Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Douglas Meserli | "A Very Long Walk" (on Maria Irene Fornes' Promenade)



a very long walk

María Irene Fornes Promenade, in Robert J. Schroeder, ed. The New Underground Theatre (New York: Bantam Books, 1968).
María Irene Fornes Promenade / New York, Judson Poets’ Theatre, Judson Memorial Church, April 9, 1965; revived New York, Promenade Theatre, June 9, 1969.

Sometime when I was a Junior at the University of Wisconsin, I purchased a small collection of off-Broadway plays titled The New Underground Theatre, edited by Robert J. Schroeder. I bought a great many books in those days that, for one reason or another, I never read, and this was one of them. It wasn’t that I was disinterested in the plays in this book, but simply that I was preoccupied, not only with reading classroom texts—which this most definitely was not—but also with nightly trips to the Madison gay bar and other extracurricular activities.
     I’d read numerous contemporary plays in high school by Pinter, Genet, Albee, Ionesco and others (indeed for years, in my memory I thought I had had this little book on my basement room shelf even in those days), but these plays remained unread until last night, when something called out to me pick it up again, whereupon the read the first play in this volume, Promenade, by María Irene Fornes, with music by Al Carmines, the pastor at the Judson Memorial Church where it was first performed.
      I also published a play by Fornes, a much more traditional work, Abingdon Square, 32 years later in 2000 (in fact I’ve published plays by three of the eight writers represented in this tiny Bantam paperback anthology—beside Fornes, Murray Mednick and Ronald Tavel). But reading her play a more specific memory came to me as I suddenly recalled that in early 1969, the year Promenade was revived off-off Broadway (with actress Madeline Kahn in the role of the servant)—it first opened at Carmines’ Judson Poets’ Theatre in 1965*— I moved for several months to New York City. For a short period I lived in Greenwich Village, and I recall seeing posters for the play as I walked the streets, “promenading,” one is tempted to say.
     Something called out to me even then to see this play, but I couldn’t quite comprehend how to buy tickets, having never seen the Judson Theatre and not knowing where it even was. Living day to day as a temporary worker, I didn’t have enough money, moreover, to buy a ticket. I didn’t subscribe to a newspaper, had no telephone directory to look up the address. When a few weeks later I began working at a permanent job at Columbia University, the off-off Broadway theaters, which I later got to know quite well, seemed to be on another planet. When I did go to theater—three times during my New York stay—it was to Broadway productions (Dear World [which I describe in My Year 2005], Celebration by The Fantasticks creators Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, and, strangely, Peter Luke’s adaptation of Baron Corvo’s Hadrian the VII. The only off-Broadway play I saw was Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, at Theatre Four where I worked as an usher for a few nights.
      Perhaps, had I attended that 1969 performance of the Steinian–like Promenade, I would not have understood or even enjoyed it. I was so serious in those days. Fornes, on the other hand, whips up a quite fantastically absurd fable about two prisoners (105 and 106) who dig their way out of a penitentiary to take a spectacular promenade through the streets, a park, and fabulous parties, only to be returned to prison (with all the other party-goers) by the jailer. The prison warden, himself, throws a lavish party, threatening them with a return to the cell if they do not enjoy the event.
     Thrown back into the cell from which they’ve escaped, the two original prisoners merely leave once more through the hole, returning to a mother who throughout the play has claimed her children have gone missing. Asking them if they have “found evil,” she sings them to sleep, with lines such as:

                                                  I know everything.
                                                  Half of it I really know.
                                                  The rest I make up.
                                                  The rest I make up.

    In fact, the entire play reads as freshly as if it were being created, made-up like the plays of childhood imagination, spontaneously. But in the spirit of mid-1960 liberation, the play also has plenty of opportunities for nudity and scenes of sexual expression, including. at one banquet, several women who each want to be naked:

                                                    Only three.
                                                    Only three
                                                    Naked ladies.
                                                    All right, four
                                                    Four naked ladies.

In another undressing incident the prisoners strip to put their clothes upon a man who has been wounded in a hit-and-run driving event, and in so doing escape the jailer. At yet another moment a servant and chorus sing a hilarious linguistic romp about how clothes effect behavior:

                                                    Who can marry a gigolo?
                                                    Can you?
                                                    Can you?
                                                    I can’t.

With repeated choruses about “a businessman,” “a cop,” “a clown,” and “a priest,” concluding in:

                                                     You see, a costume
                                                     Can change your life.
                                                     Be one and all.
                                                     Be each and all.
                                                     Transvest
                                                     Impersonate
                                                    ‘Cause costumes
                                                     Change the course
                                                     Of life.

