About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, March 23, 2007
TT: At low ebb
I reviewed four shows in this morning’s Wall Street Journal drama column: Curtains, Jack Goes Boating, and Propeller's all-male stagings of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. Here’s the rumpus:
I’ve never seen a musical that tried so hard to be likable as “Curtains,” or an audience that tried so hard to like it. Fred Ebb, who wrote most of the lyrics, died unexpectedly in 2004, leaving John Kander and Rupert Holmes to finish the show on their own. Mr. Kander and his longtime partner were one of Broadway’s most admired songwriting teams, and everybody wanted their last musical to be great. Me, too—but it isn’t, though the production and performances are so immaculately professional that you can almost fool yourself into thinking that “Curtains” is something more than an unrisen soufflé….
Propeller, Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare troupe, is back in Brooklyn for the third season in a row, this time performing “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Twelfth Night” in repertory at BAM Harvey. Both productions, played on the simplest of tour-friendly sets, are fast, fresh, funny and full of surprises. “The Taming of the Shrew” is thought-provoking, while “Twelfth Night” shimmers with magic. No matter how much Shakespeare you’ve seen lately, you’ll come home buzzing about the Bard as if you’d just discovered him….
Bob Glaudini’s “Jack Goes Boating” is an embarrassingly unfunny working-class romantic comedy in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays yet another shambling, depressed slacker type, this time a dope-smoking limo driver who’s never had a girlfriend. (No wonder.) Some seem to have found it amusing, but I couldn’t stop looking at my watch, not even when Daphne Rubin-Vega took off her clothes….
No free link. You know what to do, and if you’re smart, you’ll go here to do it. (If you’re already a subscriber to the Online Journal, my column is here.)
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
"In Washington, the first thing people tell you is what their job is. In Los Angeles you learn their star sign. In Houston you’re told how rich they are. And in New York they tell you what their rent is."
We note with sorrow the death of Cathy Seipp, whose witty, wonderfully personal blog, Cathy’s World, drew readers from both sides of the ideological fence. Would that there were more such writers. She will be greatly missed.
I was supposed to go down to Washington today for the spring meeting of the National Council on the Arts, but I've been having trouble licking the bug that laid me low earlier this month, and decided to be sensible and cancel my trip. (If David Letterman can call in sick, so can I!)
Expect the usual theater-related postings and almanac entries, but otherwise I plan to stay out of sight for a few days. See you Monday, presumably.
I’ve written twice in the past few days about The Yale Book of Quotations, both in The Wall Street Journal (no free link) and in my weekly book-review column for Contentions. As you can see from the latter, I mostly like it very much. Yet I can’t help but think that for all the considerable virtues of this particular specimen of the genre, the old-fashioned dictionary of quotations may be an idea whose time has come and gone.
The problem, of course, is that in many ways—though not all—such books are far easier to use once they’re been digitized. I found this out a couple of years ago when I started using the quotation-search feature of bartleby.com, the online reference site that makes it possible to search simultaneously in The Columbia World of Quotations, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, and the 1919 edition of Bartlettt’s Familiar Quotations. None of these volumes is ideal, but taken together they constitute a formidable super-reference tool, especially when you can search them electronically. Were bartleby.com to add H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations to its quiver, it would border on the indispensable.
As I observed in the Journal on Saturday, The Yale Book of Quotations is itself a meta-tool whose compilers have used the Web shrewdly:
Fred R. Shapiro, the editor, has made use of what he refers to in his preface as “state-of-the-art research methods,” meaning the searchable online databases that are revolutionizing scholarly research. Mr. Shapiro and his associates have employed Eighteenth Century Collections Online, JSTOR, LexisNexis, Literature Online, newspaperarchive.com, ProQuest, Questia and the Times Digital Archive assiduously and well...I now know, for instance, that the phrase “shop till you drop” is a paraphrase of a line in Noël Coward’s 1938 play “Still Life,” while I was staggered to discover that George Orwell, of all people, appears to have coined Murphy’s Law in 1941: “If there is a wrong thing to do, it will be done, infallibly.”…
In 2002 I published a biography of H.L. Mencken on which I’d been working for a decade. I spent much of that time sifting through Mencken’s private papers, in which I found a wealth of invaluable information—but I wasn’t able to pin down the exact occasion on which he coined the phrase “Bible Belt.” Well, Mr. Shapiro and his trusty computer succeeded in doing what I couldn’t do: Mencken first used it in a column published in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 19, 1924.
On the other hand, my guess is that I would use The Yale Book of Quotations far more frequently if I could load it into my iBook or access it online, and I suspect that most under-50 writers and scholars (a category to which I no longer belong!) are likely to feel the same way. Books are blessed objects, but I question whether there is anything special to be gained by looking up the source of a quotation or the meaning of a word by riffling through a fat stack of bound sheets of paper. The two-volume Shorter Oxford still rests proudly on my desk, but I sadly confess that I can’t remember the last time I cracked it. When I need to look up a word, I do it online.
It happens, however, that I read The Yale Book of Quotations from cover to cover. “Yeah, right,” my Wall Street Journal editor said when he ran across that claim in the first draft of my column, to which I replied firmly that I’d turned every damn page. Granted, I was sick as a dog that week and didn’t feel up to reading anything that required consecutive thought, but the fact remains that I did it, and in the process made any number of serendipitous discoveries, including the one about Mencken, that I almost certainly wouldn’t have made had I been “reading” The Yale Book of Quotations on a CD-ROM. Therein lies the one great advantage of old-fashioned books: they lend themselves to browsing in a way that computerized databases do not. If books on paper continue to be printed and published a half-century from now, that may be the main reason for their survival.
Longtime readers of this blog doubtless suspect that I’ve long nurtured the desire to compile my own dictionary of quotations. Ever since “About Last Night” went live in 2003, I’ve posted a quotation each weekday, none of which has been repeated intentionally. (I've slipped once or twice.) These almanac entries are the postmodern equivalent of a commonplace book, and taken together they say at least as much about me as Mencken’s New Dictionary says about him. That’s not coincidental. As I pointed out in my Mencken biography:
The only important author missing from its 1,347 pages is Mencken himself, who told Time that “I thought it would be unseemly to quote myself. I leave that to the intelligence of posterity.” Yet the New Dictionary bears the dark stamp of his skepticism on every page, and at least one critic, Morton Dauwen Zabel, was quick to grasp the fact: “The impression soon becomes inescapable that what Mencken has produced as a ‘Dictionary of Quotations’ is really a transcendent ‘Prejudices: Seventh Series,’ a ‘Notes on Humanity,’ or more expressly ‘Mencken’s Philosophical Dictionary, Written by Others.’”
I’m old-fashioned enough to wish that I could spin my almanac entries into a book, and new-fangled enough to know that I probably won’t get the chance. Commonplace books do get published on occasion, but only when they happen to have been kept by such famous folk as W.H. Auden or Alec Guinness. I have little doubt that it is the fate of my serial commonplace book to blush unseen, save by the readers of this blog and those Googlers who happen by chance to stumble across its contents. Yet I keep it anyway, and I’m glad I do, for choosing each day’s entry adds a discreet pinch of savor to my life. I hope it does the same for you.
Last night I went to a memorial service for Jesse Simons, one of the most delightful and fascinating men I’ve had the good luck to meet. Jesse, who died last year at the age of eighty-eight, was a Trotskyist turned labor arbitrator. He became sufficiently distinguished in the latter capacity to earn both a Wikipedia entry and a New York Times obituary, neither of which mentioned that he was also a bon vivant, a ladies’ man, and an unswervingly devoted balletomane.
Even in Manhattan, there aren’t all that many people interested in both George Balanchine and Leon Trotsky, so it was probably inevitable that Jesse and I should have gotten to know one another sooner or later. He reminded me of Eric Hoffer, another blue-collar man who turned himself into a intellectual by sheer force of will, though Jesse’s aesthetic streak was at least as pronounced as his interest in ideas. One of the speakers at his service mentioned his love of Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler, and his passion for Freud was a byword among all who knew him. Yet there was nothing pretentious about Jesse, who wore his learning lightly and was modest to a fault, though he had no earthly reason to be.
Among countless other intriguing things, Jesse was one of the founding directors of the New York Pro Musica Antiqua, the pioneering early-music group. Noah Greenberg, who started the Pro Musica, was another ex-Trotskyist, a labor organizer who subsequently turned his back on radical politics to immerse himself in the world of art. Late in life, Jesse was interviewed by James Gollin, Greenberg’s excellent biographer, to whom he made the following remark:
I knew dozens of the people who were around in those days. Politicals, labor people, intellectuals. We were all going to make the world a better place. But the only one who really left the world a better place than he found it was Noah, with his music.
I made a point of including those telling words in a piece about Greenberg that I wrote for Commentary in 2001, partly because I knew that Jesse was a faithful reader of the magazine and hoped the gesture might please him. It was the only time his name ever appeared in Commentary, and one of the few times it appeared in print during his lifetime. More’s the pity, for he could easily have written a classic autobiography. Instead his friends—of whom there were many—must rely on their memories. I know that mine will always stay bright and true.
The art world is buzzing about this story from The Stranger, Seattle's alternative newspaper. (CultureGrrl wrote about it here.) It seems that Matthew Kangas, Seattle’s best-known art critic, has a good-sized collection consisting mainly of pieces given to him by local artists—at his request:
Last week, nine artists went on record with The Stranger saying that Kangas did ask directly for art or implied he should be given art before or after he wrote reviews of their work. In a phone interview, Kangas denied ever having done so. He does have a collection of art, he said, and artists have given him much of it….
After Kangas's 1995 review of Alice Wheeler's photography show at Vox Populi was published in Art in America, he called her, she said. "It was like, 'Okay, the review's out, when can I come over to pick out some art? We also need to go to lunch and we're going to Palomino and you're buying,'" she said. "I thought it was what I had to do." She gave him two pictures and spent $75 on lunch, she said. "My rent was $285 at the time, so it was a lot of money. I like Matthew; I just think that some of what he does is manipulative and BS."
It is, of course, well known that Clement Greenberg, on whom Kangas appears to have modeled himself, accepted gifts of art from many of the artists about whom he wrote, and that he later sold an unknown number of them to pay his bills. (Seven years after his death, his second wife sold the residue of his collection to the Portland Museum of Art, which reportedly paid $2,000,000 for it.) But I know of no evidence that Greenberg shook down any of the artists in question, or anything remotely like it.
No less interesting is the second half of the piece, which describes the conflict-of-interest policies that Art in America, Sculpture, the New York Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Seattle Times impose on their culture staffers:
Daily newspapers are far stricter than industry magazines when it comes to conflict-of-interest standards. At the Seattle Times, a portion of the ethics guidelines pertains to collecting but doesn't address it directly: "No staff member may cover, edit, package, or supervise regular coverage of an industry, company, venture, or person in which the staff member, spouse, or domestic partner has any investment, or immediate family members have significant investment, financial or business ties. Such ties pose the appearance of a conflict of interest and may harm the Times and staff member's reputations."…
The written rule at the New York Times includes a similar clause to one in the Seattle Times guidebook, with the added: "An arts writer or editor who owns art of exhibition quality (and thus has a financial stake in the reputation of the artist) may inspire questions about the impartiality of his or her critical judgments or editing decisions. Thus members of the culture staff who collect valuable objects in the visual arts (paintings, photographs, sculpture, crafts, and the like) must annually submit a list of their acquisitions and sales to the associate managing editor for news administration."
New York Times culture editor Sam Sifton said the rule is mostly for writers who come to their beats already owning objects; he said he would be uncomfortable with a critic assembling a collection. He compared the situation to a stock-market writer investing in securities. Gifts are a further problem, he said. The New York Times has a newsroom-wide injunction against gifts over $25 in value.
All this was of great personal interest to me. It's no secret that I collect art, but I only know two artists, neither of whom is represented in my collection, and I would never think of asking either one for a piece of art. The very idea shocks me—which may simply mean that I’m naďve.
It never occurred to me, for instance, that there was anything wrong with my mentioning Milton Avery in a "Sightings" column about art galleries that I published last year in The Wall Street Journal, especially since Avery is (A) dead and (B) an indisputably major artist whose reputation is unlikely to be affected by anything I might happen to write about him. After the column ran, though, one of my editors pointed out that my ownership of an Avery drypoint might be construed as a conflict of interest, and suggested that I henceforth make a point of not writing for the Journal about any artist whose work I own. The Teachout Museum is a small-time affair, monetarily speaking, but I took his point, and since then I’ve been careful to follow his advice.
Needless to say, I don’t write about the visual arts as a working critic, merely as a passionately interested observer of the art scene, the same way I now write about dance. (I used to be a working dance critic, but not any longer.) Theater is different: I’m the drama critic of a national newspaper, and I’m well aware of what it would mean if I were to review a close friend in its pages. On the other hand, I’m not a “theater person” in the common sense of the phrase, and I don’t have any close friends whose work I would ever have occasion to review in the Journal.
Is that a good thing? Not really. As I wrote last year, “A critic who holds himself at arm's length from the artistic community whose activities he covers is a eunuch in the harem.” Nor do I hold myself at arm’s length from the world of music, of which I have been a part my whole life long. If I write well about music, it’s partly because I am a musician, from which it naturally follows that I know other musicians. Not surprisingly, some of them are among my closest friends, and I sometimes write about them—though not as a critic. Reviewing your friends is a good way to lose them. I plug the work of friends on this blog when I like it. Otherwise I stand tactfully mute.
Would I be a better drama critic if I also had friends who were well-known actors, directors, or playwrights? Very possibly, but the fact remains that I don't, a deficiency which at least has the advantage of simplifying my professional relationship with The Wall Street Journal. Since I don’t move in theatrical circles or write profiles of people who do, I doubt I’ll be grappling with that problem any time soon. Should it come up in the future, I’ll do my best to behave appropriately.
All of which reminds me of the First Rule of Criticism, which I shared with my students at Rutgers/Newark back in the days when I was teaching a class in journalistic criticism: Never sleep with anybody you write about. I never have—but, then, I've never been asked.
Dance there upon the shore;
What need have you to care
For wind or water’s roar?
And tumble out your hair
That the salt drops have wet;
Being young you have not known
The fool’s triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won,
Nor the best labourer dead
And all the sheaves to bind.
What need have you to dread
The monstrous crying of wind?
I’ve been busy. (What else is new?) Among other things, I took Sarah to Chris Thile’s Zankel Hall concert and saw Curtains, Jack Goes Boating, and Propeller’s all-male stagings of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. I also dined with two good friends, cranked out a fair amount of prose, and reread my favorite classical-music autobiography, Carl Flesch’s Memoirs, from which I’ve previously extracted a couple of almanac entries. This time I ran across the following pithy remark: “A teacher who is only interested in great talents is like a man who only seeks the company of rich people.”
