Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Collage Education:
Vik Muniz & Eric Carle at the High Museum

On display at the High Museum in Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center are works by photographer Vik Muniz and by children's book author Eric Carle.  Different as they are, they both compose their pictures by collage.  The images are interesting in themselves, but we are moved to excitement, laughter, and even awe by our perception of the artists' processes.

Muniz works with images already familiar to us.  At the High, we see photographs of Dracula and Frankenstein that, upon closer look, resolve into slimy fish eggs arranged on Muniz's white light-table.  A movie star is made of diamonds.  Giant postcard images of Paris and New York, at closer look, are composed from spliced bits of postcards and ads.  Portraits of Che and of Muniz himself turn out to be photographs of junk painstakingly arranged on the vast white floor of a studio, and we get to see a rapid-motion video of the artist making the pieces.

It's funny and touching that the familiar portrait of the youngest Civil War soldier is composed of fallen toy soldiers.  Here are the photos I made at the High, approaching a few feet closer with each shot:

[I contacted for permission to use these photos]

Muniz made me laugh out loud in a couple of works that don't fit the pattern.  One is a series of photos of New York skyline Muniz made with help from skywriting pilots, who "drew" fluffy cartoon clouds over the city.  The other is Muniz's replica of a Matchbox car, rendered the size of an actual Ford Mustang, with shallow plastic interior, chipped paint, solid grille, and plastic tires. I squatted on the floor to see if he'd printed the "made in Japan" lettering on the undercarriage, and there it was, letters three inches deep in relief.

Eric Carle has long worked with tissue paper, glue, and acrylic paint to construct his classic book The Very Hungry Caterpillar and tales about a pugnacious lady bug, and about a boy named Jack challenged to gather all the ingredients for pancakes himself - from harvesting the wheat to milking the cow for butter. "City Lights," an arts program on Atlanta's NPR station WABE, told how Carle's German parents, homesick in America, emigrated back to Germany in 1935.  A high school art teacher there took the risk of showing young Eric his bottom-drawer collection of modernist art that Nazis called "degenerate," and Carle says he was "blinded by beauty" of bright colors and compositions of abstract shapes.  My friend Susan and I especially enjoyed perceiving how he created a 3D effect with some blue horses he made, superimposing blue haunches on blue torso.

I reflected on an earlier display of collage artists at the High in 2011, "Collage Credit."

Monday, June 27, 2016

Archbishop 101: Being Christian
by Rowan Williams

Four talks delivered during Holy Week by then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams make a congenial two hour read in Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  The Archbishop gently emphasizes an idea not so congenial to the rugged individualists of America, that nothing about being Christian is a private matter.

[Photo:  Williams writes that icons of Jesus's baptism have long put "old river gods" and creatures at his feet in the water, a reminder of the new creation that Baptism represents.]

Baptism would seem to be a ritual cleansing to prepare the individual for church membership, but Williams makes it the opposite, an immersion into the messiness of the whole world.  Literally a "dipping," it's the word Jesus uses to speak of his impending death (Luke 12.50; cf. Romans 6.3).  Williams sees baptism as a ritual descent into death and chaos, a statement of "solidarity" with the rest of humanity.  As Jesus was "anointed" in baptism to be "prophet, priest, and king," we too must challenge the community as prophets, restore relationships as priests (who did that with ritual sacrifice in Jesus's day), and speak to God on behalf of the people, as Kings would do. 

From the start, some Christians have maintained that a truly baptized Christian cannot sin, but Williams reminds us how Paul's letters testify to the persistence of the old life as we live into the new one. 

Noting that most Christians and Jews before Gutenberg heard Scripture, Williams tells us to get beyond the image of a single reader in private study.  He asks us to hear Scripture as Jesus intended his audiences to hear his parables, that is, to ask, "Where am I in this story?"  To read the laws, chronicles, letters, sermons, visions, poems, and legends as if they're all "really" rules or history, he says, is to miss what God does want us to hear from the "whole":
This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me;  this is the gift I gave them;  this is the response they made.... Where are you in this? (27)
God wants us to hear in Daniel, not the details of Babylonian history, but how his people react when they are displaced, persecuted, and living under a hostile state (37).  Proving accuracy of details in the Bible, Williams says, is beside the point, as if disciples had interrupted Jesus to learn the Prodigal Son's name.

While the New Testament, written closer to the events described, is more historical, Williams does not think that the New supersedes the Old.  Re-read it all, relating "the bits" to the central motion towards Jesus.  Williams shows such motion even within the Hebrew Scriptures.  For example, Jehu's massacre of King Ahab's household is lauded as heroic in 2 Kings; in Hosea 1.4, it's recognized as a shameful act of violence (35).  We benefit from reading with others in community, as we learn from the identification of impoverished Latin American parishes with the Hebrews in the Exodus story.  "Hearing" the Scriptures at different times in our lives, with others' perspectives in mind, we will keep finding fresh understanding.

Gathering with friends and strangers at meals wasn't just "a pleasant extra" to Jesus's ministry, but his mode of operation. Spying Zacchaeus in a tree above the throng, Jesus stops and asks, "Aren't you going to invite me to dinner?"  He ate with others "indiscriminately." Meals shared after the Resurrection make clear that we, inheriting his ministry, should be about sharing meals, too. His voice in Revelation calls us, "Open the door; I will ... eat with you , and you with me" (Rev. 3.20).

Williams advises us to remember that the others partaking in Eucharist beside us and around the world are equally invited.

He also points out that we eat, "not because we are full, but because we are hungry," and we must acknowledge our hunger, i.e., the need for repentance, before we partake.

