Monday, July 13, 2009

Ice Glen: A Play about Poetry

(reflections on the play ICE GLEN by Joan Ackermann, directed by Ellen McQueen for the Essential Theatre Play Festival at Actor's Express Theatre, Atlanta.)

By the end of act two, I was glad that I'd stayed. Characters from the play have stayed with me, too, in the days since I saw the show.

The synopsis tells us that the story concerns a reclusive poet who refuses to let an intrusive publisher print three of her poems in his magazine. Already, we're thinking of reclusive Emily Dickinson and Henry James of THE ASPERN PAPERS. I'm afraid that, by the end of act one, the story did not seem to have developed far beyond its original premise. We do meet other characters, because the recluse lives in a large New England home with a charming widow, whose late husband was evidently very generous about adopting guests. There's Denby, a "slow" but endearing boy - man of indeterminate age. There are two servants, wise and wise - cracking in a way that's familiar to us from old plays and ARTHUR. It was all well done.

But it all seemed as if the characters were just filling the time that passed between confrontations of poet and publisher, and those all rehashed the same material: You can't have my poems, you arrogant man. To tell the truth, I was annoyed at the poet, who asserted a lot without using her supposed gifts to express what the poems mean, or what words mean, or what publication would mean.

Act Two benefits from the choices made by the widow, whose desire to be desired by the visiting publisher provided comic moments of social misunderstandings in act one. A confrontation between her and the publisher is the prize scene of the play, and earned applause when I saw the show. The poet gets to let loose in a sort of fantasy game played with Denby. By the end of that act, the audience was feeling warmly towards the characters, and satisfied with the movement in the script -- the melting of the emotional ice that encased act one.

The playwright has thoughtfully strung images together as motifs that relate to the all - important poems that we never hear. There's the shadowy bear whose claw marks we see on the poet's face at the start of the play, but whose existence may be imagined or metaphorical. He's tied in with the shadowy late master of the house. Many references to coldness and ice that lasts even in summer (in the ice glen) relate to the publisher's icy insensitivity.

The production that I saw was peopled by very personable actors who made their characters appealing -- though it was hard to like the poet and publisher until late in the second act. Overhearing conversation in the parking lot, I found that I wasn't the only person to wonder at at accents. Denby seems East European in his look and accent; Mrs. Roswell the maid is Scottish or Irish; Mrs. Bainbridge speaks cultivated New England; Grayson the Butler sounds British. The poet Sarah Harding sounded American with a little bit of drawl.

Then there were anachronisms. The clothing seemed Edwardian, but the dialogue refers reverently to Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot, and their high reputations date from the mid-20s at the earliest. By that same time, Emily Dickinson's poetry had at last been discovered after some thirty years in print. So why isn't the obvious connection made?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Summer at Church: Message from the Senior Warden

(I am currently Senior Warden at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA. This is reprinted from our newsletter.)

Picture: a logo that I designed tying the summer sun to the scallop shell, traditional symbol of St. James.

There are blessings in summer church at St. James. Nine o’clockers are bumping up against the eleven fifteen crowd, and we like it. We share one bread, one cup. Then Bay hosts us at coffee hour in the Parish Hall, where we catch up with people we’d lost track of. No hurry: we still have an hour of mild summer morning awaiting us when we leave. Hallelujah!

In other seasons, we pass each other coming and going at the church all times of day, all days of the week. We study, discuss, pray, sew, sing, cook, eat, plan, account, volunteer in the office, visit shut ins, arrange flowers, garden, rehearse, meditate, exercise. Oh, yes, and we worship, choosing a service from Wednesday, Saturday, and three times on Sundays. With 400 regular communicants, we are the size for what the Alban Institute calls a “multi – celled church,” where lay leaders do what the priest in any clergy – centered church can only dream of achieving. Then summer comes, and the pace at St. James slows.

