Saturday, December 31, 2011

P. D. James Cracks Open Austen's World


Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice owes at least a portion of its charm to its self-contained world.  P. D. James's homage to Austen, Death Comes to Pemberley, owes a great deal to our affection for Austen's world, and our pain at seeing its end.  

In Austen, we see soldiers, but no one mentions war; we hear of the Court, but not of government;  concern for steady income underlays the romance, but being forced to economize is not the abject poverty we know from cartoons by Austen's contemporary Hogarth.  Death comes no nearer than a bad cold.   Characters attend church and suffer the Reverend Collins, but God stands back in the manner of the servants, waiting on the other side of a closed door should He be called.  Reverend Collins is concerned only with cultivating plants and the prestige that comes from having tea with Lady Catherine.

Within that world, Austen focuses us on affairs of the heart.  Major events include a young man's smile, an invitation to dance, and all the things left unsaid during polite conversation.  One adolescent girl, having visited Lady Catherine's manor nine times for dinner and twice for tea, exclaims, "How much will I have to tell!" while Elizabeth thinks, "How much will I have to conceal!"

For a few dozen pages, P. D. James sustains us in that world.  But she throws down a gauntlet at the end of "Book One" (James 48-49).  Napoleonic wars threaten.  And as a frightful wind howls with "malevolent force" as if trying to find a way into the manor house, Elizabeth thinks...
Here we are at the beginning of a new century, citizens of the most civilized country in Europe, surrounded by the splendour of its craftsmanship... while outside there is another world which wealth and education and privilege can keep from us, a world in which men are as violent and destructive as is the animal world.  Perhaps even the most fortunate of us will not be able to ignore it and keep it at bay for ever.
That scene and the ones immediately following it are the most vivid and breathtaking in the novel.

A century later, around 1914, another generation would feel the same sense of a world's ending, barbarians at the gates ( a theme I've considered before on this blog).

P. D. James has done a wonderful job of imagining how Austen's crystalline world cracks when that "other world" intrudes, but I rather wish she hadn't.

[I wrote about the pleasures of Pride and Prejudice in one of my first blog posts.]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Conversations with the Dead

"Conversations with the dead are never satisfactory.  The dead are not very interested in what you tell them and usually don't have much to say."

When I first read that passage back around 1986, I was 27, and there were no dead in my life.  Shortly thereafter, leukemia took Chris, a fourteen-year-old student of mine; my Grandmother Thelma would soon begin to recede from us into a world of ghosts, reaching a day five years later when she didn't recognize me or my mother, but she spoke to my Dad by name about all the others present to her in the empty room -- her late mother, and some little girls..  Twenty years after that, one year after Dad's unexpected death, all the grownups of my childhood are gone except for Mom and her brother-in-law, my Uncle Jack.

Back then, I was reading Frederick Buechner's four novels collected as a tetralogy called THE BOOK OF BEBB  (Atheneum 1984). It nominally concerns a preacher named Leo Bebb, but really its concern is everything there is. I kid you not.  This morning, haunted by a dream of Dad, leafing through just four pages of the novel as I tried to locate this passage, my eyes ran across evocative references to Christmas Eve, aliens, adultery, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the Wolfman, Native American mythology, cheap motels, Episcopal funeral rites ("Lord, [make it so] that the bones that you have broken may rejoice"), Noel Coward comedies,  blacks in the South, the coming of the Kingdom, King Lear, and opera.  Oh, yeah:  yoga, gin, and mistakes in child-rearing.

So now that I read Buechner with some experience, it's still true.  The passage continues,
Death is apparently as much of a rat race as life is, and they've got other things on their minds.  I don't picture them sitting around in chairs like the cemetery scene in Our Town or cooling their heels in God's outer office singing Bach.  As much as I can picture them at all, I picture them hurrying someplace like the White Rabbit in Alice.  They don't even stop when you speak to them, just look back at you over their shoulders maybe.  I could dimly picture [my sister] Miriam looking back at me as I spoke.  (p. 188)
So, in my dream, Dad takes a seat on a picnic table up the street from our old family house, and he's watching my mother working alone in our old front yard.  His eyes meet mine, he knows I can see him, and I know that she cannot.  He carries a box of Dunkin' Donuts, and he raises a half-eaten donut to acknowledge my presence, but that's all he does.   I tell him she needs him, and he just waves away the comment as superfluous and kind of annoying.  He doesn't move or draw her attention, and now I'm the one who's kind of annoyed.  I tell her he's there, and she calls out, and she approaches the picnic table, but she can't see him.  He doesn't move.  So I tell her, "He's always with you, on the inside."

The dream, as Buechner suggests, blurs the boundaries between this world and one that we don't normally perceive.  It's all part of continuum, death being only one landmark on the way.  Though we can support each other, we all travel alone. 

This brings to mind a spectacle in the same novel, one of several examples of what would be called a "set piece" in a play or movie -- kind of like the Cyd Charisse fantasy number that interrupts Singing in the Rain for ten minutes.  Here it's the story of what happens to a wizened old wealthy Indian named Herman Redpath when he wakes up from death to find himself young again, and vigorous, but also alone on the edge of a vast plain.  Naked, except for items thrown in his coffin at the funeral, Redpath must travel to the horizon.  We're told the story in a letter left by Lucille Bebb, who is relaying what her husband Leo told her (pp. 219-227).

No message, here, except that the Book of Bebb should be added on to the Bible after the Book of Revelation. (For my more extensive reflection on Buechner, go to "Comedy, Fairy Tale, Tragedy: My Favorite Fiction")


Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Fundamentalist - Sports Complex

President Eisenhower warned the USA of a "military-industrial complex," Pentagon entangled with lawmakers and corporations that supplied the military its machines.  These parties reinforced each others' beliefs and policy decisions, supported each others' interests, and insulated each other from alternative views.

What I detect today is more widespread, less selfish, yet maybe more corrosive to our Republic. 

It starts with confusion between "faith" and "belief." Thomas Aquinas long ago described faith as a way of knowing the world; an instrument, together with sense and reason, for an open mind to interpret both Scripture and experience.

"Belief" is, normally, a tentative intellectual acceptance of a provisional statement.  For the fundamentalist, there is nothing tentative or provisional about it.  If eternal life depends on "belief" that Jesus was Son of God, then it had better be a "certainty."  To allow for some of Scripture to be folk wisdom or poetic imagery is to put the rest of Scripture in doubt.  That's how a spokesman for the Southern Baptist convention could insist on NPR recently that belief in historical Adam and Eve is "central" to Christianity: in his mind, it's the first link in a chain that leads to Jesus.  

When that outlook is applied to policy, we get "belief" in "conservatism."  That used to mean agreement on certain principles that could be applied variously to different policy choices, allowing for weighing pros and cons.  Thus, Ronald Reagan advocated "amnesty," his own word, for illegal immigrants, because they, in their hard work and selfless sacrifice for their families, exemplified conservative values.  But Newt Gingrich's standing among conservatives in South Carolina has fallen since an ad played a clip of Newt's echoing Reagan on immigration, advocating a way for all Americans to afford health care, and acknowledging that human activity has something to do with climate change.  That's three wrong answers, and Newt suddenly isn't conservative enough for respondents to polls in South Carolina.

But there's a third element, here, made especially visible by the ascent of Tim Tebow.  With "John 3:16" inscribed in his eye-shadow, he draws attention to the fundamentalist fan base for football.  Being "for" a team means buying branded merchandise and deploring opponents.  Because it's just sports, there's license for vicious expressions in the sports arena.

I sense a confusion among these three belief systems:   We're "for" Christianity, "for" conservative values, and "for" our favorite team.  "For" shouldn't mean the same thing in all three contexts, but that's what I hear in public discourse, along with a long list of all the things we're "against."  As in sports, it's zero-sum:  a point on one side must hurt the other side. 

So Reagan's era of conservative principles and principled compromise has degenerated to an era of fundamentalist politics where denying any kind of victory to the other side is more important than, say, extending jobless benefits that all sides agree should be extended, remunerating doctors who treat Medicare patients in a way that all sides admit to be fair, or finding a way to pay for our wars that may involve taxation.  