Chris’ concert was an event of no small significance, and I'll be curious to see whether the reviews convey that fact. The Blind Leaving the Blind, the centerpiece of the program, is a forty-minute-long multi-movement work for voice and bluegrass quintet that is through-composed. A few theater composers, most notably Stephen Sondheim, Adam Guettel, and Michael John LaChiusa, have broken away from the repeating-chorus song-form model to forge large-scale musical structures rooted in the language of popular music, but I can’t think of very many pop musicians who’ve attempted anything as ambitious as The Blind Leaving the Blind. Some of the seams are joined a bit too loosely, but the piece still works, and the spectacularly fleet-fingered members of the Tensions Mountain Boys, Chris’ new band, are equal to the technical challenges he's flung at them.
The rest of the concert was devoted to songs from How to Grow a Woman From the Ground, the Tensions Mountain Boys’ debut album. It’s a winning piece of work that I commend to your attention, though what I really want to hear is a studio recording of The Blind Leaving the Blind. No piece as complex as this can be fully taken in at first hearing, and I’m eager to listen to it at my leisure.
In between these varied activities, I hung a new piece of art, a watercolor by Jane Wilson that I bought a month ago but couldn’t take home with me on the spot because it was part of a show at DC Moore Gallery. I’ve been a fan of Wilson’s work ever since I wrote about her for the Washington Post in 2003, and it gave me great pleasure to hang “Breaking Light” directly below Fairfield Porter’s Isle au Haut and Jane Freilicher’s Late Afternoon, Southampton.
This is the first piece of art I've bought from a Fifth Avenue gallery, and I was struck by how the staff treated me once I made it clear that I wasn't just browsing. "I'm wondering whether you have any other Wilson watercolors in inventory," I told the young woman at the front desk. All at once the boss materialized from out of nowhere, whisked me into a back room, and started hanging art on the wall. I couldn't help thinking of the scene from Pretty Woman in which Richard Gere informs the snobby manager of a clothing store on Rodeo Drive that he's planning to spend a really offensive amount of money on Julia Roberts. The fact that the watercolor in which I'd expressed interest was a modestly priced five-by-seven miniature made the experience even more satisfying. The only thing nicer than being treated as if you were rich is being treated that way when it's obvious that you're not.
It was snowing when I hung “Breaking Light” last Friday, and the light from my window was chilly and grey, so I warmed the air by putting on Aaron Copland’s Violin Sonata, a gentle, modest piece that I hadn’t heard for some time. Listening to Copland’s music in a room whose walls are covered with American art reminded me of a “Sightings” column I wrote for The Wall Street Journal late in 2005:
What do the music of Aaron Copland, the dances of Paul Taylor, the paintings of Stuart Davis and the novels of Willa Cather have in common? They’re all American—and all-American. You can’t listen to five bars of “Appalachian Spring,” or read a paragraph of “My Ántonia,” without catching the tangy scent of American modernism. It’s as familiar as the smell of wood smoke on a cold November evening. You can also hear it in the brassy bite of the trumpet cadenza that launches Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” just as you can see it in the last shot of John Ford’s “The Searchers,” that unutterably poignant moment when John Wayne turns from his reunited family and walks alone into the desert….
All this was on my own mind as I paid a visit to “Marks of Distinction: Two Hundred Years of American Drawings and Watercolors from the Hood Museum of Art,” a handsome little show on display through Dec. 31 at the National Academy Museum in New York. Put together by the museum of Dartmouth College, it consists of eighty exceedingly well-chosen works on paper by such noted artists as John James Audubon, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin, Romare Bearden and Lee Bontecou.
As this list suggests, “Marks of Distinction” offers a cross-section of American art so wide-ranging in style as to make a casual visitor wonder whether any generalizations about our art can possibly hold true. But as I walked through the galleries, I was struck anew by the web of common temperament that knits together the best of these works, different though they may look at first glance.
One aspect of this temperament is an overarching sense of loneliness—rarely oppressive, certainly not neurotic, but omnipresent all the same. The landscapes in “Marks of Distinction” are usually unpeopled, the cityscapes anonymous, the portraits stoic to the occasional point of outright facelessness. Even in a festive scene like Charles Demuth’s “Beach Study No. 3, Provincetown,” the three brightly colored bathers are suspended in a cold white void, just as the ship in Lyonel Feininger’s “Seascape with Cloudy Sky” sails an empty sea. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to find in this quality a reflection of a land of illimitably vast expanses, a place where even the most crowded city offers its dwellers what E.B. White called “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”
Another thing I noticed time and again in “Marks of Distinction” was a certain brisk informality. We are a people in love with change, which may explain why our artists like nothing better than to catch images on the wing, recording them in explosive flurries of brushstrokes that suggest the dynamism of American life. Perhaps that’s why many of our finest modernists chose to cultivate the excitingly ambiguous middle ground that separates literal representation from pure abstraction. It’s a short step from the cubist turbulence of John Marin’s all-but-abstract “Sea Piece in Red” to the landscape-evoking expressionism of the profoundly mysterious untitled mixed-media sketch by Joan Mitchell that is my favorite piece in the show.
Above all, American artists are natural-born empiricists, passionate disbelievers in theory who seek truth through the immediate experience of the senses, then set it down on paper without excessive regard for whatever rules and regulations may happen to be in fashion at the moment. Ours is a nation of Gatsbys, homemade and self-created, and our best artists share something of the same determinedly unacademic individuality. That’s why the 80 works included in “Marks of Distinction” are at once so stylistically diverse and so recognizably American, two sides of a coin on which is stamped the motto that sums up our wonderful country without a wasted word: Out of many, one.
I wrote a piece this morning, then met Maccers at the Dahesh Museum of Art, which has a very nice restaurant. Afterward we strolled up to 59E59 and saw Amy Irving in A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop. At play’s end we walked over to Tibor de Nagy to ogle a exhibition of paintings by Jane Freilicher (about which you can read more in the right-hand column).
I’d planned to spend the rest of the afternoon at the gym, but I didn’t feel like staying indoors, so even though I wasn’t wearing a coat, I walked all the way home at a spectacularly brisk clip. The southeast corner of Central Park was a symphony of pale greens and tans, so I entered the park and headed for Seventy-Second Street, exiting at the Dakota. It was the first time I’d taken so long a walk through the park since Ms. in the wings paid me a visit
back in November. By the time I finally charged up the stairs to my apartment, I’d worked up a sweat and felt like a couple of million bucks.
I also felt amazingly grateful, which is something I haven’t been feeling nearly enough of late, preoccupied as I’ve been with thoughts of mortality. Needless to say, the fact that I took a long walk on a pretty day doesn’t mean I’m not going to die sooner or later, but the Distinguished Thing seems far, far away as I write these words at the end of a perfect afternoon.
I seem to be really drawn to minor keys. Some people would say, well, they're melancholy or they're dark, but I don't think so. I think they're richer and I get a sense when I listen to a minor key that the composer has somehow worked harder at it.
Incidentally, here's something relevant that I wrote for Commentary a couple of months ago apropos of Mozart's minor-key works:
I refer to the comparatively small number of multi-movement works cast in minor keys—two piano sonatas out of 17, two piano concertos out of 27, two symphonies out of 41. For while these and other minor-key works of like scale are not necessarily of higher quality than their major-key counterparts, they do share a special intensity of expression not found in such major-key masterpieces as the C Major Symphony, K. 551, familiarly known as the “Jupiter.”
This intensity manifests itself in many ways, from the turbulence of the first movement of the D Minor Piano Concerto, K. 466, to the crisp austerity of the E Minor Violin Sonata, K. 304. Sometimes, as in the G Minor String Quintet, K. 516, one perceives the minor-key quality as a tint, a single aspect of a carefully balanced, classically poised totality. At other times, as in the unabashedly stern A Minor Piano Sonata, K. 310, it becomes overwhelming, infusing an entire piece with its distinctive coloration. In every case, though, the large-scale minor-key pieces, different as they are from one another, are similar in their power to stir the listener’s emotions, just as one feels, whether rightly or wrongly, that Mozart’s own emotions were more fully engaged in the act of their creation—that he was somehow playing for higher stakes....
I'd say I'm on the same page as our mystery guest!
I’m back in my Washington hotel room once more, having just wrapped up another excruciatingly long day.
I've been too busy to visit the hotel gym, so I decided to work up a sweat by walking to the Old Post Office instead of taking a cab. As I left the hotel at eight-thirty, I noticed two Secret Service snipers lurking on the White House roof—a sight I'd never seen—as well as a hardy little group of picketers marching up and down the sidewalk, chanting "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Wal-Mart's got to go!" to the accompaniment of a banging drum as a nearby cameraman clicked away.
The National Council on the Arts met from nine to six (we worked straight through lunch, dining on pasta salad at the conference table). Afterward I hopped a cab to the Phillips Collection, my favorite museum, where I saw a lovely show called Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris, 1870-1910, assembled in collaboration with Tate Britain and installed with exceptional elegance and lucidity by the staff of the Phillips. You can read all about it by clicking the link, so I’ll say only that I just saw more paintings by Walter Sickert in a single evening than I’d previously seen in my entire life, in addition to which I also made the acquaintance of some interesting works by several other English artists who are rarely if ever shown in this country. I especially liked a Max Beerbohm-like caricature of Toulouse-Lautrec
by William Rothenstein, Beerbohm’s classmate and close friend.
(Incidentally, I learned at today’s meeting that the Phillips Collection has digitized its entire collection of American paintings, an undertaking for which the NEA helped to pay. Go here and you can browse the museum’s online collection, which is a model of art-related Web-site design.)
I went from the Phillips to Olives, where I had a tasty, unhurried, and solitary dinner (I was supposed to meet a friend, but she had to cancel at the last minute). Now I’m about to curl up in bed with Michael Ruhlman’s Walk on Water: Inside an Elite Pediatric Surgical Unit, a remarkable book that Our Girl gave me for my fiftieth birthday but which I’ve only just looked into, perhaps because books about heart surgery aren't the most comforting leisure-time reading for someone who recently survived a bout with congestive heart failure!
On Friday morning the NCA holds a public meeting, after which I’ll take the next train back to New York, rest a bit, then head down to the Zipper Theatre to see a press preview of the new off-Broadway revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. I have yet another show on Saturday afternoon, followed by a full day of writing for The Wall Street Journal.
* * *
I'll be holed up in one of my secret hideaways all next week, working on Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. I'll probably post a daily almanac entry and the usual Thursday and Friday drama-related stuff, but absolutely no more than that (though I'm sure Our Girl will have something to say from time to time).
I got out of town for the first half of today’s Wall Street Journal drama column, a review of Two River Theater Company’s new production of Waiting for Godot, which I reviewed in tandem with an off-Broadway stage version of The Screwtape Letters:
Samuel Beckett would have turned 100 next month—but so far, next to no attention has been paid to the Nobel Prize-winning playwright’s centennial. Except for an Off-Broadway “Waiting for Godot” that got swallowed up by the transit strike, there have been no Beckett revivals of significance in New York this season (though the Irish Repertory Theatre mounted a very fine “Endgame” last year). According to samuel-beckett.net, the semi-official Beckett Web site, only two full-scale Beckett festivals are being held in the entire U.S., one in Atlanta and the other in Red Bank, a small New Jersey city best known to culture vultures as the home town of Count Basie and Edmund Wilson.
It was news to me that Red Bank is also the home of a theater company, much less that the company in question had the gumption to put on its very own Samuel Beckett Festival. My curiosity having been piqued, I rented a car, drove there last Saturday, and saw a production of “Waiting for Godot” that couldn’t have been better.…
Clowning about matters metaphysical is not the exclusive privilege of unbelievers. Fellowship for the Performing Arts, an organization that supports “the integration of faith and the arts,” is currently presenting an Off-Broadway stage version of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” the wickedly witty epistolary novel in which His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, Under Secretary of the Satanic Lowerarchy, instructs his nephew Wormwood, a doltish junior tempter, in the fine art of persuading unwitting humans to part with their souls. It is—if I may say so—one hell of a good show….
No link, naturally, so do the right thing: buy a copy of today’s Journal and read the entire review (which is ever so much longer!). Or, as always, you can go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with on-the-spot access to the full text of my review, along with an abundance of additional art-related coverage.
My all-time favorite complaint came from a reader who wrote a letter to the editor near the beginning of my career at the South Bend Tribune. He was objecting to a theater review I had written. The letter began: "Who is this Mark Stryker? He doesn't seem to have any opinions but his own."
From About Last Night, April 1, 2010: "I was happy when they turned the National Gallery into a Duane Reade, and I'll be even happier later this week when they do the same to the Phillips. These institutions, which have long outlived their day, should be doing something useful, like selling hairspray, cheap soda, and bowel prep kits."
(P.S. To order a really nice book of postcards from the National Gallery’s Cézanne in Provence exhibition, go here.)
I’m getting ready to ease myself back into the blogging way, but here’s a little appetizer while I get warmed up: our newest addition to the “Screenblogs” category of the ‘groll, Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent House Next Door, links to a poll to determine the worst Best Picture Oscar winners. Mr. Seitz’s terrible ten can be viewed here, and do note that he runs one of the liveliest, most on-point comments threads to be found on this here web.
Talk at you again soon. We have much to discuss.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, March 23, 2006 | Permanent
TT: On the town
I’m writing from Washington, D.C., having just gotten back to my hotel after a very long day, so I’ll keep it fairly short:
• I started things off by going straight from the train station to the National Gallery, where I saw Cézanne in Provence, a 117-piece exhibition up through May 7. Some of the paintings are fairly familiar, but at least as many of them are likely to be new to even the most knowledgeable lover of Cézanne’s work. Like most blockbuster shows, this one is too much of a muchness, and it’s also attracting hordes of noisy visitors—but it’s overwhelming all the same, and not to be missed.
For me, the last gallery, which consists mainly of landscapes painted at the end of Cézanne’s life, was the most memorable. The Phillips Collection’s near-abstract Garden at Les Lauves hangs next to the exit, accompanied by this excerpt from a letter written by the artist in 1905, a year before his death:
Now, being old, nearly 70 years, the sensations of color, which give the light, are for me the reason for the abstractions, which do not allow me to cover my canvas entirely, nor to focus on the edges of objects where their points of contact are fine and delicate; from which it results that my image or picture is incomplete.
The two side galleries devoted to watercolors and color lithographs comprise a show-within-a-show (and aren’t nearly as crowded as the main galleries, thank goodness). I saw several of these watercolors at a Princeton University exhibition I reviewed four years ago for The Wall Street Journal:
In France, Cézanne was piling up watercolors by the dozen as early as the 1870s, some obviously sketchy, others so dazzling in their iridescent color and complex composition—an elaborate skein of pencil underdrawing “covered” by overlapping patches of transparent pigment—that it is hard to think of them as mere studies. Yet such may well have been the artist’s intent, at least at times, for Renoir claimed to have found discarded Cézanne watercolors littering the fields around Aix-en-Provence....
