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?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sue Grafton's Alphabetical Mystery Novels: ABC and Do, Re, Mi

(Reflections on Sue Grafton's S IS FOR SILENCE, involving earlier novels in her series, including I, J, K, L, M, N, and O.)

Writing detective fiction must be a lot like composing music. How much can a creative person do with the same handful of keys? The composer and mystery writer have to meet certain expectations: grabbing our attention early, setting a mood early, introducing some new material in the first half of the piece, repeating certain material over and over until we "get" it, and leading up to some climaxes (in music, "cadences") at intervals before reaching the finale.

The analogy is an easy one to see in Sue Grafton's series, since her alphabet series overlapped the musical scale for the first octave, at least. About those, I can say nothing, because I picked up "I IS FOR INNOCENT" pretty much at random from a grocery store book rack when I was desperate for something to read. Judging from those, I'd say that, like a composer, she is learning from doing, and she is setting herself some new formal challenges along the way.

Of all that I've read, S IS FOR SILENCE has the most formal experimentation, and it's very much a musical form. Grafton has written a novelist's equivalent of a Rondo. Late musicologist Karl Haas used to compare a rondo to a musical sandwich: bread, then something new, followed always by bread, and so on. The novel S IS FOR SILENCE begins on July 4, 1953, the night that little Daisy Sullivan and babysitter Liza Mellincamp last saw Daisy's mother Violet (and her yapping little Pomeranian dog). The next chapter begins thirty-four years later, when grown-up and messed-up Daisy hires detective Kinsey Millhone to find out once and for all whether her mother abandoned her that night, or was killed by her abusive husband, or something else. For the rest of the novel, there is this alternation between chapters about the forward-moving (and backward-looking) investigation and chapters focused on what each of the characters was doing July 3 and 4, 1953.

This formal choice was a good one. We got to know the victim, warts and all, and Grafton got to branch out from her usual first-person persona to get into the outlooks of her different characters, including a couple of very different adolescent girls. I looked forward to wading in these little pools of past, and then I looked forward to seeing how each new piece of information ("Oh, Violet was seeing this man, too") fit into the picture that these characters were presenting of themselves 34 years later.

There are certain formal characteristics that Grafton continues in all the novels that I've read, but she always finds a way to vary them. First, there's the first - person narration by Kinsey Millhone, whose car is an apt image for herself: a battered but reliable Volkswagen beetle. In all the novels, the event that gets the story going is violence that happened months or years before. New violence waits until much later in these books. Grafton manages to squeeze Millhone into corners just at the moment that the detective "gets" it -- the criminal has also figured out that she's got it -- and there's going to be a violent confrontation.

Reading I, J, and K, I was at first annoyed by what seemed to be intrusions. In my notes, I asked, "Padding, or reality? Do we need details about drinking water, sorting mail? misspelling? clothes? her Spanish class? the annoyance of telemarketers?" I'm glad I wrote all that down, because I could appreciate later when Grafton brought those digressions into the mainline of her plot -- as when Kinsey uses the ploy of being a telemarketer to elicit information from an unsuspecting suspect.

Grafton also seems to find a way to break routine, to distinguish one novel from the others. S has its rondo form; K grows into a meditation on night life, as Kinsey loses sleep investigating the murder of a "sex worker." L takes her cross-country, trying to reach the point of origin before the scary villain does -- and he's hot on her heels. In O, she is confronted with a misjudgement of her own youth, and she's working to clear the name of her first husband. N is set almost entirely in a sort of "town of the damned," where the entire population seems to be hostile and dangerous.

Once in awhile, we see inside the mind of the author, and that's a quality I like in music, too, to see a process of development at work. Grafton displays her own brainstorming for possible plot twists in those places where Kinsey sits with scattered index cards, looking for connections -- a ritual that Kinsey does in every one of these novels. I imagine if we checked Grafton's work room, we'd see index cards pinned to a bulletin board. Kinsey's reflection on her work is undoubtedly an expression of Grafton's own feelings as she's deep into a novel. This is from J:
At this stage of any investigation, I'm inclined to impatience. It always feels the same way to me -- as though this is the case that's finally going to do me in. ... I don't always succeed in the way I anticipate. The problem with being a PI is there isn't any rule book.
There's one other element hard to describe, but very easy to appreciate: the books have heart. I don't mean tear-jerking stuff. Some boyfriends come into the background, and those are the least interesting things in the books. But sometimes Kinsey is insensitive, or angry, or vindictive. Grafton works these out in graceful moments of self-awareness and remorse. I especially liked Kinsey's reflection, when a difficult witness is formally polite to her, and they end the conversation cordially: It's not that we're nice to the people that we like. We like the people that we're nice to.