It's nothing new for American partisans to ridicule compromise as "flip-flopping."  Horace Greeley launched his abolitionist newspaper with the printed boast that he would not compromise.   He opposed Lincoln, who eloquently defended compromise on the grounds that rule by a minority is unacceptable, and chaos is not an option. For Lincoln, that leaves one just and fair way to go:  rule by a majority enjoined by limits to respect the rights of the minority -- i.e., by negotiation and compromise.

The difference that I observe between then and now is only in the superficiality in expressions of this hot "no compromise" feeling.   Think of the big applause we heard in a roomful of Republicans when Governor Perry was asked about his state's record number executions:  Conservatives are "for" capital punishment, so, some in the crowd cheered their side's racking up points -- by putting someone to death.

So-called "conservatives" who claim to be "for" the Constitution and "against" compromise with the other party don't know their Constitution.  Built into the Constitution on a number of levels is the idea that truth and justice are arrived at only in the give and take of debate and negotiation.  That's the essential principle of the Constitution, expressed in the balance of Representatives and Senators, Congress and President, Federal Government and States, and a federal judiciary.

Daily I hear news clips of politicians who won't allow for compromise on policy or respect for opponents in politics:  how scary is that?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dog in Winter

l-r:  Luis, age 9, and Bo, age 14, following an hour's walk at Kennesaw Mountain's Battlefield Park today.
This may be Bo's last winter.  I've thought that before, but now he's deaf, unable to jump up into the back of the wagon, apt to backslide down the stairs, and painstakingly slow to lower his hindquarters when he wants to rest.  Sitting must be painful, because he simply dips his head when I command him to "sit" for his supper, though he still looks to me for the command before he digs in.   Besides, he has lumps growing and hardening on his shoulders and flank.  A surgeon removed one the size of a golf ball that turned out to be benign, but any one of these could turn out to be the One.

Yet after I lift him into my bed at night, he tosses my pillows with his head, tail wagging.  He luxuriates in his morning rub down as if he'd paid for the massage.  When I pull on my trousers, he jumps out of bed and wraps a trouser leg around his head, delighted to begin one more day, with all its favorite morning rituals:  stepping out front to nose around bushes, drinking water, and digging into his dish.  He also enjoys a game that he plays with his younger adopted brother Luis, in which each tries to sneak mouths full of the other's food.

So long as Bo wants things with such eagerness, I'd say there's still life in him... or, better, he's still "in" his life.

I reflect on what's left in my life that I want so acutely.   While Bo lopes from one anticipated pleasure to another, I feel like I just meet deadlines, and what I want mostly is to put the next thing behind me. 

There's a religious reflection in here, somewhere.  Ecclesiastes resonates.   A meditation in this season's Forward Day by Day suggests that Jesus identified with children because, like them, he was good at living in the moment, spontaneous in his pleasures, unburdened by his past, unworried about his future.  Sounds like Bo to me: an old dog, enjoying the start of his fifteenth year as completely as he has enjoyed every other moment of his life.

The American: Henry James Lite

A scene from Exxon Masterpiece Theatre production in 2000.

(reflection on THE AMERICAN by Henry James, re-read on a Kindle. Page references are meaningless.)

Thirty-two years ago, Henry James's novel THE AMERICAN was about 100 years old, and I devoured it as an appetizer. The main course was to be one of the fictions from Henry James's late period, because I'd been bowled over by the intensity, not to mention the density, of "The Beast in the Jungle" and the novel THE WINGS OF THE DOVE. But Professor Edwin Cady, who directed my independent study, drew up a list of some thirty books to read first. Re-reading early James, I find the same themes and situations that animate the later works, without the same richly layered texture. I have to admit that Henry James Lite has little more to recommend it than skim creme fraiche, or a zero-proof martini.

That's not entirely fair to James. The story is a sturdy one: self-confident and successful Christopher Newman comes to Europe to see the best of everything, women included. He wants a wife. Not two chapters later, he has found a woman not only attractive but worthy of worship, a young widow named Claire de Cintre, nee Bellegarde. The courtship unfolds as comedy of manners, as good-hearted American patiently negotiates European social customs to win her love. More difficult to attain is the approval of her family, the Bellegardes. With the friendship and guidance of Claire's younger brother Valentin, Newman comes close to succeeding. But always, from the very beginning, there are warnings to Newman that he should not trust to appearances.

James' tells the story through the eyes of a friendly narrator who refers to Newman as "our hero" and "our friend," and who occasionally suggests that "our friend" has missed something. The dialogue is always amusing, as we perceive that Newman's interlocutors are usually holding back something. On the other hand, once we grasp that, the reiteration of such dialogue becomes tedious.

Not that the book needs more "action" : When the "action" really starts, involving gunfire, murder most foul, and blackmail, the fun stops. We learn of the Bellegarde's family secret in page after page of narration by Mrs. Bread, every bit as humble and bland as her name suggests. I almost put the book down then.

I'm glad I persevered. Though high comedy ended and melodrama took over, James's real interest lies in Newman's moral choice where all the "action" ends. Here, the resolutely secular James, son of a famous theologian and brother of the philosopher who wrote THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, presents his "Christ - New - Man" as a venerable moral hero. Newman's epiphany occurs in a vast cathedral where, in despair, he rests his arm and head on the back of a chair. (Personal aside: I've had the same experience, same setting!)

Re-reading my notes on a Kindle is an annoying thing, because it's such a pain in the neck to browse, it's impossible to cluster the notes, and it's hard to view the marked passages in larger context. But I did find a reminder that Newman's epiphany is a bookend: He tells early in the book of a sickness that overcame him when he was about to get revenge on a client who cheated him. It was that sickness about his business life that sent him to Europe, and a deeper version of that sends him back home.

Years later, James would write THE AMBASSADORS, which also concerns a self-confident and morally solid American man whose sojourn in Paris shakes his world. In THE AMERICAN, James sets scenes as if we were in a theatre, telling us of the pauses and gestures that accompany scintillating dialogues. In the later works, we perceive the scenes through one actor's uncertain perceptions, and physical objects often melt into metaphor as James's "central consciousness" finds inner significance in them. In those late works, it's almost a law that "always" will be followed lines later by "never," as James consistently undercuts certainty, creating a space in which to explore ambivalent feelings and ambiguous signs.   In the AMERICAN, this time, I noticed instances of both techniques. For example, early on, a gossipy American expat named Mrs. Tristram says, "Ugly, my dear sir? It is magnificent." The response? "That is the same thing."

Now, that's the James I love!







Saturday, December 17, 2011

Biblical Revenge Fantasies

(This is a meditation on one of the Scripture passages assigned for today by the Episcopal Church's lectionary.  I wrote it for a booklet published by St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA)

Psalm 55. 12-13 It is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it – but it is you…my familiar friend.
Remember that time when everyone stopped talking the moment they saw you? Then you passed them, and someone murmured behind your back, and everyone laughed?
That’s when you turned on them, stretched out your hands, and said, “Lord! Show them Your righteous power!” You laughed as invisible fingers choked them, and the one who cracked the joke swelled up like a balloon and floated away.
Maybe your inner adolescent’s fantasies are less Harry Potter and more Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so you picture yourself saying righteous things that teach those hypocrites a lesson.
We all have felt betrayed by friends, and I imagine that I’m not the only one at St. James’ to have fantasies of revenge. In fact, the readings today are full of such fantasies. The psalmist calls for the ground to open up and swallow his enemy; Matthew tells how Jesus will get even with the bad ones. Revelation cheers first-century Christians with the vision of four horsemen who will torment their oppressors.
Indulging such self-righteous fantasies is always fun, for a little while, and always a mistake. They get my heart rate up and fill me with adrenaline, as much as a real confrontation would do. They increase the resentment and add to the loathing I feel. But Jesus commands us, “Love your enemies,” and he tells us that to hate is the same as to murder.
Let’s return to the scene imagined at the head of this meditation. When everyone’s laughing, the victim can do little to save face. But imagine if someone in the crowd steps forward, gently chides the others, and starts a friendly conversation with the hurt one.
I like to think that we at St. James' bring our own church’s wise, un-self-righteous, moderating spirit to situations like this. I like to think that we impress others by how we diffuse cliques and deflect gossip.
In this season of office parties and family gatherings, let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord!
Other readings assigned for the day:  Psalm 55. . .138,139.1-17(18-23). . .Zech. 8.9-17. . .Rev. 6.1-17. . .Matt. 25.31-46

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Church was Made for Waiting

(Reflection based on Scripture assigned for today in the Episcopal lectionary.  Written for a booklet of parishioners' meditations published by St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA.)