Williams cites Origen (d. 254) for his basic insight, that we pray "in" Jesus, not "to" Jesus.  Even the communal recitation of the Lord's Prayer before communion, Williams told us in the previous chapter, is a manifestation of the spirit in us.  Before we can pray in solitude, we must first be at peace with others. We let God work in us; the simple prayer, "O God make speed to save us" (Ps 40.13), familiar to me from Evensong, is a good instant prayer during daily activity.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Roman Polanski's Baby Nears 50 Years

Thanks to Mad Magazine's satire of Rosemary's Baby, I've known all the key images and plot points since the movie was new in 1968. So, seeing it for the first time this week, I was free to admire director Roman Polanski's skills in his adaptation of Ira Levin's 1966 novel. 
After a sunny fly-over shot brings us down to street level in the old brownstone building where most of the story takes place, Polanski makes sure that Mia Farrow as "Rosemary" is either on-camera or else we're seeing something from her perspective.  At the start, "Rosemary" has a full head of golden hair, a well-fed look, and a healthy, playful, mutually considerate relationship with her husband Guy. Once she conceives, Rosemary's face thins, even her hair is chopped short, while her wary, disbelieving, red-rimmed eyes seem to take up more of the screen.  In a movie with only one bloody image early on, no weapons used, no car chases, and no explosions, Polanski makes Mia Farrow's face the field where the horror happens.

The action takes place in 1966, and Polanski (perhaps after Levin) works a couple of then-current cultural icons into the story.  There's an oblique reference early on to the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, widely seen as proof that you can't count on your neighbors.  Waiting at a doctor's office, Rosemary picks up the issue of Time magazine famous for its cover, white words on a black field, "Is God Dead?"  The bad guys give their answer to that question: Yes! Long live Satan.

Even without visions of Satan and instruction of the audience in covens and black masses, this movie would be as creepy, and maybe more resonant.  With her short hair and the baby-doll dresses of the time,  Farrow looks more and more like a frightened child as the movie progresses;  and what child does not, like her, feel a pawn of elders who prescribe what to eat, what medicine to take, what to be afraid of, and what to stop worrying about?  In 1966, Betty Friedan had raised women's consciousness of how the American wife was, like a child, kept from knowing grown-up business, her world limited to the kitchen, the bedroom, and, eventually, the nursery. That's Rosemary's world in the movie, increasingly hemmed in by husband, her elderly neighbors, and the doctor they choose for her. 

When Rosemary gets that hair cut that no one likes, she's rebelling.  She plans a dinner party for their old friends -- in today's terms, she re-connects to her network.   Polanski encourages us to think she'll make it.  We identify with her, and the suspense builds.

The satanist stuff in the denouement actually removes the evil from the world we know and puts us into the safer world of make-believe.

With conspiracy on my mind, I have to wonder:  with the malefactor named "Roman Casevet," is it just coincidence that producer William Castle chose Roman Polanski and John Cassavetes to make the movie? 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Garrison Keillor's Farewell Tour in Atlanta

My friend Suzanne's thoughtful Christmas present was a pair of tickets for us to see Prairie Home Companion, a variety show broadcast live on radio since 1974.  Adding my voice to the roar of a packed house in Atlanta's Fox Theatre June 4, I could at last express my gratitude for the 32 years of Saturday nights I've listened to the cast of regulars and auteur Garrison Keillor.  

A quarter-hour ahead of the show, we heard Keillor hum a pitch; the curtain parted, and he stepped forward with a handheld microphone.  He invited us to sing "O Beautiful for Spacious Skies," then,  "My Country 'tis of Thee."  For Baptists, he included "How Great Thou Art"; for Episcopalians, he led the Doxology.  Before launching into "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," he asked, "Can we sing this one?  We are still one country, right?"  He included the verse that begins, "In the beauty of the lilies...."  With Keillor singing bass, we sounded great.  It was surprisingly emotional to hear the packed theater sing.

Americana and religion are the bedrock of Keillor's brand.  We trust that he's decent, that he's committed to "the better angels" of our American nature, and that, if not a believing Christian, he's at least sympathetic to Protestant experience.  We remember solemn songs, funny stories that ended not with a punchline but wistful reflection, and tributes to late entertainers and writers.  (His tributes to John Updike back in 2010, and to Prince this year were the best I heard for either artist.)

Because we trust him, he can make barbed political commentary and mock popular trends; he can go highbrow with poetry readings and Chopin piano recitals; he can recite fart jokes or blue limericks: he won't alienate us.
Upstage, there was the facade of a farmhouse with front porch and working screen door, its "yard" a carpet, where the band was settling in around a baby grand. To Keillor's left at a bank of blinking electronic instruments, technicians with headphones monitored sound and signal; to his right stood microphones to be used by actors Sue Scott and Tim Russell, and a table  where Fred Newman creates sound effects with virtuosic coordination of woodblocks, bells, horns, broken glass, and vocal mimicry.

Everything's timed to the second.  Keillor had just time enough to mention some hot-button local topics that he'd be mocking before the words "on the air" flashed red, we heard Minnesota Public Radio's station identification, and the show began as we've heard it begin for decades, with applause -- this time, us! -- and Keillor singing, "O hear that old piano / from down the avenue."

