Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Moment of Silence for Harold Pinter

British playwright Harold Pinter succumbed to cancer this past week. I admire many playwrights, but Pinter is beyond category.

Pinter discovered something in drama just as surely as Einstein discovered something in physics. By his own account, it was just an intuition, as it was with Einstein. He was an actor who started a script called "The Room," for which he had only a vision of two characters in a room. The dialogue developed without a backstory, and without a plot. They spoke about nothing in particular, and they paused between lines.

What he had discovered, he later expressed this way: "There are two kinds of silence," he observed. One is the absence of speech; the other is a "torrent" of speech that a person uses to cover up something.

This insight taught me that the actor's most important job is to imagine what's happening between the lines. The insight carries through to real life.

My first reaction to Pinter was revulsion. In Drama 101 at Duke, I had been assigned a part in "The Collector," and I told professor John Clum that I didn't want to do it. My character's behavior just didn't make sense to me. For example, my character -- a good-for-nothing "kept man" -- didn't move when a jealous husband brandished a knife at him, even when the husband stood behind the armchair where my character lounged.  These were disgusting types of people, behaving inscrutably.

Dr. Clum asked if I could think of an animal that was like my character, and suddenly it all made sense: my character was a cat! He was all sensual experience, with no forethought, no loyalty, no goals but pleasure and security.  He was alert to danger, but afraid to move. In a cat's calculations, moving may be riskier than just crouching in an armchair.

Suddenly, the character's behavior was not only real, it was also very funny, without a lessening of the tension. Importantly for me, as a fundamentalist Christian in those days, the characters were in a hell of their own making - so moral judgment was implied.

Once I'd become a fan, I devoured every Pinter script I could find, and I can thus say with some authority that Pinter reached his zenith with his 1978 play BETRAYAL. This tells the story of a wife's affair with the husband's best friend, the discovery of the affair, and the dissolution of the marriage. Pretty standard stuff, but Pinter tells it backwards: the first scene takes place in 1977, in a furtive meeting between ex-lovers. The final scene is at the wedding reception, 1968. We hear the characters' reflections on the past, and then we get a fact check. You laugh and cringe at the same time to see how they've deceived themselves, year before year, reaching all the way back to the wedding.

After BETRAYAL, his plays shortened and veered off in another direction. I loved "A Kind of Alaska," a pretty straight-forward retelling of neurologist Oliver Sacks's account of awakening a middle-aged woman who had been in a virus-induced coma since early adolescence.

I stopped caring about Pinter after I read "Mountain Language." The Pinteresque dialogue here was applied to a stereotyped situation: some government official's interrogation of some innocent indiginous victims. Then I read some of Pinter's pronouncements about America, even leafing through a book of his "poems," which were all polemics. I stopped paying attention.

I find this weekend that I wasn't alone. London TIMES columnist Minette Marin writes, "It wasn’t just that his plays began to seem so much less inspired. He had written so many great ones that nobody could complain if he didn’t have any more arrows left in his quiver... What amazed me, more and more, were his enraged political outbursts. However critical one might be of US policy, his furious anti-Americanism – 'the most dangerous power that has ever existed' – was unworthy of an intelligent man. It is simply silly to compare American foreign policy with Nazi imperialism, as he did, and to insist that western governments are as evil as any of the worst in the world. " Noting other brilliant writers who were crackpots in politics (Tolstoy, Pound, and my favorite anti-American Graham Greene), she looks to the theory of "different intelligences" to explain how artists might produce brilliant stories and still be totally irrational and myopic in their views of the worlds around them.

Tim Walker, in a column for the London TELEGRAPH, acknowledges some truth-telling in Pinter's depiction of life, but dismisses his work in the end as ephemeral, meant only to shock, and already dated: "If one were to take a shorthand note of conversations one happened to overhear in such places as police stations, A&E departments and at the offices of social workers and transcribed every word – and every pause – I suspect it would all sound very Pinteresque indeed... These words may be true to life, but they are also in large measure frustrating, aimless and depressing. There is a dark side to the human psyche, but there is also a lighter, more optimistic and appealing side to it that Pinter chose never to acknowledge."

Not true. Last spring, preparing to see Pinter's re-working of SLEUTH (starring Michael Caine and Jude Law), I read an interview with Pinter in which he confessed that all the tension and hostility on view in his scripts were never present in his real life. For him, marriage (to historian Antonia Frazier), parenthood, friendship, sports, and life had been very happy.

Another critic for the TIMES, John Peter, reflects on Pinter's friendliness in person, his temper regarding slights and criticisms, and forgivingness. Peter reflects: "Like so many of his characters, [Pinter] deployed attack as a means of self-defence and investigation. ...His last theatre appearance was in Samuel Beckett’s one-man play Krapp’s Last Tape. He played it in a wheelchair. The great voice, still undiminished by pain, seemed to shake the walls at the Royal Court. He played Krapp as an angry man: angry at failure and at the passing of years, and grabbing the world by its throat. Pain, endurance and an invincible dignity: this was one of the great theatre experiences of my life."

Pinter used his craft to distill one aspect of universal experience on stage: how every conversation is in some way a competition for dominance -- do it my way, or see it my way, or tell me what I want to know. In the process, he made us cringe, and made us laugh. That's a good thing, and the experience of laughing at it is indeed optimistic. For me, that's better than sitting through "light - hearted" stuff about cute characters who fall in love.

When I was a very young drama teacher, not even a decade older than my students, I directed a group of four students in a full-length production of BETRAYAL. (We did have to turn "f***ing" into "scr**ing" but performed the rest of the script intact). They performed it one time only. The house was packed with family and friends. I recall laughter, and sharp intakes of breath. I recall the slow fade on the final tableau at the wedding reception, as the whole audience took in with horror the final truth that's revealed in Pinter's script. Those students -- Emily Powell, Paul Catherwood, and Thomas Crockett in the principle roles, and the younger actor Bill Hamilton as the waiter -- made an unforgettable night of theatre, thanks to what was real, and artful, and beautiful, in Harold Pinter.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

More Secular Psalms in Poetry

(Reflections on December 2008 POETRY).

As an aspiring playwright - actor, I used to read poems as soliloquies, and would lose interest if I couldn't find a dramatic build to the verses. Now I find poems please me more when they point out new ways to see familiar things. In an earlier posting about poetry, I called some of these "secular psalms," because they draw attention to goodness in creation. (It's another step, of course, to call it God's goodness in creation, and it's safe to assume that these poets don't expect anyone to take that step.)

Such is "Therapy from the Garden," psychotherapist Glenn Morazzani's first poem to be published in POETRY. For all the emotional ills catalogued here, such as anhedonia and anorexia, the poet uses his imagination to see curative images among the vegetables of a garden. For panic attacks, "Imagine the layers of onion, Sufi-circling / and circling until there is no tear-making body." To calm "too much affect," he says, "meditate on potatoes, taciturn / as overturned stones." It's a joyful procession that includes "corn's parade, ticker tape leaves and Rasta tassels."

Another first-timer, Fred D'Aguiar, brings us a train as some kind of awesome beast, and it sounds musical:
Long before you see train
The tracks sing and tremble,
Long before you know direction
Train come from, a hum
Announces it soon arrive...
Though he teaches now at Virginia Tech, D'Aguiar's profile tells us that he was raised in Ghuyana, and the dropped articles here and there suggest that this is a memory from his childhood. It's a child speaking who sees the machine as a mythical monster: "It flattens our nails into knives," he tells us, and "whistles a battle cry." There's a great image of the two
Rails without beginning or end,
Twinned hopes always at tyour back,
Always up front signaling you on.
Fine, energetic, fun.

Here's a complaint, though: D'Aguiar's poem ends with a list of what I presume to be plants: "greenheart, mora, baromalli, / purple heart, crabwood, / kabakalli, womara." Why do poets do that? Even if I knew what these were, how they looked, how they might feel or smell, the listing of them hardly suggests their emotional significance to someone who grew up among them. Elizabeth Bishop exasperates me sometimes when she throws similar lists of plants in her travelogues. Other poets whom I enjoy do the same thing with annoying regularity - Don Hall, Jane Kenyon, John Updike.

More psalms: Todd Boss's "This Morning in a Morning Voice," a doting father's preservation of a moment at home with his young son - the boy's froggy voice repeating a nonsense song on his way down the hall to tinkle - "I lie still in bed, alive / like I've never been, in / love again with life..." Another poem finds a "miraculous stream of silver" when a mother somehow wrings more water out of a cloth already well-wrung.

Roddy Lumsden's suite of poems that opens the issue starts with a bit of envy mixed with wonder regarding "The Young," for whom "Now is not a pinpoint but a sprawling realm." Internal rhymes seem to be at work suggesting one image or idea after another, as "chances dance," "sprites" and "spite," and the pockets that "brim with scimitar things." The sound of regret at the end is familiar, yet apt as the poet seems to be regarding kids at a beach throughout the poem, which is rife with images of beachfront sights -- sherbet, lighthouse, sea and galleon:
One cartwheel over the quicksand curve
of Tuesday to Tuesday and you're gone,
summering, a ship on the farthest wave.
"God's Secretary" by R. S. Gwynn plays "What if?" God's inbox is full, but he doesn't come in to answer His messages, and so on. After the jokes, the poem winds up to a more wistful conclusion, that she
...still can wish there were some call, some proof
That He requires a greater service of her.
Fingers of rain now drum upon the roof,
Coming from somewhere, somewhere far above her.
Set apart, there's a section of poems by "Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellows," and I'll consider those another time.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Massenet's Opera Thais: Body v. Soul

(Reflections on THAIS by Jules Massenet, starring Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson. Metropolitan Opera production directed by John Cox, broadcast in High Definition, December 20.)