2 Peter 3.8  With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 

"You've been waiting a thousand years for the Messiah?  Sorry, you just missed him.  He was here last century."  A groan went up in a waiting room crowded with Hebrew converts to the new faith.   Peter's secretary hastened to add, "But he says he'll be back any day now."  He forced a little smile.  "Of course, for him, a day could be a thousand years, Ha ha.  Just be patient."

Patient?  Me, a 21st - century commuter?  Sometimes, when it takes a thousand seconds to inch along Marietta's 120 Loop, I grow angry to feel the minutes of my afternoon slipping away.   I search the radio for news updates, check the phone for messages, scribble notes on a pad, and try to salvage my wasted time.

Sitting on a rise above the sluggish stream of cars, St. James' reminds me how our church's approach to time sets us blessedly apart from the American mainstream.  Since Ben Franklin, we Americans have equated time with money; every second, like every penny, must be invested in something productive.

But our Episcopal church retains a pre-modern sensibility.  Our time moves at the stately pace of seasons through a cycle of daily personal devotions and weekly gatherings.  We repeat ancient stories, pray quietly, make music, and share meals.   This is the routine developed by the early church to nourish the Body of Christ until the Messiah returned.

Waiting is what the Church was formed to do, not by killing time, but filling time with prayer, learning, service, and relationship.  

Other readings for today:  Psalm 119.1-24. . .12, 13, 14 . . . Amos 3,12-4:5  . . . 2 Pet. 3.1-10 . . . Matt. 21.23-32

Monday, October 31, 2011

Revelation: Best of Historical Crime Series

C. J. Sansom's series of detective novels set in Tudor England has reached a milestone:  Henry VIII's wife number six.  "Crookback" lawyer Matthew Shardlake is the detective again, this time in pursuit of a serial killer inspired by a passage in the Book of Revelation. 

Watching Sansom's development of his series, I note that he has improved the plotting of this novel, so that the climactic scene nearly coincides with the final pages.  In earlier novels, there were chapters full of tying up loose ends.

Now, he needs to work on character development.  In this novel, Shardlake cares for the widow of his best friend, and he nurses regret that he didn't express his love for her years before, when he had the chance to marry her.   Could her husband's gruesome death be an opportunity?   He battles his conscience over this question.  Also, Shardlake's intrepid assistant Barak's marriage to Tamasin seems to be on the rocks, as the husband broods in disappointment over a stillborn son.

Both of these are potential situations for developing character, but they feel more like padding, used to pace the story.   Each time one of the characters reflects on his feelings, they're the same feelings, and it's the same reflection.  Then, suddenly, near the end, someone says something, and -- voila! --the tension is resolved.

I hope to see more of Shardlake, with more improvement.  



Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Dog Who Knew Too Much: Fun with Feeling

Three novels into a series, Spencer Quinn keeps playing within the limits of his form.   I'd say "formula," but that carries disdainful connotations, and I'd rather emphasize how fun the books are and how I admire his fresh story-telling within the framework.  Besides, he built the frame.

Image from the cover of THE DOG WHO KNEW TOO MUCH
The frame consists of detective Bernie Little accepting a job from a dubious client, learning quickly that there's more to the job than meets the private eye.  What makes the series remarkable -- and, did I mention, fun? -- is its narrator, Bernie's dog Chet.

I've written before how delightful it is to get the story through Chet's eyes, nose, ears, and highly distractable consciousness.   A prime example in this book is a moment of gun-slinging action when Chet is primarily interested in a scrap of bacon.

This particular story's core event involves an adolescent boy, and Quinn seems to have struck a rich vein of narrative here, for he seems to know adolescents as well as he knows dogs.   Pudgy twelve-year-old boy named Devin is missing from a camping expedition.   Maybe because I work with children in that age group every day, I was moved  by the scene where Bernie and Chet interview one of the boys who shared Devin's tent on the night of the disappearance.  Frightened at first, the boy gains confidence in an interview technique that might be described as "good cop, good dog."  Afraid of retribution, the boy gets up the courage to tell how he participated in bullying Devin.  The boy halts when he remembers suddenly seeing Devin's face in flashlight.  He is ashamed to have seen a boy crying "like that."  Later, Bernie takes care to ensure that Devin won't remember his ordeal solely in terms of helplessness and fear.

With the introduction of a puppy identical to Chet, conceived on the memorable last page of the series' first story, Quinn hints where this series may be headed some years down the road, when Chet -- I don't want to imagine it -- may be too old to continue.  A good series can travel with us through time the way a flesh-and-blood companion does. 

Like Haydn, who created the form of the modern symphony and then wrote over a hundred, may Quinn keep delighting us with his variations. 



Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ah, Paris: The Greater Journey

Under construction in 1888, the Eiffel Tower was called "too large, too ugly," and too American (405)
(reflections on France generally, and David McCullough's book THE GREATER JOURNEY, published by Simon and Schuster, 2011).

With a national debt that's 120% of its gross domestic product, Greece resents the way other members of the Euro-zone look upon her as Northern Europe's freeloading cousin. "All they do is go on strikes and complain," said one European in a radio report yesterday.  This is funny, because Americans have long looked upon all of Europe the same way, making exceptions only for the hard-working and well-organized Germans. 

That's the attitude that Americans took with them to Paris in the years between roughly 1830 and 1900, chronicled by David McCullough in THE GREATER JOURNEY.   Some come to study art (Samuel Morse, John Singer Sargent), some to study medicine (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Elizabeth Blackwell, Charles Sumner) and some to relax (James Fennimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe).   They come with some anticipation that they'll see some interesting sights and learn some interesting things, but also with a sense that American vigor, American know-how, and American enterprise are the future -- and how right they were, for good and for ill, is also a part of this book.   They leave, if they leave at all, feeling that they have discovered a new world in the Old World.

It's the story encapsulated in an anecdote about influential editor and novelist William Dean Howells who interrupts a casual conversation with a younger American to grasp him by the shoulders and say,
Live all you can.  ...It doesn't matter what you do -- but live. This place makes it all come over me. I see it now.  I haven't done so -- and now I'm old.  It's too late.  It has gone past me -- I've lost it.  You have time.  You are young.  Live!  (428)
Novelist Henry James knew both men, and took this anecdote for the germ of his late masterpiece THE AMBASSADORS.  But James had already examined the same story from many different angles for many years.

McCullough tells this same story more than twenty times, and it's always interesting.  Morse puts all his skill and imagination into capturing on canvas his wonderment at the Louvre, fails to make a living as an artist, and heads home with a vague idea that he can improve upon a system of flags that the French used for telegraphing messages (99).   Sumner is astounded to see a Black student integrated with his medical class (131), and becomes the most prominent abolitionist in Congress.  Cecilia Beaux, whose lovely works on display at Atlanta's High Museum were a revelation to me a few years ago, remarked that "Paris itself" was the greatest value of study in Paris (411).  Historian Henry Adams attained an epiphany at Chartres that became focus of his vision that modern times are powered by the inhuman force of the dynamo rather than by humane faith in the Virgin Mary (448).

If my notes here seem weighted to the last portion of the book, it's not because I skipped the first part, where the stories are fascinating and amusing.   Having concentrated two years of college on Henry James -- whose WINGS OF THE DOVE and BEAST IN THE JUNGLE were, for me, a kind of Paris -- I consider his crowd to be mine, too.

My own France experience involved a plate of asparagus.   At age 24, chaperoning high school students in France, I was the typical American described  in 1830 by one of McCullough's subjects: "The French aim to gratify, we to appease appetite -- we demolish dinner, they eat it" (35).  But then, in my journal, I devoted a full page to a plate of asparagus in a lemony butter sauce.  Not hard to make, it struck me not just for its taste, but also for elegance, and also for the artistry of its presentation, set off from other courses, served on a single small plate. For this drama major, it was a revelation that dinner could be theatre.