For years, Keillor wrote all the material, fine-tuning a template that now gives him and his staff room to play with local and current topics while giving us what we expect.  So, in Atlanta, Keillor addressed the elephant in the room:  He'd made national news that week suffering a brain seizure.  He did a skit on different kinds of brain seizures, saving for last a "Caesar Seizure" that interrupted Tim Russell's spot-on imitation of Donald Trump mid-rant.  The "sound effects" script got laughs for Fred Newman's impressions of different sprinklers on Atlanta's vast green lawns; the "Guy Noire, Private Eye" script involved the Braves' unpopular move to a new stadium in very Republican Cobb Country north of Atlanta, and a freak 1/2 inch of snow that paralyzes the city (as really happened in 2014).

The rest of the show followed literally like clockwork:  Keillor has to finish skits and songs on the half hour, in time for station breaks around the country.  We had straightforward performances of bluegrass music by Ricky Scaggs and Kentucky Thunder, and a lovely rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You" by saloon singer Christine DeGiollardano. At 7, we all know that Keillor will give us "time to stretch," and then will read out messages that audience members wrote on index cards.  We know what to expect for the second hour.

There's a high wire element to the show.  To fit things in on time, Keillor sometimes prolongs his introductions, and I imagine bits get cut on the fly.  Keillor carries a sheaf of typescript around, dropping pages as he finishes reading them, sometimes shuffling them.  Even during numbers, an assistant rushes out to pick up the stray pages.  Music director Rich Dworsky sometimes jumped up from his piano to run around back of the band to play organ, or to communicate with a player.  While Keillor spoke-sang a kind of recitative in free rhythm, Dworsky conducted the violin accompaniment, phrase by phrase.  Mid-way through a group number, Keillor handed a page of lyrics to Ricky Scaggs, who seemed a bit surprised to be singing the verse solo.

Keillor duetted with DeGiollardano on Cole Porter's "You're the Top," with new lyrics by Keillor.  He sang superlatives about her; she sang about how he was a better singer than most middle-aged authors with public radio programs.  Somehow, Keillor squeezed his new words into Porter's tight rhyme scheme.  It struck me as a microcosm for Keillor's achievement, all these years, fitting new ideas into the tight corners of his template.

The climax of the show, as all the fans know, comes around 7:20, usually following a guest's performance of a song in a reflective mood.  Keillor says, "Well, it's been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone...."  As predictably as Episcopalians will say "And also with you," the audience applauds over the rest of Keillor's line, "my home town, out on the edge of the prairie." Musicians and actors leave as Keillor meanders about the stage, looking mostly at his feet, improvising his story about a fictional version of his real - life Minnesota home town. This story always mentions the weather and catches up on gossip about characters we've known for decades.

For us, he told a story about graduation at Lake Woebegone's high school, and Keillor didn't have to remind us that the seniors there have a tradition of the annual graduation prank -- after so many years, it's a part of our memories, too.  As time drew near for the story to conclude, band members and singers returned to the stage, cuing Keillor to bring his tale to its familiar tag line, "That's the news from Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."  Cue wild applause and music. 

Keillor will retire after the broadcast of July 1.  Next season, the show's host will be mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, whose first appearance on PHC at age 18 made me his fan back around 2000.   Thile is charismatic, verbally clever and musically eclectic; he will doubtless take the show in a new direction.

For over four decades, Keillor has sustained this balance between template and topic, repetition and variation. Originally a gentle parody of radio shows that young man Keillor remembered from his childhood in the 1950s, Keillor's creation has accompanied so many of us through stages of our own lives, that Prairie Home Companion has become itself an object of nostalgia.

{Photo: Rich Dworsky at the piano}

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Photo Collage
from Church Mystery Dinner Theatre

Thanks to the Episcopal Church Women of St. James' Marietta for sending the cast a couple hundred photos of our show's dress rehearsal and first night.  As a gift for the cast of What Slays in Vegas, and as a record of what fun we had, I've composed a collage from a small selection of the photos.  See more pictures and my reflection on the process of creating the show here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

As If Hamilton Needed More Raves

At last!  Here's a musical that's literate, passionate, wise, and funny.

I've only heard the full cast recording once, and only Act One straight through, but every single minute had me smiling at clever turns of phrase, perceiving new facets to characters, and marveling at how creator Lin-Manuel Miranda compressed history without lopping off parts that don't fit neatly.

Miranda's vocabulary, both musical and verbal, is contemporary without cute anachronisms.* He gives us resonance to contemporary politics without sloganeering.  He gives us songs ecstatic and / or tender when dealing with romance and parenthood, without goopy, generalized sentiment.  And did I mention that it's funny?

In the act one finale, as Hamilton moves on to the work of making a new nation, Miranda layers all the characters' themes together in ways that take on new resonance. We hear rivals, buddies, and loved ones sing refrains from different songs:  "Wait for it...  You're running out of time... You're never satisfied... Look around. Isn't this enough? ...History has its eyes on you."

We also hear "I am not throwing away my shot," which Miranda uses at least three ways.  It first meant, Hamilton would not throw away his shot at success.  Later, he makes soldiers throw away bullets when a misfire would alert the sleeping enemy.  In his fatal duel with Burr, Hamilton, will aim away from his longtime friend, as a gentleman was expected to do.

I've seen photos and bits of video; the color and movement must add so much.  But propulsive forward movement and contrasting shades in characters and their moral choices are all there in the music and lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Next: Act Two.

Miranda takes three threads to their conclusions: how does Hamilton set up America's future prosperity and stability, what motivates Burr to kill Hamilton, and how will the romantic tension resolve between Hamilton, his wife Elizabeth, and her sister Angelica?  Hamilton's affair with a married woman brings a big emotional blow up and pathos.  When Jefferson says, "Can we get back to politics?" it's comic relief.   In pithy rhymed dialogue, Hamilton fights the "Democratic Republicans" through the first partisan battles of our history.  Miranda makes Burr sympathetic, even while we can see that Hamilton is right; the final duel has all the more emotional power for all the preparations we've had for the moment, including two previous duels. 