Capsule descriptions of THAIS led me to expect a cynical mix of Victorian religiosity and sensuous titillation, one being used as a cover for the other. The mix was there, and a cynical director could certainly play up those elements, but the libretto and score are thoughtful, subtle, and sincere. The entire opera is based on stark and pleasing symmetry, as the two characters criss-cross to opposite ends of the spectrum from body to soul. Soul wins.

The Met's production begins with an image of desert hermits in ancient Egypt, ceremoniously grateful for water, for food, for honey. Their music is dignified. Brother Athanael, portrayed by Thomas Hampson, arrives from a visit to the sinful city, and he cites the courtesan Thais as totem for the city's hedonism. Soon, he is asleep and dreaming of Thais, who dances. The supple music, orchestrated for harp and some shimmering woodwinds, contrasts with the somewhat plodding and dark sound of Athanael and the brothers. He awakes, saying that he is determined to convert her to Christianity, and thereby to win the entire city. It's plausible, but the music has already told us that his mission is only a cover for his obsession, and a warning from the abbott makes this clear.

In the city, Athanael interacts with Thais's boy toy of the week, and learn that Athanael was once a student there, one of the guys. There's musical and visual contrast that makes Thais's interest in the monk plausible. Next, we see her alone, pleading to her mirror and to the goddess Venus to "tell her" that she will remain beautiful "eternellement," while she clearly detects signs of age in her image. She is amused and then alarmed by Athanael when he comes to her chambers. She admits to him that her pleasures are empty, the "love" is phoney. She is already open to Athanael's message, when she is suddenly struck by his use of that key word, "eternelle," promising eternal life through faith. Shortly, she is repeating her prayer to Venus, resisting the call of conversion; while Athanael prays to God for strength to resist his sensuous attraction to her.

In a backstage interview, soprano Renee Fleming said that the instrumental "meditation" that plays next is, for her, the actual conversion, the pivot of the opera. On the HD screen, the young violinist David Chan seemed to be acting that as we watched his face closely. Later, he confirmed that he was trying to express his own Christian faith in that lovely violin solo.

Later, Thais asks to keep a statuette of "Eros" because, she says, love is good, and only her misunderstanding of it was bad. That seems true. Athanael responds with a burst of righteous indignation which seems false, and that's because it's actually his expression of alarm at his own temptation. We can sense this in Thais's gentle and convincing music, contrasted to Athanael's response, all out of proportion.

The ending brings us to a convent of nuns in white (their abbess named "Albine"), bookending the original scene of dark monks at sunset. The two characters have changed places. Athanael, returning to the convent to find Thais, sings that there is no God, there is nothing but love. But Thais is beyond reach, having been in a vigil without food or rest for days. With her meditation replaying, she sings of seeing the gates of heaven open, and she dies with beatific smile while he mourns. That's a bit soppy, but that's grand opera for you.

All in all, it's convincing and beautiful. Massenet's orchestral colors, and use of repeated melody, and canny contrast (as, following the lyrical meditation with a scene of percussive strumming) are every bit as thoughtful and imaginative as those of Puccini and other composers that I prize.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Money, Power, and Giving

(A short talk delivered before the congregation of St. James Episcopal Church December 21st.)

I'm supposed to talk to you about money, but first, I'm going to impart what I've learned from my students about power.

Some of you may never have seen me out of this red robe, and you may not know that I have a day job. I've taught every grade from pre - K to graduate school, but I've specialized in the middle grades, because the kids are so much fun, and they need so much. They feel that they have potential that no one else recognizes. That's the appeal to children of characters like Clark Kent and Harry Potter -- ordinary kids who get no respect, who have secret powers. It's nothing new. Long before them, there was that carpenter's boy who turned water to wine and fed 5000 with a hunk of bread.

In adolescence, I too fantasized about secret powers. I admit that, even now, I get a thrill to read in Scripture that, as a member of the Church, I am part of Christ's body on earth, with his powers to heal and transform.

That's where money comes in. In our society, power is often expressed through money. Kids never feel more powerful than when they have some money to spend. I've taken middle schoolers to museums, to DC, even to London -- but they don't get excited until we go to the gift shop. There, even if they decide to buy nothing; they feel their power to choose whether or not to part with their cash. The more dollars are at stake, the more engaged they are.

This is good news for parents and grandparents: skip the expensive vacation, and just take your kids to the mall.

For adults, too, money has power far beyond what it buys. Several times in my ten years here, someone standing where I stand now, has said what I'm saying, that the church had an urgent need. Whenever I responded by adding more to my pledge, I grew that much more involved with the church, and St. James meant more to me.

So now I feel something like personal pride when I read our parish report. I see that we are indeed the body of Christ on earth: We worship, pray, teach, care for the needy. Every page, there are names of lay leaders eager to involve us in Christ's work. At the back, there's a table that summarizes last year's budget. It shows how, just as Jesus fed 5000, we're meeting needs of people way out of proportion to the bread we have to work with.

For example, there's a line in the budget for "Youth Ministries." All year long, we have volunteers who help our younger members to experience Christ alive in their world. The thoughtful and imaginative programs are designed by two directors who have worked years, full time, for part time pay. That's how a little goes a long way at St. James.

There are lines for "Property" and "Music." Suppose we maintain the same budget we had last year. Our Sexton has kept within his budget, at the cost of putting off repairs that still have to be made, someday. Last year's budget forced our music director to choose between cutting his own pay, or cutting back on part time musicians for special occasions, and routine maintenance for the organ. He took the pay cut.

So far this season, we have many who are pledging for the first time, and many who have increased their pledges, and these encourage us. Then again, some of last year's donors have moved away, several have cut back, and several dozen have not pledged yet. We're on track to reach only the same bottom line we had last year.

Another example from the budget: there's a line here for "Clergy." Preparing this little talk gives me new appreciation for our rector. It took three weeks for me to draft this message, and I was still up early this morning working on it. She prepares messages longer than this for five or six occasions in a typical week, in her spare time between regular eucharists, unscheduled services, committees, business meetings, and counseling sessions. I know from personal experience how she visits shut ins. Our other clergy, full and part time, also take part in all of this work. Yet the amount on the line for "Clergy" hasn't increased for years, and when Joseph moved on in July the duties increased, while the amount on that line decreased.

So we see that money is not what motivates the work of St. James. This report and this church are filled with people who take seriously Paul's charge to be the body of Christ in the world. But, if money has power beyond what it buys, I imagine that holding back money also has a negative effect that ripples from the donor throughout the church.

So please, let us look upon pledging as more than an obligation, a user fee, or a charity. It's power: The more we pledge to St. James above what's expected, the more we empower our church to make a difference in our world, and in our own lives.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas Parody for a Jewish Friend

On the last day before Christmas break, our middle school has a singalong with classes writing parodies of Christmas songs, and singing some traditional ones. Except for "The Dreidel Song," however, our Jewish students and faculty haven't had much to share. At the request of my Jewish colleague Tina, I came up with this, to the tune of RUDOLPH:

You see Rudolph and Frosty, those elf guys, and Santa
Filling the malls and the lawns of Atlanta.
But when you're a Jew,
There's no holiday mascot for you.

Hanukah isn't jolly,
Hanukah isn't cute.
No decking halls with holly,
No guy in a red fat suit.

Carols we sang in chorus
Made "The Dreidel Song" seem lame.
Maccabees and menorahs --
They're all right, but not the same.

Then one starlit Christmas eve,
It occurred to me,
"Faiths have just one thing in mind:
Peace and light for all mankind."

Now I love bells a-ringing
And I love the carols, too.
Besides, the tune I'm singing
Was created by a Jew!

With apologies to Johnny Marks, the Jewish songwriter responsible for all the Rudolph TV show songs, plus "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." This is not to mention Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Jerry Herman, and Mel Torme, Jews who created another half-dozen songs of the season.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Carols by Candlelight with Georgia Festival Chorus

(Reflections on "Carols by Candlelight," annual program by the Georgia Festival Chorus, Frank Boggs, founding director; David Scott, Associate Director. Special guests Karen Parks, soprano, and actor / writer Tom Key. Performed at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, Marietta, GA, December 4 2008. Written the night of the concert.)

Early in the program, founding director Frank Boggs used his left hand to shape an orchestral wave and then push it back, while his right hand sustained the choir's final syllable. Not remarkable at any other time in his fifty - plus years of choral conducting, but a welcome sight one year after the hand was nearly severed in a car crash.

Throughout the program, his choir sounded warm and blended like hot cocoa. They looked sure of themselves, committed to the material, "every one of them beaming joy" in the words of actor Tom Key, guest speaker.

For me, personally, many of the numbers brought back memories. Friends and I sang Holst's arrangement of "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" and Lutkin's "The Lord Bless You and Keep You" thirty-five years ago as students in Mr. Boggs's Westminster High School Chorale. While I recalled my part, tonight I heard a full tone that our adolescent voices couldn't approach. Frank's interpretations are bolder now, too, as in "Mary Had a Baby" when he extends the chorus's first word in the phrase "my Lord" way beyond the point where you think he has gone too far -- to the point where you think, "How rich! How expressive! What a dramatic contrast to the soloist!"

That soloist was elegant soprano Karen Parks, who sang with clarity, warmth, and authority. In her interpretation, the word "peace" sustained late in Handel's "Rejoice Greatly" became a quietly intense prayer from a depth of longing. She seemed to enjoy shifting vocal gears to ride the varied textures and sudden key changes that characterize the interplay between chorus and soloist in John Rutter's arrangement of "Go Tell it on the Mountain."

Rutter, a long-time friend and sometime teacher of my teacher Frank, showed up on the program many times. He always seems to know what we expect, and he always delivers it -- with a twist. His "Candlelight Carol" swelled to a surprising climax after its lilting start. His orchestral accompaniment for "Star Carol" was subtle and fun -- setting Associate Conductor Ken Terrell to dancing.