Not surprisingly, it was a great poet who summed them up best: Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that Cézanne’s watercolors consist of “very light pencil outlines, and, here and there, as if just for emphasis and confirmation, there’s an accidental scattering of color, a row of spots, wonderfully arranged and with a security of touch: as if mirroring a melody.”
(A word to the wise: when you’ve had enough of the crowds, slip across the corridor to Gallery 70, where you can feast your eyes on John Twachtman’s Winter Harmony in near-complete solitude.)
• I went straight from the National Gallery to the White House, where I lunched with two colleagues. I blogged last year about my previous visit to the White House Mess, so this time around I’ll say only that the chicken and empanadas were first-rate.
• From there I walked to the Old Post Office, headquarters of the National Endowment for the Arts, and spent the remainder of the afternoon in a closed session of the National Council on the Arts. After wrapping up our first day’s discussions, we shared a working dinner with Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, who spoke with passionate idealism about cultural memory in Iran and America. It was our first meeting, and I was forcibly struck by her charm and charisma.
I told Nafisi after dinner that her remarks had put me in mind of the concluding passage of C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism:
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
Now I’m worn out and ready for bed—Thursday’s session starts promptly at nine a.m. and I’m already a couple of hours’ behind on sleep. See you tomorrow.
Like most people who sell their opinions for a living, I get a certain amount of mail (and e-mail) from readers who beg to differ with me, sometimes quite forcefully. Their letters are typically concise, fair-minded, and intelligent, and I make every effort to answer them personally. From time to time, I also get letters that usually run to about six pages in length and are invariably single-spaced with very narrow margins. More often than not, these correspondents start out by explaining why I'm all wrong about something trivial, and end up revealing that their fillings have been bugged by aliens in the pay of the CIA. Hard experience has taught me never to reply to such mail, though I always enjoy reading it.
Perhaps the most common complaint I get is from people who claim that my writings are full of “unsubstantiated pronouncements” (or nastier words to that effect). This never fails to throw me. Virtually all criticism, after all, is full of "unsubstantiated pronouncements." They're called opinions, and yours are as good as mine. The only difference is that I get paid to write mine down. To be sure, I like to think that my opinions have at least some validity, based as they are on a lifetime of intense professional involvement with the world of art. In the end, though, you must be the judge. If my opinions rarely tally with your perceptions, then chances are you'll stop taking my criticism seriously, no matter how cleverly written it may be. Conversely, if I have a history of steering you straight (or at least making you think twice), then chances are you'll be inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt when I praise a book you haven't read, or a play you didn't see. That's the main reason why I write criticism: I want to share my pleasures. Yes, I sometimes feel the need to smite the heathen, but I'd be perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life writing solely and only about things I like.
Alas, I’ve found over the years that many people (especially midwesterners, who are trained to say "sir" and "ma'am" and be polite to strangers) become uncomfortable whenever they're confronted with strongly expressed opinions on any subject whatsoever—even positive ones. It took me a long time to figure out the reason why, which is that all positive opinions have negative implications. If the Copland Piano Sonata is the best piece of piano music written by an American, then it follows logically that the Barber Sonata isn't as good. But there's plenty of room at the top: just because the G Minor Symphony is Mozart's finest work for orchestra doesn't mean the "Jupiter" isn't uniquely great in its own way. Besides, it's only my opinion, right?
Lest you suspect me of having succumbed to spineless relativism, let me make haste to declare my firm belief in the existence of absolute artistic truth. When I say I thinkThe Great Gatsby is a better book than The Sun Also Rises, I mean I think The Great Gatsbyis a better book than The Sun Also Rises, and I don't mean maybe: if I were appointed Keeper of the Canon of American Masterpieces tomorrow morning, my first act would be to send a memo saying so to every librarian in America. As I see it, then, my duty as a critic is to speak my mind—in this case, my opinion of the relative merits of two great books—as clearly and compellingly as possible. In time this opinion will either be forgotten or make its way into the vast mass of criticism through which posterity will slowly winnow, a process that ultimately leads to the emergence of a consensus of taste. The critics of 2106 may well consider Gatsby to be less good than The Sun Also Rises, or maybe even not very good at all. They may not like either book. The one thing of which you can be sure is this: if I don't speak frankly now, it won't matter what I thought, be it a hundred years from now or next Friday.
But will it matter at all? If artistic truth is absolute, then won't it emerge inevitably over time, regardless of what critics have to say? I believe so. In art, the good guys always win, sooner or (usually) later. Critics can't turn a bad play into a good one, or vice versa. What they can do, if they're perceptive and persuasive enough, is speed up the process by nudging their contemporaries in what they believe to be the right direction. It's fine with me if you like Hedda Gabler better than Three Sisters. I don't feel threatened by the fact that we differ, nor do I feel any compulsion to try to change your mind. I'm not in the mind-changing business—I'm in the mind-opening business. If I can get you to go see a play you’ve never seen before, and at least consider the possibility that it might be good, then I've done my job.
Having said all this, let me close by speaking directly to those readers who get all steamed up whenever I write something with which they disagree: I'm genuinely sorry that my work upsets you. I don't set out merely to make anyone angry or stir up a fuss. I always mean exactly what I say. Naturally, you're entitled to your opinion—but so am I. So the next time you write, please do me the favor of giving me the benefit of the doubt. Merely because you happen to disagree with me doesn't necessarily mean I'm stupid, or even ignorant. Who knows? I might even be right.
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
BROADWAY: • Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Bridge & Tunnel* (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza* (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd* (musical, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
"'It seems sometimes that we must hurt people we love,' said Fabian, stroking her hair. 'Oscar Wilde said, didn't he...?'
"'Let's not bother about him,' said Jessie. 'I always think he must have been such a bore, saying those witty things all the time. Just imagine seeing him open his mouth to speak and then waiting for it to come out. I couldn't have endured it.'"
A reader writes, apropos of yesterday’s posting on the sorry state of the classical-music concert:
Please don't do classical music any more favors, Terry. Just go back to your CDs and keep telling yourself that Schnabel is the last word on Beethoven.
Of course there is no "last word" on Beethoven, or any other composer—but after a lifetime of listening to multiple interpretations of the classics, I'm simply not interested in the Latest Version of anything. What I care about is the piece itself, far more than the way any one particular artist happens to play it, and now that each and every piece of standard-rep music has been recorded in multiple versions of very high quality, I find I have very little motivation to go out and hear Op. 111 done in yet another way, however “different” or “original” it might happen to be. Yes, the experience of hearing classical music in live performance is in and of itself worthwhile, but when the environment in which one consumes it has been degraded, I'm not so sure it's cost-effective (speaking from an aesthetic point of view) to put up with the distractions.
This, by the way, is an unintended consequence of the invention of recording that nobody foresaw a century ago: that it might eventually make public performance obsolete, or at least moribund. It is, however, something that I’ve been writing about for years. Here, for instance, is a column called “No, Never” that I wrote for Fi a decade ago. I was talking about how I was no longer interested in listening to new recordings of the standard repertoire, but the same logic applies to my changing feelings about the institution of the traditional classical concert. It sums up what I think so completely that I’ve decided to post it here rather than trying to say it all again in a different way. I hope it interests you.
* * *
I received in the mail the other day a review copy of a new recording of the Brandenburg Concertos (I won't say by whom), accompanied by a slightly shamefaced letter from a well-meaning publicist (who shall also remain nameless) suggesting that even though I probably wasn't interested in listening to yet another recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, this one was worth my while. Candor from a publicist is as refreshing as it is rare, and I was tempted to give the album a listen for that reason alone, but the temptation passed in mere seconds. At the time I was knee-high in review copies, some of which were really interesting, and most of which were at least marginally more interesting than yet another recording of the Brandenburg Concertos. So I dropped the letter in the wastebasket, placed the CD atop my burgeoning giveaway pile, and meditated, not for the first time, on the folly of re-recording the classics.
What is it that causes an otherwise sensible musician to conclude that the world is waiting breathlessly for him to reduce to digits his interpretation of a score that has already been recorded twenty times or more? Presumably vanity has a little something to do with it, and so does youth—it never ceases to amaze me how many younger classical musicians, singers in particular, don't listen to other people's records—but two other reasons worthy of closer scrutiny come to mind:
• Musicians re-record familiar pieces of music because they think they have something new to say about them that is worthy of preservation and promulgation.
• Musicians also make records to make money, and historically speaking, the standard repertoire has always been what sold best.
I'll come back to the second reason in a moment, but for now let me concentrate on the desire of artists to document their interpretations for posterity, which is almost as old as the invention of a means of doing so—that's why we call records records—and which is, I think, perfectly understandable, if not always forgivable. When Adelina Patti heard the playback of her first 78, she exclaimed, "Ah, my God! Now I understand why I am Patti! Oh, yes! What a voice! What an artist! I understand everything!" I doubt anyone since then has responded quite so effusively to her records (she made them when she was sixty-two years old, a bit late in the game for a coloratura), but it's important to remember that they date from 1905, prior to which time the most celebrated soprano of the nineteenth century had never before heard the sound of her own voice. Being a diva, Madame Patti no doubt instantly took it for granted that opera buffs as yet unborn would want to hear it, too, and sure enough, the old girl was right.
Save for a few eccentric holdouts, classical musicians have from that day to this made as many records as possible, more than a few of which have proved to be of permanent interest. But most of the records made between 1900 and the day before yesterday are either forgotten or soon will be. Posterity is ruthless, and only remembers the best of the best, rave reviews and impressive sales figures notwithstanding. My record collection is a time-lapse simulation of posterity, for I've lived in six different apartments in the past quarter-century, and thus have had to be scrupulous about disposing of review copies that I thought were less than indispensable. You'd be surprised at how many CDs I've given away over the years, and how few I've kept.
To be sure, there are certain works of which I've accumulated a reasonably large number of recorded versions, but very few of them were composed prior to 1800. This isn't because I don't like pre-romantic music, but because I don't find it all that rewarding to compare different interpretations of music written before the dawn of romantic subjectivity. Take the Brandenburg Concertos: I love them passionately, but find it quite possible to scrape along with only four complete sets, the ones conducted by Adolf Busch, Benjamin Britten, Raymond Leppard, and Trevor Pinnock. The Busch, Leppard, and Pinnock sets represent the three major phases to date of evolution in the interpretation of eighteenth-century music (as well as recording technology), while Britten's version earns its place on my shelf by virtue of its status as a wild card—a performance by one great composer of the music of another great composer. As far as I'm concerned, that's enough. Interpretatively speaking, what is there to say about the Brandenburgs that Busch, Britten, Leppard, and Pinnock haven't already said?
I fully expect to be bombarded with letters about that last sentence, some friendly and some obnoxious, but to all of you who are even now booting up your computers, I urge you not to waste your time trying to change my mind. I've been listening to the Brandenburgs ever since I was a teenager—I've even played a few of them, on violin, viola, bass, and in Max Reger's wonderful four-hand piano arrangements—and I long ago decided that immortal though they are, they don't lend themselves to idiosyncratic interpretation. To my mind, the way to play them is beautifully, briskly, and straightforwardly, and between them, my four complete sets cover all the interpretative possibilities I'm interested in experiencing. Anything beyond that is hair-splitting or perversity.
I hasten to point out that this rule of thumb doesn't necessarily apply to nineteenth-century music, in which the performer's personality can and should play a much larger role in the shaping of his interpretations. I've held onto nine of the many recorded versions of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto that have passed through my hands over the years: Cliburn/Reiner, Fischer/Furtwangler, Fleisher/Szell, Gilels/Jochum, Horowitz/Toscanini, Richter/Leinsdorf, Rubinstein/Coates, Schnabel/Boult, and Solomon/Dobrowen. But even that list barely begins to scratch the surface—the last time I looked, there were forty different Brahms Seconds in print—and I wonder just how much I'm likely to get out of any of the new versions that continue to turn up in my mailbox on an annoyingly regular basis.
It so happens that I have reached the time of life when you start wondering when you're going to die, and thinking about what you want to do between now and then. There is a great line about this in Cardinal Newman's Dream of Gerontius, the poem set to music so eloquently by Sir Edward Elgar: "And, ere afresh the ruin on me fall,/Use well the interval." Especially given the fact that we now live in an age when new music has finally gotten good again, I am less and less inclined to use that interval writing about new recordings of old warhorses. I'd much rather hear a piece of music I've never heard than a new recording of the Brandenburgs, no matter how good it is. This isn't to say I can't be surprised, even by baroque music—I still remember how much unexpected pleasure I got out of Gil Shaham's recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons—but there comes a time when the smart man starts following the odds, and in my experience, the odds are that there aren't going to be any more recordings of the Brandenburgs that I really, truly need to hear.
I'm not the only person who's made this discovery, of course: so have most of the smart A&R people at the major classical labels, who are grimly aware that new recordings of the standard repertoire have fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns. I talked not long ago to a young soprano who is very famous, very intelligent, and very realistic, and she told me matter-of-factly that given the current climate of opinion at her label, she didn't expect to record very many of her roles; instead, she intends to stick to imaginatively planned recital discs that have a chance of selling a respectable number of copies. I think she's onto something, and I wish more artists of her generation felt the same way.
I also wish more of today's big-name performers would start taking a closer look at the accessible, attractive music of our time. Until very recently, the surest way for a performer to make it into the history books was not to play old music better than anybody else, but to seek out and perform first-rate new music. I wouldn't be greatly surprised if some of Serge Koussevitzky's recordings are still being played a hundred years from now, but even if they aren't, he'll still be remembered for having premiered the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, a piece he didn't even bother to record commercially. Good performers are never as important as good composers. The best ones know it, and act accordingly.
As for me, I am drawing my personal line in the sand here and now: I do solemnly swear that I will never again review a new recording of the complete Brandenburg Concertos. If you want to get my attention, you'll have to think of another way, preferably not involving plastic explosives. Furthermore, I have every intention of regularly adding other warhorses to my do-not-resuscitate list, so if you want to know what I think of your upcoming recording of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, you'd better get on the stick. I'm sure this decision will cause me to miss out on something good—probably even several hundred somethings—but I don't expect to lose any sleep over it. If God had meant me to spend the middle of my journey writing comparison reviews of two dozen different versions of the Eroica, He would have given me more patience, a bigger apartment, and a longer life.
"I pulled myself up and told myself to stop these ridiculous thoughts, wondering why it is that we can never stop trying to analyze the motives of people who have no personal interest in us, in the vain hope of finding that perhaps they may have just a little after all."