What Jesus said about summer vacation isn’t recorded, but he did say that you can’t grow grapes if you lop the branch off the Vine. “I am the Vine,” he explained, “and you [plural] are the branches.” Did he mean that we branches can connect to the Vine staying home Sundays, praying alone, reading books by C. S. Lewis? That’s what “being the church” means for many who say they “don’t like organized religion.” But as our Rector recently reminded us, life in the Spirit is like dancing: you can do it in private, without partners or witnesses – but then, what’s the point?

Summer also begins with the season of Pentecost, when we especially remember the church’s mission to be Christ on earth. He rose and left us behind to complete his work. Now, it’s up to us with the Holy Spirit to be Jesus in the flesh to each other and to the world. Away from the funny, fractious, needy, giving, old and young people at our church, we permit Jesus little opportunity to work on us in any unexpected way, and we have little opportunity to be Jesus to someone else.

So let’s make St. James a part of our own personal summer renewal. Let’s make that “small church” experience something we look forward to. Let’s make it a part of our summer routine to catch up with people during breakfast at St. James, partake in summer discussion groups, worship (join our summer choir!), and stay for coffee hour on the shady loggia. Out of town, we can read our clergy’s daily devotions and “This Week at St. James” (subscribe to both via our web site, if you don’t already get them by email). We can keep up with the daily lectionary and prayer. We can make St. James’ Day July 25 - 26 a great homecoming.

All summer long, let’s build up the spiritual energy to do Christ’s work through St. James during the rest of the year.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Church Stewardship Campaign, circa 1600

(Reflections on REVOLUTION IN GENEROSITY: Transforming Stewards to Be Rich Toward God, Wesley K. Willmer, editor. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008; and THE WISDOM OF RICHARD HOOKER, selected and edited by Philip B. Secor, and Lee W. Gibbs, Bloomington IN: Authorhouse, 2005.)

The editor of REVOLUTION IN GENEROSITY asks rhetorically, “Is it possible that our checkbooks are a better measure of our spiritual condition than the underlining in our Bibles?” The chapters take different approaches to hammering the idea that what we do with our money shapes us. I found that same idea, without the hammering, in a book of writings by an Anglican rector, circa 1600.

In REVOLUTION, Craig Blomberg writes in chapter two that wealth is commended in the Bible, but that it is also seductive. He dismisses the often-used guideline of ten percent, on the grounds that the tithe was a relic of the Kingdom of Israel, where it was a tax by a theocratic state – not a willing donation at all. He mentions that he has personally devoted fifty per cent of his annual income to the church without diminution of living standard. Does he imply that anyone giving ten per cent is therefore seduced, and anyone giving less than fifty per cent is therefore not quite as mature in their spiritual journey as he? He wouldn’t say so.

Another chapter by Walter Russell tells of signs along the “road to generosity,” and concludes with four “road blocks.” One of these is of particular interest to me, as I’ve been looking for connections between my own church and Generation X. Russell hears the excuse, especially from Gen X-ers, that they don’t want to give money to the church because of “disillusionment” with the institution. Russell counters well, with Jesus’s approval for “the widow’s mite” given to the temple that he himself condemned for corruption.

The “revolution” referred to in the title comes down to turning a “transactional” view of giving money to the church into a “transformational” one. Transactional givers attach strings, want their names on things, want to dictate how the money is spent, want to remake the beneficiaries of their largesse as Andrew Carnegie proposed making the world better in his Gospel of Wealth – described early in the book as a Darwinian alternative to Christian stewardship. But a transformational giver hands money over because of the change it makes in him.

Richard Hayne recommends that those of us charged with soliciting donations should be purposefully vague about specifics, which would be “transactional” by giving a quid pro quo. Instead, we should focus on the “vision” of the church and the opportunity presented for the giver’s own spiritual development.

Every writer cautions against using “non-Biblical” slogans to promote a giving campaign; against using fear (“give or these programs of the church will suffer”); and against promising God’s reward to any individual giver.