While the orchestra brought color and varying textures to the concert, the highlight of many numbers often came when the orchestra fell silent and the Georgia Festival Chorus crested and fell, ever unified, ever responsive to the gestures of their three conductors. Once, when Frank forgot to seat them, they remained standing thoughout a long solo number.

The least familiar piece on the program was a Caribbean tune, "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy." By its end, the chorus could barely restrain themselves from moving. Instead, their voices and the orchestra did the dancing.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Economist Wilhelm Ropke: "It's the Soul, Stupid!"

(reflections upon reading WILHELM ROPKE: SWISS LOCALIST, GLOBAL ECONOMIST by John Zmirak, Library of Modern Thinkers, ISI Books, and P. J. O'Rourke's tongue-in-cheek article, "We Blew It" in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, November 17, 2008).

While I was reading John Zmirak's biography of economist Wilhelm Ropke (1899 - 1966), whose advice behind the scenes lifted Germany out of its post-war starvation to become Europe's economic miracle, I saw this from wise-guy conservative writer P. J. O'Rourke, writing about the failures of the Republicans and his dread of the Democratic regime to come:
What will destroy our country and us is not the financial crisis but the fact that liberals think the free market is some kind of sect or cult, which conservatives have asked Americans to take on faith. That's not what the free market is. The free market is just a measurement, a device to tell us what people are willing to pay for any given thing at any given moment. The free market is a bathroom scale. You may hate what you see when you step on the scale. "Jeeze, 230 pounds!" But you can't pass a law making yourself weigh 185. Liberals think you can. ("We Blew It," in the WEEKLY STANDARD, November 17, 2008, p. 33)
When Ropke advised dropping the price controls that both the new German government and their benevolent American protectors wanted to ensure against "chaos," there was indeed a brief period of outrageously high price jumps and panic. But, before the voices of socialists could prevail, prices righted themselves, and citizens were relieved at last to see products on shelves that had been horded because the prices they could fetch weren't even close to their true values. Up to then, cigarettes had been more acceptable currency than the German marks (140).

But, for Ropke, the value of the free market is not its efficiency, whether as a setter of prices or as a producer of consumer goods. Rather, he sees the free market as one guarantor of individual human freedom and dignity, measured not by the consumer goods one owns, but by the freedom one has to do meaningful work, to make choices for one's own life, and to have a positive impact in one's own small communities - family, church, town.

Smallness is the key, here. He deplored concentration of wealth, no matter whether it was concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, or in the hands of a swarm of government bureaucrats. So, while he was no Galbraith, he wrote his own critique of the affluent society in 1959:
Who can really be at ease in the presence of the growing concentration in economic life, which goes hand in hand with the increasing dependence of the masses? Who can fail to see that our civilization is being destroyed by the progressive commercialization of things that are beyond economics, by the obsessive business spirit that confuses ends and means and forgets that man does not live in order to work, but works in order to live, and thus perverts all human values, by the empty bustle and sterile excitement of our time? ...Who can fail to be shocked by the largely meaningless and uncultured extravagance of the rich, here in Europe as in America? (from Ropke's AGAINST THE TIDE, 1959, quoted in Zmirak, p. 53)
He courageously stood up to ridicule from the Left after the war, and explicit threats from the Right during the ascendancy of the Nazis. In 1933, he "committed career suicide" by speaking out in a forum in Frankfurt against all schemes for state control of the economy to benefit "the worker" or "the fatherland." To his audience of Nazi academics and those merely cowed by the Nazis, he called Hitler's movement "a mass revolt against reason, freedom, humanity, and [rules] that enable a highly differentiated human community to exist without degrading individuals into slaves of the state" -- after which, Ropke and his family had to flee into exile (36).

His opposition to planned economies didn't make him a fan of "laissez-faire" or "libertarian" capitalism, either, because he saw in his own country's history the cozy relationship between capital and government that led to monopolies and government interference on behalf of corporations, resulting in another kind of concentration of wealth in the hands of a few self-serving entities -- just as bad, to his mind, as concentrating it in the hands of a government bureaucracy.

With this goal of human dignity in mind, Ropke made room for occasional government intervention in his free market capitalism, so long as these were temporary and "compatible" with market forces that keep prices at their real value. When the Great Depression hit, Ropke advised government intervention "to preserve the social fabric that made a market economy possible"(p. 33).

He discerned the process by which concentration of wealth in the hands of monopolisitic big businesses "deprived many citizens of the chance to become their own masters, either as artisans, independent merchants, or small farmers." Naturally, they try to regain power through unions or the state. Concentration of the workers in mass production and in cities result in the "proletarianisation" of the masses -- making them easy marks for Marx. Ropke sees mass - produced "nihilistic entertainment products" as a by product of this undesirable collectivisation.

His prescription is something that sounds like John McCain's "ownership society," making sure that the state work to put property and choice in the hands of individuals, not because it's efficient, but because it breaks the process of "centralisation in every connection" (175) and homogeneity. He thinks that stratification, "hierarchy," is a good thing, echoing Edmund Burke's critique of France's egalitarianism. He even hoped, like Jefferson, that every one could own a piece of land, though
He predicted the dangers of "suburbanization" -- the hours spent commuting, the resulting
pollution, the ever-wider physical separation of the work from home, and of rich citizens from poor -- in 1944, decades before urban sprawl would become a political issue (179).

This is what I like: an economist who says, "It's not all about money." Or, to paraphrase the words that Bill Clinton's advisors used to keep him on-message during his first campaign: "It's the Soul, stupid!"

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Couple of Issues of Poetry

(reflections on POETRY magazine, October and November issues, 2008)

Billy Collins is represented by a couple of poems in the November issue of POETRY, and these follow the same rough pattern that make many of his poems good for reading aloud. In "Her," for instance, he begins with the kind of depiction of a literal sensation or place that makes the audience think, "I've felt that." In "Her," it's the noises that are ubiquitous in suburbia. Then, he shoots off on a tangent. Here, it's a particularly quiet hour. In part three of a Collins poem, the tangent reaches some unexpected destination: Here, the overheard intimate conversation of two Spanish - speaking workmen.

Some of the seven poems of Sarah Lindsay in the October issue of POETRY share this tendency to set up something literal and clearly imagined, only to slip off into some unexpected direction that still somehow relates. All of them were interesting, and some were delightful.

"Tell the Bees," she writes, "they must know...." It's bad news, and the speaker wants everyone to hear. With a touch of whimsy, she writes, "Tell the water you spill on the ground, then all the water will know." But once the news has spread, "nothing has changed."

With scholars at some archaeological dig, she burrows in the questions raised by a finding about the "So-Called Singer of Nab," before she draws back to view the archaeologists themselves from an ironic distance.

Another poem asks the rhetorical question, "Who needs to hear a quagga's voice?" A quagga, she tells us, is a subspecies of zebra last seen in the South Pacific around the time that Krakatoa blew. She imagines that last of its kind, "curving its cream and chestnut stripes" when it "sank to its irreplaceable knees, when its unique throat closed with a sigh." Against the backdrop of an earth-shattering extinction, she touches us with her story of a very small extinction.

She describes the outdoor wedding of an apparently artsy and green couple: "No animals were harmed in the making of this joyful noise." She celebrates the music of the moment that could not and should not last, embodied by the Zucchini Shofar of the title. "What is this future approval we need; / Who made passing time a judge? / Do we want butter that endures for ages, / or butter that melts into homemade cornbread now?"

Finally, she has a small poem in which a fleeting feeling of contentment is compared to a moth -- implying that it will shortly flitter away in search of some new brightness.

Another poem in that issue is fun, Craig Arnold's "Uncouplings," taking off from the cliche, "There is no I in teamwork" with anagrams: "There is no we in marriage / but a grim area."

Many poems in the November issue strike me the sort that "you had to be there" to get, and I generally didn't want to be where they were taking me. Among all these was one very attractive gem by Philip Levine. He muses on why we worship mountains:

You probably think I'm nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.




Sunday, November 23, 2008

Doctor Atomic Staged Two Ways


(reflections on the opera DOCTOR ATOMIC by composer John Adams and librettist / director Peter Sellars, from primary source materials and poetry. Performed at the Metropolitan Opera and broadcast on HD two weeks ago, and staged for a concert performance in Atlanta's Symphony Hall at the Woodruff Arts Center this weekend. Photo from website of the music publisher Boosey and Hawkes, Boosey.com)

I settled into the last unsold seat of the orchestra section of Woodruff Arts Center's Symphony Hall in Atlanta, smack in the middle of Row D. It was a great seat for counting every silver hair on the back of conductor Robert Spano's head, and for watching the intense concentration of the cellists. I watched them bow and pluck and occasionally use their bows to beat the strings, and noticed the subtle sound they made in the larger texture of sounds.

That was one way in which the experience of seeing a modestly staged concert version of the grand opera DOCTOR ATOMIC in Atlanta Friday was more exciting even than the fully staged version at the Met viewed in closeup on HD two weeks ago -- even though the wonderful cast was exactly the same. This concert was their "original cast recording" session.

The stage was arrayed simply and effectively, staged by director James Alexander. Spano and instruments crowded right up to the edge of the stage. At the back, the chorus sat in everyday work clothes, in character, and some wore white coats suggesting scientists. Above them, the broad wall was a screen for still photos of the Manhattan Project and the Atom Bomb test site. There were also some animated computer graphics. Platforms set up between the chorus and the orchestra constituted the entire set. "Doctor Atomic" himself, Robert Oppenheimer, played by baritone Gerald Finley, sat at a 40s - vintage office desk, decorated with photos and cluttered with papers. There was a rocking chair suggesting a living room for Mrs. Kitty Oppenheimer, played by Jessica Rivera, whose martini glass told us how she spends her days while her husband works on his top secret mission. Other scientists and a general at the military base occupied a platform above and behind those two, with a couple of 40s - style office chairs (which I recognized from the old chairs at West Chemical and Engineering company -- formed around 1950, and bought by my dad in 1972).