I'm off tomorrow morning to Washington, where I'll be attending a meeting of the National Council on the Arts and looking at paintings at the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery. I may blog from the road, or I may not. Either way, I'll put up my regular Thursday and Friday drama-related postings, so don't despair.
I rarely go to classical concerts. It’s not that I love the music any less, but over time I’ve become increasingly alienated from the experience of concertgoing: the noisy audiences, the unimaginative programs, the feeling that not nearly enough is at stake. Now that I’m spending less time out on the town, I find that few classical-music events in New York City are capable of inspiring me to surrender a precious evening I could spend doing something else.
Hence it was unusual—extraordinary, really—that I decided to attend the first two installments of Ian Bostridge’s ongoing five-concert series at Zankel Hall, the miniature concert hall downstairs from Carnegie Hall. What possessed me to do such a thing? For openers, I was curious about Bostridge, the Oxford grad turned highbrow tenor who in recent years has emerged as the ultimate critics’ darling. I’d very much liked The English Songbook, his recorded recital of turn-of-the-century English art songs, and I wanted to hear how he sounded in the flesh. What’s more, the Zankel series, in which Bostridge is singing an imaginatively chosen assortment of music in five widely varied settings, struck me as a kind of best-case scenario for the classical concert as a cultural institution. I was especially interested in the first two programs, an all-Britten evening and a program with string quartet that featured On Wenlock Edge, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cycle on poems by A.E. Housman, and La Bonne Chanson, Gabriel Fauré’s exquisite musicalization of the poetry of Verlaine. So I booked press seats for both performances, wondering how they’d strike me.
I mostly enjoyed myself, though Bostridge himself is an odd cookie, a skinny, stork-like caricature of English youth who looks as though he’d wandered off the set of a stage version of Brideshead Revisited. His voice is smallish, reedy, and hopelessly unheroic, and though he’s obviously in love with the words he sings, his English diction is fuzzy in the extreme. Yet the overt passion of his singing is hard to resist, and once I got past his surface mannerisms (this is an unsympathetic but funny send-up of his weirdly introverted on-stage demeanor) and accepted him on his own terms, I found his singing involving.
I won’t go into detail about the performances themselves, save to say that this review is pretty much what I would have written had I been covering the first concert for a newspaper. Like I said, I had a good time—and yet I can't help but wonder whether a program less precisely suited to my tastes could have lured me into a concert hall, least of all one whose indifferent acoustics are blighted by the near-constant rumble of the New York subway. The trains roared by, the cell phones twittered, my neighbors coughed at regular intervals…but you know how it is. It’s been a long time since I attended a classical-music concert given in the presence of a silent, fully attentive audience.
I’m writing these words immediately after having returned from a private concert held in the art-laden living room of a friend of mine who owns a wonderful old Bösendorfer grand. The performer was a serious amateur pianist who played two Beethoven sonatas, Opp. 109 and 111 (frivolous amateurs don’t play late Beethoven). I sat close enough to the keyboard to read the music over his shoulder. The audience consisted of twenty people, most of whom knew one another more or less well, and after Op. 111 we retired to the host’s dining room for a sit-down meal. That’s the way to hear classical music.
Yes, my friend is wealthy, and no, I'm not. I don’t even own a piano. But I do have a comfortable chair, a good-quality Nakamichi stereo, and some three thousand CDs, and whenever I please I can take one of them into the living room and listen to it, surrounded by the lithographs and etchings of the Teachout Museum. Had I cared to, I could have stayed home from Zankel Hall last week and spent the evening listening to a recording of On Wenlock Edge by Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten, and the Zorian String Quartet, or a performance of La Bonne Chanson by the great French baritone Charles Panzéra, who knew Fauré and sang for him innumerable times. Can Ian Bostridge compete with that? Yes—just. But not many other classical musicians can.
I still love going to ballet and opera and plays and jazz clubs, mainly because they offer me something I can’t get at home. Hearing late Beethoven in my friend’s living room was a different kind of experience, to be sure, but it, too, was unique and irreplaceable. Hearing a decently played program of oft-recorded standard repertoire in the company of noisy strangers is not. Why should I come hear you play Op. 111 in Alice Tully Hall when I can stay home and listen to Artur Schnabel playing it?
I should mention, by the way, that the friend I brought with me to Bostridge's recitals didn’t know any of the pieces on either program, and her response to them was little short of ecstatic. I don’t think she even heard the rumble of the subway. So much the better for her. It may simply be, after all, that I’ve heard too many concerts in my lifetime. Anthony Powell remarks somewhere in A Dance to the Music of Time that intensive womanizing leads to specialized tastes. But I think it goes deeper than that. In fact, I have a sneaking feeling that the institution of the classical-music concert as we know it has just about run its course—and I won’t be sorry to see it go. It’s way past time for a change.
UPDATE: A friend of mine heard Ian Bostridge last fall and blogged very interestingly about the experience.
See also Alex Ross’ excellent New Yorkerpiece about Bostridge and Britten.
On Saturday afternoon I drove out to Red Bank, New Jersey, to see Two River Theater Company’s new production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and on the way home I listened to Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat. The juxtaposition was unplanned—I was so busy last week that the car ride was the first chance I had to listen to Fagen's new solo album—but like so many things in life, it ended up being fortuitous.
Not only are Godot and Morph the Cat both about death, but they take a similarly jaunty attitude toward what W.C. Fields called “the fellow in the bright nightgown,” a euphemism that inspired Fagen to write one of his most disquieting songs:
Ten milligrams of Chronax
Will whip you back through time
Past Hebrew kings and furry things
To the birth of humankind
I shared in all of nature’s secrets
But when I finally came around
I’m sittin’ on the rug gettin’ a victory hug
From the fella in the Brite Nitegown
Having recently gotten a close look at the same fellow, I found the one-two punch of Godot and Morph the Cat a bit much for one evening. True, the vaudevillian banter of Vladimir and Estragon is not only witty but can also be invigorating, even inspiring, if you're in the right mood, and I’ve loved Fagen’s music for longer than some of you have been alive. On the other hand, we have it on the best authority that human kind/Cannot bear very much reality, and I’d had enough for the weekend by the time I got home.
So what did I do? I got up first thing Sunday morning and proceeded to write a three-thousand-word essay for Commentary on Dinu Lipatti, the great Romanian pianist who died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1950 at the age of thirty-three. Smart move, huh? To be sure, I got to spend the day listening to some of the most beautiful piano playing on record (I especially like the performance of Chopin’s Barcarolle on this CD). Still, it was starting to seem as if I were being stalked by the fellow in the bright nightgown.
How do you get your mind off the inevitable? By doing something completely different, I suppose, which may well have been a part of what Mark Morris had in mind when he made his conducting debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the other day. The Mark Morris Dance Group is currently celebrating its twenty-fifth season, and BAM turned itself inside out to mark the occasion. Among other things, Morris popped up in the orchestra pit to lead a chorus and chamber orchestra in the score to Gloria, a wonderful dance he made in 1981 to Vivaldi’s Gloria.
While Morris is not the first choreographer to have tried his hand at conducting—George Balanchine used to do it from time to time—I can’t think of anyone else alive today who would have been capable of pulling off such a feat. Nor was it a mere stunt: he used a baton and a score, mouthed the Latin words for the benefit of the singers, and controlled the performance with the unflappable assurance of an old pro. (I should know, by the way. Not only was I sitting in an aisle seat with a clear sightline all the way to the pit, but I once played bass in a performance of the Vivaldi Gloria, and I've even done a certain amount of choral conducting myself.)
It occurs to me that I might possibly have had a little something to do with Morris’ decision to take up the baton. I wrote a New York Times profile of him six years ago in which I paid special attention to his musicality (it’s in the Teachout Reader). I spent quite a bit of time watching him work in the course of writing the piece, and after seeing him rehearse a small group of musicians, I told him that I thought he ought to give serious thought to trying his hand at conducting. It happened that a friend of mine was working at the time as the artistic advisor to a big-city symphony orchestra, and I suggested to my friend that he nudge the management into inviting Morris to lead the orchestra in a concert. Nothing came of it, but when I heard that Morris was going to conduct a performance of Gloria, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my not-so-casual suggestion had finally borne fruit.
I mention all this because Morris is about to turn fifty. When you cross the fiftieth meridian, as I did last month, you’re more than likely to feel the need for some kind of change, especially if your life has been running fairly smoothly of late. Some people get divorced, others buy an age-inappropriate car. Mark Morris took up conducting, which strikes me as an ingenious and productive response to the stealthy approach of the Distinguished Thing. Me, I called 911 three months ago and checked myself into the nearest hospital, which wasn't nearly as much fun as conducting Vivaldi’s Gloria but at least had the advantage of making me feel a whole lot better about turning fifty than I might have otherwise.
And now what? I painted my first painting a couple of weeks ago, and it was so much fun that I’m itching to do it again. On the other hand, it isn’t very likely that I’ll be showing at a gallery any time soon, and though there’s much to be said for fun, I have a feeling that it’ll take something more all-consuming to distract me from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. But I’m damned if I know what it might be, so instead of sitting around the apartment brooding, I finished writing my essay about Dinu Lipatti, strolled around the corner to the gym, and spent a sweaty hour on the rowing machine, listening to Morph the Cat as I kicked valiantly against the pricks.
I used to smile when I saw middle-aged people jogging down the street. Now I know better. In the wise words of Anthony Powell, "Later in life, I learnt that many things one may require have to be weighed against one’s dignity, which can be an insuperable barrier against advancement in almost any direction." Except, of course, the direction in which we all advance throughout every minute of every day we spend above ground. At least for the present, I don't care to travel that road any faster than I can help.
"Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It's abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."
To begin with, OGIC and I—as well as artsjournal.com in general, including its associated blogs—have been suffering from a severe case of circumstances beyond our control. For reasons not yet explained to me, and which I probably won’t understand once they’ve been explained, none of us has been able to post anything for the past couple of days. (You already knew this if you looked at the main artsjournal.com page, on which Doug McLennan, our fearless leader and host, was able to inscribe a due-to-technical-difficulties notice just before the electronic ceiling caved in.) Hence our collective silence.
OGIC and I both had unposted items in the pipeline when the lights went out, and they are now available for your delectation, along with my postings for today. Our Girl just left town, and I’m not sure when she’s coming back, but we’re hoping to be in touch by way of that delightfully old-fashioned communications device known as the telephone, and one or the other of us will fill you in thereafter on the details of her impending return to the blogosphere.
As for me, I remain strapped to my desk in New York, but this is the first time since very early Tuesday morning that I’ve been able to write and post anything longer than an almanac entry. The reason for my absence is, if I do say so myself, pretty sensational: I’ve finished the first chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. It’s an 8,300-word “prologue” in which I begin by jumping boldly into the middle of Armstrong’s life, describing in detail his 1956 debut with the New York Philharmonic, a one-nighter that ended up being a turning point in his career. That story told, I devote the rest of the chapter to a scene-setting sketch of Armstrong’s personality and historic significance. Readers of The Skeptic will recognize this narrative tactic—I did the same thing with H.L. Mencken in the first chapter—and since it seemed to work well there, I decided to start Hotter Than That in a similar manner.
Eighty-three hundred words: that’s not much compared to the hundred-thousand-word whole, but it’s a hell of a lot more than nothing, which is what I started with three weeks ago. To put it in a happier-sounding way, I’ve written one-tenth of Hotter Than That. Either way, I feel incredibly excited, not to mention exhausted, since I wrote and edited most of those 8,300 words very late at night (I was up until five Tuesday morning finishing the first draft). I’m on the scoreboard at last, and I like what I've written so far.
I wish I could open a bottle of champagne and take the rest of the week off, but that isn’t going to happen. Not only do I have to go to two more Broadway previews between now and Sunday, but on Monday I board the Acela Express for Washington to attend my first meeting of the National Council on the Arts, and I won’t be back in New York until next Saturday afternoon. I’m going to bring my iBook with me, and I plan to spend as much of my spare time as possible working on the next chapter. I doubt I’ll be able to do anything more than edit what I’ve already written, though, so my hope is to get a preliminary draft of the first half of the chapter down on paper, so to speak, before I hit the road on Monday. For this reason, I haven't done a whole lot of celebrating, unless you call going to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a celebration. (Exorcism is more like it.) Instead, I took a shower and treated myself to an unhurried lunch, then returned to my desk and started describing New Orleans in 1901. Like Crash Davis says in Bull Durham, the moment’s over.
Well, not quite over. I e-mailed a copy of the first chapter to my brother in Missouri, and he in turn is printing it out on paper so that my computer-unfriendly mother can read it. In addition, I sent copies to OGIC and a couple of other close friends, and I trust they’ll respond with an inspiring combination of lavish praise and helpful suggestions.
As for you folks out there in the ’sphere, you’re going to be hearing a lot more about Hotter Than That in the course of the next couple of years, so I won’t hose you down any more today. I will, however, share with you a freshly written snippet of the prologue. I hope you like it:
Louis Armstrong’s pride was ever and always visible in his glowing smile. You can see it, for example, in a photo taken in 1968 when he met Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, in which a glint of delight can be seen on the pope’s tired, worn face. As for Armstrong, he looks blissful. Perhaps he was marveling that a bastard child born in a back alley, one whose mother had mad his school lunches from the pickings of white people’s garbage, should have grown up to meet two popes, chat with Ed Murrow, make movies with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, share a stage with Leonard Bernstein, and be recognized in every corner of the earth. Music had brought him all these things, and something more: in return for a lifetime of unswerving dedication, he knew true happiness, and shared it with his fellow men. He might well have told them, with Constantin Brancusi, that “it is pure joy that I offer you.” Like other self-made men, it sometimes slipped his mind that his success was due not merely to work and pluck but also to the talent with which he had been born, but he never forgot, not for a moment, that his painstaking mastery of that inchoate talent gave him access to a pleasure so transcendent that all else paled next to it. He said more than once that his music was more important than anything, even his marriages. “When I pick up that horn,” he explained, “that’s all. The world’s behind me, and I don’t concentrate on nothin’ but it….That my livin’ and my life. I love them notes. That why I try to make ’em right. See?”
Friday again, and time for my weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. I saw two shows, Monty Python’s Spamalot and Belfast Blues. Unlike most of the rest of the world, I preferred the second to the first—strongly:
"Spamalot" stars Tim Curry (of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" fame) and David Hyde Pierce (of "Frasier" fame) and is directed by Mike Nichols (of universal fame). Furthermore, I don't doubt that every Monty Python buff in the greater New York area has already bought a ticket. So it is with regret and some surprise that I must report the following bad news: It's a bore….