I hear that T is another twist, told from the point of view of the killer. That's been done before, but not by Grafton. I'm looking forward to grabbing it up soon.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Boy Gets Girl, Boy Doesn't Deserve Her : All's Well That Ends Well

(A reflection on the preview performance of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival in Atlanta.)

Suppose, once upon a time, there were a beautiful, clever, generous, and kind girl named Helena, secretly in love with the son of the Countess whom she serves. Suppose she makes a bargain with the King of France, sick unto death: If she cures the king's disease, she marries the man of her choice; otherwise, she dies. Suppose she works a miracle, restoring him to youthful vigor. He lines up all the eligible young men in the court for her, and last in line is the young Count whom she adores. She gently teases the men, who are all anxious to have her, before, hesitantly, and modestly, she says to her love Bertram, "I dare not say I choose you, but I do give myself." What happens next?

It's the strangest moment in a Shakespeare play that I can think of, and I'm sure it's the reason why I've only seen two productions of this play -- compared to more than a dozen productions each of TWELFTH NIGHT, AS YOU LIKE IT, and MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Not only does Bertram reject her, to the shock of everyone in court and in the audience, but, he does worse. He takes her hand when commanded to disregard her social class (the King giving a very democratic speech about true worth stemming from actions, not from birth), then rejects her in private. He mocks her: When you can get the ring off my finger, and bear me my own child, then will I be your husband. Then he betrays the King by joining the enemy's army. The girl Helena spends the rest of the play pursuing him, and we're all asking ourselves, "Why?"

Directors have to pull out all their tricks to make this one work. The only other production I've seen (Alabama Shakespeare Festival, ca. 1985) framed the play with a spot of light on a young couple in a slow waltz, obviously enthralled with each other. Only at the end do we recognize them as Helena and Bertram, and, remembering the way the play started, we think, "Okay, he's a jerk, but it's inevitable that he'll learn to appreciate her." This one begins the play with tableaus from the celebratory ending, and a balletic "dumbshow" that anticipates key elements of the story: Helena's selection of Bertram, the use of blindfolds (Bertram is literally in the dark at a key plot turn, and a subplot involves blindfolding the character Parolles), her rejection, and the long road to reconciliation -- symbolized by laying a long white cloth flat on the stage and having Helena advance "uphill" along the cloth, one laborious step at a time. The director borrows images from this dumbshow throughout the play to remind us of the inevitable ending -- when Helena and Bertram again stand at opposite ends of that white cloth, and this time, they come together joyfully.

Still, what's wrong with this boy? In the program, the director asks what this play would be, if it were focused on the boy. The director's intriguing answer is that this is a sort of "Labors of Hercules" or "Adventures of Theseus," in which a hero, having somehow brought dishonor to himself, goes through experiences that make him a man. With that in mind, the director did a lot of good. He cast as Bertram an actor smaller than everyone else in the cast except Helena and the jester, and the actor projected the insecurity of an eighth grade boy in a grown-up situation, awkward with formal gestures, always a little isolated, eyes constantly checking to see what kind of impression he's making. Embracing his mother as he leaves to join the King's court, his formal embrace becomes a little boy's hug. This emphasis fits with the script, as Bertram follows a braggart soldier the way a young teen might be awed by an eighteen-year-old jackass.

So it's about the girl who grows up before the boy does, and then she gets him when he's really ready. Okay: That ends well enough for me.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Singer Carmen McRae: Beyond Perfection

"Singing" just begins to describe what the late Carmen McRae did with a song. Here's more about her life than I ever knew, from wikipedia:

Carmen Mercedes McRae (April 8, 1920 – November 10, 1994) was an American jazz singer, composer, pianist, and actress. Considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th century, it was her behind-the-beat phrasing and her ironic interpretations of song lyrics that made her memorable. McRae drew inspiration from Billie Holiday, but established her own distinctive voice. She went on to record over 60 albums during her career, and enjoying a rich musical career, performing and recording in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
In the rest of the article, I learned that she acted roles in several movies and TV shows between 1960 and 1990, and that emphysema forced her to quit singing but not to quit smoking in 1991, and it killed her. Of the dozens of hours of recorded music by her that I've heard, I have a favorite two seconds, and they tell us how McRae's performances reached beyond perfection.