Reprises are nothing new, but here Miranda planted ideas early for the ways he can transform them in the end.   There's a motif of counting to ten that Miranda uses for different effects in act two. There's a theme of Hamilton's writing and working as if he has no "time," tied with a growing concern for his legacy in act two.   Eliza Schuyler Hamilton's telling young Alexander in the first act to "look around" at how far they've come turns into a theme for reconciliation.  "Rise up" originally referred to Hamilton's ambitions; the phrase returns with emotional resonance at the fatal duel.

This score is endlessly interesting, and so are the historical characters.  So, here's my rave, as if Hamilton needed it.

*Okay: one allusion to a model of the modern major-general is 100 years ahead of Gilbert and Sullivan, but it fits Washington so well; and one song "rewinds," but it's a meta-theatrical technique, and the word itself might as well be 18th century, for all that today's teens know of it.

Alone on Two Wheels around Atlanta

Yesterday, I took this photo of a turtle on the Silver Comet Trail some twenty miles west of Atlanta.  Solitary, shielded, shy, steady on a long road:  I feel strong kinship with this little creature, helmeted, wrapped in my own thoughts for hours, trying to average 16 m.p.h.

I started riding in 1991 with Jason, a bike enthusiast in my class of 8th graders.  I needed to lose weight, so he repaired my bike and showed me places to ride where we lived in Mississippi, especially on the Natchez Trace, in Vicksburg battlefield park, and around the Barnett Reservoir.  (We met again for rides last year.)  Lose weight, I did, but I also learned how suited cycling is to my temperament.

A smart phone adds a soundtrack to the experience.  Sometimes it's music -- I favor Broadway and "80s Cardio" -- but more often I have Atlanta's NPR station WABE along for the ride.  Good-willed, thoughtful conversations concern politics, science, religion, literature, movies, sports, and -- well, all things considered in this American life.  On Saturday mornings for the past six years, pedestrians and drivers along the way from the Martin Luther King Center downtown to the Stone Mountain Park have seen this lone biker laughing out loud during Car Talk and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.   The ride has become a ritual that helps me let go the anxieties about personal and world affairs that build up during a typical week.

Riding my bike is the only thing I do that feels like the only thing I should be doing.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Updike's Couples:
What's Adult in Adultery?

[See my John Updike page for many more posts about his work.  See especially my essay "More Fun with Couples." ]

Adultery among two or three couples makes your basic bedroom farce; but with ten couples, John Updike made an epic. I happen to have read his 1968 novel Couples around every ten years since age 27, an experience like returning to a favorite vacation resort: while there's pleasure in the familiar, I notice things differently. This time, from page one, I was thinking about the man writing it.

Anyone who sees Updike's photo on the book flap must wonder what he's up to with the first character to speak, Piet. The author, tall, thin, pale, and beak-nosed, describes in Piet his physical opposite: short, broad, reddish, flat-nosed (3). But the dissemblance ends there. Like Piet the carpenter, Updike's work made him available to the women in the suburb where he lived (Ipswitch, MA) while the men worked in Boston all day. Like Piet, his affair with a married woman broke up two marriages. Also, like Piet, his attendance at the congregational church was, in his circle of sophisticated couples, eccentric. So Updike has barely disguised his connection to the story.  

Updike and Piet share one virtue. We are told right away that Piet is "in love with snug, right-angled things" (4). Even making love to Georgene, his mistress when the story starts, his attention is divided between the construction of her body and that of her "gambrel-roof late-Victorian" home "with gingerbread eaves and brackets, scrolling lightning rods, undulate shingling, zinc spouting, and a roof of rose slates" (64); restoring a home for Ken and Elizabeth "Foxy" Whitman is his entree to their marriage. Piet's appreciation for old-fashioned workmanship puts him at odds with business partner Matt Gallagher, now developing cookie-cutter homes (67). Only in his craftsmanship can Piet claim to have any integrity; it's his one saving grace.

Updike's own love for "snug, right-angled" finishing touches extends throughout his career. After three decades, his novels about "Rabbit" Angstrom end where they began, on a neighborhood basketball court. The marriage of the Maples, depicted in short stories over decades, ends in divorce court with a reference to their wedding, in a gesture so unexpected and so appropriate that it seems Updike had planned it all along. Chapter by chapter, The Widows of Eastwick mirrors The Witches of Eastwick , effecting a kind of atonement. In a long poem called "Midpoint," Updike asked questions about his life at 40 that he answered beautifully on his deathbed in "Endpoint," a long poem that ends as it starts, with gratitude.

So Updike exercises the same care to lay parallel channels that will guide us through the messy events of his epic. He lays the tracks down on the first couple of pages.  We read, first, "What do you think of the new couple?" It's a night in spring. Thirty-something Piet Hanema and his wife Angela undress for bed following a party. The "new couple" are the Whitmans. Piet's question implies that a new couple might be good or bad for the established couples, as yet unnamed.

So, the spring night sets the story on a time track, as seasons will advance, lovingly described, from Piet's budding interest in Foxy to a heated affair in summer, to parts of the novel subtitled "Thin Ice" and "Spring Again." Updike reinforces his time track with allusions to current events of 1962-1963, with special focus on the young couple in the White House.