So what went wrong? For openers, the new songs are mostly Broadway genre parodies that aren't knowing enough to be more than mildly amusing. "The Song That Goes Like This," for example, is a toothless sendup of the faceless first-act ballads with which so many contemporary musicals are afflicted: "A sentimental song/That casts a magic spell/They all will hum along/We'll overact like hell." (Memo to Mr. Idle: Meta is so over.) As for the bright-young-collegiate humor of the book, most of which comes straight from the film, it's both dated and unexpectedly slow-moving. TV-style comedy zips along much faster now than it did when "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" was made, and I found myself squirming in my seat as each bit was dragged out to its well-remembered conclusion, wondering why my 19-year-old self had found the same punch lines so funny….
Belfast Blues, Geraldine Hughes’ one-woman play about growing up amid the Irish Troubles, is a very different story:
It's a well-written, grippingly acted piece of work. I even liked it despite being severely allergic to Irish whimsy, in which Ms. Hughes sometimes indulges to excess (she needs to ease off on the wide eyes). For the most part, though, she paints a tough-minded portrait of life in a violent land reduced to collective dementia by the evil confluence of religious zealotry and class resentment….
No link. Go buy the paper—you can spare a dollar. Or go here and discover the joys of a subscription to the Journal’s online edition.
"Along the journey we commonly forget its goal. Almost every vocation is chosen and entered upon as a means to a purpose but is ultimately continued as a final purpose in itself. Forgetting our objectives is the most frequent stupidity in which we indulge ourselves."
"She made her characters, held them, to the letter of the law. If one of Gertrude's heroines, running to snatch from the lips of her little daughter a half-emptied bottle of furniture-polish, fell and tore her skirt, Gertrude knew the name of the dressmaker who had made that skirt—and it was the right one for a woman of that class, at that date; she knew the brand of the furniture-polish that the little girl had swallowed; she knew, even, the particular exclamation that such a woman, tearing her skirt at such a moment, would have uttered—the particular sin that the woman, in thinking of her skirt at such a moment, would have committed. (The Church itself had no such casuist as Gertrude.) But how the child felt as it seized and drank the polish, how the mother felt as she caught the child to her breast—about such things as these, which have neither brand nor date, Gertrude was less knowing; would have said impatiently, 'Everybody knows that!'"
"The secret of biography resides in finding the link between talent and achievement. A biography seems irrelevant if it doesn’t discover the overlap between what the individual did and the life that made this possible. Without discovering that, you have shapeless happenings and gossip."
Leon Edel, Paris Review interview (Writers at Work, Eighth Series)
Frankly, I probably won't. I am heading to Detroit on Thursday for a long weekend, so it's possible. And I had a good time watching basketball tonight. But why risk spoiling a perfect 1-0 record as a spectator? That's right, the out-of-nowhere Golden Grizzlies, team close to my heart, have a prom date. They kept their qualifying game close when the other team looked scary in the first half (Alabama A&M seemed to be under the impression that only 3-pointers counted, and for a while it looked like they might get away with that), then ran away with it in the second. I hear this next team is a sight more formidable, but—barring some absurd miracle—I think the Grizzlies will mean it when they say in their post-game interviews that they were happy just to be there. You know, like Tom Wolfe in the Morning News Tournament of Books. Oh…wait a minute…the semis? Huh.
By the way, did you know ESPN has a broadcaster called Len Elmore? Can't slip him past a native Detroiter.
A small new feature has cropped up in the book section of the Atlantic Monthly, unique to the magazine as far as I can tell. It's called "Close Reads," and both installments that I've seen have been written by Christina Schwarz. In the most recent issue she illuminates a single paragraph from an Ann Beattie story, "Find and Replace"; the month before that she gave similar treatment to a tiny passage from John Updike's "Villages" (subscription required for this one, though you can view the passage without it).
I love this feature. There's something faintly fusty about it—back to basics—and yet a really great close reading can be so dazzling (Schwarz does pretty well with hers, unearthing lots from seemingly straightforward extracts while avoiding getting too schoolmarmish about it). There's no room in a typical newspaper or magazine book review to perform analysis quite this detailed, even though it's just the sort of work one hopes critics' larger judgments are built on.
The nice thing about Schwarz's analyses is that they not only unravel the meanings and effects packed into her chosen fragments, but show how they're representative of that author's particular bag of tricks. And there's just something that feels salutary about having these little demonstrations of good reading tucked in among the large-scale reviews. If I were in charge of a book section, I'd lift this idea in a heartbeat. I'm sure there are many, say, book bloggers who would be only too happy to pitch in with some readings.
Go, little engine! I refer, of course, to the Oakland University Golden Grizzlies, who contend tonight for a berth in some big old basketball tournament about which I normally would not care, not even in lieu of the much-missed run-up to the NHL playoffs that should be absorbing all of my sports-dedicated attention right now. But the Golden Grizzlies occupy a special place in the hearts of the Demanskis, and for one special, unprecedented night, I will willingly watch college basketball.
You say 12 and 18? Upset specialists, say I. Go Grizzlies!
This is to warn you that I'll be deeply immersed in writing Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong for the remainder of the week. Any postings that happen to find their way onto the blog will be...er, fortuitous.
"I’m playin’ a date in Florida years ago, livin’ in the colored section and I’m playin’ my horn for myself one afternoon. A knock come on the door and there’s an old, gray-haired flute player from the Philadelphia Orchestra, down there for his health. Walking through that neighborhood, he heard this horn, playing this ‘Cavalleria Rusticana,’ which he said he never heard phrased like that before, but still to him it was as if an orchestra was behind it. Well, that what I mean by imagination. That the way I express myself because I read that story and I just put it in spade life—colored life—where this guy in the story, he fooled around with this man’s wife and this cat finally picked up on it and stuck him in the back with a knife or somethin’ like that."
Louis Armstrong (quoted in The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 20, 1960)
"When an item struck his imagination he would sometimes write a sentence or two down in his notebook. He kept the notebook in his overcoat pocket, as he was not the type to write ostentatiously in bars or coffee shops. Just then he felt an image coming up to the surface, something about the faces outside the window, like a whole school of fish turning at once, the silvery bodies in three dimensions, something about the way they didn't recognize themselves as beautiful but just kept on schooling to their separate ends. Then remembered that Pound had gotten there first: petals on a wet, black bough…It was not fair that so many of his best ideas were someone else's."
In yesterday's Chicago Tribune I reviewed Stop That Girl by Elizabeth McKenzie, a "novel in stories" that has been covered almost everywhere. It struck me as stripped-down Lorrie Moore—which is almost by definition too stripped down—and it lost me by the end. But I was taken with McKenzie's fresh, promising device of jumping a few years between stories, sometimes leaving important events unnarrated so that the reader experiences them only through their repercussions. This tactic reminded me of Michael Apted's wonderful "Up" documentary film project:
I wanted to like Elizabeth McKenzie's "Stop That Girl" more than I finally did. What made me root for it? It's unsentimental; its young narrator looks at the world through an oddball's eyes; she dispenses with consoling illusions early. The writing has a cool economy, too—it's the opposite of flowery. But most of all, I was intrigued by McKenzie's fresh approach to putting together a short-story collection. She calls "Stop That Girl" a "novel in stories," which may sound dubious: Why stories rather than chapters? Is this more than gratuitous cleverness?
It is. For one thing, all the stories here are capable of standing alone; each has its own arc and logic. What really grabbed me about this device, however, was just what makes Michael Apted's "Up" film series ("Seven Up," "7 Plus Seven," "21 Up," etc.) following a group of Britons from age 7 through (so far) age 42 so appealing: the irresistible fascination of checking in on someone's life progress at intervals. The nine stories that make up "Stop That Girl" cover Ann Ransom's life from age 7 until she's a 20-something mother. But we stop and look in on her only every couple of years, and a lot more happens offstage than on.
McKenzie may really be onto something. I loved the innovative structure of Stop That Girl and the way it messes with conventional novelistic continuity—which is nowhere so drearily entrenched as in coming-of-age novels. But I didn't love the meager story this novel told. In the end I felt that McKenzie took the laudable ideal of economy to an extreme. Her book left me feeling underfed, hungering for more: more description, more emotion, more incident, more of everything. I would love to read a book employing a similar structure while telling a richer story.
For a long time I used to file away clippings of my old magazine articles, but I stopped saving them with the coming of Web-based archives. Now I keep only electronic copies of my stuff, and once I'd put together A Terry Teachout Reader, in which I collected some of the pieces I published between 1987 and 2002, I decided the time had come to dispose of my old clips. Suspecting myself of excessive vanity and pointless nostalgia, I decided, like Thoreau, to simplify my life, so I sold two-thirds of my books and threw out a huge pile of clips and other mementoes, keeping only what I could stuff into one small cardboard box.
Time, however, has a way of doubling back on you. The current occupant of my previous apartment called the other day to tell me that I’d left behind another box of miscellaneous items. It surfaced, she said, in the course of a major housecleaning. Did I want it, or should she throw it out? I thought for a moment, then told her I’d be right over. Curiosity had gotten the better of asceticism. I picked up the box and toted it home.
Here’s what I found inside:
• The printed programs of all the plays in which I acted in high school and college, going back to 1972. (Don't ask—I was awful. I had a lot of fun, though.)
• Three souvenirs from my maiden voyage to New York in December of 1975, a week-long trip organized by one of my college professors.
The first was the program for a performance of New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, my first Balanchine ballet. Peter Boal was one of the children in the first-act Christmas party. Now he’s retiring from NYCB to become the artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Sic transit!
The second was the souvenir program for Harold Prince’s Broadway revival of Candide. (Just last week I reviewed New York City Opera’s revival of Prince’s opera-house production of the same show.)
The third, scrawled in my still-unformed handwriting on a piece of hotel stationery, was an itinerary of everything I did in New York, including the menus of all the meals I ate. That was the week I first tasted onion soup, vichyssoise, ratatouille, pheasant, chicken Kiev, and chocolate mousse. Most of the restaurants at which I made these happy discoveries have long since closed their doors, but the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim are still around, as is the Café Carlyle, where I heard Bobby Short sing Cole Porter (he’s retiring this year, too). I also saw Tom Stoppard’s Travesties and Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests, a mediocre musical called Shenandoah (it starred John Cullum, whom I’ve since reviewed twice for The Wall Street Journal), a forgettable concert by the New York Philharmonic, Boris Godunov and Puccini's Trittico at the Met, and two mixed bills danced by American Ballet Theatre, including a performance of Spectre of the Rose by Mikhail Baryshnikov, who had just defected from the Soviet Union. Lauren Bacall was sitting in front of me that evening, and I regret to say that I spent more time looking at her than at Baryshnikov.
• A photocopy of my first professional newspaper review, published in the September 24, 1977 issue of the Kansas City Star. It was of a recital by a Russian violinist named Marek Piskunov, about whom I had mostly nice things to say:
Some musicians are a picture of their playing, and Marek Piskunov is a case in point. He hurls himself into his work with visible abandon, reinforcing accents with an emphatic stamp of the foot, swaying awkwardly with the phrase.
Piskunov’s stage presence mirrored his violin playing last night. His style wants some polish. Occsional lapses of intonation and ungainly swells of tone rough up the surface, but a contagious enthusiasm lights the music from within….
I can’t recall anything else about the concert, but I do remember that I got up first thing the next morning and drove to the nearest Kansas City Star coin box to buy a dozen copies of the paper (I only paid for one of them, though). That was the only time I ever heard Piskunov play, and a trip to Google yielded up no information about his later career or current whereabouts. I wonder what happened to him?
• A photocopy of my first magazine piece, published in the July 24, 1981 issue of National Review. It was a review of Liebling Abroad, an anthology of the essays of A.J. Liebling, who at that time was all but forgotten. I sent it over the transom to NR, hoping against hope that they'd print it. This is the first paragraph:
In the fashion-torn world of modern literature, the surest guide to posterity’s ultimate inclinations may well be the used-book market. Dealers in used and out-of-print volumes know that the reputations of authors living and dead often rest not so much on best-seller lists or critical quarterlies as on the prices readers are willing to pay for the books they want to own. An A.J. Liebling book, for example, will always sell for at least $25; and even a beat-up paperback collection of Liebling pieces will bring $15, no questions asked. One suspects that Liebling, a connoisseur of the raffish who never sold well during his lifetime, would have appreciated so earthy an estimate of his long-term literary value.
The lead is pretentious, but it was clever of me to mention those used-book prices (I still love tucking facts like that into my pieces). The rest of the review, alas, is stiff as a board, except for one phrase I like: I called Liebling “a Beerbohm of the Bowery.” Otherwise, I can see why I passed it over for the Teachout Reader. I'm not that sentimental.
Incidentally, those were the days when novice writers enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope with their typed manuscripts, and Chilton Williamson, who was National Review's back-of-the-book editor in 1981, used mine to send me his letter of acceptance. I was sure it contained a rejection letter, and I nearly fainted when I tore it open and saw that I'd cracked NR on my first try. I didn't save the letter, but I'll never forget how I felt when I read it.
• A 1986 NR review of The Cosby Show that I almost put in the Teachout Reader, mainly because of the first paragraph:
Situation comedies are the stock exchange of American desire. When breadwinning and housewifery were up, television gave us Leave It to Beaver and My Three Sons. As Americans gradually abandoned the crumbling ideal of the nuclear family and began to look for emotional satisfaction in the surrogate womb of the workplace, new shows like Barney Miller and M*A*S*H began to dominate the sitcom scene. Even Mary Tyler Moore, who cheerfully kept house for Dick Van Dyke in the forgotten days of the New Frontier, worked for a Minneapolis TV station and discreetly slept with handsome young men throughout the reign of Richard Nixon. It wasn’t Mary’s fault. It wasn’t even Nixon’s fault. The Nielsens made her do it.
I was thirty years old when I wrote that piece, by which time I was finally starting to sound like myself. It took me long enough!
• A 1987 essay for The American Spectator in which I made the following predictions about television in 2007:
No anchormen. “The entire network news system as we know it is doomed to extinction by the year 2007. The ‘talent,’ as they say in the business, costs too much.”
More dumb shows. “As usual, the futurologists miscalculated about cable. They thought it would spread faster than it did. But that spread is finally beginning to suck viewers away from the Mighty Three. The major networks will continue to exist, even to thrive, but only by becoming more sedulous in their attempts to pull in the maximum number of morons." (Yes, I'd been reading too much Mencken.)
More smart shows. “On the other hand, the bigger the cable audience, the more cost-effective it becomes for medium- and small-sized outfits to put together shows targeted at a tiny but affluent group of viewers.”
No PBS. “Commercial cable services devoted to cultural programming are already competing with PBS for new shows from England and elsewhere….The more first-rate shows they steal from PBS, the harder it will become to justify subsidizing a network which already spends most of its air time broadcasting fund appeals.”
All this in 1987, mind you. Maybe I should have become a TV critic.