I learned in France that "dinner" was something that started with drinks and bread at six and ended sometime after ten or eleven or midnight, with kisses all around.   At a village restaurant, an hour or two into a "dinner" of this sort, I took a hike through the village, where the entire population seemed to be in backyards, neighbors sharing tables, drinking and eating and playing around with their children. 

In a flash I understood what my roommate in college had tried to make me understand.  Andreas Pozzi, transplanted to Philly from Italy, had told me that Americans had it all wrong.  "You guys live to work," he said, "but Italians work only to live."  For him, real life was that time with family, after work is done.   I was too full of my Puritan work ethic and Rust Belt background to appreciate a world view formed in a sunny, Catholic country.

Dining was only one art in a spectrum.  McCullough's Americans are startled to see that all classes of French people dined at the cafes, attended the concerts, and crowded the galleries. "[T]he conviction of the French that the arts were indispensable to the enjoyment and meaning of life affected the Americans more than anything else about Paris," McCullough tells us (47). 

That's something that my students and my fellow countrymen still don't get.   Ulysses S. Grant was bewildered by France, commenting after days in Paris that "there's nothing to do" (356).

My Dad was a lot like Grant, who once called himself "not a noun, but an active verb," and Dad derided the French as "Frogs."  But, through the agency of his business partner Alfredo Berato, he, too came to appreciate something of this other kind of life represented by the table, the glass, the bottle, the sunset, the time spent with friends.

Seeing that this kind of Mediterranean attitude leads to financial ruin in this world of ours makes me, with Henry Adams and his compatriots, "shudder" for this world of ours.























Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sovereign: Roi Noire

(reflection on SOVEREIGN, third in C. J. Sansom's series of detective stories featuring Matthew Shardlake.)



In Raymond Chandler's noir novels, Marlowe narrates his pursuit of leads across LA, into clubs and bungalows and hotels, where he often meets with violence.  He thinks of himself as tough and cynical, but he's never cynical enough to mistrust the right person.  By the time I reach the end of a Chandler novel, I've long forgotten what Marlowe was looking for in chapter one, and I don't care:  Marlowe's toughness, integrity, and naivety make him a great companion for the journey into darkness. (Read my in-depth study of Chandler http://smootpage.com/books/Chandler.htm)

England in the time of Henry VIII's brief marriage to Catherine Howard provides C. J. Sansom with a background every bit as dark and labyrinthine as 1940s LA, dominated by duplicitous and brutally violent men in authority, with cruel Henry VIII setting the tone and the agenda.   Most of the action takes place in York, decorated for the King's entourage during his royal "progress" and seething with resentments and conspiracies. 

So Sansom has half of the noir formula right, and I intend to read the rest of the series.  Still, on the off-chance that Mr. Sansom might be Google surfing, I'll offer a couple of suggestions.    While Shardlake, the "crookback" lawyer, certainly gets into physical scrapes and scary situations, he is a narrator jealous of his own authority, wrapped up in his own back-story -- pun accidental -- and cerebral.  Compare him to Marlowe, who never tells us of his past and who never thinks ahead more than one step at a time. Shardlake is a Sherlock Holmes / Marlowe hybrid, and it might be better to see the next story narrated instead by Shardlake's Watson, named Barak.  Sansom, through Shardlake, is a bit fussy about details of plot in this third book as in the first one.  While I enjoyed the book, I often felt that we were going back over the same territory.   A model better than Holmes's Watson might be Nero Wolfe's Archie Goodwin.  Rex Stout was able to have his noir and intellectual games, too, having an active, impulsive, hot-tempered agent to mediate a sedentary detective's ratiocinations. 


Monday, September 05, 2011

Fable: the Fool's Stolen Donkey

Sunday's sermon at Saint James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, included this striking fable.  The Rev. Camille Hegg told the story.  This is my recollection of it.

The fool who lived outside of town had no family or friends, only a donkey.  Every day, the fool saddled up his donkey with goods and walked with it into town to sell what he could sell.

One morning, he woke to find that the donkey had been stolen.  That day, he trudged into town with nothing but a piece of paper.  Everyone knew immediately that his donkey was missing, and they followed to see what he silently posted to the church door. 

"To whoever stole my donkey:   Return him, and I will give him to you."

When the villagers read what he had written, they shook their heads and called him a fool.   "Why would you give the donkey to the person who stole it?"

"Because,"  he answered, "then I will experience the two great pleasures in life:  Finding what had been lost, and sharing what I  love."





Monday, August 22, 2011

Dissolution and Disillusion in Tudor Crime Novel

Reflection on DISSOLUTION by C.J. Sansom (Penguin 2003).

Discovering who decapitated the King’s commissioner in the kitchen of Scarnsea Monastery is truly the least of the pleasures in this novel.  The author ties up threads of the plot dutifully over the last few dozen pages; but the pleasure has been in his exploration of the story’s setting.

In England, 1536, King Henry VIII is “reforming” the Church of England away from the Church of Rome. He and his agents are violently tearing England’s population away from one set of religious traditions and doctrines, making Henry head of the church to consolidate his power.  To secure his line, Henry has divorced one queen and beheaded another for adultery – his “proof” being a confession tortured out of Mark Smeaton, whose real-life ordeal figures in C. J. Sansom’s fiction.  Number three is Jane Seymour, who will die bearing a son.

The “dissolution” of the title refers, first, to the literal “dissolving” of Roman Catholic monasteries and redistributing their lands to Henry’s supporters.   But the title also refers to certainties of law, faith, and tradition that also dissolve during this time.  Religious zealotry on both sides, Protestant and Catholic, matters less to the unfolding events than vested interest in regimes and property. 

In this setting, a good-hearted agent of the King can excuse torture as a means to ensure homeland security.   Different parties show “brutal certainty” in their justifications for violence.  Religion is the pretext; class interest and corruption are the subtext.   Published in 2003, this novel’s resonances with post-9/11 issues may be intentional. 

The king’s agent is our narrator, Matthew Shardlake (read, “Sherlock”), a hunch-back and lawyer who rose from poverty and ridicule through these years of reform.  He traces his ambition and self-confidence to a religious experience following a mean schoolmaster’s humiliation of him:
[When] I heard a voice inside my head, it came from inside me but was not mine.  “You are not alone,” it said and suddenly a great warmth, a sense of love and peace, infused my being… (35)
Gung-ho for law and reform, and canny enough about clues, Shardlake is na├»ve about those who are nominally on his side.  His Watson is Mark Poer, an appealing and ambitious young man whose growing doubts about his master Shardlake cause friction.   Shardlake's disillusionment with reform and with his protege are the emotional core of the story.

In many ways, this is the story of the detective’s education.  A “Sodomite” monk, gay Gabriel, is viewed at first with disgust, but ultimately with sympathy for a good man who “never chose to be this way.”  An Arab doctor, convert from Islam, figures strongly in the story, and Shardlake learns to trust him.  He gradually learns to mistrust his King and his employer.

These Medieval times have provided rich backdrops for Ellis Peters’ “Brother Cadfael” series, and Umberto Eco’s blockbuster The Name of the Rose.  There are echoes of Eco here, including a passing reference to a classical book that was integral to Rose, but Sansom is more interested in the story than in its texture.  In that regard, he lies a bit right of center on a spectrum between Ellis Peters and Eco.   

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Collage Credit

Atlanta's High Museum of Art is currently exhibiting water colors by American John Marin, and sculptures by Atlanta resident Radcliffe Bailey.   Both use collage in their technique, but for different purposes.  One artist creates a collage from images of his own, as a way to capture an experience.  The other uses objects and images found to tell personal stories or insights.

I find, once again, that collage is a great technique for making interesting art out of mediocre pieces.  

M. Susan Rouse used a Warhol app. on me.








Marin's earliest works on exhibit include some images of scenes in Paris and Venice drawn with meticulous detail for sale to tourists, and they do their job without conjuring atmosphere or any feeling about the objects. More interesting were some experiments with perspective, where skyscrapers or trees seem to be leaning over the path ahead. Maybe it was new with Marin; it was a cliche by the time of Looney Tunes.  