The more I read, the more I had a sense of déjà vu. If you don’t give enough, you’re not mature; you’re seduced by your money; you’re (by implication) not “really” saved. It’s an echo of the Puritan fear of not being “elect,” and it’s a whole line of discussion rejected by Richard Hooker, intellectual father of the Episcopal Church in the time of the first Elizabeth. There’s also, in this book, the implication that giving is a way to buy spiritual growth, “transforming” the giver. Of course -- of course! -- the authors wouldn’t agree, and that’s why they say it so many different ways, because they’re convincing themselves. Hooker, in his time, had to answer that kind of thinking, too, which his contemporaries condemned in the Roman Church.

I laid aside Willmer’s book and instead studied a biography of Richard Hooker by Philip Secor, and leafed through the alphabetical compendium of Hooker’s writings that Secor published with Lee W. Gibbs.

Here’s what Hooker writes about stewardship:

“We know that God Himself has no need of worldly goods. He takes them because it is good for us that He do so.”


“[Whatever we give] we should remember that our gift is not only a testimony of our affection for God but also a means to maintain our religion, which cannot endure without the help of such temporal support.”

I’d say, between Hooker’s two statements, we have Willmer’s book minus the implications of guilt. That second statement also cuts through all talk of programs, “vision,” mission statements, and what the church is doing with the giver’s money. The church’s worth is inherent, and its need is evident.

Episcopalians have been ridiculed for their “middle way,” but in the writings of Richard Hooker who defined that “via media,” we have clear common sense and generosity of spirit, focused on the central fact that God loves us and wants us to grow.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Michael Chabon's Sherlock Holmes: Short, Sweet

(Reflection on THE FINAL SOLUTION, novel by Michael Chabon. Harper Collins Perennial, 2004.)

Richly textured, but also light and touching, THE FINAL SOLUTION gives us a nine-year-old Jewish refugee in England, his parrot who does all the talking, and an old, old man who, though never named, is clearly Sherlock Holmes.

The texture is made up of layers. There's a plot: who stole the boy's parrot? Did the Preacher's son kill the Preacher's lodger? Why doesn't the Jewish boy speak? Why does the parrot sing out streams of random German numerals? Each character's own memories and feelings are made real for us, too, each character being a mystery to the others. The old man's well - known past makes background for the whole novel, and provides reflection on age and life's meaning. The World War going on in the background adds a level of suspense and possible connection to the parrot.

Chabon uses a technique of Henry James, simultaneously describing a physical object and using it as a metaphor. For example, the preacher Mr. Panicker drives old Holmes through bombed - out streets of London while ...
contemplating the bombed - out house of his life as a man. His vacant marriage, his useless son, the eclipse of his professional ambitions, these were the shattered windows, the scorched wallpaper, and twisted fauteuils of wreckage; and lying over all of it like a snowfall of ash... was the knowledge of his own godlessness, of his doubt and unbelief. (106)
And, like the city, his faith collapsed at the impact of a bomb, "like all bombs a chance and mindless thing," the murder of his lodger.

For another example, we see the old man Holmes keeping bees, harvesting their honey. This hobby of his tells us about him, and connects to the ordered world of the Victorian Beehive that was now passing with the Blitz.

No parody, no mere pastiche, this very brief novel also holds a surprise at the end. It's not just the solution to the mystery, but emotion and affirmation.

What a sweet, rich, thought - provoking book. It makes me want to read more by Chabon. And it makes me want to dig my collected Conan Doyle out of the basement.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Updike Variations

(Reflections on MY FATHER’S TEARS and Other Stories, by John Updike.)

Bach revisited the key of G hundreds of times, and he re-used the technique of fugue at least as often, and we admire him all the more for it. So let’s enjoy the nuances and variations and techniques that Updike uses masterfully in MY FATHER’S TEARS, a new collection of stories written mostly in his final decade of life.