• A 1994 copy of Mirabella into which I’d tucked a sheaf of clippings about Nancy LaMott, who died one year to the month after my profile of her appeared in that now-defunct magazine. One of them was a photocopy of the article I wrote about Nancy for the New York Daily News a few days after we first met. I hadn’t seen it for a decade, and I’d forgotten two of the things she told me that night:
My family visited [New York] when I was 12, and I was already the kind of kid who read Earl Wilson’s column and wanted to go to Sardi’s and a Broadway show. Instead, we went on a Gray Line tour and saw the Empire State Building.
You know what I’d really like to do? I’d like to have a sitcom of my own. I’d like to be the Mary Tyler Moore of the ’90s.
Unlikely as it may sound, I've never felt the slightest pang of regret about consigning so much of my past to the Staten Island landfill. I try as best I can to live in the present, and for the most part I seem to be pretty good at it. But neither am I sorry that I accidentally preserved a few souvenirs of my lost youth, and I think I’ll hang onto them, at least for now. Perhaps some loved one of the future will smile at them one day.
• I got an e-mail last week from a priest I know who reads my Wall Street Journal drama column and likes it. At least I think he does. “So far,” he wrote, “you’ve managed to avoid pseudo-sophistication." That dark qualifier—so far—made me smile. Has he detected a hint of phoniness in my other writings? Or is it merely that he knows most critics don’t feel comfortable unless they’re running with the pack?
Whatever he meant, I appreciate both the implicit warning and the explicit praise. I know what he means by “pseudo-sophistication,” though I can’t imagine falling victim to it. Perhaps because I took up drama criticism at a comparatively advanced age, I’m simply not interested in theatrical fashion. In fact, I often don’t know what it is at any given moment (though it's rarely hard to guess). Even when I do know, I don’t pay any attention: I simply come home from a show, sit down at my iBook, and write what I think. Every once in a while I suspect I’m going to find myself way out on a limb come Friday morning, a prospect that neither pleases nor scares me.
• The Game Show Network’s nightly installments of What’s My Line?
have now reached 1955, the year in which Fred Allen replaced Steve Allen as the show's fourth regular panelist. I doubt that many readers of this blog know who Fred Allen was, since he died in 1956 and is now mainly remembered, if at all, for his long-running radio series of the ’30s and ’40s. Yet he was one of the best-known comedians of his day, and was widely considered to be not merely a radio comic but a full-fledged wit (James Thurber was one of his biggest fans). Among other things, he wrote two very good books, Treadmill to Oblivion and Much Ado About Me, and a posthumous collection of his letters
was published in 1965. An anthology
of his writings came out just four years ago. I wonder how many other people my age or younger have read any of these books, much less all of them.
Of all my peculiar claims to singularity, this one may be the most revealing: I’ve never met another person whose head was crammed full of so much miscellaneous information about people like Fred Allen, most of it utterly useless. To put it another way, I can be boring about more subjects than anyone I know. Fortunately, I’m painfully aware that I suffer from this chronic disability, and sometimes even manage to guard against inflicting it on my friends. I once had an insomniac significant other who claimed to find it tranquilizing to listen to me delivering impromptu lectures on random subjects (she claimed to be particularly fond of hearing me talk about the use of the rhythm guitar in swing-era jazz).
If only I knew half so much about making large amounts of money! Alas, none of my preferred subjects is more than modestly renumerative....
“And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel
wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter—we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip. There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the foreign news by the last arrival, that several large squares of plate glass belonging to the establishment were broken by the pressure—news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelve-month, or twelve years, beforehand with sufficient accuracy.”
C-SPAN neglected to tell me that “The Problem of Political Art,” the Bradley Lecture I delivered last Monday at the American Enterprise Institute, would be airing on Saturday as part of its American Perspectives series. I’ve been getting e-mail all day from people who saw me holding forth on TV last night. Alas, I was otherwise occupied.
The good news (such as it is) is that anyone with RealVideo can watch the lecture on line as soon as it’s posted on C-SPAN’s Web site. It isn’t up yet, but this is where you’ll be able to find it when the time comes, presumably tomorrow or a little later in the week.
"He had supposed that when you dissolved a joyless marriage, you opened yourself to the return of joy, but he discovered himself open instead to loneliness.
"In matters of loneliness, Chris was a novice. He had never in his life been lonely. Indeed, during the last and most trying years of his marriage, when Karen was in treatment for alcoholism and Kay was in treatment for drugs and Billy's rock group was practicing in the basement, he thought of himself as suffering from the opposite of loneliness—which, he was amazed to discover, didn't have a name. Why, of the 600,000 words in the language, was there no word for the opposite of loneliness?"
I got so preoccupied with the latest chapter of my Balanchine book (which is now polished to a fare-thee-well) that I forgot to post the weekly teaser to my Friday Wall Street Journal theater column! Apologies. Today I wrote about Propeller’s all-male production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Edward Hall and playing at BAM Harvey through March 28, and Tim Robbins’ Embedded, now showing at the Public Theater.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is pure bliss:
Everyone knows that in Elizabethan times, Shakespeare’s plays were performed by companies of men and boys, but it’s one of those snippets of historical knowledge we tend to file and forget. Not only are Mr. Hall and company well aware of it, but they make the most of it without ever stooping to heavy-handed sexual sermonizing: Hippolyta (Emilio Doorgasingh) is attired in Milton Berle-style drag, while Helena and Hermia (Robert Hands and Jonathan McGuinness) duke it out like a pair of roller-derby queens on the rampage. The cheery atmosphere even extends to the intermission, during which the entire cast strolls out to the lobby and leads the audience in a sing-along (they did the Monkees’ "I’m a Believer" on opening night).
Yet the members of Propeller are no less alert to the chiming music of Shakespeare’s verse, and no sooner has the wreckage of "Pyramus and Thisby" been carted away than they work one final feat of theatrical prestidigitation and modulate into the sweet solemnity of the last scene, with Puck (Simon Scardifield) speaking the epilogue so simply and benevolently that I forgot to breathe. Suddenly the lights came up and I found myself back in the real world. I hated to go home….
Embedded isn’t, and not just because of its fact-twisting, either:
You’d think a satire about Gulf War II would have tried to be laughworthy, and I suppose Mr. Robbins did his best, but in the whole of "Embedded" there are just two clever touches, both involving the American journalists who covered the war. They’re put through basic training by Col. Hardchannel (V.J. Foster), a brass-voiced drill instructor who in private life is a musical-comedy buff with a taste for Stephen Sondheim, and the military press conferences they attend are accompanied by canned Muzak, to which they gently sway in unison.
Save for those two tiny oases of wit, "Embedded" is a desert of agitprop clichés, most of them evidently gleaned from Mr. Robbins’s close study of Marc Blitzstein’s "The Cradle Will Rock," about which he made a film five years ago. The bad guys all have Herblock-type editorial-cartoon names (Donald Rumsfeld is "Rum-Rum," Condoleezza Rice "Gondola"), while the dialogue is as predictable as a stump speech ("Having neither been to war nor served myself, I know that my dedication to war is a dedication to the safety of our society")….
No link, so go buy this morning’s paper and read the whole thing there.
In addition to all those postings I didn't really have time to write yesterday, I succeeded in drafting yet another chapter of the Balanchine book. I want to (A) get it polished and locked up this morning and (B) get another chapter started tonight. To these ends, I plan to post no more today. Our Girl isn't in Chicago, so chances are that you won't be seeing anything new until Saturday, unless my resolve slackens. I'm sure you'll forgive us...right?
Anyway, we did manage to put up a lot of stuff on Wednesday and Thursday, and it may be that you haven't read it all, so eat what's here. One or more of us will see you tomorrow.
Courtesy of Mixolydian Mode, this hair-raising quote from John Tavener, the "holy minimalist" composer:
I have always been drawn more to the archetypal levels of human experience and human types, which is why I think I was drawn to Stravinsky and revolted by Schoenberg. Schoenberg was for me the filthy, rotten 'dirt dump' of the twentieth century. I personally could not stand the angst-ridden sound of decay in his music, the vile post-Freudian world. Basically, I do not respond to the so-called 'Germanic Tradition,' whose by now rotting corpse -- the hideous sound world of its fabricated complexity -- smothers archetypal experience that I have always sought.
When Charlie Parker died in 1955, drummer and leader Art Blakey--a persistent proselytizer for jazz--said forlornly, "I doubt if many black kids knew who Charlie Parker was." Soon, there will be a vivid source of immersion in jazz past and future. And since the music has long been an international language, tourists from around the world will be coming to Harlem in ever greater numbers. They won't see a statue of Charlie Parker, but they'll be in his presence, along with that of his progenitors….
I’m going to be appearing next month on Studio 360, Kurt Andersen’s radio show. To this end, I was chatting with the producer about critics of the past whom I admire, and I mentioned that I thought the film criticism
of James Agee to be grossly overrated (though not without merit). That opinion cuts sharply against the grain of received taste, and it’s not one I’ve always held: I used to admire Agee a lot more than I do now.
One thing that caused me to change my mind was Agee’s preposterously effusive praise for Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Turner Classic Movies
has been working its way through the Chaplin oeuvre all month, so I took a look at Monsieur Verdoux the other day, and found it no more amusing on reacquaintance. But, then, I’ve never liked Chaplin, whom I simply don’t find funny at all, whereas I think Buster Keaton is not merely funny but one of the very few silent filmmakers in any genre whose best work remains fully viable today.
I got sick of writing tonight, decided to do a little channel surfing to clear my head, and saw that The Gold Rush, by common consent Chaplin’s finest feature-length film, was showing on TCM in the re-edited version Chaplin released in 1942 (he removed the original title cards and substituted his own spoken narration). I thought I ought to give the old boy one more try, so I turned it on…and I just couldn’t stick it out to the end. I didn’t laugh once.
All this reminded me that not long after 9/11, I went to see Buster Keaton’s The General at New York’s Film Forum, which isn’t all that far from Ground Zero. I wrote about the experience a few days later in my Washington Post column:
To me, it suggests a portfolio of Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady into which a slapstick comedian of genius has somehow inadvertently wandered. 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 wonder whether The Gold Rush would have made that emotionally battered audience laugh nearly so hard—if at all.
Maybe it’s just me, but it’s my impression that Chaplin’s films, unlike Keaton’s, are now widely thought to have aged poorly. As so often, David Thomson read my mind before the fact:
Intuitively, he sensed how ready the viewers were to have their fantasies indulged. But that instinct usually lacked artistic intelligence, real human sympathy, and even humor. Chaplin’s isolation barred him from working with anyone else. He needed to fulfil every creative function on a film, whether it is scripiting, composing, or directing actors. He is isolated, too, in the sense that his later films seem as cut off from any known period or reality as the earlier ones….Chaplin looked like a great instinct narrowed by the absence of the other qualities that would mature an artist.
James Agee, of course, thought otherwise. So much the worse for him, I fear.
• Courtesy of Symphony X, a fascinating samizdata.net posting by Brian Mickelthwait on Dmitri Shostakovich, the greatest Russian composer of the twentieth century:
Shostakovich was almost certainly a better composer after Stalin had given him his philistine going-over following the first performances of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, than he would have been if Stalin had left him alone. Although both are very fine, I prefer Symphony Number 5 ("A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism") to Symphony Number 4.
Had Shostakovich continued unmolested along the musical path he was travelling before Stalin's denunciation of him, I don't think he would merely have become just another boring sub-Schoenbergian modernist. He was too interesting a composer for that already. But I do not think his subsequent music would have stirred the heart in the way his actual subsequent music actually does stir mine, and I do not think I am the only one who feels this way.
Thanks to Stalin, if that is an excusable phrase, Shostakovich was forced to write what is now called 'crossover' music, that is, music which is just about entitled to remain in the classical racks in the shops, but which also gives the bourgeoisie, such as me, something to sing along to and get excited about. Shostakovich had always written film music as well as the serious stuff. What Stalin and his attack dogs did was force him to combine the two styles. He might well have ended up doing this anyway, but who can be sure?
What Stalin also did for Shostakovich was to make his music matter more. Thanks to Stalin (that phrase again!) every note composed by Shostakovich became a matter of life and death – while it was being composed, and whenever you listen to it. Stalin turned Shostakovich into a kind of musical gladiator, a man who knew that every day might be his last. Not many composers get that kind of intense attention….
I think there’s something to this—quite a bit, actually. In my Teachout Reader essay about Aaron Copland, I similarly suggested that the quality of Copland’s music was improved by his involvement in the middlebrow cultural activities of the Communist-controlled Popular Front, which inspired him to compose both "popular" ballet scores like Billy the Kid and Rodeo and such abstract yet accessible middle-period masterpieces as the Piano and Violin Sonatas.
Needless to say (I hope!), no artistic masterpiece is worth the loss of even one human life, much less tens of millions of them. But of course there can be no erasing of the Gulag and its murderous activities from the pages of history—and at least we have the music of Shostakovich to console us for the bloody nightmare that was Stalinism.
• Speaking of the Problem of Popularity, I disagree deeply with virtually all of what The Reading Experience has to say in this posting, but it’s so provocative and compellingly put that you need to read it anyway:
In Sunday's NY Times Book Review, Brooke Allen reviews
a new biography of Somerset Maugham, on behalf of whose faded reputation some critical labor has been expended lately, mostly, in my view, as part of a larger effort to identify certain unthreatening modern writers as possible alternatives to the modernists. (See also this review
of the same biography in the February New Criterion.)…
The most interesting part of Allen's review, however, is this bit of quasi-praise: "But Maugham's strengths, it must be remembered, were very considerable. As William Plomer once felt it necessary to remind highbrow readers, 'To be a man of the world, to be acquainted with all sorts of different people, to be tolerant, to be curious, to have a capacity for enjoyment, to be the master of a clear and unaffected prose style--these are advantages.' "
These are perhaps advantages in the attempt to lead a worthwhile life, but they are advantages of no kind in creating works of literature. They are, in fact, except for the imperative "to be curious," wholly irrelevant to the enterprise of writing fiction….
This leaves us with the mastery "of a clear and unaffected prose style." I confess that the demand for this particular quality among certain kinds of readers and critics has always seemed inexplicable to me. For one thing, how many great writers of fiction can actually boast of such a style? Hemingway's style is "clear," but certainly not "unaffected." Dreiser's style is unaffected, but not at all clear. (Personally, I wouldn't want them to be otherwise.) I am hard pressed to think of a great British writer of fiction whose style could be described thus. Maybe Austen. But Dickens? Hardy? Lawrence? Conrad? For another, why would a fiction writer want such a style? It is a great advantage if you're sending a telegram, but why would a writer seeking to use the resources of language to explore human motivation and psychology, our frequently mysterious behavior and actions, be interested in such a style? Does Shakespeare have it?