These two seconds come in a remarkable song composed specifically for McRae, "I Have the Feeling I've Been Here Before" from the LP I am Music. The album's producer Roger Kellaway wrote the music. The Bergmans, A(lan?) and M(arilyn), wrote the lyrics. My copy of the album has gone the way of all my vinyl -- into the dumpster. I expected to be able to replace all my treasured Carmen albums with CDs, but that hasn't happened.

The two seconds I have in mind come near the end of the song. Its beginning is an ascending scale from low in the range to high, skipping past the upper tonic and still higher. Ensuing lines parallel that shape in whole or in part:

I have the feeling I've been here before
More often than I care to tell.
And though the signs have been more clear before,
By now I know them pretty well...
She sings about how she knows the "smile, the look," and she adds with emphasis (as if she's rolling her eyes), "I know the look!" But the lyric develops, "Although I've been on the losing side / that carpet ride / is always worth a try." It concludes, "The only news when you've been here before / is: who will say good-bye." That's the end of the lyric. But it's the place where the instrumentalists do their improv, and Carmen joins in when the music comes back around to the line, "Though I've been on the losing side." That's where I find my favorite two seconds: Carmen rides the swell of the instruments into her loudest and highest notes in the song, as she stretches the word "losing" into four syllables. It's a musical train wreck: her voice breaks at the high point, and she doesn't quite hit the note she's thinking of before she comes back down and recovers for a quiet finish.

What I love in those horrible two seconds is what makes her better than perfection. She was a team player and a fearless improvisor. She fed off of what she heard, and she sought opportunities to sing with musicians who would push her into new territory, such as her live duet with Dizzy Gillespie on a ballad "Miss Otis Regrets," her album of unrehearsed first takes with pianist George Shearing, and a live concert of duets with avant-garde singer Betty Carter. While she was capable of crooning velvety tones, Carmen McRae was willing to push her characterization outside of "pretty." The kicker is, it's a studio album, and Carmen could have done another take. I'm guessing that she was satisfied with this take, warts and all, maybe because the rest is so good, or maybe it was part of her integrity as a performer, as the overshot pitch and cracked voice were part of her spontaneous living of the moment.

Spontaneity and genuineness are part of her performances, whatever the venue. The closest I ever got to seeing her live was in the late-Seventies, a time when her career had a "resurgence," according to her fan web site. A friend of mine named Pam saw Carmen McRae two times, six months' apart. Pam also saw Carmen McRae's friend Sarah Vaughan twice during that same period of time. Pam reported that she loved both the first time, but the second time, she was disenchanted with one of them. According to my friend, Sarah Vaughan repeated every nuance and gesture, including the supposedly spontaneous jokes and comments about how she appreciated that particular audience. Carmen, on the other hand, was clearly enjoying herself, was truly responding to differences in the audience, and did not repeat her performances, even when some of the songs were the same.

I never knew Carmen McRae except through her music; but it was the special quality of her performance to make us feel like old friends. Happily, YouTube makes it possible for me to see her live, and I plan to enjoy what's there, now that I've been reminded how special she was.

Last in the Series: Meditation on "Peace be Within Thy Walls"

(As the instigator of our church's in-house publication of devotional readings for Lent 2009, I've had to do homework for those who didn't come through. I also had two assignments of my own. With the meditation below, my work for this project is complete, except perhaps for a foreword.)

TUESDAY, March 31, 2009

Psalm 122: "Peace be within your walls"

Our walls at St. James bear stone tablets, so old that some engraved letters have blurred. The stones honor parishioners who worshiped here before these very walls existed, before the train tracks were laid, before Church and Polk were streets. Some of their birth dates reach back more than 150 years.

For those earliest parishioners, candles were an everyday sight. "All things in heaven" were closer, and "things invisible" didn't include bacteria or UV rays. When they prayed for "this nation," they were thinking of twenty-some states east of the Missisippi, not a world power. For them, it was unthinkable to sit in the congregation next to divorced individuals, or people of any background other than Anglo-Saxon. They would not have been familiar with women in positions of leadership in the church or anywhere else, or with anyone who didn't wear a hat in public. As late as 1960, it was scandalous to some when a Roman Catholic of Irish descent went hatless to his own Presidential inauguration.

