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.