I have to say that I didn't miss the Met's three storey beehive of office cubicles or the gigantic model of the "Fat Boy" (the bomb itself) during the action. The chorus, in work clothes and some white coats, made some trademark Peter Sellars' gestures in unison, and those were effective enough. For example, they turned in unison to face an image behind them, or they covered ears or mouths when the principles discussed the need for secrecy, or they simply reached their hands up at certain moments of indecision.

We gain by NOT having close up cameras trained on the singers' faces. Finley, as Oppenheimer, sits at his desk not singing much of the time, but sipping a martini and smoking, while his "good angel" Robert Wilson (tenor Thomas Glenn) and "bad angel" Edward Teller (baritone Richard Paul Fink) debate matters of conscience just upstage of him. That simple dramatic structure, made so clear here, was muddied by the camera's back-and-forth, in-and-out movements in the HD broadcast. Teller was charming and Wilson was earnest, but we got to see them in their off-camera moments, too, and these singing actors created characters that we enjoyed even when they weren't singing.

We gain by being able to see Spano keeping all the pieces of the composition together, and, aurally, we get some wonderful effects as when a figure in the double - basses spreads like a wildfire across the orchestra. Behind us, the "surround sound" effects were more effective than the HD transmission could be, especially as the moment of the big explosion approaches.

Then there are the voices. Finley is wonderful, and makes his highs and lows seem effortless, while he concentrates on his character's thoughts. Separated by a platform, he still suggests the erotic connection to his wife Kitty as soprano Rivers sings the long sinuous lines of a Muriel Rukeyser poem that the Oppenheimers evidently knew, "Am I in Your Light?" Eric Owens as the General gets the laugh lines for the show -- snapping at the meteorologist that he wants better weather, and remembering the brownies that wrecked his diet. The meteorologist was James Maddelena, whom I've seen in two other Adams premieres, as Nixon in 1987, and as the captain of the Achille Lauro at THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER production in Brooklyn, early 1990s.

This time around, the aria based on John Donne's "Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God" arrived at the end of Act One like the showstopping big hit of a Broadway show, and it thrilled. This time, I picked up echoes of that number in two or three places that follow in Act Two, a respectable technique that I've not heard in Adams' work before. Perhaps space helps me to pick up the sounds that I don't get when the opera comes at me like a wall.

So, the HD experience is wonderful. But I'm much more enthusiastic about DOCTOR ATOMIC now that I've seen it live.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Updike's Magic Revisited at Eastwick

(reflection on John Updike's novel THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK, and an appreciation of Updike called "A Fan's Note on Updike's Long Game," by Adam Gopnik at the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities at http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities.html.)

Of Eastwick's trio of witches from Updike's 1983 novel (which was set in 1968), all three are now widows, but only Sukie is still on the youthful side of 70, and she's making her fortune as a writer of romances. Sukie sits unblinking at her laptop describing a widow served in bed (double-entendre fully intended) by a younger male slave who harbors deep resentments against her, when her male "wife" enters the room with groceries. He's the younger brother of a woman cursed and killed by the coven all those years ago, and he has sought revenge. Reflecting on the conflation of fantasy and reality, and how sexual relations require some theatrical and imaginative art, she thinks how cave painters thrust themselves through moist crevasses to paint their artwork, intended to bring their next hunt to fruitful climax. There you have Updike's big themes tied together in a single image: magic (here substituting for religion), sex, and art.

While I enjoyed revisiting Eastwick and watching the witches deal with the long-range consequences of their past deeds, I was fascinated more by discerning Updike's process of writing the novel. He slightly augments the sub-titles of his original outline to become the Coven Reconstituted, Malefica Revisited, and Guilt Assuaged. He sets the exposition in faraway places that fit his theme, as Alexandra visits ancient tombs in Egypt and reflects on pharaoh's doomed attempts to hold on to life through priests' preservatives and artisans hopeful provisions. Then, after hooking up with Jane, the two visit the tombs of the first emperor of China, and the tomb of Mao, eerily similar. There are teases of magic, but Updike, like Hawthorne his model, always provides the reader a natural explanation for what seems to be a witch's spell. At last, Sukie joins the trio when her husband dies suddenly (Jane's magical doing?), and they make a trip together to their old home, Eastwick, in Rhode Island.

Once there, Updike's strategy is clear: to re-create the story line of the original novel in reverse. From chapter to chapter, this means re-encountering the coven's old nemeses and lovers, or their families. The central portion "Malefica" was about their curse on the woman they envied, and "Malefica Revisited" is about a curse going the other way. While the original novel begins with the arrival of satanic Darryl Van Horne (identified now with Jack Nicholson's cinematic embodiment of the character), and ends with his strong presence disintegrating, this novel builds up to an encounter with Van Horne by proxy. And, as the subtitle "Guilt Assuaged" suggests, these witches work magic to bring blessings to lives that they had once cursed.

To say that we can see Updike's efficient craft at work is in no way a complaint. Updike fancied himself a visual artist before he was a literary one, and this novel is simply a reversal of the patterns of lights and darks from the original, rather like Monet's identical views of a cathedral in different lights.

On his design, Updike hangs insights about our age, about aging, and his favorite themes. The visits to graves of long-passed empires occasions thoughts about the US and future decline. All references to magic bring up the idea that witchcraft simply takes advantage of processes in nature already at work under the surface -- like cancer, like giving birth, like electrons and their charges. At a funeral, he compares such ceremonies to blindfolds worn by prisoners before a firing squad, small comforts to help us get through big changes (p. 232). Repeated chores are lightened in youth by expectation of something to come (283). Revisiting an old home inspires opposing thoughts. One can suddenly recognize the "bliss" of living in a certain place that has been concealed by the "plod" of daily chores (p.234). On the other hand, aren't all places less magical than they are remembered (p. 288)? These elderly women don't relate to teens, even the ones who are related to them, and see them as strange and alien:
Eastwick's children, flaunting their growing power, ignoring the old woman sitting in a parked car, vying for attention from their peers with female shrieks and boisterous boyish jokes, testing freedom's depths... Little do they know, Alexandra throught, what lies ahead of them. Sex, entrapment, weariness, death. (235)
I recently read an appreciation of Updike at the NEH web site. There, self-proclaimed "fan" Adam Gopnik writes of Updike's long career. He writes that one wants to "triangulate" Updike...
with Richard Wilbur, for a stubborn graceful adherence to craft and finish in a time of improvisation and amnesia; with Wallace Stevens, for the intimation of the numinous in the ordinary Sunday mornings of the mid-Atlantic states; and with Shakespeare himself for the ability to get himself expressed fully, unimpeded, and for the desire, even in the face of time, to set down, for readers still unborn, all the sweetness of our common life.
So true. And Gopnik writes about Updike's constant theme:
And he is a moralist, too, of a surprisingly old-fashioned kind. Throughout all that varied work, one theme has risen and been repeated over and over. Updike’s great subject is the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. His subject is how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation.
In Updike's novels, those attempts to substitute the material for the spiritual are doomed; but the material, the spiritual, and the imagination are all closely interrelated, and that's the magic in both Eastwick books.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ten Commandments as Ten Beatitudes

(excerpt from sermon by Rev. Kirk Lee, delivered at St. James Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA, October 5, 2008)

I didn't think there was much new to say about the Ten Commandments, but Rev. Kirk Lee tried. He questioned the advisability or even possibility to "put aside" the "overlap between public and private spheres of moral and religious life." He capped his sermon with a new spin on the old "Shalt nots." Here are excerpts:

We live in a day where the very concept of some type of objective, independent morality is being questioned. ...Where are we going to find such a standard?

...We could depend on human feelings, as illustrated in [the] song, "how can it be wrong when it feels so right?"

Or ... we could rely on majority vote. How can it be wrong if 55% of the people voted for it? Right?

The problem with these choices is that feelings change, and the majority often shifts its position.
...We need something or someone who stands outside of the world, outside of just being human, outside of the community, who can look in and give us direction. That someone can only be God.

Some people complain that the Ten Commandments are just too inflexible, too narrow and negative. ... But they are not all negative. ... When we turn them over, we find the ten most positive statements about life ever written. Here is how they look:

Blessed are they who put God first.
Blessed are they who need no substitutes for God.
Blessed are they who honor God's name.
Blessed are they who honor God's day.
Blessed are they who honor their parents.
Blessed are they who value life.
Blessed are they who keep their marriage vows.
Blessed are they who respect the property of others.
Blessed are they who love the truth.
Blessed are they who learn the art of contentment.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thanks To and From Composer John Adams

(Reflections on John Adams' autobiography HALLELUJAH JUNCTION, just published by Farrar.)

Twenty years ago, when I learned to love John Adams' first operatic composition NIXON IN CHINA, I was struck by the librettist Alice Goodman's statement that she had intended to represent each character in the most generous way possible, as they themselves would want to be represented.

While several of the themes emerging from Adams' autobiography take us through conflicts with others, Adams follows Goodman's example. We can read between the lines that Adams doesn't care for the music of some of the composers mentioned here, and we can guess that he had some run-ins with some collaborators. All those composers, teachers, and even an ex-wife get, at worst, the benefit of the doubt. His suggestion that Philip Glass sometimes composes on auto - pilot is balanced by his acknowledgement of borrowings from Glass and works by Glass of immense beauty and power.