But cast back another 150 years before our earliest parishioners were born, and find yet another world before steam engines, telegraph wires, and the Constitution. In that world, ten miles was a great distance, aristocracy was esteemed, democracy was disreputable, and judges from the Salem witch trials were still living. Composers of the music that we call classical hadn't been born.

Yet we and those parishioners of other centuries worship with the same rites, recite prayers in the same way, often using the same phrases. We all know Lent, and we all look forward to Easter. We all have heard today's reading from Romans, Paul's rebuke to a church that drew a sharp distinction between Jew and Greek, assuring them that "the same Lord is Lord of all."

There is peace and comfort in realizing that our church walls enclose a community in time as well as in space. Whenever the peace of this community has been disturbed by conflict -- and that has happened regularly for centuries -- there is also peace in remembering what has blurred with time, and what time has not touched.

Other readings assigned for the day: Psalms [120,121, 122, 123 evening: 124, 125, 126 [127] Jer. 25:8-17, Rom 10:1-13 John 9:18-41

"The truth shall set you free"


John 8:21-32 ...If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

A picture of freedom opens up to us at St. James' ugliest spot. Just after we've agreed to "go in peace to love and serve the Lord," we're crossing that oily, littered gravel pit at the railroad tracks. Through a break in the trees we see, ahead and a little to the right, a plain church spire pointing to the peak of Kennesaw Mountain. Beyond that, it's a vast uncluttered sky, and, beyond that, a long unscheduled stretch of afternoon. We may be thinking of walking the dogs up that mountain, or lunching on the Square, or taking a nap; but for that moment, we're free. Of course, then we get in the car, we're waiting on the Polk Street light to change, and we're thinking that we'd better prepare for Monday morning, and we're remembering to stop by the hardware store on the way home . . . .

When the audience asks Jesus, "free from what?" Jesus answers that he means "free from sin." That bothered me as a teenager, because I knew the truth by heart -- see John 3:16 -- yet still did things I regretted. The truth wasn't doing its job! I settled for believing that knowing the truth set me free from the punishment for sin.

Now I appreciate the context. Jesus tells us that, "continuing in" his word, we are free to be disciples. Does that mean serving at the Extension? phoning my aged aunt? reading a spiritual text? preparing meals on wheels? Whatever it is, we are free to stop worrying about Monday and free to use Sunday afternoon, and all our days, to be his Body, his hands and feet, eyes and ears, on earth. We are free, as the prayer book says, "to love and serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart."

[This meditation on scripture was written for The Pilgrimage at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta GA, readings assigned for the day March 19, 2009. Other readings for the day: Psalms 119:97-120, Jer.10:11-24, Rom. 5:12-21]

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Doing Others' Homework: Sacrificing Sons

(With this meditation, the Lenten devotional book that I envisioned is complete. If the person originally assigned to write for Good Friday comes through in time to be published, then this is the only forum where anyone will be able to read this meditation of mine.)

GOOD FRIDAY, April 10

Genesis 22:1-14 "My father! ...Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

Abraham replies to his trusting son, "God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering." Isaac's reactions after that aren't recorded. Did he fight when his father bound him to the altar? Did he cry? Did he say, "Father! Why have you forsaken me?" It's easy to see why our Prayer Book assigns this story on Good Friday when we remember God's Son dying as a sacrificial lamb.

Any story of a parent's killing a child is hard to take, whether it's in ancient texts or headline news. Picture it happening to a familiar child, such as one of our smaller acolytes struggling to hold up the cross, and our imagination refuses to accept the image. So we soften the story a bit: We take Abraham's words as a clue that he knew all along that God would halt the sacrifice in time. We secretly imagine that God the Father and God the Son worked out all the details of the crucifixion in advance.

Yet these two stories of fathers' sacrificing sons are at the heart of our faith. If they were staged to teach a lesson, then our faith is as hollow as Peter's empty boast to Jesus. He says, "I would lay down my life for you, " but chokes when a mere kitchen maid asks if he's a disciple. Peter soon grew in faith, and bravely faced torture and martyrdom, along with the hundreds of others referred to in today's epistle reading.

As Father Ray reminded us in a sermon on this reading, it's not so unusual for sons to lay down their lives for their fathers and mothers: We have generations of veterans at St. James who did just that. As I write this, one of our acolytes, now grown, serves us in Iraq.