Some of Marin's watercolors at the same time, around 1912, play with multiple perspectives, and these are much more interesting.  One view of Maine's sea coast (a favorite subject of his) is a mosaic of perspectives, dizzying and disorienting to look at:  not a bad thing for a depiction of roiling waves from above.   In another watercolor, the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge seem to cut our view of the city into strips, an interesting effect leaning towards collage.  He goes too far, or not far enough, with some other pictures in which different angles on a scene are drawn in blocks that jostled each other.  These looked crowded,  blocky,and, in color, a bit dreary.  I wonder what he would have thought of layouts of frames in comic books, which play even more with close ups and angles to create a sense of action?

Bailey's work is exhibited under the title "Memory as Medicine," a neat idea.   Some of the pieces were better in the explanation than in the viewing.  But Bailey uses a collage technique that he calls "medicine boxes" or "medicine cabinets."    These are rectangular frames several feet wide, inches deep, a window into scenes composed of transparent photographic images, hanging objects (such as little African - style scluptures), and oil-painted scenes.   These suggested a lot, and they were interesting in color and composition, and the collage technique was interesting in itself.  


One artist gave us his vision of scenes from several angles in one plane, each view juxtaposed almost as if it were a collage of palm-sized sketches.  The other artist framed found objects juxtaposed to make a personal statement that, at least in some cases, remained merely personal.  "You had to be there," or you had at least to read in the program about what that hat or those piano keys mean in Bailey's personal mythology.  That's okay --- Yeats, Eliot, some greats did the same.  

Bailey was at his best when the images carried meaning that didn't have to be footnoted.  One striking collage was a painted image of a slave ship on rough sea, its deck crowded with photographs of African sculptures of Africans.  




The Queen Off-Script: The Uncommon Reader

Reflections on THE UNCOMMON READER, a novella by Alan Bennett (Picador 2007).

Queen Elizabeth is an actress, in “the role of a lifetime.”    It’s easy to make fun of her simply by imagining her dropping character for a split second, muttering “Damn!” when she spills coffee in her lap, for example.  It’s even funnier to imagine her sitting stock-still as scalding coffee burns through her yellow skirt, carrying on in a strained voice:  “Milk?”

Alan Bennett, playwright, takes full advantage of comic possibility number two in his novella THE UNCOMMON READER.  His Queen has played her role so long, suppressing her own thoughts until she doesn’t have any.   Doing all for show, she goes where her handlers direct her, she says just what will make people feel noticed during her visit.

In Bennett’s story, she borrows a book to smooth an awkward encounter with a librarian.  Then, to follow through, she reads it.  

Thus begins a royal odyssey of the mind, and Elizabeth becomes first, a voracious reader, and then, a discerning reader.   The script she has followed all her life loses its interest for her.

The comedy grows as the handlers try to get her back on script.   Suddenly, she wants to share what she has discovered. She wants to read a poem about the Titanic for her annual Christmas message, and she asks the Archbishop to let her read a lesson.   She wants the President of France to tell her more about Jean Genet (whose name and reputation are unfamiliar to Le President).  

While Bennett has fun with this character he has created, he is not unkind to her.  His targets are the non-readers among her staff, among political leaders, and among her obtuse subjects.    As Bennett imagines it, the prime minister has an Iran policy, but knows nothing of the history of Persia.  And so on.
The book seems plausible.  Maybe the People and their Leaders need less news, less business, more books, and more poetry. I get what William Carlos Williams means in “Asphodel”:   

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
           
But it’s best not to take it any more seriously than Bennett himself does.  It’s a lightweight book, easy to read before dinner.   He doesn’t really suggest that, say, the late Harold Pinter would have made a good PM, only that lives are enriched by the way that reading takes us into lives outside our own, and certainly all of us, the People and their Leaders, need enrichment.

(See my other reflections on this “Good Art Makes Bad Politics” and “A Moment of Silence for Harold Pinter)

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Georgia Shakespeare's Tempest Unclouded

Photos by Bill DeLoach.  Clockwise from top left: Prospera sends Ariel on a mission; Antonio tempts Sebastian; Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand; Caliban remembers the beautiful sounds of the island.
 (reflection on THE TEMPEST, produced by the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, directed by Sharon Ott.)

 Clarity and lightness made this TEMPEST what Shakespeare intended:  a gradual emergence of warm sunshine after a violent storm.  It can make one laugh and cry to see a tangle of recrimination, resentment, loss, envy, revenge, and disappointment melt away to repentance and reconciliation.

Director Sharon Ott and her designers used Native American and South Pacific island motifs – feather headdresses, simple white robes, straw teepees and a vortex of straw to make the mouth of “Prospera’s” cell.
Sorcerer is sorceress in this production, but, as performed by Carolyn Cook,  “Prospera” was easy to accept both as powerful Duchess of Milan and affectionate parent to daughter Miranda – played by Caitlin McWethy as a self-confident teenaged girl.   Cook showed tears through anger as she dealt with the rebellion of her adopted son Caliban.  When Miranda falls in love with exuberant young Ferdinand (Casey Hoekstra), Cook earned laughs alternating quickly between stern chaperone and delighted parent.

Atlanta’s veteran actor Chris Kayser played Ariel – tall, big-voiced, and the oldest actor on stage, he seemed an odd choice to play the original airy fairy.  But then he brought out all the rich extremes in Ariel’s lines.   There’s rapid-fire imagery of, well, rapid fire.  His delight in his own power is suddenly interrupted by moments of resentment and – most tellingly – human sympathy.  Ariel utters the line that I would cite as proof the actor Shakespeare and not some upper-class poet really did write these plays:   Near play’s end, having been told that he will soon be liberated from service to Prospera, Ariel boasts how fast he will be with a list of rhymed lines that end with a plaintive question, “Dost thou love me? No?”  The line doesn't make sense for a reader, but for an actor playing a character who has ADD on a cosmic scale, it makes the moment and defines the relationship between Ariel and Prospera.

As Caliban, Neal A. Ghant seemed to draw on memories of the scents and sounds and feelings that would make up the world for this half-animal character.   Bent down and half-crawling throughout the play, Caliban gets a great moment in Ott’s staging:  when he comes to understand that he is a man, he straightens up.
For the rest of the cast, we have the arrogant younger brothers, the grieving King Alonso, and the well-intentioned chatterer Gonzalo.   Their first big scene together hit all the right notes:  Alonso in mourning, Gonzalo trying to cheer the king up and the younger brothers mocking both Gonzalo and King.  It builds to the King’s saying, “You cram these words into my ear...!”   Accepting that the blame is his for the adventure that has ended in disaster, he adds, “So is the dearest of the loss.”

Caliban's slapstick cohorts Trinculo and Stefano -- think Laurel and Hardy -- rounded out the cast.  I think eighth grader Thom McGlathery was funnier in a production I directed at St. Andrew's School in 1983, especially on the line, "I do smell all horse piss, at which my nose is in great indignation."

A cast of “islanders” sing and dance to pleasant incidental music and clear choral text-settings by “Sound Designer” Stephen LeGrand.   A high point was the musical presentation of a banquet that has to disappear suddenly.   Shakespeare doesn’t tell how that’s to be done, directing that it disappears “by a quaint device.”  In Ott’s version, the table appeared, disappeared and reappeared (tilted towards us – a nice, odd, magical touch) – all in seconds, using nothing more than some candelabras, plates, goblets, and a single table cloth.  Simple, brilliant.

More than entertainment, this play should be included among the texts revered in the Anglican Communion.  Written within decades of the first revised Book of Common Prayer, THE TEMPEST dramatizes theology.  Sin is viewed as more than an act or a crime, but as a sickness that poisons relationships and the sinner’s own thinking.   The bad guys are called to a banquet which is then taken away until they acknowledge their sins and ask forgiveness.  Isn’t that communion?  Beautifully, when reconciliation comes at the end, Gonzalo observes that “we have all come back to ourselves” who were “Lost.”  And of course, there’s the theology of creation that’s at the heart of Anglican theology.  This island is “very good,” and Miranda exclaims that famous line, seeing humans for the first time, “O Brave New World that hath such creatures in it!”  