We’ve been here before, to the old home in rural Pennsylvania where Updike’s hapless dad, bitter mother, and disappointed maternal grandparents raised the boy John. It’s the base for early novels THE CENTAUR and OF THE FARM, for his late novel VILLAGES, and for dozens of stories, poems, and reminiscences in between. The same house appears several times in this one collection, though Updike substitutes other names for his own: Craig, Daniel, Lee, Jim. I suspect that he chose to draw each character as a new one so that he could dismiss all the details except the one that he wanted to highlight, preserve, and appreciate. For example, “The Guardians” describes that household in order to reach a particular connection between memory, DNA, and life after death.

Updike’s number one motivation in writing these stories in his last years, focusing so much on replaying some of his greatest hits, has to be legacy. He dedicates this collection of last stories to his grandchildren, but each story is dedicated to appreciating a certain moment, a certain person, a certain nuance in memory. Of course, the fact that each memory is now refracted through a few additional decades of life and through increasing sense of disorientation and fading abilities adds a new layer to old events.

In other places, Updike revisits scenes of other novels. His novel COUPLES (1968) was wonderful for immersing the reader in the world and mindset of suburban couples circa 1963; more than once, in this new collection, Updike deftly compresses that novel’s world and even some of its incidents into just a few sentences. Here’s one example:

Cocktail parties were lethal melees, wherein lovers with a murmur cancelled assignations or agreed upon abortions. Craig could see in his mind’s eye, in an upstairs hall, outside a bathroom, a younger woman coming at him . . . . (“Personal Archaeology,” 22)

One story, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” deals with September 11, 2001. Updike was visiting his daughter’s apartment across the river from the twin towers, and he witnessed the day’s events from her patio and her television set. In this story, he imagines other peoples’ perspectives on the event, including one of the terrorists’, taking care to imagine as honestly as possible how the experience refracts through their religious worldviews.

Another, “Outage,” amusingly imagines life in a small community when a storm approaches and the power goes out. The narrator, advanced in age, at loose ends for the day, feels with everyone else a suspension of the usual rules and an opening up of possibilities.

Some of these are more like poems than stories, or even like music. The title story is a chain of remembered incidents related to tears. The final story, “The Full Glass,” which I presume to be Updike’s valedictory statement, connects incidents by a theme, the narrator’s deep sense of gratefulness for life.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Sondheim's ROAD SHOW Arrives at Last

(Reflections on the original cast recording of ROAD SHOW, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, production directed by John Doyle.)
Photo by Joan Marcus,

Small changes make a big difference in ROAD SHOW. What a relief!

Three times I saw an earlier version of this show in Chicago, back when it was called BOUNCE. I wrote then that the fault was in our expectations. Couldn’t Sondheim and Weidman be allowed to write the kind of integrated story - and - song musical comedy that Sondheim’s contemporaries were writing in the 50s when he wrote his first draft -- shows like BELLS ARE RINGING, MR. PRESIDENT, LITTLE ME, and WILDCAT? Considering the techniques that Sondheim has developed in the interim, and considering all the shows in which he and his collaborators integrated story and song with theme and form, the honest answer is – Sorry, Steve, no.

The new version, judging by the recording and pictures, is much tighter. Gone is the peppy overture, gone is the cheesy "afterlife" that framed the show. Instead, we see Addison Mizner at the moment of his death, surrounded by stacks of crates containing the possessions he piled up and discarded in his life -- and people are stacked up on those boxes, too, the people of his life that he discarded. Naturally, he would be thinking back on what his life meant, and all the voices from his past sing a witty and light number about "Waste," as in, his life was such a waste of potential.

The next scene takes us, without a change of scenery, to his father's deathbed. The father imagines a "road" of opportunity (with many other cliches all treated straight in music that's solemn Americana, a la Aaron Copeland), advising his boys to go forth and achieve. That means, of course, to pile up all those crates. So, we're two songs into the score, and plot, character, theme, and visual presentation are all connected. Now this is the Sondheim we love.