Other tracks of the first page will take us from this bedroom to others, and from this party to others: a party involving all the couples provides a climactic show piece in every section of the novel, among informal gatherings for basketball, skiing, and sailing. Supporting it all is the arc of Piet's affair with Foxy, with collateral damage to all the couples' lives together.

Keeping score for ten couples could overwhelm the readers, so Updike gives each pair a member with an identifying shtick.  It's speaking French or quoting Shakespeare; being sweaty, scientific, or dedicated to social causes; being a shy Korean, an earnest Jew, a crude Greek, or a moralistic Catholic. Once we've met everyone, Updike doubles back to fill in back stories for the Applebys and Smiths, in a section called "Applesmiths and Other Games." Later, we learn more about the Saltzes and the Constantines (or "The Saltines"). When dissolution and death come to the couples, Updike gives us a deeper look at the Gallaghers and Ongs.

But after the Hanemas and Whitmans, he focuses most of our attention on the Thornes: Piet's mistress Georgene, and her husband Freddy, Piet's "thorn" in the side.  Freddy is a dentist and lewd clown. With a thread of images, Updike makes this atheist a kind of priest who presides over couples that he calls "a church for each other" (9). Freddy preaches a dentist's gospel that sex (176) and self-deception (292) anesthetize the couples against decay and death, He serves up ham with the eucharistic formula "Take, eat ... this is his body given for thee" (386), appears "sacerdotal" in his white dentist coat (431), and encourages confession (434).  By the novel's end, he has taken a grave professional and personal risk to help Foxy.

All angles of the novel meet at the spire of the town's congregational church. Describing Piet in bed on the first night of the story, Updike uses the obvious pun to connect Piet to the cock on the weather-vane atop the town's highest steeple (18-19). At the end, when lightning sets the structure afire, the couples gather to witness the event.  Piet, now separated from Angela and the other couples, stands apart. If the lightning is the judgement of God, or maybe a deposing of a false god, Piet doesn't feel it that way: "Piet wondered at the lightness in his own heart, gratitude for having been shown something beyond him , beyond all blaming" (539).  Immediately, he spies a pamphlet washed out of the church by fire hose. Dated 1795, its message encompasses more than his personal gratitude:"But if there be any nation [with reason to thank God], the United States of America are that nation." Days later, when workmen remove the cock from its precarious perch over the town, Piet happens to be standing where he first saw Foxy. There's that symmetry Updike appreciates so.

The first time I read Couples, I felt the pleasure of discovering what the world was like for the grown ups who reared me, taught me, and awed me.  Now, at twice the age of Foxy Chapman, I'm sensitive to the childishness of these young adults: whatever Freddy Thorne says to elevate adultery, it comes across as just another competition (487), like one more party game;  Piet is disappointed to realize that the "first whiff" of adultery is best (354) before that relationship, too, traps a man in responsibilities. Updike lets us see that there's nothing adult in adultery.

I'm still left with the Piet problem. As Piet betrays loved ones, bullies friends, and says hurtful things to his little daughters, Updike clearly doesn't shield his protagonist from our dislike.  Was Couples Updike's 500 page rationalization? A plea for understanding?

In "Endpoint," Updike wrote of his pride in seeing his books, one for each year, lined up on a shelf. His daily work transforming experience with his loved ones also supported his loved ones.  Couples wasn't Updike's defense, or his therapy.  He simply calculated that an erotic expose, based on personal experience, layered with religious and social implications, would make both a popular best - seller and a literary reputation so that he could provide for his family ever-after. 

Updike, John.  Couples. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012.

"Eric" at felt the last section of the book redeemed much that he detested in the rest.  The whole year of the story is "just a blip" in the lives of the community. See his excellent review here.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Producer Scott Rudin Talks Sondheim
on Fresh Air

Early this week, producer Scott Rudin answered questions for host Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. After Rudin described the genesis of his latest musical Shuffle Along and reminisced about apprenticeship with various Broadway producers beginning at age 15 (including his carrying Kermit Bloomgarden's prosthetic leg on the bus), Terry asked about Rudin's two - year public feud with Stephen Sondheim in the early 2000s. Were they still estranged?

"I was with him most of yesterday," Rudin replied, "and we were working on his next show."

In 2002, a lawsuit and counter-suit, had concerned the musical that eventually became Road Show.  Rudin had publicly expressed disappointment with the way it was shaping up.  He told Terry Gross that he hadn't recognized that Sondheim "was in his own process, frustrated that the show wasn't working...."   A couple years later they settled out of court.  Still later, delighted by Road Show in its final form, Rudin wrote to Sondheim, admitting that he had been wrong.  They "re-introduced themselves," and Sondheim consulted Rudin for the chapters on Road Show in his memoir Look, I Made a Hat.  [See my reflections Road Show.] 

It had been a painful episode.  "[Sondheim] was a huge reason that I got involved in theatre," Rudin said. "I saw Company 12 times and Follies 13 times."

He says Sondheim's new show, with book by David Ives, is based on Luis Bunuel's movies The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel.  Rudin says the new show is "bracing ... shocking ... political ... really smart ... as good as anything he's done."  He hopes to see it at New York's Public Theatre in 2017.

At Terry Gross's invitation, Rudin chose a song by Sondheim to discuss, "Loving You" from Passion. Its addition during previews, he said, changed the audience's perception of the character Fosca:

Loving you
Is not a choice,
It's who I am.

"She had been introduced to the audience as a figure of scorn and derision.  This song was designed to turn the audience towards her.  She's fearsome ... but the song gives you insight into her character."