One last note:  I loved the way Caitlin McWethy delightedly tapped the lens of Gonzalo’s glasses when she examined the “creatures.” 

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hedgehog More Music Than Novel

(reflections on THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery, translated from French by Alison Anderson.  Europa paperback 2010 edition.)

What makes life worth living?  Renee Michel, a woman on the declining side of fifty and Paloma Josse, a girl looking ahead to thirteen, both consider this question.  They remain largely unaware of each other until mid-way through THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery. 

The story is how their two approaches to the question converge.  The catalyst for convergence is the arrival of Mr. Kakuro Ozu, director of Japanese art films, who takes a floor in the upscale Paris apartment building where Mme. Michel is concierge and Paloma lives with her family.

Aside from this slender plot, this is less of a story than a series of essays that develop certain themes and motifs like music.   The form would be a kind of rondo –  ABABAB --  with narrative by Renee in two or three short chapters, followed by Paloma’s "profound thoughts" and journal entries, often begun with haiku.

Like music, there are broad themes, and little motifs.   Certainly a broad theme is the deep rooted class system maintained among even the most “lefty” Parisians, Paloma’s own parents.  Renee’s whole life is defined by her class. She seeks to remain invisible to the people of her building by keeping quiet and acting churlish, the way they expect her to be.  It is Paloma, with help from the Japanese visitor, who realizes that their rebarbative “hedgehog” is actually hiding a secret appetite for art, music, and philosophy (143). 

Another broad theme is what Paloma calls “the fishbowl.”  The adults in her life – “emotionally anorexic” grandmother, guilty father, pretentious mother and sister, "inept" teacher, fearful psychologist -- swim in circles seeing only reflections of themselves (145).  Like Mme. Michel, Paloma hides, eventually learning that the conciergerie is the best place for her to be invisible.  No one knows that Paloma has secretly resolved not to live past her thirteenth birthday.

Smaller motifs play off the themes:  Japanese culture, both classic and pop; camellias;  randy dogs and lethargic but decorative cats;  grammar as something to appreciate in the loveliness of language, which should not be “reduced to a long series of technical exercises” (156); and Tolstoy –  his art, but also his character who, “feeling the sweat on his back,” learns to appreciate how the lower classes live.

It’s no surprise that these two lonely, questing females find the worth of living when they begin to find each other.

Art itself is another reason to live.  Paloma grows rapturous when she hears her middle-school choir sing, beautiful in spite of the fact that all the individuals are stupid or bothersome (185).  Renee is “knocked out” by a still life painting (203), which, on reflection, she calls a symbol of the “plenitude” of the “suspended moment”(203).  She repeats the idea, derived from Japanese movie making, that “art is life, playing to other rhythms" (276).

With rhythm, texture, color, and its interplay of motifs, THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG can be enjoyed page by page without ever involving one as a novel.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Good Actors Make Good COMPANY

"Who's high?" Neil Patrick Harris as "Robert," Jon Cryer as "David," and Jennifer Laura Thompson as "Jenny" perform at the 2011 New York Philharmonic Orchestra Spring Gala Benefit Performance Of Stephen Sondheim's "Company" at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center on April 7, 2011 in New York City.
Photo by Dario Cantatore/Getty Images North America


(This is a further reflection on COMPANY. See previous post.)

There’s a subtle moment in the musical COMPANY, after unmarried Robert has introduced friends Jenny and David to recreational drug use.  It’s uproar, until Jenny worries that they’ll wake the kids.  She leaves for the kitchen.  David refuses another reefer, because “Jenny didn’t like it. “ But Robert observes that Jenny got very high and had a great time.  David corrects him.  “She liked it for me.” He leaves to help in the kitchen.  All Robert has to say is, “Wow.  Oh, wow.”

How does the actor playing Robert perform a line like that?  “Wow.  Oh, wow.”  What does it mean?  I’ve seen productions of COMPANY where the actor said the lines in a tone of generic disbelief.  Those productions fell flat.

But in the recently broadcast film of a concert-staging of COMPANY, actor Neil Patrick Harris made clear that “Wow, oh wow” means a combination of “Wow, you can’t do what you want when you’re married,” and, “Wow, Jenny risked herself to please David, and David just sacrificed his preferences to please Jenny.”   Harris and his costars also gave us a strong sense that there’s something deep going on that Robert can’t even begin to fathom. 

How does a good actor do it?  I can explain, having played “David” in COMPANY back at Duke University in 1978.  I’d thought I was a good actor:  I memorized my lines, figured out where the jokes were, and punched those up the same way in every rehearsal and performance.  

Then my “Jenny,” a wise student actress named Wendi Bukowitz, invited me to her apartment for dinner in character as husband and wife.  This struck me as a silly, pretentious idea.  But then we, as actors, discussed how we, as husband and wife, met each other, how we spend our days, how we know Robert, and even how our apartment is laid out.  Then we had dinner in character, talking about our day.

It still seemed like a useless exercise, until rehearsals.   Suddenly, there were all kinds of communications going on between us behind Robert’s back, but picked up by the audience.  She glanced up to Junior’s room, and I knew what she was silently telling me. I made an innocuous statement, and she picked up the message, “I love you. I’ll do the right thing.”  

In our tiny studio theatre, the audience easily picked up on the subtleties of our performance, and the local critic singled out our scene for the ways we communicated feelings under the dialogue – what actors call “subtext.”

In the concert COMPANY, and also in the DVD of John Doyle’s Broadway revival of the show, the actors all do a great job of communicating the subtext.  

Perhaps COMPANY is too subtle to be appreciated where audiences can’t see those sidelong glances and locked gazes, where a camera doesn’t focus on the actor who says nothing while the others prattle.  That might explain how the conventional wisdom about COMPANY has been so wrong for so long.  Even in recent blog postings, it’s a given that COMPANY is a “cynical” show with weak script, clever but heartless songs by Stephen Sondheim, and “the kinds of characters you avoid at cocktail parties.” Conventional wisdom holds that the creators of the show palliated its anti-marriage message by tacking on Robert’s final prayer, “Somebody hold me too close… Somebody make me aware of being alive.” 

But the conventional wisdom has been wrong for forty years.  “Being Alive” is a breakthrough:  Robert is the last one at the party to “get it.”  Finally, he reads the subtext.

COMPANY on Film: Review

(reflection on the filmed presentation of COMPANY, book by George Furth, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, originally directed by Harold Prince.  Presented at Avery Fischer Hall by the New York Philharmonic, directed by Lonny Price, conducted by Paul Gemignani.)

I'm pleased to announce, after all these years, that my favorite Sondheim show is, hands down, COMPANY.  NIGHT MUSIC has those elegant waltzes, SWEENEY TODD all that glorious heart-pumping music in every scene, FOLLIES those layers of reality, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE its lovely treatment of the themes of art, family, and mortality.

But today, sitting in a movie theatre to see a broadcast on the big screen of the entire show, I'm ready to commit.   

In an interview with Terry Gross about the concert version of COMPANY, Stephen Colbert divulged that he and the other cast members didn't understand until the first rehearsal that this was going to be more than a staged reading of the show.  They rehearsed two weeks.  So I expected some laughs from George Furth's best zingers, and a glorious sound from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and a miss-matched bunch of TV actors hamming and missing cues..  Instead, I saw an ensemble committed to making their characters distinct and real.  The care that went into each moment was moving, all by itself, apart from the script and score. 

Director Lonny Price staged this musical with variety and focus, though he had to do the whole show on a narrow horizontal strip between orchestra and front row.  The play features five married couples and their single friend Robert, so the set consisted of five 1970s - modern sofas for two stripped in chromium and rolling easily into configurations to make separate living rooms, or a restaurant, or a parade.

TV stars well known to others have been dinged by some on-line critics for giving merely serviceable performances, and I'm surprised.  I have more to say about their acting, and George Furth's writing for actors, in my article "Good Actors Make Good COMPANY.")

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

RENT: Quaint

L-R, front row: John Stewart as "Benny," Michael K. Harry as "Collins," Felicia Boswell as "Mimi," Stanley Allyn Owen as "Roger," and Maxim Gukhman as "Mark." Image from Atlanta Lyric Theatre's Facebook page.