Other themes in the book: Gratitude for the influences and efforts of his parents and teachers . . . gratitude for his experiences in both serial music (exemplified by Boulez, p. 32) and also the avant-garde music of the late 60s (exemplified by Cage), though he came to see both as dead ends (and he frankly admits now that a lot of that new music, lacking "shape," was "pushing the boredom envelope" 85) . . . gratitude for performers and patrons who allowed him to indulge in some failed experiments in the 70s . . . and a broad, historical view of music's "evolution" that includes a short history lesson on 20th century music (102 ff.) and a rumination on whether there's progress in any aspect of human life, much less in music itself, certainly rejecting the idea that increasing complexity is necessarily good. So there's another theme: Defending his works (though not all of them) from his critics.

I love this description of his collaborator Peter Sellars, how he speaks "in full paragraphs, punctuated by sudden peals of laughter that was . . . the result of amusement at what his words had managed to conjure" (126).

He is his own fairest critic. He acknowledges that the Houston premiere of NIXON (which I saw in 1987) probably didn't deserve much higher than a passing grade, and that KLINGHOFFER in Brooklyn (which I also saw) was just what I thought: unclear in its staging, unclear in its focus early on, and a bit long-winded in several spots. He gets most defensive on this topic, denying point by point the critics who accused him and his collaborators with favoring Palestinian terrorists because they once again allowed these characters to be presented as they themselves might want to be presented.

Since the falling-out with Alice Goodman is pretty famous, dwelt upon in another book THE JOHN ADAMS READER, I was especially interested to see how Adams treats her with respect and appreciation. He writes,


She could move from character to character and from scene to scene, alternating between diplomatic pronouncement, philosophical rumination, raunchy aside, and poignant sentiment. And she did all this in concise verse couplets, exhibiting a talent and technique that has nearly vanished from American poetical practice. (136)


His citation of lines from Pat Nixon's aria "This is Prophetic" brought tears to my eyes, as he focused my attention on an aspect of the words that I hadn't seen so clearly before. Here are the lines that he quotes, as Pat Nixon piles image of America on image in the form of a prayer :


Let lonely drivers on the road
Pull over for a bite to eat,
Let the farmer switch on the light
Over the porch, let passersby
Look in at the large family
Around the table, let them pass.


Adams comments, "It was part of Alice's genius to be able to handle images of Americans -- so routinely abused in magazine and television advertising -- in a way that recaptured their virgin essence, making them, when Pat sings them, not cliches at all but statements of a deeply felt, unconflicted belief." I'm pretty sure that Adams and I reach different conclusions about politics and religion, but it's clear that, in this book and in his art, he speaks what I believe, that humanity is deeper than all our economics and policies and creeds.

Other posts on this blog that focus on composer John Adams:
Doctor Atomic Staged Two Ways
30 Second Composer on John Adams
Musical Landscapes
Slow Motion Emotion: John Adams' Christian Zeal and Activity.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith


(reflection on Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith, a detective novel.)

Kept up late and awakened early by the effort of getting another school year off to a good start, I've been reading non-fiction articles here and there since August, and I've grown restless, yearning almost physically for a book that creates different world that I can return to at the end of the day, or immerse myself in on a weekend afternoon.

More than plot, more than appealing characters, this reader craves the sensation of being in a different world. It's not just descriptions that I need, but a rich texture, defined by that world's history, the outlook, the mood, and the language. To achieve all that requires that the action must be filtered through the moral vision of some central consciousness, just as Henry James said.

I've written elsewhere on this blog about how Raymond Chandler's novels are less like following a plot than they are like touring another world -- Chandler's L.A. -- and detective Marlowe is the vehicle. Chandler narrates in third person, but filters all through Marlowe's perceptions.

In the same way, novelist Martin Cruz Smith has taken me to Russia through detective Arkady Renko. I saw the movie made of Cruz's first Renko novel GORKY PARK back when it came out in the mid-80s, and I read a follow-up, POLAR STAR. I remember nothing of the plots behind those titles, but I remember Renko, decent, generally beat up by enemies and circumstances, and I remember the atmosphere on the ship Polar Star, literally dense with fog and grime and rust, filled with menace. Not a place I'd like to be, but a rich place to visit, especially as you're pulling for Renko to fight his way through.

STALIN'S GHOST conjures the new Russia, where the Stalinist past is truly being resurrected. The ghost story that hooks Renko and us into the plot actually fades away fairly early on, and I admit that I can't exactly explain what was behind the ghost's appearances. By mid-book, I'd forgotten which corpses perished in which circumstances. Even by the end, I was having trouble remembering which female character had lived with Renko, and which was someone he'd met more recently. That's due more to my erratic reading schedule than to the complexity of the story.

But what I won't forget is that texture. It's comprised of layers of snow, the sense of skeletons both real and metaphorical under every surface, ill-lit rooms, vodka, wealth and grimy poverty, and menacing hulks in black berets belonging to special forces OMON. There are some settings that stand out: the eerie old subway station where Stalin's ghost has appeared, the chess championship played under TV lights at a gaudy casino, and the spectacle of a chaotic dig of a mass grave -- with live land mines -- outside the town of Tver.

The plotline is direct: Arkady guesses that a certain OMON soldier named Isakov is behind a series of suspicious deaths, and he pursues Isakov to prove it. Everything else is embroidery: Arkady's lover has left him for Isakov, and Isakov is running a political campaign that appeals to "patriots" (i.e., those who idealize Stalin as the miracle-worker who saved Russia from the Nazis and enemies within).

There's a sub-plot: Arkady is also trying to locate Zhenya, a slight twelve-year-old chess prodigy, anti-social and on the run from his own abusive father. The two plots intersect when Zhenya finds Renko, and transfers his personal allegiance to Isakov.

Renko plods on, ridiculed for his integrity, mocked as a cuckold, and attacked by Isakov's partisans. What hurts most is when the boy Zhenya scorns him for his weakness, especially for not carrying a gun like the hero Isakov.

A couple of personal resonances for me. I visited Russia in 1977, and remember wandering the streets of Tver, then called Kalinin. In the mid-1980s, I had the great pleasure and challenge of dealing with a Ukrainian refugee from the Soviet Union, whom I could easily imagine doing what Zhenya does, in the same situation.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Effective Nonsense: POETRY in September

(Reflections on issues of POETRY magazine, September 2008).

In the September 2008 issue of POETRY, two poems by Alan Shapiro give effective expression to the myth that whatever is bourgeois, whatever is orderly, whatever contributes to the workings of nine-to-five polite society, must be phony, confining, and inimical to Real Life. The first of these two poems, "Gas Station Rest Room," goes to the underbelly of the beast and delights in its soils and smells -- words so evocative of their subject that I'd rather not re-read, much less quote them. But the graffiti there, in its furtive energy, seems to declare
heaven
is here at hand
and dark, and hell
is odorless; hell is bright and clean.
It's almost convincing, until you remember any graffiti you've seen lately, the angry or pathetic quality of the discourse there.

More true is Shapiro's other poem, "24/7," which seems to take place inside the convenience store that fronts that gas station restroom.
The one cashier is dozing --
head nodding, slack mouth open,
above the cover girl spread out before her on the counter
smiling up
with indiscriminate forgiveness
and compassion for everyone
who isn't her.
Other verses describe the laser beam of the scanner that "drifts free in the space that is the sum / of the cost of all the items that tonight / won't cross its path." There are "columns onto columns / under columns" of packed goods without
any trace
of bodies that have picked
packed unpacked and placed them just so
so as to draw bodies to the
pyramid of plums

Though to call a convenience store a "paradise of absence" is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, it makes me see the commonplace in a new way, especially at the end, when night "press[es] the giant black moth / of itself against the windows / of fluorescent blazing."

Both poems explore the feeling we all get looking at Hopper's paintings of urban alienation, especially "Night Hawks." Looking at that one, we are the giant black moth pressing up against the illuminated window. (Edward Hopper. Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas; 33 1/8 x 60 in. (84.1 x 152.4 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection.
Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago
)


But as Shakespeare observed, nothing is good or ill but thinking makes it so. I know one pre-teen for whom every convenience store was paradise, a place of tantalizing choices where I could exert my power to choose -- by drawing a few quarters from my pocket.

The same issue of POETRY also includes whimsical self-portraits by Philip Larkin, some scrawled in the margins of the agenda for a library staff meeting. There's also another thought-provoking article by Clive James. "It is possible that Shakespeare spoiled us," he says, by cramming his plays with so many flashes of metaphor and "his Olympian playfulness." By contrast, the sonnets work more with "syntactical tricks ... to compress and energize plain prose statement." James takes issue with the notion that what's plain and clear in poetry must be simple-minded.

The next best thing to reading a poem and getting it, is reading someone else's writing that open up the art to you.

Music, Morality, and Horror: Salome Slays Sweeney Todd


(reflections on seeing an High Definition broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Richard Strauss's SALOME in a movie theatre at the same time that I'm learning the piano parts for Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD for a production by teens at The Walker School.)



The moral horror that we feel when we see SALOME is different from the visceral horror of SWEENEY TODD.

The stage violence of SWEENEY is intended to startle us, and to evoke laughter, and even to be cathartic -- as we enjoy seeing the despicable judge come face to face with the man he wronged. The corny diminished chords that open and close Sondheim's score, heard first on a reedy organ and last in orchestral accompaniment under Sweeney's final lament, frame the action in a long, long tradition of melodramatic music for old movies and even older stage shows.

SWEENEY ends with a "moral" that also comments on our vicarious pleasure in seeing Sweeney's schemes finally succeed: "To seek revenge may lead to Hell, /but everyone does it, though seldom as well / As Sweeney...." Which adult has not felt the need to seek revenge, maybe outraged at some fellow drivers in heavy traffic? We at least recall revenge fantasies from adolescence. Of course, revenge is a "dark and hungry god" that doesn't stop when it devours its original object, as it does in SWEENEY, so we also get the self-satisfaction of feeling morally superior to Sweeney, and we accept the caution at the end in a spirit of fun.