For the rest of us, the scariest thing we face in a typical week may be a phone call to an angry client, parting with money, saying "no," or saying "yes." What sacrifice or risk tests your faith now?


Other readings assigned for this day in the Book of Common Prayer: Psalms 95 and 22, evening 40:1-1-14 (15-19), 54 Wisdom 1:16-2:1, 12-22 1 Peter 1:10-20 John 13:36-38 John 19:38-42

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Doing Others' Homework, Part III: Philippians 4

(Third in a series. I'm writing meditations on Scripture for people at my church who did not do their homework for a booklet to be published in - house for Lent 2009. If the person does come through before we go to press, I guess no one will ever read this except on the blog.)

WEDNESDAY, April 9

Phil. 4:1-13 Finally, brethren. . .

Like a suspenseful movie, our lectionary puts all the good guys in jeopardy as the violent climax approaches. Night is coming on in Jerusalem, as Jesus foretells his imminent death. Meanwhile, facing death in prison, Paul writes what might be his last words to his friends in Philippi.

What wonderful last words! Even incomplete phrases from Paul's final chapter bring to mind whole sentences and songs: Rejoice in the Lord always. . . Have no anxiety about anything . . . the peace of God which passes all understanding. . . whatever is true, whatever is honorable. . . I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content . . . I can do all things in him. . . His words carry affection, gratitude, and encouragement, even today.

There is no moment in a movie more certain to make us cry than when a character, dying, says what has been in his heart all along, but he never had the courage to say it. In some movies the feeling is worse, because the words are spoken over a grave, or they arrive in a message, too late.

The first person I met at St. James was an elderly woman with stooped back and twinkling eyes. Though hampered by a walker, she directed me from the foyer around two corners to the sanctuary down the hall. For the next several weeks, she greeted me warmly. During services, she smiled at the music, laughing easily. And then she stopped being there. I'd never introduced myself by name; I never knew hers. Did she have family? Could she have used help? Could I have eased her final illness?

Let's be more like Paul, and live every day as our last, without fear. When you're not afraid to die, then you're not afraid to live.

(P.S. The last line comes from a comedy number in Stephen Sondheim's score for THE FROGS.)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Secular Psalms and Sermons

(reflections on two issue of POETRY magazine, Nov. 2007 and summer 2008)

Suppose you knew that today would be the last day of the world: Would you clean the dishes in the sink? Would you enjoy one more walk around the park with your dogs? Would you phone everyone you know to tell them how much you loved them? Would you do anything differently? An imaginative and humane poem "Silent Prophet" by Carl Dennis in the July/August 2008 "Summer Vacation" issue of POETRY helps the reader to think through that situation. What strikes me after reading it is how this thought experiment is a kind of agnostic sermon that touches on the essential religious question, "Why bother?" Likewise, an ealier issue of POETRY (November 2007) contains some verses that strike me as being secular psalms, seeing details of the world as part of a gloriously and painfully unified whole.

The Silent Prophet decides not to tell the mailman what he knows, reasoning,

If yesterday it made sense for letter carriers
To carry letters from door to door,
The job still ought to be worth doing.
Why tell what I know and risk a walkout?
After considering other public servants in quick succession, the poem slows down to consider people closer by. There's the "cautious investor" who takes a big risk "To back a grocery in a battered district," and the grateful small businessman's celebrating the loan and making their big plans with his friends, family, and the lender. What an appealing and rich story, put together in one stanza. It leads the "silent prophet" to muse that "dreams impart to the day contour and substance," and that a day can "expand to include the days" to come -- even if those never do come. Dennis finds another image for the idea, when he turns to another remarkable short story in that same "battered district," that of a single mother, a teacher nearly burned out, learning viola "from scratch" (ha ha):

Should I sit on a stone and lament
That the day is her last if it still contains,
Scrolled up within it, the years she'll need
To master the art of voicing feelings
Not now expressed. . . ?
This secular sermon denies that "the future / Depends on the flow of time to give it substance...."
Of course, this is what many poems (all poems?) imply, that each day, each moment, any particular little scene, carries "scrolled up within it" its past and future, and is in itself significant.

