s an audience for an interdisciplinary blog that covers the whole world of art (as seen from the vantage point of New York City, admittedly, but most of the best things come here sooner or later). Launching and maintaining this blog within the framework of my hectic life as a working journalist hasn’t been easy, and last week just about did me in, but as long as you keep visiting, I’ll keep posting.
Enough with the mush. Let’s move on to today’s topics, from prone to supine: (1) The ultimate top-five list. (2) Our far-flung Latinists check in. (3) What if they built a really good museum...and nobody came? (4) Reflections on Katharine Hepburn—from an unexpected reflector. (5) More on New York City Opera and Ground Zero. (6) How to cure the blues, in one easy lesson. (7) The latest almanac entry.
In addition to today’s postings, you’ll find all sorts of fresh stuff in the right-hand column, including this week's Top Fives and a handy new feature, the "About Last Night" archive, which you can peruse by clicking the ALN Archive link at the top of the column. If this is your first visit to "About Last Night" and you want to look at the 99 previous posts you missed, that’s the way to do it.
And…we’re off. But where are all those new visitors you promised to bring me this morning? Hoist the banner of www.terryteachout.com. The West demands it!
I was dining on the Upper West Side the other evening with a composer friend (the one who sings Emily Dickinson poems to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme, as a matter of fact), and we got to playing a game that we dubbed "Canonical Death Match." You play it by rating classical composers on a scale of zero to 10—comparatively. If Bach is a 10, what’s Poulenc? (Answer: 7.) Or Wagner? (That’s when we started throwing rolls.)
The comparative aspect of the game is what makes it interesting. The reigning cultural orthodoxy of the present moment states that all values are relative, so invidious comparisons are naturally discouraged on penalty of contemptuous sneers. But we all know the reigning cultural orthodoxy of the present moment is hogwash, even if we wouldn’t necessarily care to say so in the faculty lounge with our pants down. Of course Joseph Conrad is better than Toni Morrison—not just as far as I’m concerned, but period—and anybody who doesn’t know it or won’t admit it is a dolt and a buffoon. In the immortal words of W. S. Gilbert, "In short, whoever you may be,/To this conclusion you’ll agree,/When everyone is somebodee,/Then no one’s anybody!"
After disposing of a couple of dozen composers and a bottle of wine, my friend and I started playing the desert-island game. In our version, you can put five works of art into your bag before departing for the proverbial desert island, and you have to decide right now. No dithering—the enemy is at the front door, lasers blazing. What do you stuff in the bag?
The flavor of "In the Bag" is obviously somewhat different from "Canonical Death Match," because it’s not about absolute values but arbitrary preferences. Yes, I grant you that Bleak House is a great book, but would I grab it if the building were on fire? Not a chance—I’m a Trollope man. And top-of-the-head answers are of the essence, lest you find the temptation to posture overwhelming. (Why, yes, I’d take Beethoven’s Ninth and War and Peace….)
In the interests of stimulation and outrage, I’ve decided to play "In the Bag" each Monday as a regular feature of "About Last Night." You are welcome—nay, encouraged—to send in your comments, which may range from Nice list this week, dude to Are you serious? I never heard anything so pretentious in my life! I, in turn, do solemnly swear that my lists will be utterly unpremeditated and unsparingly honest, even if I look into my secret heart and realize that what I really want to see at the bottom of the bag this morning is a DVD of The Dirty Dozen. (Hey, these things happen.) I will also invite selected colleagues to play the game from time to time, so long as they agree to swear the same blood oath on a copy of The Secret Agent.
So here goes. As of this moment, my top-five in-the-bag list, subject to change at the drop of a hat, is as follows:
I wrote last week, apropos of the death of Bob Hope:
In the words of my favorite refrigerator magnet, "Time passes quickly, whether you’re having fun or not." (I wonder what that sounds like in Latin.)
That parenthesis was wistful. Despite having studied four foreign languages, one of them Latin, I’m still a humiliatingly single-tongued monoglot. Fortunately, two of you came through, lickety-split. One reader, who admits to "an almost total lack of fluency in Latin," nevertheless resorted to an on-line dictionary and came up with this homemade rendering: Tempis fugit aut oblectas aut non.
A few hours later, I heard from a Latin teacher who offered a more plausible-sounding alternate version: Tempus celeriter degit, utrum frueris necne. He obligingly explained:
It may be suggested, and rightly so, that the phrase, "Time passes quickly," could be translated "Tempus fugit." Strictly speaking, "tempus fugit" translates to "time flies." It is a rather well-known sententia Latina antiqua (old Latin maxim). But "tempus celeriter degit" accurately parallels "time quickly passes." (The word order may seem odd, but that's how it should be in Latin.)
Won't you sleep better tonight knowing someone is out there obsessing about this sort of thing?
Absolutely. Now, can anybody out there do cross-stitch?
My latest "Second City" column appeared in yesterday's Washington Post. Here's the lead:
I don't know about you, but we Second Citians hate restaurant reviewers. No sooner do they praise our favorite spots (and they always do, sooner or later) than you can get a table only before 6 or after 10. So it is with a certain reluctance that I proclaim the excellence of a museum whose galleries have heretofore been delightfully undercrowded. The museum in question is the National Academy of Design, one block north of the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue. In existence since 1826, it's run by the American artists who are its members, and its 5,000-piece collection consists of their work. (You present the Academy with a painting, sculpture or print when you're elected a member.) If you haven't heard of it, you aren't alone. I went there last Sunday afternoon, and there wasn't anyone else in the galleries except for the guards….
Miss Hepburn was not a vigorous thinker. "I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done, as long as I enjoyed it at the time," she once said. That really is not sound thought, and not even worldly. If such a code were right for her, one would guess she’d think it right for everybody. Have no regrets, as long as what one did was enjoyable at the time? That is strange, retroactive self-indulgence. If he enjoyed the rape, he should feel no regret for having done it?…
One is forced to deliberate on the vat of nothingness that geniuses offer us, when they leave off playing the violin, or painting landscapes, or waging war. There are exceptions, but Kate’s life doesn’t promise to be one.
Courtesy of my invaluable host, artsjournal.com, I saw a story in Crain’s New York Business in which Kevin Rampe, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, flatly denied a report previously published in the New York Times (and linked here last week) that New York City Opera had been told there would be no room for a new opera house at Ground Zero. I have no information on this either way (though I’d certainly like some), but my position on the matter appeared in The Wall Street Journal back in January:
Lest we forget, one of the things Osama bin Laden and his fellow thugs hate most about the West is its art….Such being the case, what could be more appropriate than for the West to thumb its collective nose at the psychotic puritans who, among other grotesqueries, banned all secular music from Afghanistan? By building a New York City Opera House on the ashes of the World Trade Center, New Yorkers would be making the boldest possible declaration of faith in the power and glory of Western culture. A year and a half ago, three thousand innocent men and women were murdered by sworn enemies of that culture. I can’t imagine a more inspiring way to honor their memory.
It’s Monday. The world is too much with you. What to do? Go here, scroll down to "Baby Brown (1)," and click on it. Assuming that your computer is equipped with a RealAudio player, you will then experience three minutes’ worth of ecstasy, courtesy of Fats Waller.
If that doesn’t move your needle, scroll up a couple of inches and click on the 1943 version of "Ain’t Misbehavin’."
If that doesn’t do the trick, I strongly suggest better living through chemistry.