For the rest of the recording, we detect the influence of director John Doyle, who tends to blur lines where Hal Prince, director of BOUNCE, sought high contrast and sudden shifts. Wilson’s choices seem less capricious, more calculating. Events told in the present tense for BOUNCE are recast as memories in ROAD SHOW, most happily in “That Was A Year,” a retrospective on Wilson’s New York career that was originally staged as a cross between the Marx Brothers’ stateroom scene and a Keystone Cops’ chase. Because director John Doyle seats the entire cast on stage throughout the show, characters sing to each other across the years and appear in each others’ songs.

One totally new song deserves close attention, “Brotherly Love.” All of us who saw BOUNCE complained of one essential question unanswered, "Why does Addison keep allowing Wilson to take advantage of him?"  At the end of BOUNCE, Wilson demands that Addison admit “I love you,” and he finally does – but even singing fortissimo, with violins rising behind him, the actor couldn't make us believe it. For ROAD SHOW, could Sondheim write a song to make us believe it?

Sondheim is at his best in tight corners such as this. SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE’s second act was flopping with audiences and frustrating the actors until, following a long interview with “George” actor Mandy Patinkin, Sondheim wrote a heart – breaking and lovely song called “Lesson Number 8” that pulls together elements from Act One, everything the character feels about himself, the themes of the entire show, making a religious statement about the art and the purpose of life – all in a basic AABA form, around sixteen lines long. PASSION’s audiences laughed when they were supposed to be crying, and even someone so sympathetic as I wasn’t convinced by the handsome young man’s sudden realization that “no one has loved me as deeply as” the disturbed woman who has stalked him for the last ninety minutes. Then I saw the play with a new introductory verse to the song that begins, “Don’t you see what she’s endured?” and it all made sense. There are famous stories of how he brought entire shows into sharp focus by adding “Comedy Tonight,” “Send in the Clowns” and “Rose’s Turn” (with Arthur Laurents).

So here, he has to write a song that expresses the brothers’ relationship. I’d heard that the two sing it, uncomfortably wrapped together in a single sleeping bag in a freezing tent. I expected a long song about relationships, and brothers, and how their identities are wrapped up in each other… etc. Sondheim goes exactly the other direction. He never sings about the relationship, but only describes vividly a single moment in memory. I’m guessing that John Weidman wrote a bit of dialogue, something like, “Remember that time when I was sick, and everyone else left, and you took me up to the roof to see fireworks?” While younger brother Addison gets a bit sentimental, older brother Wilson claims he doesn’t even remember the incident. They have a meeting of minds near the end, and Wilson, uncomfortable, makes a joke of it – “brotherly love,” he says, and backs off. It’s done quietly, with just a few rhymes to mark the progress of the story. It’s very satisfying, and it does suggest, finally, an emotional reason for Addison to follow his brother through life. (I am reminded of a very different song that Sondheim brought to the wider world’s attention, “Riddle Song,” by Adam Guettel, in which two adult brothers also sing about a boyhood memory instead of singing about their love for each other.)

This show leans heavily on Sondheim for the kind of number that might be trademarked as “a Sondheim Sequence.” These are numbers like “A Weekend in the Country” in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, or the opening sequence of INTO THE WOODS that run through scads of plot in just a few funny verses. Here, Sondheim’s songs “Addison’s Trip” and “That Was A Year” and “Boca Raton” cover years of time, get laughs, and build to big finishes.

Many critics have cited standout ballads, but not the one that I love most. They like the love song “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” which I admire for how much Sondheim gets from so little – making only minor changes in that title phrase, sung all on one note while the harmony shifts. They like Isn’t He Something?” the elegant, eloquent expression of the mother’s preference for her elder boy – sung to the younger brother. But it’s “Talent” that I’m crazy about. The young man Hollis sings of his boyhood, and how he wowed his elders with drawing, writing, and composing:

So many talents.
Wasn’t I blessed?
All of them good,
A few of them better,
None of them best.
Just enough talent to know
That I hadn’t the talent.
So I put my dream
And my self – esteem
To rest.

Has Sondheim, or anyone, ever captured an entire life so wittily? But that's just the introduction. Great song, good show, now worth seeing again in its new form.