The November 2007 issue prints several poems that deal also with what's wonderful and lasting in the mundane and ephemeral:

  • Tiny "Leaf Litter on Rock Face" by Heather McHugh plays with words cleverly while digging into a simple image: dead leaves (once-living) scattered on rocky surface (never-living), when, "The wind wells up / to spill a trail / of onces off the nevers." Her meditation brings her to a sense of something shared among the onces, the nevers, and the living being perceiving them. This is one of many secular poems that hint at religious language and ideas. This one is about "spirit."
  • "Adam's Prayer" by Amanda Jernigan develops in Adam's voice from the Biblical curse, "In the sweat of the face shalt thou eat bread." It turns into a contemplation of work, art, and the seed contained in the fruit of the tree -- another image of the future scrolled into the present.
  • "Just Now" by Peter Campion opens up from a tiny and wonderfully made ladybug that lands on the speaker's watchband while he's feeling anxiety for himself reading news about terrorist violence on the other side of the globe. The juxtaposition helps him to put death and pain in cosmic perspective, and it develops into a prayer for life, even for this "insectile soul" so recently formed from elements to which it will soon return.

  • "Cat, Failing" comes close to being something you'd put in a condolence card for someone mourning the loss of an old sickly pet, but it reaches beyond "awww" to "ah!" when it touches on something essentially human in the experience of approaching death.

  • The idea of a secular psalm first hit me when I read "Easy as Falling Down Stairs" by Dean Young. Like McHugh's, it starts with a short meditation on how even inanimate objects are in motion, and it becomes a long list of things that are "like the human heart," each item suggesting the next by sound or pun. The reader's imagination is forced to zigzag from one end of the world to another, and, by interrupting his poem with the instructions " (see above) (now get back here)" he even sets the reader's eyes to zigzagging across the page. Like a psalm, it encompasses the vastness of creation before it seems to focus into a kind of love poem.

  • Young's "Undertow" is even more fun. It begins in the third person point of view with a thesis, "People looking at the sea, / makes them feel less terrible about themselves" because the sea behaves "abominably." Then we get thumnails of different people responding to the sea: a vice president, an analyst, an adolescent boy, and even a dog: "Nothing can stay long, cogitates the dog, / So maybe a life of fetch is not a wasted life." But then the poem gets into the point of view of the sea itself, thinking how it has been "kissing all those strangers / forgiving them no matter what." It's a secular image for God, suffused in its depths with "a million fishes seemingly made of light." There's an "undertow" in the poem, too: lots of word choices suggesting violence and illness, references to pollution in the depths, and, finally, how those lovely fishes are eating each other. It calls to mind, not the Christian God, but something more like the Hindu pantheon, with creator and destroyer being equally God.

I wish to remember these poems for the pleasures they celebrate, and the pleasures they give. I'm afraid that nothing much struck me in the issues of POETRY between November and now, but maybe I was too immersed in school work to appreciate what was there.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Why Jerusalem 2008 is not Philadelphia 1776: Tradition isn't What it Used to Be

When our first patriots declared independence in Philadelphia, they represented a minority among thirteen mostly loyal colonies. Today's Episcopal Church of America broke away from the Anglican Church at the same Revolutionary period. Now, some weeks ahead of the Anglican Communion's decennial Lambeth Conference, renegade "conservative" bishops have convened in Jerusalem . They called their meeting a Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), as if they intend to take the reins from the established Church of England and Episcopal Church of America. They claim 2/3 of Episcopalians are with them. They probably identify with the patriots of 1776. If so, they are mistaken, both about themselves, and about those patriots.

This much is similar: the American patriots also believed that they were acting in defense of traditional values. To write the Declaration, Jefferson took century-old ideas and phrases that John Locke coined to justify the overthrow of James II. Locke cited documents from the previous generation's case against Charles I. That generation cited recent precedents under Elizabeth. They also cast much further back to Magna Carta.

But "traditional values" are never what they used to be. Magna Carta, hailed now as the bedrock of our freedom from arbitrary government, was originally written by barons, of barons, for barons, to protect rights they'd had as peers of the king, back when the king was just one landlord among many. King John signed it under duress in 1215, and, within a year, he was resurgent, and he disavowed the agreement. It was forgotten and superseded by new agreements that made their jagged way towards something like a constitutional monarchy. In the 1600s, the lower house of Parliament had to argue principles found between the lines of the original document in order to make it apply to mere commoners like them.