Loving you
Is why I do 
The things I do.
Loving you
Is not in my 
But loving you,
I have a goal 
For what's left of my life...

I will live,
And I would die
For you.

"This is what musicals do," Rudin said. "The moment is lifted up by being sung. "

[Photo: Donna Murphy as "Fosca" in the original cast of Passion, with Jere Shea as "Giorgio."]

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Flannery Would Love It

My friend Susan and I thought we'd go down for a look-see last week.  We know Flannery would have loved the sign there on the highway to Milledgeville, GA, across from the Honda store.  It's the font they might have used to announce King Kong, not what we  literary groupies expected on our way to a shrine.

Flannery:  We're on a first-name basis, all who have read her stories.   We trade fond memories of her fiction, as if we were remembering a close friend.  Her voice is so clear in her fiction and assorted prose that we feel like we know her.  The immune disorder lupus killed her in 1965, but she's still a part of our lives.

The gravel drive lined with trees, a pond, fenced field, a barn -- all call to mind stories of a charging bull, boys dancing in a burning meadow, a hayloft where a Bible salesman lies with a woman who has a wooden leg.  We parked in grass, and meandered through the yard to the screened in front patio.  We heard chirping birds, whirring insects, and, from across the highway, amplified calls for "Honda agent so-and-so, pick up line 2."

The farm home was built before the War (in Georgia, they mean the Civil one), with major additions in 1959.  Flannery's mother ran a dairy farm here while her daughter, suffering with lupus, wrote and read in the downstairs area.  Our sweet teenaged guide emphasized that Flannery was no recluse, and we saw the cocktail shaker and ice crusher to prove it.

Out back are a young peacock and old peahen, behind chicken wire.  Thanks go to the Flannery O'Connor Society for providing this must-see nod to the days when the author's flock roamed her mother's farm.  Her essay about "The King of the Birds" in Mystery and Manners described what we saw last Friday:

The cock, his tail raised in a shimmering arch around him, will turn this way and that, and with his clay-colored wing feathers touching the ground, will dance forward and backward, his neck curved, his beak parted, his eyes glittering.  Meanwhile the hen goes about her business, diligently searching the ground as if any bug in the grass were of more importance than the unfurled map of the universe which floats nearby.  (MM 14)

As usual with Flannery, we laugh at the peafowls' manners even while we get a hint of  the mystery in the universe -- read, immanence of God in our world.

"Many people love Flannery for the wrong reasons," said novelist and critic Greg Johnson to me during a writing seminar he led several years ago.  He never elaborated, but I guessed he meant that she's good because her writing is good, not because it expressed her Christian faith.

I take his point, but Flannery herself affirms that "moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing" (31).  She writes what she sees, and her theology informs her vision.  Basic theological questions are, "What is the nature of Creation?  What is Sin?  What is Redemption?"  Peacocks are a sign of the goodness of God's Creation.  About Sin, Flannery doesn't hang up on "sins" in the fundamentalist sense of choices made in bars and beds, but writes of "distortions" in "modern life": the "problem" for her "will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural" (33). 

And Redemption?  Inspired by our trip to Andalusia Farm, Susan and I downloaded John Huston's film adaptation of Flannery's Wise Blood from 1979, whose protagonist (emphasis on agony) Hazel Motes focuses obsessively on the question of "redemption."  The role was a breakthrough for the young actor Brad Dourif whose thin frame and boyish face are rendered striking by his eyes: grey, narrow, expressive, unblinking for long stretches of film.  [Photo: Brad Dourif as "Hazel Motes," left; Dan Shor, as "Enoch," center; the hand of Harry Dean Stanton as false preacher "Asa Hawks."]

Flannery surely chose the character's name purposefully to emphasize vision.  What other use of "mote" is there in our language besides the familiar saying of Jesus, "Why do you concern yourself with a mote in your brother's eye when you have a beam in yours?"  "Hazel" associates naturally with "eyes."  Then, in the novel, Flannery consistently abbreviates his name to "Haze," suggesting unclear vision.  The through-line of the story is Hazel's fascination with a preacher in dark glasses who claims to have blinded himself in a demonstration of faith.  Flannery, who expected her readers to come to her work with "experience, literary and otherwise" (MM 138), borrows a trope from Sophocles and Shakespeare, whose characters Orestes and Gloucester lose their eyes at the moment when they recognize how they've been blind to the truth about themselves.

Now, exactly what Hazel has seen, I'm not sure.  I saw the film when it was new, and my date left shaking her head.  "How can you say that was written by a Christian?" she asked, near tears.  "All I saw was pain and suffering.  Where was the redemption in that?"  I had no clear answer, then.  Over the next couple of years, I read all of Flannery's work, and felt I had a pretty good grasp on most of it, but still not on Wise Blood.  37 years later, it was the same experience.

Here's what I know: Every frame of the film is part funny, part creepy, beginning with the shot in a Macon, GA cemetery of a granite-carved phone over the epitaph, "Jesus called."  I notice that every character encountering Hazel for the first time mistakes him for a preacher.  Sympathetic characters instantly see him as a personal savior:  the dim-witted eighteen-year old Enoch (cf., Genesis, son of Cain) somehow sees in the preoccupied young stranger a potential friend in the unfriendly city, the preacher's daughter "Sabbath Lily" sees him as a man to take her away from her mean father "Asa Hawk," and the widow who lets a room to Hazel finds purpose in life taking care of him. 