As pianist, I'm enjoying more than ever the other kind of fun involved. Just as the plot criss-crosses the characters and incidents in an elaborate pattern of coincidences and inevitable surprises, the music is doing the same thing. Hearing the piano accompaniment alone, I'm discovering how underscoring for one character ties him to another. I'm learning how songs that I've loved for thirty years as distinct creations are actually variations of each other.

SALOME ends, like SWEENEY, with a bloody embrace and a sharp edge cutting off the life of the title character, but the experience is different. There is little in the way of vicarious pleasure, here. Quite the opposite: Every kind of sensual pleasure is presented during the hour - and - some minutes of the opera. On stage are "the beautiful people" in silky evening dress (Queen Herodias resembling Elizabeth Taylor in her prime), luscious music, drinking and eating, erotically explicit dancing. Instead of vicarious pleasure, these images evoke disgust. That's literal, too, as "dis + gust" means "loss of taste." These guests, especially the Princess Salome, are bored with their pleasures, and are hungrily looking for novelty. They find it, holding their drinks, and lounging around listening with mixed horror and fascination to the prophesies of doom emanating from the well on stage. The King himself is wearied: tired of the mother, he's pursuing the daughter. The most horrible part of the opera may be her attempt to seduce the ascetic Johannan. She sings, first, "I love your body," and she rhapsodizes on its whiteness like ivory. When he rejects her, she immediately reviles his body as "white like a corpse," then coos, "I love your hair." Ditto: he rejects her, and she fixes on another part of him, his mouth. Unable to shake his moral resolve, unable to comprehend a life guided by something other than appetite, and stung by rejection, she resolves to get what she desires by other means.

The rest follows inevitably from that encounter. There's the King's promise to give her anything if she'll "dance" for him, the spectacle of her dance with its thrilling music, and the ghastly fulfillment of her desire when she holds the prophet's head in her hands and sings, "I want to bite your lips as I would bite into ripe fruit." Even the king is sickened, and orders the guard to kill her in the opera's last seconds.

Strauss's music swells and churns with each whim of appetite, coming into focus with chorale - like accompaniment whenever Johannan sings.

Both shows confront us with our worst secret impulses; SALOME, digging deeper, is the more horrifying.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tweens in Kindergarten


(reflection after directing middle school actors in ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN, adapted from the works of Robert Fulghum by playwright Ernest Zulia and composer / lyricist David Caldwell.)


At the height of its popularity in the early 90s, ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN spawned, along with this theatrical adaptation, many imitations and parodies. My dogs' vet still displays a poster about what we learn from dogs; a New Yorker cartoon has a rumpled businessman reading the book, while beside him a more intense Japanese man in a business suit reads ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED WORKING MY BUTT OFF IN ADVANCED GRADUATE COURSES.

I myself rolled my eyes when others talked about the book. Did we boomers need one more voice telling it's okay not to grow up?

But the opening moments of the musical adaptation won me over, and won our audience over, too. The lyric tells us to "share / play fair ... clean up your own mess... hold hands and stick together when you cross the street," and that's all pretty cute. But then my young actors, all ages ten through fourteen, sang

Be aware of wonder
Think of the seed in the paper cup
Who knows why the root grows down and the leaves grow up?
But we're all like that,
And just as the seed, the bee, the mouse, and the goldfish all will die some day --

Well, so will we.

When my cast spontaneously put their arms around each other in the pause before that last line, I melted. Then there's the question in the scene that follows: "What ever happened to 'Yes, I can?'" It's what kindergarteners say when they're asked if they can sing or dance or draw.

Directing this ninety-minute musical with around twelve hours' rehearsal (squeezing it in three weeks before Homecoming and other schedule conflicts), I realized again how this is really my main purpose as a teacher. More than any set of specific facts or skills, it's my job to save middle schoolers from losing that sense of ability: Yes, we can write if we work at it . . . yes, we can find the information if we look intelligently enough . . . yes, we can appreciate great art for ourselves . . . yes, we can become the parts we play and sing out without having to be the best singers around.

Other scenes touched on the power of a teacher who gives a committed student freedom to go off in an unplanned direction. . . on the power of Beethoven's music, doubled by the knowledge that "Mr. B" was miserable and angry. . . on the trivial nature of much that we let preoccupy us.

One particularly effective sequence shows a young father and his toddler son growing up together. On stage were three boys, ages twelve and thirteen. As they took turns narrating and portraying the story of a young father in 1963 with a three year old son, the same father thirteen years later, and then the same pair thirteen years after that, grown men in the audience wept.

Having young students playing the roles of adults looking back on childhood gave the script a new layer of irony, as the audience knows from experience what the actors are learning only vicariously.

Thanks to teachers who helped to make this production possible in a very short time, Ayren Selzer and Regena Simpson.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Parade: You want theatre to be uplifting?


(Reflection on a production of the musical PARADE, book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed for Wildwood Summer Theatre of Bethesda, Maryland, by Kristina Friedgen.)

PHOTO from Hal Leonard, Music Publisher website

You want theatre to be uplifting? How about a love story, where a young couple married by arrangement learn to love each other deeply? How about a show in which all main characters -- not just the romantic leads -- lose their cynicism, overcome their fears, and stand up for what's right? How about a fast-paced musical in which the songs accelerate the action, gleam with wit, and evoke deep emotion? What if there's humor in every scene? Alfred Uhry wrote the script and Jason Robert Brown wrote both music and lyrics for just such a show, PARADE, originally directed on Broadway by Harold Prince around 2000. But the typical reaction to their masterpiece, even from its original critics, is what I overheard in the lobby of Atlanta's Fox Theatre years ago, from a voice edged with sarcasm: "Well, THAT was uplifting!"

So it was a surprising choice for a youth musical theatre camp in Bethesda, Maryland, but their production made me wonder how anyone could feel anything other than elated by the show. Director Kristina Friedgen, recent graduate of the University of Maryland's theatre program, chose a fresh-faced young man with a soaring baritone voice, Jonathan Loewy, to open the show alone on stage. He's a Confederate recruit off to fight the Civil War to fight the northern invaders who threaten the honor of the "red hills of home," the town of Marietta, Georgia, twenty miles north of Atlanta. A silhouette of those mountains in sunset shines behind him, as he carves his initials in a twisted tree. He marches off confidently to war. It's the unique power of musical theatre to transform this soaring martial anthem to music for a military parade early in the next century on "Confederate Memorial Day."

It's a fateful day in Georgia history with consequences that reach far beyond the lives of the characters in this play. On that day in April, 1913, a young Marietta girl, Mary Phagan (played by Kristina's sister Katie Friedgen -- a sophomore in college playing a spunky thirteen-year-old girl) took the train into Atlanta to collect her dollar and change for a week of labor at the National Pencil Company. She was never seen alive again. Raped and murdered, her body was discovered in the basement of the factory on April 27. Suspicion fell on two suspects. One of them was a black man who worked at the factory. This was at a time when the hanging of black men, with and without judicial proceedings, was such a routine matter that photos of lynchings were sold and sent out as postcards, conveying the unmistakable message, "Georgia knows how to keep blacks in line." So the politicians involved felt that their public wouldn't be satisfied with another routine hanging.

For this reason, the factory's business manager Leo Frank became the scapegoat. He was the one that Mary went to see for her salary. Other managers and workers took the day off for the parade. For the purposes of the prosecution, Frank was easy to paint as an untrustworthy man with hidden perversions, because he was a Jew from that Yankee Sodom, New York City. Frank made prosecution even easier because he was shy and pedantic, perceived as cold and arrogant. Actor Ben Lurye plays the coldness with humor, and convincingly plays Frank's extremes, from near-hysteria to warmth. In Friedgen's choreographed enactment of girls' lying testimony, he also dances and sings as a slimy predator - very convincing, two inches over-the-top and funny.

The rest of the plot, spanning two years, is simple: Prosecutor Hugh Dorsey railroads Frank through the trial to a guilty verdict and capital sentence, buying and bullying witnesses into made-up testimony. But the persistence of Frank's wife Lucille and second thoughts expressed by the judge pump up the conscience of lightweight pretty-boy Governor Slaton. The governor's investigation leads him to commute Frank's sentence to life in prison. Citizens of Atlanta, outraged, mob the governor's mansion and Slaton flees the state, while citizens of Marietta break into the jail and pull Frank out to hang him. When the crowd, motivated to preserve the "honor" of their community by punishing this Yankee, those red hills of home appear again on the backdrop, and he is hanged from that same tree that has been there on stage since the first scene.

The Leo Frank case excited nation-wide attention just before World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. It coincided, then, with anti-immigrant hysteria and the Red Scare. The culture at large was re-thinking the Civil War and interpreting Reconstruction in a way popularized by the silent movie BIRTH OF A NATION, in which heroic Ku Klux Klansmen rescue the honorable South from greedy Yankee businessmen and their barbaric minions, the freedmen. In the immediate aftermath of the Frank case, the Ku Klux Klan was re-born, and the Anti-Defamation League was formed.

Director Friedgen made sure we knew all about the plot before we saw the show. She visited Georgia archives and put together an historical display of artifacts and film for the curious audience to study. Instead of focusing just on what happens next, we were free to pay attention to the growth in the characters. Lucille Frank, played by Sherry Berg, begins as the Jewish socialite, an assimilated southern belle none too happy with her marriage. In her crisis, she defends her husband, faces the crowds, and finds the inner confidence and resources to gather evidence to overturn the conviction. Governor Slaton wants nothing to do with this dirty matter, especially as he sees political enemies using the case to gain popular approval; but he risks everything to re-open the case. Our narrator for the evening is a drunken, cynical newsman Britt Craig, who feeds the public frenzy by printing innuendo and lies of the politicians; but, he is chastened by Lucille's example of strength and integrity, and ends the show trying to make amends.