In the same way, the meaning of the Declaration's phrase "all men are created equal" has expanded far beyond what most of its signers had in mind. In the two centuries since 1776, we've seen the phrase expand to include spokesmen of the minority party, men who didn't own property, men of African descent, Catholics and Jews, and women. Of course, four score and seven years after it was written, Lincoln made it the centerpiece of his war to put down the Southern secessionists (even while they cited the same document as the model for their declarations of independence from the Union). Since we crossed the Atlantic in 1917 to "make the world safe for democracy," we've invested blood and treasure in expanding the phrase to include others in the world.

While our American sense of what's fair and right has expanded over the centuries, the same thing has been happening in England, even while we were declaring independence. Yes, King George III and his followers in Parliament were foolishly abusing their authority, but there were eloquent spokesmen on behalf of the Americans in the opposing party and in the English press. I think particularly of my favorite conservative, Edmund Burke. The Patriots represented nothing but good old English values, with a little fire added by businessmen inhibited by British mercantile policy. It was the establishment, meaning the King and his partisans , who were stepping outside of tradition. The Loyalists, a group that included Ben Franklin and George Washington right up to the beginning of hostilities, were willing to wait on the natural processes that would bring the government back in line with the tradition -- the evolving tradition of the rule of law.

Traditions in the Church of England developed in parallel to this redefinition of the King's authority. Before Martin Luther was born, the English church already "protested" the Pope's authority. Within the English church was a proto-Protestant movement to translate the Bible into English, suppressed by conservative authorities the old-fashioned way, burning the translator alive.

Two generations later, when King Henry declared independence for the Church of England from Rome, Church leaders (not counting Rome's agents) were ready to reform, because, under the surface, the fissures had already opened. Henry's daughter Mary was unable to restore the Roman connection, despite violence to enforce "tradition":the Church of England had moved on. In her day, just a century after burning a man alive for translating the Bible into English, priests in the Church of England went to the stake for promulgating the English translation!

A few decades later, during the troubled reign of Charles I, it was Puritans who led the charge against him for reasons religious as well as political. According to them, Charles had led the Church of England away from true religion, and, incidentally, Presbyterians' religion wasn't true enough for the Puritans, either. The Puritans' efforts resulted in civil war, the king's decapitation, slaughter of Irish Catholics, and a dead end: the Puritan regime did not outlive its "Lord Protector" Oliver Cromwell. During the same period, Puritans settled in America to show the Church of England their idea of real Christianity -- only to suffer immediate and continuous conflict with factions who thought they were purer than the Puritans.

So it is with good reason that Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori calls this latest event with GAFCON merely "another chapter in a centuries-old struggle for dominance by those who consider themselves the only true believers" (Jefferts Schori, statement of June 30).

Do these "conservatives" hark back to an earlier, more faithful church? They claim to do so. Their pretext is the gay bishop in New Hampshire, but the context is their fear of giving up a literal reading of Scripture. But it's that literal reading that's new, developing in the late 19th century as a fearful reaction to Science, social change, and textual criticism (with parallel development of fundamentalism within Islam and Hinduism -- see works by venerable scholar of American Protestantism Martin Marty). Before that, faithful people took Scripture as nothing more than a starting place. During the Middle Ages, there was a tendency to interpret not only Scripture as allegory, but human experience as allegory, too. Paul himself is highly selective and idiosyncratic when he pulls Scriptures out of context to buttress his arguments. The Episcopal church learned with the rest of humankind to value more critical thinking, more respect for experience (i.e., experimental data), more openness to change. It also learned, maybe late, to despise slavery, where once Scripture was said to support it. Ditto, racial segregation. Ditto, shunning of divorcees.

And, certainly from its earliest days, the Church of England has had a tradition of dialogue, moderation and patience regarding internal conflict. They have put confidence in Scripture, but also, and equally, in tradition (as an evolving thing) and reason. The upcoming Lambeth conference has been structured in a new way so that, in Schori's words, there won't be winners and losers. Her companion at a news conference, a Professor of Church History named Douglass, took issue with a reporter's characterization of the Lambeth conference's structure -- which emphasizes small group discussion and study, and avoids issuing definitive documents -- as avoiding hitting the Church's conflicts head on. Douglass preferred to think of it as meeting the conflicts "face to face." This is easily skewered as mealy mouthed, but, sorry, it's also sensible and respectful.