I've recently seen both FOLLIES and RENT.   FOLLIES (see my review "Haunting and Haunted"), from 1971, concerns old people haunted by memories of the 1930s and 1940s.  RENT opened in the mid-1990s just after the death of its young creator Jonathan Larson,.  But RENT is the one that feels more dated.

The production by Atlanta Lyric Theatre at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre in Marietta, Georgia, was energetically performed by a cast of strong singers, all of them earnest actors, dressed in a variety of the uniforms worn in the 90s by defiant non-conformists under thirty.    Enunciation was clear, dancing was energetic and virile in that fist-pumping way that we’ve come to expect from modern performers. Scaffolding climbed the stage’s bricked walls to create the urban milieu of the story. The rock band rocked; the lights directed our attention to the right places.


But the rock music had a quaint feel.  It has become the music of men with thinning hair and AARP cards.  (Recently an eighth grader complained to me, “What’s the music going to be? I hope it won't be rock.”) Worse, the high-strung emotional songs, the attitude of the defiant anthems -- complete with middle-finger -- all seemed generalized, just what we'd expect from rock anthems of this or that type. We applauded the performers emotional sounds; we didn’t share them.

One character mentions that he’s on AZT, a drug that I haven’t heard mentioned in so long that I’d forgotten about it. In the time of RENT's composition, it was the only hope for slowing the progress of the AIDs virus.

The transvestite Angel and his lover Collins got more laughs and more tears for their strand of the story than other couples in the show. From initial attraction through deepening affection, their story seemed real. The principal romance between Roger and Mimi, starting over a candle (a device borrowed from the show’s source, La Boheme), seemed much less substantial. So far as I could tell, Roger liked the shape of her rear end, and she liked cocaine. The ups and downs of their relationship just didn’t mean much.

One character made perfect sense, all the way through:  Bad guy "Benny," played with fierce presence and often affable demeanor by John Stewart, was clear in his intentions, his self-justification, and his mixed feelings.

Larson knew his Broadway as well as his rock. The show clarified and perked up whenever the music was driven by character, not the beat. There were those Bernstein / Sondheim places where several groups of characters sang different lyrics and different material in counterpoint. There were pastiches, such as the amusing “Tango: Maureen” and “email” messages from characters’ parents. “I’ll Cover You,” sung by Angel and Collins, was rousing and touching. When Roger and Mimi stopped yelling and whispered, “I should tell you, I should tell you…,” they were at their most interesting.

That’s what they were singing at the inevitable death of Mimi, and I was tearing up. It works in La Boheme, too, as the tenor, realizing that she has died, sings just one word, “Mimi!” and the curtain falls. So, what happened after Roger sang “Mimi” in RENT seemed like a cheap trick from some light comedy.

”Seasons of Love,” which opens the second act, is as good as the show gets, encapsulating the show’s best intentions in one lovely anthem.

Kennedy Center's FOLLIES: Haunting and Haunted

Eliot Elisofson's photo of Gloria Swanson in the wreckage of the Roxy Theatre.  In the
mid-1960s, this image was an inspiration for James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim's FOLLIES.
(reflections on the musical FOLLIES at Kennedy Center June 4.  Book by James Goldman, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, originally directed in 1971 by Harold Prince, co-directed by Michael Bennett.)

FOLLIES is a ghost story.  I found the Kennedy Center's production to be haunted by images of earlier productions.


To be fair, a show about aging performers of the Thirties and Forties confronting death and lost ideals may never again be quite so poignant as it was in 1971, when it starred aging performers of the Thirties and Forties. My three companions, who had no such preconceptions, laughed, shuddered, and teared up at all the right moments. 

The audience enters KC’s Eisenhower Theatre to find the walls and proscenium shrouded with loose-hanging safety curtains.  The jagged wreck of the stage’s apron overhangs the orchestra pit.   We are in the fictional “Weissman Theatre,” once glamorous and soon to be demolished for a parking lot. 

Doom-filled chords begin the “Prologue” and the shroud lifts to reveal a statuesque chorine in glittery gray.  As the music hushes to an eerie waltz (one of Sondheim’s most evocative pieces), more ghostly chorines appear and join in a delicate ballet.

The ghosts never leave the stage, even during intermission, and aged characters are shadowed by ghosts of their youthful selves. These ghosts re-enact songs and scenes of the past, and play important roles in the drama of two couples who come to a “first and last reunion” at the theatre.

The story is simple: Sally married Buddy, and Phyllis married Ben, but now Sally has come to the reunion to recapture “the time [she] was happy” by recapturing Ben. In this crisis, each character has to confront the realization that, at mid-life, their lives have been “time wasted, merely passing through.”

Reviews of the original 1971 Broadway production often disparaged James Goldman’s book and the “book” songs in Sondheim’s score, saving the most positive comments for Sondheim’s “pastiche” songs, those written in the style of earlier Broadway composers. Viewing this production, my companions and I had the reverse reaction.

James Goldman’s script gives us a dozen characters’ back stories in brief bits of dialogue, peppered with zingers.   Scene by scene, Sally reveals the depth of her delusions.     Ben’s veneer of accomplishment wears away until he reveals that he feels like a phony, and so he has never experienced love (as opposed to affairs and flings).   Only the reconciliations at the end seemed too quick, too neat; two of my friends came to Goldman’s defense, feeling that the characters were returning home with their eyes opened: not a happy ending, but a chastened beginning of the rest of their lives.

In Sondheim’s “book” songs, the characters reveal what they think – or like to think – of themselves.   “The road you didn’t take never comes to mind, does it?” asks Ben.   “In Buddy’s eyes, I’m young, I’m beautiful,” sings Sally.  “It was always real, and I’ve always loved you this much,” promises Ben to Sally.  Buddy sings about how good life is “when you’ve got the right girl,” but then can’t finish the refrain, “And I’ve got….” After kicking chairs in frustration, performer Danny Burstein ended the song in tears.

By the time Phyllis sings to Ben, “Could I leave you? Yes!” the drama has reached an impasse.   A curtain falls, the characters and their ghosts intermingle, all yelling recriminations at each other, and suddenly, that curtain is ripped down to reveal arches of giant red-pink roses spanning the stage. 

This production’s principals, choreographer and dancers really nailed those “Follies” numbers that bring the show to a climax.  The chorus sang “Loveland” while the two couples wandered, dazed, about the stage.  The young couples sang clearly, charmingly, in the double-duet “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow / Love Will See Us Through.”  Bernadette Peters sang “Losing My Mind” with quiet intensity, not moving from her spot stage center;  Ron Raines as “Ben” sang and danced “Live, Laugh, Love” with requisite confidence – before the dance falls apart.  Standouts of the evening were Danny Burstein in “Buddy’s Blues,” whose clarity, enthusiasm, and inspired athletic antics with two girl dancers made me laugh at this number as if it were new to me.  Jan Maxwell, as the femme fatale surrounded by fawning, leaping boys, made “Lucy and Jessie” the showstopper of the evening.

Between episodes in the slow-motion collision of the two couples, FOLLIES gives us old girls singing and dancing their old songs, always shadowed by their younger selves.   These numbers were high-points of the original production; here, they came close to dispelling all the ghostly atmosphere and dramatic tension that director Eric Schaeffer and his cast had been at pains to create.

A few times, the numbers worked as the creators intended.   A delightful pair of elderly performers, “The Whitmans” (played by Susan Watson and Terrence Currier)  sang a cute “specialty” tap song – “Listen to the rain on the roof go pit-pitty-pat” -- as if happy to be remembering their days of modest success.  Upstage, their youthful “ghosts” performed the dance with grace that the older pair no longer could match. 

“One More Kiss” reaches its musical climax on the phrase, “All things beautiful must die,” and the truth of that line is proven in the music, the image, and even in the casting. In the role of "Heidi Schiller," soprano Rosalind Elias, her voice strong but husky, takes the low note in harmony while Young Heidi's more supple and clear voice reaches much higher.   Throughout her number, even as she sang the words, “Never look back,” Miss Elias as "Heidi" was looking back with longing at her younger self.  At the end of the song, during the applause, she seemed to be lost in a painful memory, and she wandered off stage, looking a bit lost.  (In the Broadway revival of 2001, a young man touched the elderly soprano on the arm, and tugged her gently towards the exit, while she peered back plaintively into the darkness of the house – the most memorable moment of that production.)