If Allen's list of Maugham's attributes is the best that can be said of him, then he will assuredly continue to fall into obscurity. For that matter, all such attempts to rescue "clear" and "unaffected" writers (such attempts have been made on behalf of writers like James Gould Cozzens and J. P. Marquand, among others) will always fail. In the long run, their "advantages" are just not the sorts of things readers interested in what can be accomplished in fiction are looking for. Perhaps it would have been interesting to meet the likes of Somerset Maugham (if indeed he was the kind of man Allen describes), but his fiction, in almost all ways unremarkable, is another matter entirely.
One of these days I’ll get around to explaining why I think this posting is mostly all wet, but I’ve got a book to finish….
• I learned about Goodbye, Babylon, a toothsome-sounding mail-order-only six-CD set of old-time gospel music, from this review by Matt Labash:
The going understanding of both Christian and heathen alike has been that when God banished Satan, and carved up their respective fiefdoms, He kept all the key stuff: the clouds, the mansions, the streets paved with gold. But as a sop for assigning Lucifer to an eternity in fiery darkness, he gave him most of the good music. Therefore, Satan got the Rolling Stones and Robert Johnson. God kept Debbie Boone and George Beverly Shea. Most people think that God got screwed.
But the new six-CD boxed set, Goodbye, Babylon, shows God may have been slyer than originally thought--having held in reserve long-forgotten and recently discovered gems that have been dusted off by Lance Ledbetter, a 27-year-old Atlanta software installer and former DJ. Having become obsessed with sacred music from the early part of last century, Ledbetter, over a five-year period, scoured the bins and collections of knowledgeable musicologists, enlisting help from everyone he could lay hands on, including his father, who pulled appropriate Scripture passages as companion notes for songs. He financed this labor of love on his credit cards.
What he came up with is 135 songs and 25 sermons--the largest collection of sacred music ever assembled. Instead of relinquishing control to some major label (which, with Goodbye Babylon’s critical success, will hopefully inspire knockoffs), Ledbetter put the whole thing out on his own start-up label, Dust-to-Digital. It's an appropriate name for the time-consuming process of finding, cleaning up, and finally transferring source material from the scratchy, hissing records. As Charles Wolfe, one of the many invaluable liner-note contributors writes, the records, which predated mixing or multiple microphones, often cut in makeshift studios, were carried everywhere from coal camps to railroad yards to juke joints. But for the love of a few obsessive custodians, the music would've been lost forever, as most of the records were "worn out, broken, thrown away, made into ashtrays, used as target practice for local carnival-ball throwing contests, plowed into landfills, or donated to scrap shellac drives during World War II."
What these salvagers have preserved is a gospel hodgepodge, everything from Sacred Harp singing to hillbilly romps to field holler/prison chants to front-porch blues to jubilee quartets to old timey country to Sanctified congregational singing to Pentecostal rave-up's. They all come down in a rain of clamoring tambourines and bottleneck slide guitars, clawhammer banjo-picking, booming jug band-blowing and barrelhouse piano rolls….
Apologies for my absence from this space today. I'm trying to put out a number of actual and potential small fires before hitting the road after work, destination Hometown. But I did get word of some new developments regarding "Arrested Development," thanks to an alert reader. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Fox is enhancing its efforts to find the audience the struggling show deserves. The most immediate impact of these efforts? "Arrested" will air tonight following "American Idol." That's 9:30 Eastern. Tune in, or set your VCRs and Tivos. Here's some of what Joe Flint at the Journal had to say about the new push from Fox:
The freshest comedy on television this season is Fox's "Arrested Development," which follows the antics of the Bluths, a rich Southern California family. Patriarch George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor, best known as Hank, the long-suffering sidekick on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show") is behind bars for raiding the corporate coffers. Jason Bateman plays his second son Michael who is the only one with any sense of decency. When he's not trying to rebuild the family's real estate business he is fending off efforts to undermine him by his jealous older brother GOB (short for George Oscar Bluth), boozy mother Lucille and superficial sister Lindsay. The show is from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Television and the former child star turned movie mogul serves as executive producer as well as narrator of each episode. Mitch Hurwitz, a veteran sitcom producer whose career started as a writer on "The Golden Girls," created "Arrested Development."
Despite all the critical raves (The New York Times called it "sharply satirical," Time said it's the best new sitcom out there and USA Today said the program is "heaven-sent for anyone who has longed for something, anything, outside the comedy norm."), "Arrested Development" is struggling. So far this season, it is averaging only 6.2 million viewers in its Sunday 9:30 p.m. time slot, according to Nielsen Media Research. It usually is dead last in those coveted 18-49 demographics as well.
Fortunately for the hardcore fans of the show, Fox isn't ready to throw in the towel—yet. This week, in an effort to get the show sampled, Fox is putting "Arrested Development" behind its blockbuster "American Idol." "Seinfeld's" Julia Louis-Dreyfus is guest-starring in a two-part story as a blind attorney prosecuting George Bluth Sr. while bedding son Michael. Ms. Louis-Dreyfus joins an already impressive list of guest stars on the show including Heather Graham and Liza Minelli. Since these folks aren't doing the show for ratings, clearly the program is already hitting a high note in the creative community. It was saluted recently by the Museum of TV & Radio's annual festival that salutes the best of television, a rare honor for a freshman program.
The Julia Louis-Dreyfus gig starts tonight. Help rescue a terrific show from the fate of "Freaks and Geeks" and "My So-Called Life."
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 17, 2004 | Permanent
TT: The wonders of the Web
A reader who saw last Saturday’s posting on W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings wrote with staggering promptitude to tell me that this charming little film can be ordered on videocassette from an on-line store called Hot Rod Memories that sells, among other things, movies suitable for viewing at drive-in theaters. Remember those? I do.
This seemed too good to be true, but the price was right ($19.95 plus shipping), so I paid a visit to www.hotrodmemories.com, placed my order, and the package, glory be, arrived this morning. It’s an off-the-air, under-the-counter dub of decent quality: Burt Reynolds’ bright red shirt blossoms a bit on the screen, but the picture is otherwise adequate and the sound is good enough.
"'This cat came out,' said future country singer Bob Luman, still a seventeen-year-old high school student in Kilgore, Texas, 'in red pants and a green coat and a pink shirt and socks, and he had this sneer on his face and he stood behind the mike for five minutes, I'll bet, before he made a move. Then he hit his guitar a lick, and he broke two strings. Hell, I'd been playing ten years, and I hadn't broken a total of two strings. So there he was, these two strings dangling, and he hadn't done anything except break the strings yet, and these high school girls were screaming and fainting and running up to the stage, and then he started to move his hips real slow like he had a thing for his guitar....For the next nine days he played one-nighters around Kilgore, and after school every day me and my girl would get in the car and go wherever he was playing that night. That's the last time I tried to sing like Webb Pierce or Lefty Frizzell.'"
Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley
Today’s New York Observer has a profile of Sam Tanenhaus:
"I’m very moderate by nature," Sam Tanenhaus said by telephone from his home in Westchester, two days after The New York Times announced that he would be the next editor of its Book Review. "People with extreme views interest me, dramatically and narratively."
The author of a very well-received 1997 biography of the journalist and eventual anti-communist Whittaker Chambers, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mr. Tanenhaus has spent the past five years as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, largely chronicling conservatives and neoconservatives in the orbit of the Bush administration. And so liberals seem to think—or, perhaps, to fear—that the man taking over one of the country’s premier literary institutions is a conservative, while conservatives find him, as he said, more middle-of-the-road.
Affable, energetic but easygoing, well-respected by a broad swath of the intellectual community, possessing a healthy understanding of the ideological debates of the day but with no apparent dog in the race, Mr. Tanenhaus appears to fit The Times’ bill perfectly as a successor to Charles (Chip) McGrath, who has been itching to return to writing after nearly a decade in one of New York’s most prestigious—and thankless—jobs. Mr. Tanenhaus also happens to come equipped with an M.A. in English literature from Yale and a background in book publishing….
"Sam is neither conservative nor neoconservative," summed up his friend Terry Teachout, the critic and blogger, who contributes to The Times Book Review. "He is an old-fashioned anti-communist Jewish liberal intellectual who still gets excited about Saul Bellow."
Nothing more forthcoming from me today, alas. I've got to spend the morning writing my Wall Street Journal drama column for Friday, then the afternoon and evening working on That Which Must Not Be Named (arrgh...but it's going well). I might get weird and post something tonight, but more likely you'll be in the hands of Our Girl.
I do want to report an experience from a half-hour ago (I'm writing this just after midnight). I went out to Brooklyn to see Edward Hall's all-male production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and when I emerged from the subway, the trees between Central Park West and my doorway were all sheathed in ice and snow. The air seemed full of cold white light. What a lovely spectacle to behold after spending the evening in an enchanted forest!
It seems fitting somehow that the hulls of ships carrying raw sugar from the tropics, north through the Atlantic to the Jarvis Quay in Toronto, should be bright and cheerful. That, like those products that will be produced from their cargo, they should be the color of jawbreakers and soda cans, candy wrappers, and the sprinkles that dress the top of cupcakes. It’s also appropriate that they show signs of decay.
My favorites are nos. 2 and 4, which look like abstract landscapes. Some others look like the ships they are, some just look abstract. Where they appear, the ships' ropes and markings add an element of collage. I want one.
As a first-day-of-spring baby, I can assure everyone that this week's weather is far from exceptional. The day I was born, there was a massive snowstorm, seeming to herald no good. I have vivid memories of sharp disappointment one year when the power got knocked out and we had to cancel my kiddie party, even though this left all the prizes and cake for me (which only seemed just; I always did regard birthdays as one of the great excuses for petty tyranny). When I lived in New York I hosted a joint birthday party with a friend on a night in early spring when you could just about measure the snow in feet and the wind mph in scores. All day long, making hors d'oeuvres and sugar syrup, we listened to the alarmists on the radio urging everyone to STAY IN YOUR HOUSE and tried to think of countermeasures. In the end, twenty hardy or foolhardy souls made their way to the Bowery, and most of them stayed for breakfast.
It seems that A Terry Teachout Reader has already started to show up in bookstores, at least on the West Coast. I've gotten two e-mails in the past two days from readers who've bought copies over the counter. Considering that I just got my copy yesterday, this is pretty amazing. (The official date of publication is May 6.)
Drop me an e-mail if you should happen to see the Teachout Reader in a bookstore, would you? And if you think of it, let me know where and how it was shelved.
"She stepped forward, kissed me and laid her head against my shoulder, leaning prudently forward to keep the rest of herself out of contact with the rest of me. Both of us sighed deeply. I felt as if I had just sat through a complete performance of La Traviata compressed into one and a half minutes."
I usually write about theater in Friday's Wall Street Journal, but I made a special guest appearance on this morning's editorial page. The occasion was the opening of Embedded, Tim Robbins' new play about Gulf War II, which he blames on the political philosopher Leo Strauss, quoting chapter and verse to prove his contention that the war was started for nefarious reasons by a cabal of Strauss' neoconservative disciples in the Bush administration (including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz).
There's just one little problem—the quote in question is totally bogus. And that's not even the worst part:
Strauss’ complex political views are not easily reduced to speeches in a play, but Mr. Robbins has done his best by making one of his characters, a fellow named Pearly White and thus presumably modeled on Richard Perle (that being Mr. Robbins’ idea of cutting wit), spout the following lines: "Moral virtue has no application to the really intelligent man, the philosopher. In the words of Leo Strauss: ‘Moral virtue only exists in popular opinion where it serves the purpose of controlling the unintelligent majority.’" Hence the Strauss-inspired Gulf War, which was fought not to topple a bloodthirsty monster but to anesthetize the ignorant masses and thereby ensure the re-election of George W. Bush and all those other nasty Republicans. Got it?
Now I’m a drama critic, not a political philosopher, but I do know a thing or two about Strauss, and I was sure he’d never said anything like that, since he wasn’t given to self-caricature. So when I came home from "Embedded," I decided to see whether I could track down the source of that suspicious-looking quotation from Chairman Leo. It sounded like something a half-educated movie star might have found on a Web site, so I looked for it on Google, and immediately hit the jackpot.
The source of Mr. Robbins’ alleged Strauss "quote," I discovered, was an article called "The Secret Kingdom of Leo Strauss." The author, Tony Papert, turned out to be paraphrasing in his own words the opinions of Thomas Pangle, a student of Strauss, which Mr. Papert had gleaned at second hand from a book by a third party, a Strauss-hating Canadian academic named Shadia Drury. "Pangle had implied," Mr. Papert wrote, "that for Socrates (i.e., for Strauss), moral virtue had no application to the really intelligent man, the philosopher. Moral virtue only existed in popular opinion, where it served the purpose of controlling the unintelligent majority."
Oh, yes, one more thing: Tony Papert’s article appeared in the April 18, 2003 issue of Executive Intelligence Review, a magazine published by none other than Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., that well-known millionaire crackpot and purveyor of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Let’s review: (1) Leo Strauss never said what Tim Robbins quoted him as having said; (2) Thomas Pangle didn’t say it, either; (3) Tony Papert, a LaRouchie, said it; and (4) Mr. Robbins lifted Mr. Papert’s quote from a LaRouchie magazine and dropped it into his play, deliberately passing it off as an authentic Straussian utterance.
None of this, of course, has any necessary bearing on the theatrical quality of "Embedded." But it does suggest that Tim Robbins, whatever his other virtues, is not a man to be trusted with facts....
No link, alas, though sometimes the Journal's free Web site, opinionjournal.com, puts up additional links to editorial-page pieces over the weekend. If they do, I'll let you know. Otherwise, you can read the whole thing by going out and buying a copy of the paper (which you should be doing anyway!).
If you want to see Tony Papert's article for yourself, go here. Bring your boots, though: it's in LaRoucheland, where the fever swamps are deep....
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A reader was amused by my suppressed longing to strangle a noisy dancegoer:
A critic's work is never done -- without a few weapons in his pocket.
You haven't lived until you've attended theater in Fresno, California, which is certainly the worst place on earth for public events (except, perhaps sporting events where rowdy is expected).
I have -- I am not making this up, as Dave Barry would say -- had a woman sitting next to me singing all of the lyrics loudly. When I politely asked her to refrain, she stood, shrieked at me and everyone in the vicinity that she'd paid for her ticket and she'd damn well sing. It stopped the music. When it started again, she sang.
I have watched standing ovations at intermission for unwatchable performances -- I think they are required for everything here. It won't be long before the audience is staggering to its feet to applaud the curtain opening.
I once had a woman reading her grocery list into her cell phone and explaining what shelf the things would be found on. This was during a very funny and hyperactive performance of Pirates of Penzance, something that should have kept her attention.