But Hazel rebuffs all of them, interested only in refuting his grandfather's sermons of sinfulness and hellfire, so terrifying that young Hazel in flashback, cringing under his grandfather's gaze, wets his pants.  Also in flashback, we see  young Hazel, having peeped at a naked woman in a side show tent, tearfully filling his shoes with rocks as penance.   Now, as an adult, Hazel fiercely preaches that we don't need salvation, and there is no resurrection:  "the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way." 

The film arouses strong feelings, mostly veering between pity and fascinated amusement.  So much of what the characters decide to do makes no sense, except in the characters' peculiar understanding.  For example, when Hazel preaches that we need a new Jesus "that's all man, without blood to waste," Enoch steals for him a desiccated shrunken corpse from a display in the local museum.

Near the end, Hazel hears a confession from a dying man.  Hazel himself ran the man over in his car, but all the victim wants to do is unload all his guilt going back to when he made life hard for his mama.  His last words are "Jesus hep me."  Against all his efforts to escape Jesus, Hazel seems to have become, in the end, an agent of Jesus.   Over the next few scenes, we see Hazel's attempts to atone: stones in his shoes, barbed wire under his shirt, and the self-blinding that Asa Hawk never had the courage to accomplish. 

What does it all add up to?  Remembering Greg Johnson's warning, I'll say that it doesn't have to "add up" to anything, only to carry us along in an experience of emotion and images, still fresh after 37 years.  But Flannery herself tells us that she's up to something else: "Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause" (MM 33).

An essay by Francine Prose tells us that the atheist John Huston thought he was filming a hilarious send-up of "religious mania" in the South.  When Brad Dourif asked Huston about nuances in his character, Huston said to forget nuances, "Hazel is a one-note character." But Dourif and Huston were both stumped by the last scenes.  Prose writes: 

According to Huston biographer Lawrence Grobel, a hasty script conference about Hazel’s fate persuaded Huston that at “the end of the film, Jesus wins.”...How Flannery O’Connor would have loved that. And though she was the most unsentimental Christian, you can’t help thinking that she would have seen it as a sign—a sign of the truth (or, in her view, the Truth) asserting itself and making itself known. Perhaps she would have thought that the progress of the production had, in some mysterious way, paralleled the plot of her novel. In spite of himself, the director had made a film about a Christian in spite of himself, groping his way toward redemption.

Yes, how Flannery would have loved that.  

O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners.  Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

Prose, Francine.  "Wise Blood: A Matter of Life and Death." Web site: The Criterion Collection. 

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Playwright Sees God: Remembering Peter Shaffer

[Photo collage:  Paul Scofield as old Salieri.  Inset UL, playwright Peter Shaffer.  UR, program of the original production, National Theatre, London.  DR, Scofield as middle aged Salieri with Simon Callow as Mozart.]

With news yesterday that playwright Peter Shaffer had died came expected mention of award-winning plays Equus and Amadeus, their film versions, and Shaffer's exploration of conflicts between strong-willed men.  One report mentioned something I hadn't known, that he was a lapsed Orthodox Jew.  That fact fits with a third character in Shaffer's plays, omitted from the commentaries I saw:  God.  To this day, a single moment in the original production of Amadeus is the strongest image I've ever seen (and heard) of the Divine.

Before he found God as his theme, Shaffer had done moderately well around 1960 with domestic dramas and comedies, the outstanding one being the farce Black Comedy, which begins with animated dialogue about a lovely apartment and beautiful paintings, all spoken in total darkness.  When the lights come up, we see the actors, frozen.  One asks, "What's happened to the light?" In the rest of the play, an artist, his fiancee, and his mistress, among others, blunder around as if in total darkness.  (I considered making a musical version, if only to call it Light Opera.)

Then Shaffer hit on the theme that took him to his pinnacle with Amadeus:  a self-possessed middle-aged man of intellect, drawn to a God-possessed younger man of passion, destroys him.

Shaffer explored the love triangle of older man, younger man, and God in plays before Amadeus.  My favorite was Equus (1973).  Psychiatrist Dysart, academically interested in mythology, confronts Alan Strang, a teenage boy possessed by a mythology of his own creation about a horse-god Equus.  Earlier, in The Royal Hunt of the Sun (ca. 1965), a conquistador who has lost his Catholic faith encounters the young god-king of the Incas, whose charisma shakes the older man's cynicism.  In between, Shaffer wrote Shrivings, a slight variation on the theme: a cynical younger man goads a prominent pacifist into violence. I hear that the play following Amadeus, called Yonadab, set in Hebrew testament times, was same-old same-old. His final hit, Lettice and Lovage, was a genteel version of his theme, featuring two middle-aged women, one imaginative and spry, the other strait-laced.

But Shaffer's best exploration of his theme was Amadeus. Even the title, Mozart's given name, is a statement, translating literally as "God-loved."  Then, during the play's very first moments, Shaffer grabbed me and the rest of the audience.  For the original production in 1980, director Peter Hall dressed the Olivier Stage of the National Theatre as an abstracted 18th century salon of shimmering tile, royal blue panels and ivory white trim.  The house dimmed, and light on a scrim threw into relief a figure who'd hunched in a wheelchair upstage unnoticed while we'd settled into our seats.  We heard amplified whispers in counterpoint, building to the conclusion that composer Antonio Salieri, near-death, claims to have poisoned Mozart - and no one believes him.

The old man in the wheelchair turned to address us in his piping, insinuating voice.  It was Paul Scofield as "Salieri," drawing us into his confidence.  He promised an opera of his imagination, "The Death of Mozart, or, Did I Do It?" Mid-sentence, Scofield rose from the chair, dropping his old-man's shawl to the ground and his voice about two octaves, winning instant applause and laughter.  His whispering servants dressed him in the suit and wig of Mozart's time while Salieri launched into Peter Shaffer's play.