The “mirror song” (“Who’s That Woman?”) brings a chorus line of flabby, stiff or haggard women into step with their younger selves.  One of my friends teared up to see this;  I was struck by the image of spry “Mrs. Whitman” stumbling mid-spin, disoriented, while her younger self twirled behind her.

But other stars of the show punched holes right through the fourth wall, as if they were trying to impress the audience at a benefit concert.  Regine, unsteady on her feet, anchored herself to a spot stage left and delivered "Ah, Paris!" sans enthusiasm (or consonants), and then paused to receive her expected allotment of applause.  Linda Lavin, swathed in a tight, shiny gold dress, belted "Broadway Baby" and even raised the pitch an octave for a grand smash.  But the song loses a lot of its interest if the aged singer who swears to "stick it till I'm on a bill all over Times Square" appears to be a confident, healthy, glamorous star.  The woman for whom it was written, Ethel Shutte, had lived those lines.  At seventy-five, she had once been a performer of the real Ziegfeld follies, a has – been, or a never-quite-was.  To see that old lady up there in her matronly skirt, finally getting her (last) chance to be in a "great, big, Broadway show" was wonderful, funny, and heart-breaking at the same time. 

Diva Elaine Paige's version of “I’m Still Here” likewise suffered in comparison to earlier versions.   In the original, Yvonne De Carlo had lived much of what she was singing about, no one more the “sloe eyed vamp” than she in her 1950s film roles, and no role more “camp” than “Lily Munster” in the then-recent TV sitcom. In the 2001 production, Polly Bergen and her director got it just right:  For the first half of the song, the character was regaling laughing guests at the party.  She left them laughing with, “I got through Shirley Temple, and I’m here,” and retreated to a spotlight downstage left, close to the audience. There, she sang to us the more rueful verses that begin, “I’ve been through Reno, I’ve been through Beverly Hills….”  Paige didn’t seem to get that concept. Worse, to achieve the illusion of spontaneity, she stretched the end phrase every time, an annoying affectation.  The introspective part was just a generalized belt-fest, not an expression of character.

Perhaps no production of FOLLIES can be what that first one was. This one probably came as close as possible.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Heads You Lose: The Detective Novel from the Sidelines

(Reflections on HEADS YOU LOSE by Lisa Lutz and David Heyward)

What happens when you have to suspend your suspension of disbelief?

This novel follows a sister and brother, both twenty-somethings, as they deal with an inconvenient headless corpse that shows up on their property one night, and again after they think they've disposed of it.

At each chapter's end, we cut away from the story to read snarky comments from one collaborator to the other. Lutz has published detective fiction before;  Heyward, her ex, has published at least one poem before in 1996, in Harper's, on page 32, as he reminds her.  According to her, he loses plot lines in his efforts at character development;  according to him, she kills off all the best characters.

The result is all the fun of a detective novel, with some of the fun of creating one.   I've plotted one mystery myself, once, in collaboration with seventeen eighth-graders.  I know the frustration of characters and plot that don't seem to be going the way you want them to go, and the exhilaration of finding a thread that connects all the random pieces anyway.

The two pleasures dovetail in this novel's denouement, along with the added pleasure of discovering that the title is apt in more ways than one.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wendell Berry's Detective Novel

(Reflections on A WORLD LOST by Wendell Berry, (2008))

Image from Counterpoint Press edition
The framework for Wendell Berry's A WORLD LOST is that of a detective novel. 

Andy Catlett, fictional chronicler of many of Wendell Berry's fictions of Port William, Kentucky, remembers fondly the uncle Andrew for whom he was named, and the afternoon when he learned that Uncle Andrew had been shot to death.  Very young at the time, he accepted the family's line about a disagreement over a job. As an older man, he searches scraps of memory and artifacts to piece together what really happened.

The book hardly proceeds in a linear fashion.  Andy admits that his childhood memories are like the "illuminated capital letters" at the starts of chapters in a children's book -- recalled apart from each other, without supporting detail. 

Now, I read the book a few months ago, and enjoyed it, but I don't remember the answers to Andy's questions.   Who killed Uncle Andrew?  Had he propositioned a man's underage daughter -- or was that just an excuse, or a rumor?  I don't recall.   But then, I rarely do recall the solutions to mystery novels. 

What I do recall is the character of the uncle, and it's clear that he was trouble waiting to happen.  Isn't it Hercule Poirot who says that you find out more about the killing by finding out more about the victim?

Uncle Andrew "overflows" attempts by his well-meaning parents and brother to inhibit him.  Andy recalls with a mixture of shock and pleasure how this uncle "infused with glandular intensity" the seven-year-old boy's shy daydream about a girl.  The boy is bewildered, and yet "pleased to be carried away on the big stream of his laughter."

His uncle "carries uproar with him wherever he goes." Flirtatious, given to excesses of drink, wildly impulsive, he's dangerous.  Once some cocky teenage boys step into the road to force him to stop and offer them a ride, but he simply accelerates, chasing them off the road and then up the bank.

Naturally, a novel that probes death and memory turns into a rumination on mortality.  Like mystery novelist Walter Mozley, Berry tells us through Andy that "life does not begin with itself," and it carries on after life ends: Home is not a place, but "also that company of immortals with whom I have lived here day by day...."

Not Who You Are, But What You Serve: Two Novels by Wendell Berry

(Reflections on NATHAN COULTER (2008) and MEMORY OF OLD JACK (1974 and 1999) by Wendell Berry.)

Just when I was thinking that the people of Wendell Berry's community of Port William were too noble to be true, along comes this fictional memoir by "Nathan"  (son of Jarrad, nephew of my favorite character Burley).  It's full of people behaving badly, irascibly, cruelly, even dirtily.

The novel begins in a boy's dream of a lion with his Grampa's blue eyes, crouched and roaring outside their family home.  By the end of the novel, the boy is in his teens.  The story in between contains sordid episodes including a long sequence at an ugly carnival side show.  But the action is the way that Uncle Burley and others step up to take care of Nathan when his mother dies and the grief-stricken and angry father Jarrad fall away. The older brother, called "Brother" early on, also withdraws.  This is the Tom Coulter who will perish in the Second World War.   Nathan, we know, will go on to marry Hannah, and thereby hangs another novel.

In fact, I understand that NATHAN COULTER was Berry's first novel, and that the rest of the Port William world formed around it.

MEMORY OF OLD JACK is more complicated.  Like Updike's SEEK MY FACE, and also like a couple of wonderful stories by Berry, this novel moves forward on two tracks.  We follow old Jack Beecham in present time, from his waking in a chair at a window, before sunrise, to his return to that chair at darkness.  As he walks haltingly from the store to the barber shop and through the town that day, his mind wanders from turning point to turning point in his memory, from early memories of men going off to the Civil War onward to the day that his closest family members convince him to retire at a "hotel" in town.  We sometimes see Old Jack through the eyes of  characters who love him: Mat Feltner (second oldest man in the community) and Wheeler Catlett. 

Among Berry's characters, Jack is oldest and far from wisest.  But he comes to learn, by marrying the wrong woman and by mistakes that put him in deep debt, that distinction in life comes "not by what he was or anything that he might become but by what he served."  Berry means, the land, but also the community of those who serve the land.

Berry often links Jack's inner world to the natural one.  As a young man, Jack reins in a powerful horse...
And Jack feels that same checked and conserved abundance in himself, his shoulders pressing againstthe good broadcloth of his suit.  The whole country around him, in fact, is full of it, the abounding of energy and desire...
At church, in the company of girls and young women.
His consciousness hovers and moves now over the congregation, like a bee over a patch of flowers, in search of nectar, alert to what is bright and sweet and open. 
Much later, his fury reflects that of a stream in flash flood, and he recklessly drives his team of mules into the raging water -- a scene that one reads breathlessly.

In his marriage to a woman who shares the beliefs of the prevailing culture that all of civilization should be about acquiring the means to rise above hard work, Jack comes to embody the plight of Port William as a last stand against the engulfing commercial world.