But the one bright spot is that most of the offenders are old. Children sit transfixed. Maybe when the geezers die (except me, who will always be too young to be a geezer, of course), we'll get our public space back. We rarely go out any more. I have little doubt that I'd be the one arrested for murder when, obviously, murder is necessary.
All of which reminds me of the last paragraph of one of my Daily News reviews of the New York Philharmonic: "As for the audience, suffice it to say that concertgoers who cough with open mouths should in my opinion have them closed by a passing usher, preferably with a baseball bat."
In the current climate of book publishing, during which controversies rage over the distinction between literary and commercial fiction, and chaos and uncertainty rule the day, one is grateful for signs of professionalism. That is, an author skilled enough over years of practice in taking the fundamental elements of a good story -- plot, character, pace, setting, historical detail -- and creating a mixture that delivers on nearly all counts. A professional learns from her earlier mistakes and strives to create a better result the next time around; the book may not be transcendent or wholly unique, but a well-crafted work that's enjoyable, entertaining and occasionally educational is more than enough to satisfy most picky readers….
What’s more, here’s her author bio—or what we in the newspaper business call her "shirttail": Sarah Weinman writes about crime and mystery fiction at sarahweinman.blogspot.com. I guess that’s the only credential she needs, so far as Book World is concerned. Good for them, and her. Seems like blogs are here to stay.
I just opened a FedEx envelope and pulled out a finished copy of A Terry Teachout Reader, the anthology of my essays, articles, and reviews that Yale University Press will be publishing on May 6. I guess I'm biased (to put it mildly), but I've never seen so beautiful a book. It happens that I've been very lucky in my designers—all my books have been handsome—but the Teachout Reader stands out. It's just gorgeous, from the Fairfield Porter lithograph on the jacket to the subtly ribbed green binding to the elegant typography. This is my first book to be composed in Galliard, my favorite typeface. Even if you don't like the way I write, I think you'll like the way it looks. To all the folks at Yale, I offer my heartfelt thanks.
In the unlikely event that you don't know already, you can pre-order a copy from amazon.com by going here.
(The headline, incidentally, is the punchline of my all-time favorite religious joke, which was told to me by a Lutheran minister who later became a Roman Catholic priest. He told it to me on a plane en route to Chicago, mere minutes after the captain had warned the passengers of a bomb threat. That's savoir-faire.)
I went to see Paul Taylor again, wrote two pieces (a book review for the Baltimore Sun and a record review for the Wall Street Journal), and had a Portuguese brunch with Chicha, who is visiting New York this weekend and turns out to be v. cool. I showed her a photo of Our Girl but didn’t disclose my shockingly beautiful co-blogger’s name, meaning that the Chicha lives to blog another day.
I thought that would do me, but the urge to blog proved irresistible, so here I am. Briefly. Tomorrow I’ll be spending the entire day and evening working on You-Know-What.
In the meantime, here are some interesting letters I’ve been meaning to post:
• "A note on subtitles: I recently purchased the DVD of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, a beloved favorite film (curious, because I really don't like any of his other films--my other personal favorites--Ikiru, Vertigo, Rules of the Game, Citizen Kane, Double Indemnity--are by directors that have many films to their credit that I like). While viewing the other night, I noticed that there was a new translation in the subtitles. Some dialog and interior monologues, untranslated in the VHS, were now translated. And some translations had been altered--sometimes for the better--sometimes not, I thought. But what really got me was that some lines, including one of the great lines, are now untranslated in the new version. Marian, the trapeze artist, is musing at a rock club and Bruno Ganz, the angel infatuated with her, is nearby. She thinks about how good she feels and speculates that (this is from my rough memory of the VHS) that ‘heaven must be looking over me.’ At this Ganz breaks out in a big grin. But with no translation, the non-German speaking has no idea why he is smiling. I ran out the car trunk and retrieved my old VHS that I was going to churn at the local hipster used book, music, and film store. It seems I need both."
• "A respectful inquiry re helping non-subscribers to the Wall Street
Journal. I was totally occupied with my business, and I missed your piece
about Amtrak, and also, for several days, your references to it on your
blog. I now face having to use some sort of index--I don't find one on
the WSJ site, maybe I missed it--or else having to plow through a number
of days of dead tree Journals to find the Amtrak piece. Is there a
blog-graceful way for you to give us the date and even the page number for
such occasional WSJ essays?"
That piece appeared on page D6 of the Journal for Jan. 28, 2004. In light of recent events, it’s already acquired a sadly nostalgic feel….
• "Reading a novel, watching a movie or gazing at
a painting are all solitary, self-contained experiences. We are one-on-one
with the work of art, and our ‘normal life’ is temporarily on hold. The
artwork in such moments is both the cause and the recipient of our thoughts
and emotions. It demands our undivided attention. Imagine you are
engrossed in a novel alone in the house. The phone rings and it's a friend
from a distant past. Your mind immediately dis-attaches itself from the
text and returns to it only after you had hung up. Your memory of this day
will keep the novel and the conversation as separate
"What makes music different is that it does not require our absolute
attention to be enjoyed or remembered. True, not so with a symphony
concert, but that may just explain why it is often the lighter musical fare
that transports us back in time. Music leaves an imprint on our minds even
while it serves as mere background to our day-to-day activities - driving a
car, having a conversation in a bar, a get-together in a friend's apartment.
Our minds in these situations switch back and forth between the music (of
which we are conscious only intermittently), and that which goes on about
us. Music is thus woven into our memory much the same way as a movie score
is woven into a movie. It is an accompaniment to life in a way that none of
the other art forms are."
Nice. Thanks for writing.
And now to bed, and after that...You-Know-What. See you on Tuesday. Wish me a good day’s work!
The New York Times has a story
about Hollywood’s response to The Passion of the Christ. Some of the quotes are (ahem) revealing, but this sentence was what jumped out and caught my eye:
Last week a Gallup poll found that 11 percent of Americans had seen the movie and that 34 percent more said they planned to see it in theaters.
Is anyone else astonished by those numbers? And can any of you remember similar polling about any other film? I’d love to see comparable numbers for, say, Titanic, or for such middlebrow blockbusters of the past as Ben-Hur or Gone With the Wind.
Had a thought this eve while viewing "Cinema Paradiso" for first tiime
since theatre run some 14 years ago and with horror of Madrid in mind as
I lived there two years some many years ago but thanks to the Web, could
find online the two major Madrid dailies: Pais (irony there) and ABC.
and have first-hand account from them. And have so strong love for
Spanish people and their civilized way of life.
Back to "Cinema Paradiso", in world of film, we often ask of you, the
experts, what are your favorite 10 or 50 , "best" or "favorites" but
never: "what is the sweetest film in your experience".
In this time of Spanish tragedy, I ask you the question of what is
your sweetest film--LOL just as if you pose that question on your blog,
we could all join in happy shared thoughts in a time of sadness.
I realize that I presume.
Not at all, and I can answer your question right off the top of my head. The sweetest movie I know is Michael Caton-Jones’ Doc Hollywood, a lovely little fantasy about life in a small southern town. Michael J. Fox never gave a better performance, and Julie Warner (I wonder what happened to her?), Woody Harrelson, David Ogden Stiers, Frances Sternhagen, George Hamilton, and Bridget Fonda are all just right. No, small towns aren’t really like that, but some of them occasionally come close, and Doc Hollywood reminds me quite strongly of the one from which I came. I can’t promise that it’ll put a smile on your face, but it’s never failed to put one on mine.
• I was channel-surfing this evening and ran across Unfaithfully Yours, Preston Sturges’ 1948 comedy in which Rex Harrison plays the part of a conductor. It’s a funny movie, and Harrison obviously went to some trouble to learn how to simulate conducting—but it didn’t help. Yes, he knew the beating patterns, but his movements were weirdly rigid, sort of like an excitable robot that hadn't been oiled from the waist up recently.
This reminded me of how impressed I was by Richard Thomas’ "conducting" in Terrence McNally’s play The Stendhal Syndrome, in which he convincingly "conducts" a complete performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—facing the audience. Given all the cruel jokes that instrumentalists tell about conductors (Carl Flesch once called conducting "the only musical activity in which a dash of charlatanism is not only harmless, but positively necessary"), you’d think it’d be easier to fake convincingly. In fact, it’s just about impossible.
• In the past few days I’ve seen nine different Paul Taylor dances, several of which begin with a prelude—i.e., the lights go down, the music plays for a minute or two, then the curtain goes up. During each of these preludes, at least a half-dozen people sitting in my immediate vicinity kept on talking, often quite loudly, until the curtain rose. I wanted to tap them on the shoulder, preferably with a hammer, and tell them, "The dance starts when the music starts, dummy. Shut the hell up."
(O.K., I’ll be honest. Having recently seen John Malkovich at work in Ripley’s Game, what I really wanted to do was drop a garrote over their heads and pull hard, but I didn’t think to bring one with me. A critic's work is never done.)
I got an e-mail from a reader apropos of my posting on Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. He likes Crimes and Misdemeanors, and thinks that this film and a couple of others—I can’t remember which ones, alas—justify calling Allen a major filmmaker. I replied:
Very interesting. Do you really think that "two or three movies" are enough to put you on the top of the list? I can see arguing that "Citizen Kane," "Touch of Evil" and "Chimes at Midnight" are three of the greatest movies ever made, but do they add up to a bonafide oeuvre? How many points does it take to make a curve? I don't know—I'm asking.
To which he replied:
I come from mathematics on this issue. There is a saying, which I will quote and then explain: "You judge a mathematician in the L-infinity norm, not the L1 norm".
-- A norm is a measurement of the size of a function, "size" suitably interpreted.
-- L-1 norm of a function is like an average value (many details omitted)
-- L-infinity norm is like the maximum value of the function (many details omitted)
This is funny in a math class, believe me. One thing it means is that in the long run, productivity is not the standard for greatness. An example is Henri Lebesque, who has his definitions and theorems (and his name) in all the standard graduate textbooks for the work he did for his PhD thesis on integration and measure (which is the basis for modern analysis and
probability); that's all he is known for, but that's enough. Then there is Randall Jarrell's famous remark: "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times, a dozen or two dozen times and he is great". This is another way of saying not to look at the "collected works" but at the "selected works".
If we were under the gun to be official we would have to settle on a cut-off count (two? twelve?) for discrete achievements (theorems, poems, movies) in a given field. And for films, I'm saying three, although my reasoning doesn't get much better than saying, well, if it's three then the Woodman makes the cut....
To which I replied:
I'll take your word that it's funny! My answer would be that there's a difference between discovering E=MC2 (or whatever) and writing one or two good books. Ralph Ellison is not a great writer--he just wrote a great book. I do think Jarrell is absolutely right about this, but note that his numbers are a bit higher than yours. It's fun to kick around, isn't it?
Indeed it is, although I don’t have any definitive conclusions to share with you, other than this: you don’t have to write a whole shelfful of great books to be a great writer…but it doesn’t hurt.
"There was a small inner room like a cupboard where, morning and afternoon, these girls took turns to make the tea. A list was tacked to the wall, of all the men and their requirements: Mr. Bostock weak with sugar, Mr. Miles strong and plain. Valda's Leadbetter had an infusion of camomile flowers, which he bought at Jackson's in Piccadilly; these were prepared in a separate pot and required straining. Another notice cautioned against tea-leaves in the sink. The room was close and shabby. There were stains on the lino and a smell of stale biscuits. On one spattered wall the paint was peeling, from exhalations of an electric kettle.
"Sometimes when Valda made tea Caro would set out cups for her on a scratched brown tray.
"It was something to see the queenly and long-limbed Valda measure, with disdainful scruple, the flowers for Mr. Leadbetter's special pot (which carried, tied to its handle, a little tag: 'Let stand five minutes.'). To hear her reel off the directions: 'Mr. Hoskins, saccharin. Mr. Farquhar, squeeze of lemon.' She filled the indeterminate little room with scorn and decision, and caused a thrill of wonderful fear among the other women for the conviction that, had one of these men entered, she would not have faltered a moment in her performance.
"When Valda spoke of men more generally, it was in an assumption of shared and calamitous experience. None of the other women entered on such discussions—which were not only indelicate but would have mocked their deferential dealings with Mr. This or That. Furthermore, they feared that Valda, if encouraged, might say something physical.
"Watching the office women file towards the exit at evening, Valda observed to Caro: 'The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea.'
"There was another male faction in the office, of ageing young men who spoke bitterly of class divisions and of the right, or absence, of opportunity. For these, equally, Valda had no patience. 'They don't quite believe they exist, and are waiting for someone to complete the job, gratis.' She would set down the biscuit tin, switch off the electric kettle. 'Oh Caro, it is true that the common man is everlastingly embattled, but he has a lot of people on his side. It's the uncommon man who gets everyone's goat.'
"Valda would tell Caro, 'You feel downright disloyal to your experience, when you do come across a man you could like. By then you scarcely see how you can decently make terms, it's like going over to the enemy. And then there's the waiting. Women have got to fight their way out of that dumb waiting at the end of the never-ringing telephone. The receiver, as our portion of it is called.' Or, slowly revolving the steeping teapot in her right hand, like an athlete warming up to cast a disc: 'There is the dressing up, the hair, the fingernails. The toes. And, after all that, you are a meal they eat while reading the newspaper. I tell you that ever one of those fingers we paint is another nail in their eventual coffins.'
"All this was indisputable, even brave. But was a map, from which rooms, hours, and human faces did not rise; on which there was no bloom of generosity or discovery. The omissions might constitute life itself; unless the map was intended as a substitute for the journey.
"Those at least were the objections raised by Caroline Bell."
Shirley Hazzard, Transit of Venus
(Note: In my first job out of college, Editorial Assistant at a publishing house, I had to make tea most days for a [female] boss. Sometimes, too, go fetch raspberry muffins at the Mrs. Field's in the subway station. In the latter case, I was always provided money for my own muffin into the bargain, because "I'm affluent and you're not." Which was very, very true.)
I was just on Amazon looking up books by the novelist Wayne Johnson. The first listing was his new book, which I'm currently reading (and enjoying), The Devil You Know. The second listing was something called Helicopter Theory. I clicked through, thinking, "ooh, that's a good name for a novel." Not yet, it's not. It was actually a book on, um, helicopter theory, by another Wayne Johnson altogether. Needless to say.
Now the Amazon recommendation mill, which never, ever rests, is just positive I'll find much to divert me in Principles of Helicopter Aerodynamics and Rotary-Wing Aerodynamics, and will doubtless be hawking such wares to me till kingdom come…
"As for the Quarterly Review, I have not read it, nor shall I, nor ought I—where abuse is intended not for my correction but my pain. I am however very fair game. If the oxen catch a butcher, they have a right to toss and gore him."
Sydney Smith, letter to Francis Jeffrey, c. July 3, 1809