This interplay of Salieri and audience makes a live performance more vibrant than the movie could ever have been.  Scofield seemed to have an extra set of eyebrows, intimating with sidelong glances to us his unspoken bemusement, dismay, contempt, or fury.  We could read Salieri's thoughts as, concealed in a high-back chair, he overheard Mozart (played by Simon Callow) play cat-and-mousie-wousie with young wife Constanze. His words to us were icing on the cake: "Before I could rise, it had become difficult to do so."  Soon, Mozart shows the older composer up, and Salieri asks us, "Was it then -- so early -- that I began to have thoughts of murder?"  [BTW - Shaffer's words made such an impression 36 years ago that my quotations from memory differed by only a few words from what I find in the script revising this post.]

Salieri tells us how he, a tradesman's son, bargained with God: "Signore, let me be a composer! Grant me sufficient fame to enjoy it.  In return, I will live with virtue [and] honor You with much music all the days of my life."  Then, sitting in that same high-backed chair, Salieri talks us through his thoughts as he hears Mozart's music (Adagio from K.361) for the first time:
It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lowest registers -- bassoons and basset horns -- like a rusty squeeze box.  It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity.  And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note on the oboe. 
Here's the moment when Shaffer, with help from Scofield and Mozart, created an indelible image of God.  Scofield's Salieri raised his hand, palm down, to show the high note from the oboe, and followed the shape of the musical phrase, while he explained how we human beings experience God:
It hung there unwavering, piercing me through, till breath could hold it no longer, and a clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling. ...I called up to my sharp old God ... "What is this need in the sound?  Forever unfulfillable, yet fulfilling him who hears it, utterly.  Is it Your need?  Can it be Yours?" ...It seemed to me that I had heard a voice of God - and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard -- and it was the voice of an obscene child!  (end of Act One, Scene 5)

At the end of Act One, Salieri prays again to his God, "Grazie tanti!"  Italian for "gee, thanks a lot." He vows to destroy Mozart.  At play's end, calling himself "the patron saint of mediocrities," Salieri pronounces benediction on all of us.

Shaffer himself appeared to be the middle-aged, middle - of - the - road playwright at the time of Amadeus.  Harold Pinter was more challenging, Tom Stoppard more brilliant, Alan Ayckbourn more prolific and popular.  Was Shaffer absolving himself as a mediocrity?  Tributes I saw yesterday upon news of Shaffer's death all seemed to agree that, at least with Amadeus, Shaffer created one lasting treasure.

Myself, I appreciated Shaffer's focus on men of good will with good education and good minds who tried but didn't hear God speaking directly to them in the way that He seemed to speak through others.

I have a couple more personal notes.  A year after I saw the original cast, I traveled with friends to D.C.'s National Theatre to see Ian McKellan as "Salieri," Tim Curry as "Mozart," and Jane Seymour as "Constanze."  It was a Saturday matinee preview to a small crowd.  Afterwards, we encountered the three leads leaving the dressing room for lunch, and shook hands all around.  I'm not a big guy, but I was a head taller than all three.

A few years after the Amadeus movie won the Oscar, I got a phone call from composer Leonard Bernstein.  Impressed with an appreciation of his music that I'd written at a time when he'd not been getting much love from the critics, Bernstein proposed that I take over from Peter Shaffer, who had withdrawn from an unnamed musical project they'd begun.  It was not to be; and Bernstein passed away the next year.

P.S. Requiescat in pace.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Seeds and Weeds in the Gospel of Matthew:
Images for the Inner Gardener

From college Bible study days, I've known that "weeds" in Matthew's gospel are infidels to be thrown into the fire, and "seeds" are the words of the Gospel wasted on the world's bad soil.  Those who see faith as "fire insurance" against Hell use these verses for support. So I'm grateful to Christine McFadden for a couple of alternative readings in the daily devotional pamphlet Forward Day by Day  (October 2015).

McFadden cites a sermon on Mt.13:3 by Rev. Scott E. Richardson, who asked, "What if you saw yourself as the whole field rather than one specific type of soil? ...Integrating the many aspects of self, or our four kinds of soil, may be our real work in life...."  Today, with "faith" connoting one feature of personality rather than denoting socio-political class, as in the days of Jesus, this reading of the parable is relevant and appealing.

I'm reminded of another interpretation that emphasizes the Sower's prodigality.  What a waste, it seems, to throw it all out there without regard to the where it lands!  But that's an image for the vast generosity and love of God.

Reading the story of weeds and wheat (Mt 13:29-30), allowed to grow together until they can be easily separated at harvest, McFadden again takes the opportunity to point out a truth in our personal lives.  As she writes,
Very often, the core of our [personal] stories begins in childhood, and over time we sort through experiences, aligning them with that core of discarding them.  We compose a narrative line, cobbling together even the most disparate of fragments, weaving meaning and purpose into our stories.  Over time, we create a cohesive tapestry of identity for ourselves.

That's true of us all.  McFadden pushes us to compose our own stories one more time, but "with intention and keen awareness, with prayer and the perspectives of others, throwing out those bits that keep us in unhealthy patterns and mindsets." 

We start each year telling our stories to each other for the seminar Education for Ministry, an extension program of the theology school of the University of the South, Sewanee.  (See our class blog.) We're told to tell a "spiritual" journey;  this idea of "weeding" our stories might be an inspiration.