The climax of the show isn't the hanging, but a sequence of scenes and songs building in hope throughout the second act. Leo and Lucille sing an energetic and optimistic duet, "This is Not Over Yet." The next several minutes show the re-opened investigation and pardon. There's an ominous ensemble number, "Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?" staged so that we can see all the parties caught up in a flood of emotions. Waves of words and music overlap to dramatize the public's being whipped up into mob action. Another duet by Leo and Lucille bookends the sequence with a song, "All the Wasted Time," an ecstatic love song. By now, thanks to strong voices and nuanced acting by the young performers Lurye and Berg, we've forgotten that we're watching kids, and we're involved in their relationship, and we're fooled for a moment into forgetting what lies ahead.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did see the show as a guest of Kristina. I saw the show with her mother Gloria, Uncle Ernie, Aunt Mary, cousin Matthew, and great-aunts Millie and Terry. I taught Kristina and her sister Katie at the Walker School in the late 90s, when they played roles in MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, HER YANKEE SECRET (by yours truly), and INTO THE WOODS, Jr. How wonderful to see how young students have pursued their interests and grown into mature artists!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Billy Strayhorn: In the Mantle of Duke Ellington


(Reflections on LUSH LIFE: A BIOGRAPHY OF BILLY STRAYHORN by David Hajdu.) PHOTO CREDIT: Kalamu.com

Duke Ellington's mystique starts with his sound. The mood is indigo indeed, as even the up tempo numbers have a dark overlay, and even bright spikes of brass sound a little like screaming. Then, there's Ellington's regal elegance in dress, but also in his courtly enunciation, and elevated diction -- "Beyond category." He kept himself and his band above the indignities of segregation by such means as buying a private rail car to avoid having to sleep in segregated hotels. While other bands performed songs and hits, Ellington also wrote film music, music suites, sacred concerts, instrumental songs in the form of Shakespearean sonnets, and adaptations of symphonic music. The fact that Ellington did all that exerts gravity that pulls even his pop songs out of the orbit of lightweight tunes by his peers. He added to the mystique with his memoir MUSIC IS MY MISTRESS, so clouded with impressions and tangents and idiosyncracies that I couldn't make sense of it. That's one reason I sought out this biography of Billy Strayhorn, though it really doesn't lift the cloud of mystery surrounding Ellington. It just shows how much Strayhorn wrapped himself in it.

For Strayhorn, the Ellington mantle was a cover that protected him from the vicissitudes of a career in music, and from the society's disapproval of gay men; but if Ellington offered paternal protection, he also kept Strayhorn in line. Son Mercer Ellington reflects that his father's men were all like sons to him, and, in the old aristocratic manner, he let his sons fight for position beneath him, though Mercer also at one point says that Duke "pampered" Billy more like a daughter.

The heart of the book is the chapter "So This is Love," about Billy Strayhorn's arrival in New York City as Ellington's newly hired arranger. Before then, we've read about Strayhorn's life in Pittsburgh, despised by his own father for being "mama's boy," growing to be composer and lyricist of school shows, accomplished pianist, student of classical music. We've studied the richness in his music and lyric "Lush Life," and we've laughed at the pretensions of the eighteen year old lyricist's "dreaming of a week in Paris, [when he] rarely walked past Frick Park" -- and we've combed it for signs that he intended the double meaning in the first two lines, "I used to visit all the very gay places / Those come what may places." Author David Hajdu concludes that Strayhorn had not lived any such "lush life" to that point, in the restricted social and musical milieu of Pittsburgh.

Now, in New York, Billy Strayhorn is living two dreams -- his, and Ellington's, too. Already knowledgeable on high culture, on modern composers, and music theory, Strayhorn studies a book on etiquette and buys fancy socks (p. 78). He moves in with a lover. And, musically, he provides the sophistication and polish that Ellington wanted and didn't have the patience or time to complete. Some of Ellington's aura, says one intimate, "was hocus-pocus -- grand gestures and particular five-dollar phrases that he'd pronounce with dramatic emphasis. Meanwhile, he never really read anything except the Bible . . . and he knew far less about the fine arts, including other composers, than he like to let on" (Herb Jeffries in Hajdu, p. 78).

So Duke, taking care of business, needed Strayhorn to finish himself. There's some hint here that Ellington was temperamentally averse to finishing anything at all, to the point of avoiding divorce (he just moved in with #2) and avoiding the unpleasantness of firing a musician (hiring a replacement and leaving it to the guys to figure it out).

The major theme of Hajdu's book, perhaps over-emphasized, is the idea that Ellington got all the recognition for Strayhorn's work. Exhibit "A" is Ellington's signature song, "Take the 'A' Train" clearly labeled as Strayhorn's, but always thought of as Duke's. It was one of several songs that Strayhorn and Mercer Ellington composed overnight when Ellington and other members of the composer's union ASCAP had a dispute with the Broadcasting industry. To go on the air, the band needed a new repertoire of songs by non-union composers Strayhorn and Mercer Ellington.

Hajdu makes a big deal of showing how Duke gets the applause and shares the composing credits for works that Strayhorn did alone. The extreme example is a Broadway show (BEGGAR'S HOLIDAY -- I've never heard of it) for which Strayhorn composed songs, played in rehearsal, and even composed music for act two during act one of a preview performance (p. 103). Ellington got sole credit for composing, Strayhorn for "musical arrangements," and Ellington got critical acclaim (though the show failed). For Strayhorn, that was some kind of breaking point, and he sulks away from Ellington for some time.

While Hajdu implies that Strayhorn had made a Faustian bargain, gaining the freedom to indulge his taste for martinis and to live "out of the closet" in return for his soul, it's hard to see it that way, because Ellington seems to be no Mephistophiles. At worst, Ellington seemed to be a bit preoccupied, maybe presuming that everyone had the same feeling of team spirit that he had.

The best evidence for that is how the big turnaround in their relationship happened at the exact moment that Duke was strongest. Duke's career was on the skids when be-bop and small ensembles and rock and roll killed off the big bands. He kept his alive, paying his men their salaries from the royalties for his pop songs (p. 141). Then came Duke's big break, a performance at Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. Hajdu says it was a "referendum" on Duke's whole career. His showmanship, pumping his fist to keep tenor sax man Paul Gonsalves improvising chorus after chorus of one song, brought the live audience to rush the stage, and brought world-wide acclaim for the live recording. Suddenly Duke's face was on magazine covers, and his career was reborn, greater than ever.

In his great success, Ellington reaches out to Strayhorn. Ellington promises, from now on, "whatever you want" (p. 152). They do the high-falutin' projects such as the Shakespearean program and Tchaikovsky arrangements that emphasize Strayhorn's particular talents. Ellington makes sure to emphasize Strayhorn's role, on stage, in credits, in interviews.

By the time of Strayhorn's early death from stomach cancer, Ellington is a gracious, loving, openly appreciative leader.

Go to Youtube and look for Ellington Strayhorn for several videos of Duke paying tribute to Strayhorn, playing Strayhorn's music, and, in one, featuring Strayhorn as soloist with the band.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

To McCain and Obama: "A Cause Higher Than Yourself," Yourself!

In an article called "Self - Interest is Bad?" in the Weekly Standard (July 21, 2008), senior editor Andrew Ferguson has a lot of fun with the phrase a "cause higher than your own self-interest." He abbreviates it CGTYOSI, and shows how both candidates preach on this theme. He runs through a list of others who've said it before - including Reagan and LBJ, Jesse Jackson and Newt Gingrich.

His essential point is that any politician who uses this phrase is betraying the "condescension" of the chattering classes -- academics, news media, lawyers and politicians.

Why does a candidate feel compelled to exhort his nation to a higher cause...? He reveals a low opinion of his countrymen by doing so. He implies a population lost in self-absorption and narcissism, each member ignoring others in pursuit of selfish ends.

Ferguson predicts that either of the candidates now gallivanting across the globe promoting themselves will be "hectoring" us for the next four years,

with the implication that as we go through the day getting our kids out of bed, packing their lunches, helping them with homework, dragging ourselves to our jobs, enduring an hour's commute, so we can make enough money to meet our mortgage, attending PTA meetings, feeding the dog, going to church, mowing our neighbor's lawn while he's on vacation, planning a birthday party, saying a prayer for a sick friend, picking up a six-pack for our brother - in - law on the way home, writing a check to the Red Cross, shopping for an old roommate's wedding gift, pretending to listen to the tedious beefs of a co-worker, telephoning an aged aunt, and otherwise doing what it is we need to do to make our lives mean something, we are merely pursuing what our two presidential candidates consider our selfish interest.

For now, of course, each of the two men, McCain and Obama, points to himself as an exemplar of service -- even as he avoids his family, neglects his job, and hands his everyday obligations over to poorly paid subordinates, all so he can fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming the most powerful and celebrated man in the world.


Well - said. The chattering classes (of which I am, alas, typical) think that we are the Ones Who Know, and it's why the largest sub-category of chatterers are suspicious of Ones Who Manufacture and Ones Who Don't Want To Be Told From Washington How To Run Their Lives and Their Businesses.

Frankie and Winnie and Ronnie and Maggie: Two Histories, One Story

(reflections on RONALD REAGAN AND MARGARET THATCHER: A POLITICAL MARRIAGE by Nicholas Wapshott, and CHURCHILL AND AMERICA by Martin Gilbert.)


A British Prime Minister takes the reins of Parliament in a time of deep crisis and immediately makes contact with the American President. The PM is exhaustingly energetic and unrelenting in pursuing the interests of the United Kingdom and the free world (in that order), prolix, optimistic but impatient, worried about the short term. The President is relaxed, self-confident, and sympathetic to the PM but content to go his own way as US politics and interests demand.

That was pretty much my pre-conceived notion of what I would find in two recent books about US - UK relations focused on Roosevelt - Churchill and Reagan - Thatcher, and these two books confirmed what I'd expected. Each fills in with details that are sometimes endearing, as world-shaping decisions worked through personal relationships. In both books, there are stretches when the British PM is dismayed and hurt to find the President cavalierly disregarding urgent personal requests, and the PMs both flatter the Presidents and cajole them to get what they want.