It's the "conservatives" who are bucking tradition. Those of us who are Episcopalian believe that something we call the Holy Spirit has been at work from the time of Jesus' death. How did the early church decide how to choose gospels and letters from others circulating in the first centuries? They reached a consensus, literally a "feeling together" of what the Holy Spirit really meant, and they tossed out the ersatz-scriptures that didn't fit with the tradition as it had already evolved. Today, we believe that spirit has nudged us into outgrowing old fears, away from idolizing Scripture -- as if words written by men with the first century's outlook on the world weren't also limited in some ways by their time. We believe that the evolving tradition is a visible evidence of the spirit's nudging us along as we were ready for growth.

If the Church, reading Scripture with reason and with benefit of cumulative experience that we call tradition, is gradually moved to speak clearly on one issue, or to withhold judgment on another -- then it's time for those breakaway "traditionalists" to listen to the church.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

James: Henry and P.D.

(reflections on detective and "literary" fiction, after re-reading DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS and THE LIGHTHOUSE.)

The actor portraying Commander Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard committed an unthinkable act of disloyalty to P.D James. She's the woman who created Dalgliesh in a series of novels going back to the 50s. The actor, last name Marsden, remarked, "Well, her characters are a bit received, aren't they?" I was startled. This was in an interview ostensibly promoting his collaboration with her in a BBC series. Also, up to then, I'd thought her characters were particularly rich.

I'd thought of her as another James. Stack her writing up against Agatha Christie, and her stories are so much richer in texture and darker in tone that P.D. James is to Agatha as Henry James is to, umm, O'Henry. I rushed out to buy A TASTE FOR DEATH when I heard her read aloud the eerie, stagey, gruesome scene of discovering two bodies -- a pauper and a prince of business -- lying at the altar of an old church, their heads sliced off and traded. Her second most stiking death scene is in an early novel, in which a rowboat washes ashore bearing a corpse in neat business suit, its hands neatly sliced off at the wrists. In all her novels, politics and faith, class and language figure.

But since Marsden's remark, I've read her a little more critically, and I see what he means. Commander Dalgliesh himself is meant to be a richly complex character who develops from novel to novel. But the complexities are schematic, as if James made sure that every corner of his life has its opposite: He is an unbeliever, but the son of a church rector. He has the upper class manners and education, but he has the bourgeois career. His work calls for unemotional logic and clarity, but he is also a famous poet. In several of the books, he strings a woman along (Emma Landingham, since DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS, and someone else in the 60s), but he regretfully keeps her at a distance because his work takes precedence. How much richer can a character get?

Here's where James is limited by her genre. In THE LIGHTHOUSE, Dalgliesh's love affair with Emma Landingham is reviewed in the prologue, and later it gets one chapter to itself. But, in the midst of hot pursuit of the villain, James keeps this chapter short, only two pages long, eight pages shorter than the average. At that length, I was still impatient to get through it, and skimmed to get back to the investigation. (And I skimmed the Epilogue about their relationship, too.)

It's another feature of the genre that we must meet a pretty large cast of characters, and they all have to be in place, with hints of motives, before the killing. After all, it wouldn't be much of a detective novel if, some chapters after the killing, an interloper unrelated to the story turns out to have done it. So, for efficiency's sake, it behooves James to give each character some exaggerated trait to help the reader recognize members of the whole cast with minimal description. Thus, in LIGHTHOUSE and HOLY ORDERS, we have some characters I still remember: the sexy but cool wife of the tragic surgeon, the tough but gay sailor, the pretty boy orphan raised by monks, the faithful but fiercely controlling abbot.

James herself says that her notions for novels always begin with a place. Once she has imagined the location, its history, and the people who might live there, she begins to have her story.

Those who disdain genre fiction have a case: These authors are all working within a clearly defined form, and they generate the characters and locations to fit the form. But how is that different from writing a symphony or a sonnet? James gives us variations on a theme, playing with characters and plot elements the way that a composer plays with themes and certain orchestral colors.

P.D.'s namesake Henry certainly did so, too, but at a stately pace that requires patience. Even his shorter ghost stories are long, densely textured pieces. The payoff is commensurately greater for the longer form, measured in moments remembered and treasured ( I still shudder when I say the names "Quint" and "Miss Jessel" from TURN OF THE SCREW), and discussions possible (I myself having at Duke written forty pages about how frequently characters say "no" in THE AMBASSADORS).

But we always read to be immersed in a world that is both recognizably ours and pleasingly different. Both Jameses get us there. How long do you want to stay?