At the same moment, the jailer re-enters wearing the prisoner’s jackets, presumably having taken on both their identities.
     One might even describe Fornes’ work as a kind of Ovid-like parade of transformations, reflecting the world around her in 1965 and, particularly in 1969, when, a few days after I left New York, the transvestites of Stonewall (a bar I often passed on my way to other favored gay bars) took to the streets against the police, transforming the whole of gay society.
      Certainly, had I found my way to the Promenade advertised on the rows of small posters in 1969, I would never have known that this wonderful playwright, while writing this work, was living in a long-term relationship with Susan Sontag, with whom, I too later developed a friendship as a correspondent.
       So it has taken me 46 years to circle back to the play which had long ago called out to me as young man. It has been a very long walk.

Los Angeles, January 29, 2014
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2014).

*I should add that it took me a great deal of research to confirm my feeling that I had seen posters for the musical in 1969, since Fornes’ biographies all focus on the original 1965 production. Stubbornly, I checked Carmines’ biographies, where it was hinted to have been produced in 1969. I presumed that it was a revival until even further research in the Burns-Mantle Best Play books (I have little faith in Wikipedia) reconfirmed it. 
                                                                                                

Friday, January 17, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Writing Tenderly" (on Jerry Bock's and Sheldon Harnick's She Loves Me



writing tenderly
 by Douglas Messerli

Joe Masteroff (book, based on the play by Miklos Laszlo), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Jerry Bock (music) / New York, Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 1963 / revival New York, Criterion Center Stage Right, 1993, transferred to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 1994.

Of all the versions of Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie, my favorite is the musical She Loves Me. I did not see the original 1963 Broadway version, but even today I feel like I must have been there, since soon after its opening I bought the stereo recording and played it so many times that it lost most of its sound, forcing me buy a second copy. I also own a CD version, even today recalling the lyrics of nearly every one of its songs, my favorites among them being “Sounds While Selling,” “Tonight at Eight,” “Will He Like Me?” “Ice Cream,” and “She Loves Me.” But there are also charming lesser pieces: the angry song of rejection sung by the character Ilona (the wonderful Barbara Baxley), “I Resolve,” her tale of true love in “A Trip to the Library,” and the sarcastic goodbye to the Budapest shop and its workers by the oily charmer, Stephen Kodaly (Jack Cassidy), “Grand Knowing You.” And even the seemingly ridiculous lyrics of “Where’s My Shoe?” work wonderfully. As the composers Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote of this work: “We’ve never written so tenderly before”—and, I would argue, never again.
     I still recall the day I first heard of the musical, when on the television show To Tell the Truth Peggy Cass mentioned that she had attended it a night earlier, and encouraged everyone to see it. Given its fairly short, 302 performances, obviously not all viewers ran to the Eugene O’Neill Theater, where it was playing—but it made a believer out of me.
      I was utterly transformed by the performance of Barbara Cook, who I had already fallen in love with through her singing in The Music Man and Candide. To hear her sing “No More Candy”—as she attempts to sell the “Ochi Chërnye”-playing music box by pretending it is a container for candy that plays to remind its owners that they have had too much to eat—and her self-doubting paean to love, “Will He Like Me?” are startlingly beautiful Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick songs that can hardly be matched. Indeed She Loves Me, in my estimation, is a far better musical than their other hits, which include Fiddler on the Roof. Daniel Massey’s original renditions of “Tonight at Eight” and “She Loves Me” are splendid ballads of hopeful paradise. And who couldn’t love Nathaniel Frey’s intentionally unintrusive yet loving friend? Of all the delivery boys—in this version called Arpad—Ralph Williams is clearly the most appealing, particularly when he sings “Try Me.”
      Not only does the music and dance lighten up the darker play and film version, but give the work the feel of the merriment of Christmas season with which ends. Georg Nowack (Massey) is far more loveable in the musical than James Stewart is in the movie, and in his visits to the sick Amalia his refusal to tell her that she is his unknown penpal makes far more sense. Even though Ludwig Donath fires Georg, believing he is having an affair with his wife, the musical version tempers the antagonism between them, allowing Donath to bring greater warmth to his role than in the play and movie, by warmly recalling “Days Gone By.”  And the more extended Gypsy café scene, replete with both a romantic and tragic tango, intensifies Amalia’s self-doubt and makes her an even more likable figure than was Margaret Sullivan’s Klara. Cassidy won a Tony Award for his performance.
     