Gilbert's book starts with Churchill's American mother's background, and carries through every childhood essay and every visit to the states, before it hits those two years when the UK was standing up alone against the Axis. Wapshott's book lays groundwork for the eight years when Reagan and Thatcher worked together by giving us parallel biographies of Reagan and Thatcher, highlighting the sources of their strong convictions that freedom and markets are the only hope for humankind.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Jokers at the Gate: Batman and Barbarians

Before I reflect on some 9/11 resonances of both the new Batman movie and the opera WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, I'd like to celebrate a couple of comic book covers that feature the characters who drive this latestBatman movie. One is the Joker, who first appeared in 1940 and was a grim, scary, implacable murderer with ironic humor, and the other is Two Face, the once-good District Attorney who decides to be good or evil depending on the flip of a coin. Both characters went through years of being campy, comfortable figures before they were resuscitated by Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams. It's Adams' art you see in these pictures.



When, within twenty four hours, I encounter the image of "barbarians at the gates" in the summer's blockbuster hit movie and in an opera by Philip Glass, is it coincidence, or a sign of the times? Both THE DARK KNIGHT and WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS explore a question that has troubled our national imagination since 9 / 11: Do we have to break our own laws to defeat those who respect no law?

In the new Glass opera WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, with libretto by Christopher Hampton from a 1982 novel by J. M. Coetzee, there are literal barbarians at a literal gate. The main character is a Magistrate on the frontier of an unnamed empire who takes it upon himself to return a barbarian girl to her tribe after she has been maimed in cruel interrogations by his superiors. He believes the officials' fears of invasion are based on manufactured reasons or misunderstanding; and he believes, in any case, that an emergency does not excuse injustice.

In the new Batman movie DARK KNIGHT, it's another magistrate, District Attorney Harvey Dent, who refers to barbarians at the gates. Arguing with Bruce "Batman" Wayne about the need for a vigilante to protect the population, he tells how the Roman Republic would grant emergency powers to a vigilante until peace was restored. It's a nice touch here that Batman himself reminds him that Caesar was that vigilante, who became a tyrant. Dent says, "You either die a hero, or live to see yourself the villain," and the rest of the story develops that idea. By the end of the movie, Batman has re-focused his efforts to sustain the official good guys.

In the opera, we never see the Barbarians except as noble outsiders, so the deck is stacked against those sun-glassed, shiny-weaponed officials of the empire and their counter-offensive. But the magistrate himself is an ambiguous character. The sun-glassed Colonel tells him more than once that the two of them are the same. How? It's not entirely clear, but we do learn that the Barbarian girl, far from being grateful to the magistrate, was in fact frightened of him. "You were always somewhere else," is how another character puts it. "She never knew what you wanted from her." We've seen how his care for her bandaged body gradually eroticizes. Does the libretto mean to suggest that both magistrate and colonel, as representatives of this empire, know only mediated versions of the barbarians? The sunglasses are a clue that both representatives of the empire have trouble with their vision.

In the movie, we have barbarians all right, led by The Joker, a character who has embodied chaos since he was created for a dime comic book in the 1940. (The man who drew that first image of the Joker admires this latest incarnation of the character as closest to the original Link to interview. ) This is the most grim Joker of all that I've seen on screen, yet he remains fun to watch for all the old reasons. His clown face and quips are so incongruous with his violence (as with the horrific little action that follows the line, "Watch! I'll make this pencil disappear!"), and gratuitous spectacle -- exploding hospitals, choreographed assassins, a pyre of cash. He enters the debate between Batman and Harvey Dent, too, arguing that law cannot beat someone who simply disregards all laws, all codes, all plans. He dares Batman to kill him.

It's a debate that the Joker loses. More than once, he tells Batman, "You are alone." Everyone is either cowed or corrupted; all you have to do is mess up their plans. Yes, some try to stand up to him: "copycat" citizens in Batman suits and an elderly man at a party both tell him to his face, "We don't have to be scared of you." He pulls out his knife and sends them off. But we also see his grandest plan foiled because people in the end do not act in the frightened, self-preserving way that he expects, and Batman is able to tell him, "You are alone."

No doubt the directors of the opera and the movie want to resonate with our 9/11 world. The first image in the movie is an aerial approach to the glass facade of a skyscraper. The Joker is called a terrorist, and his arsenal includes military weapons and, several times, improvised explosive devices. We see crowds heading for the bridges and ferries to get out of town, as they did on 9/11. The opera focuses on hooded detainees and what officials are now calling "enhanced interrogation techniques."

I checked blogs to see if anyone else saw the Batman movie as a 9/11 movie, and I ran into a long conservative blogger's analysis of the movie as an allegory, with Batman being George W. Bush, using force outside the usual law to deal with the emergency of motiveless terrorists. I think that's pretty far-fetched.

But, while one works in big images and sharp contrasts, and the other explores a small personal corner of this problem (with Glass's elegant, atmospheric music providing contemplative tropes that expand the simple action), both works reaffirm what I've taught students for 28 years now: Have faith in the law, and stick to it, or the enemy has already broken down your gates.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE: Detective Novel in Tights

(Reflection on SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE, first novel by Austin Grossman, a games programmer and PhD candidate in English lit, with more thought about Sue Grafton's mystery series.)

A day after writing that Sue Grafton's detective - narrator Kinsey Millhone is sort of like her VW bug, homely, an underdog, but scrappy and dependable - I encountered a narrator like her who really is a machine. She's Fatale, a half-Robot Amazon built from the remains of a plump 5'5" woman who lost her memory and 1/2 of her body in an accident vacationing in Brazil (near the Amazon? coincidence?). She chose her name from a list, she tells us, and sometimes regrets not choosing "Cybergirl," which would have been easier for check-in clerks to pronounce and spell.

The novel sounds like it might be a recipe for a quick comedy sketch: To write a straight-faced crime fiction, obeying all the rules of the form, as if our planet really did contain "one thousand, six hundred, and eighty-six enhanced, gifted, or otherwise-superpowered persons." In fact, the notion of fitting super-herodom snuggly in the real world lies behind some recent movies and some old TV shows, too: THE INCREDIBLES, SKY-HIGH, and the old GREAT AMERICAN HERO. Of course, there's SMALLVILLE and HEROES on TV too. For that matter, it was this approach that made Marvel comics so distinctive and kind of annoying from their beginning in the late 50s. One commentator quipped, "They'd be too busy to get up from their analysts' couches to save a cat in a tree."

So there's fun to be had here, but it wouldn't last if the story didn't develop well, and it does. Like a Grafton novel, it's a story with characters who have pasts that impinge on the present, and there's a mystery at the start: Where is CoreFire, the mightiest hero of them all? Did his nemesis Doctor Impossible finally get him? Because chapters alternate between Fatale's voice and the villain's we know that he has no idea. As in a detective novel, we get a corpse about one-third of the way through, and we build up to the confrontation and answers in the last third.

Here's a sample of Fatale's narration. She's feeling out of her depth being asked to join "The Champions" super-hero group. Assured "You'll do fine. We all get our start somehow," by the group's leader, a part-alien masked girl named Damsel -- recently divorced from a Batman-style human named Blackwolf -- Fatale reflects
I guess we do at that, although some people get born with flight and a force-field, while others get ground into the Brazilian pavement. Funny thing.
Then Fatale's challenged to spar with one of their members ("Elphin," warrior elf left behind when Oberon and Titania went back to the elf dimension).
She gestures to the mat, like she's not sure I'll understand English. I don't know what she thinks I am. A knight in patchwork armor? I wonder if they've explained it to her -- the accident, the operations, the rest of it.
I shrug. "Bring it on."
"I would not hurt thee." Christ.
...It's not that I'm scared. I'm pretty good at this; I've just never fought a world-famous superheroine. I've never fought someone with her own pinup calendar and herbal tea brand. The truth is, I was halfway hoping for a shot at Damsel herself. There are tricks you can try with a force field. (p. 59, Vintage paperback).
The other narrator, "Doctor Impossible," is a mad -scientist who dropped out of Harvard after his seventh sophomore year, unable to stick with any program. He was the geeky kid, he tells us, and that stays with him, even now, when he's super-strong, impervious to bullets, and working on a doomsday machine that will alter the earth's orbit at his command. As we'd expect in any detective fiction, we have more than one scene in a dive bar, this one for super-villains.
I step through a slit in the plastic sheeting and into the light. It's going strong tonight, thirty or forty of us milling around, the usual assortment of half-brilliant, half-unlucky types sitting in twos and threes. A man made of rock. Something like a demon-woman, horns and a tail. A man clad in metal armor, holding an ax; a pale blue man, translucent....
I've forgotten what it's like out here with the smaller operators, people like the Pharaoh or the Quizzler, cutting deals for a few grains of plutonium or a high-tech crossbow. I'm not a natural mixer. And there's the difference in education. I look around more carefully. Villains fight villains, too.
"Doctor Impossible! Hey, Doc!"
A familiar red costume waves to me. He's sitting at the bar with a few guys I don't know, but I know Bloodstryke from the Thailand days. He's basically okay, for a guy whose armor drinks blood. (p.102)
Of course, it's fun to pick up on parallels to DC and Marvel comics, to detective novels, and to Austin Grossman's other areas of expertise: there are analogies to computer game "environments" and programming, and references to fiction. From Shakespeare, there's the Titania reference, and a living undersea computer named "Phathom - 5" from THE TEMPEST song ("Full fathom five your father lies..."), and a woman who disappeared with three friends to become rulers in a fairy tale kingdom, only to come back and become a character in a series of children's books now also made into movies: Narnia, anyone?