      So too did leading actor Boyd Gaines, playing Georg in the 1994 Roundabout Theater revival, a musical I did see at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York. That production featured Judy Kuhn as Amalia, Sally Mayes as Ilona, Howard McGillin as Kodaly, Lee Wilkof as Ladislav, Brad Kane as Arpad, and Louis Zorich as Maraczek. I loved it, although it would have been impossible to match, to my way of thinking, the original. The revival lasted only a few more performances than the original, 354, but it also won the Drama Desk Award for “Outstanding Revival” and “Outstanding Actor in a Musical” (again the charming Gaines).
       This beloved musical has had a special role, so it seems, in my life, representing one of the most cherished works of my musical theater experiences. I believe I describe somewhere in the My Year volumes that upon my first visit to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus (after a bus ride from Milwaukee in 1966, while I was still a freshman at that University campus) I wandered through the sprawling university grounds far away from the humanities-based edifices to the agricultural part of the school, where I came upon a large tent. Quietly entering it from the back, I quickly perceived it as a rehearsal for a performance of this gem (I later discovered that the agricultural school sent amateur performances of their plays throughout the state), and sat in stillness through it until someone noticed me and asked what I was doing there. “Just watching this wonderful work,” I shot back. I was allowed to stay, and I realized, almost immediately, that I just had to transfer to the Madison campus, which I joyfully did soon after. Did the farmers and small-town audiences who got to see this musical, enjoy it half as much as I? I’d like to think so, perhaps sweeping up some young boy like I had been in Iowa into the magical arms of theater and opera.

Los Angeles, January 16, 2014

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Essential Dichotomies" (on Amiri Baraka's "The Toilet" with a note on the writer)



essential dichotomies
by Douglas Messerli

Amiri Baraka The Toilet, first presented in New York at St. Mark’s Playhouse, on December 16, 1964; reprinted from Douglas Messerli and Mac Wellman, eds., From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995 (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1998)

 On the surface, Amiri Baraka’s short play of 1964, The Toilet, appears to be nothing but a documentation of a bullying incident in a high school, with a majority of Black boys beating a frail white boy, Karolis, who has apparently written a kind of love letter to the head the Black gang, Foots (or Ray). It might be superficially represented as a kind of abbreviated “rumble” scene out of West Side Story.
  
    But the authenticity of Baraka’s language and his briefly catalogued “types” at the beginning of the script, quickly—and the play is performed, surely, at nearly lightning speed—transforms this work into a work which, quite subtly, explores a whole series of dialectical issues: masculinity and its inverse, weakness, power and powerlessness, futility and hope, justice and brutal punishment, leadership and rebellion, and, most importantly, love and hate.
      The play begins, strangely enough, somewhat offstage, as several members of the gang, the “short, ugly, crude, and loud Ora” (a.k.a. Big Shot), the “tall, thin, and somewhat sensitive,” Willie Love, and the “big, husky, somber, and cynical” Perry report to each other that their would-be victim is upstairs hiding in various classrooms as others of their group attempt to seek him out. Like young, angry youths everywhere, these boys not only report the goings on, as they meet in the stinking, high-school boy’s bathroom, but swear at each other, and pretend to battle, all the while showing off their supposed virility and strength through their acts of urination and other uses of their sexual members. The following “attack” on Karolis, accordingly, is not only a response to his homosexual challenge to their leader, Foots, but is to be a kind of proving of the only thing these desperate kids have left, their “manhoods.”
     Through their jests with each other, we quickly learn that several of these young men do not even have parents, others live lives of destitution, and nearly all of them are doomed to failure in their future lives. They describe each other the way the society around them has, with words like “bastid,” “punk,” “muthafucka,” “sonofabitch,” and, yes, “nigger.” These are the lost boys of the street, forced to gather in the institution which they so detest.
      Only Foots (Ray) seems to have any intelligence, as he reports that the authorities, evidently, think highly of him, and hope that we will prevent any attack of another student. Baraka describes him, quite poetically, as “short, intelligent, manic,” a “possessor of a threatened empire.” That empire, of course, is a mean-spirited gang, ready to implode or explode, depending on which series of emotional responses they take. They have already exploded by the time they bring Karolis to their lair, having beaten him so badly that for much of the play he cannot even talk.
      Foots wisely refuses to beat him any further, insisting that to do so would be meaningless, since the white boy is already sprawled out upon the floor. But the others, particularly Ora, are determined to see more blood in revenge for his daring. Another white boy, Donald Farrell (“tall, thin, blonde, awkward, soft”)—who seems tangentially part of the gang, but is not very welcome in its midst—tries to talk them down from doing any further damage, bravely refusing to leave the toilet unless Karolis goes with him. He fails, and is literally physically expelled from their group.
     Foots, accordingly, is in a difficult position. If he does not show enough outrage for Karolis’ challenge, he will be seen as weak, possibly even in cohorts with the boys offer to “blow him.”; yet he rightly sees no pleasure in fighting someone who has already been felled. A lesser playwright may have had this character throw a couple of more sucker-punches and left it at that. But Baraka intensifies the situation by suddenly having Karolis demand a fight with Foots, a fight he knows he cannot win. It may be that the gay boy has even a lower self-esteem than the Blacks in this work; or, at least, in fighting he might have some sort of physical contact with Ray, whom he describes as “beautiful.”
     Foots, now gradually being described by Karolis and the others by his ordinary name, Ray, continues to refuse to fight. But Karolis, quite eloquently (described by the playwright as “Very skinny and not essentially attractive except when he speaks”) continues to challenge his “rival,” bragging that he will “kill him.” Suddenly everything changes, as the gang members, eager to see the fight, move in on the two, egging on the fight Ray is trying to prevent. When the fight does get underway, it is Karolis who gets Ray into a stranglehold, while the gang head is rendered inoperative; his power is suddenly thrown into question, the others, in response, enter into the fray, beating Karolis again into submission, as Ray lays also flattened across the floor.
      Finally getting their revenge, the others move off, as Karolis drags himself into a toilet cubicle to recover. And, here again, Baraka surprises us, as with the last of his stage instructions:

                    After a moment or so karolis moves his hand. Then his head moves
                    and he tries to look up. He draws his legs up under him and pushes
                    his head off the floor. Finally he manages to get to his hands and knees.
                    He crawls over to one of the commodes, pulls himself up, then falls
                    backward awkwardly and heavily. At this point the door is pushed
                    open slightly, then it opens completely and foots comes in. He
                    stares at karolis’ body for a second, looks quickly over his shoulder,
                    then runs and kneels before the body, weeping and cradling the head
                    in his arms.

I don’t know how this scene is represented in the stage production—I’ve never seen the play performed—but the way scene is written seems more appropriate for film than for stage, simply because we are, at first, not told that it is Foots is about to enter the cubicle, the fact of which is kept from us, in the directions, until the very last moment. Similarly, his actions—reminding us of both a kind of crucifixion and pieta, as well as an expression of sorrow and, finally, homosexual love—startlingly reveals that the young “skinny” white boy has won this battle, at least, that the bullied has defeated his tormentors through his unconditional love. What we might have perceived as a set and predetermined series of events is, in fact, flexible. The realities of youth, as we must always admit, are never quite what they seem to be. And with one fell swoop, this gifted playwright dispenses with the very essential dichotomies which he seems to have created. Everything in this play, we suddenly recognize, is not so “black and white” as it originally seems.
      That the angry revolutionary of 1964—by this time Baraka had already traveled to Cuba, arguing that art and politics should be indissolubly linked, the same year as The Toilet writing his screed of white and black hate, Dutchman—is equally surprising—unless you know the Baraka I and others knew—a man who might continually be seen, as The New York Times obituary yesterday reiterated, as a “provocateur”—but as a true “optimist,” even though he admitted his optimism was “one of a very particular sort.”

Los Angeles, January 11, 2014
Reprintted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2014).


Yesterday, December 10, The New York Times announced that my poet friend Amiri Baraka died on Thursday at the age of 79.
      I published Baraka’s play in 1998 in my large, 38-play anthology, with his and his agent’s blessing. I had been in communication with Baraka for several years, he sending me, quite early on in his career, Communist-inspired manifestos—as if somehow I was oblivious of his radical leanings. I had long before been a follower of Baraka’s various contributions as editor and participant in early magazines, including the renowned Yugen (founded with then-wife Hettie Cohen) and, later, the even more important—at least for my own tastes—The Floating Bear (copies of which I discovered in a huge open, canvas bin in the back stacks of The Library of Congress), which published so many of my favorite writers of the period, including John Weiners. Baraka also was a founder of the important literary publishing venture, Totem Press, which published his first collection of poetry, the powerful Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.
       Early on in my own publishing, I was skeptical, I must admit, of poetry that combined, as Baraka increasing did, politics as its subject. It’s not that I particularly disagreed with the political viewpoints Baraka so eloquently expressed, but I felt that poetry and fiction was simply not the best venue for those ideas. Over the years, however, I increasingly begin to perceive how impossible it was to separate one from the other. Although I continued to focus on the aesthetic issues behind the political, Amiri put his political ideas forward, sometimes quite blatantly, in his fiction, poetry, and drama. Despite that perspective, I did include several of his poem in my large poetic anthology, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1999, working his closely on his selection.

The poems of that selection seem to me to indicate his great lyricism, as well as his politically nuanced concerns; here’s one from as late as 1993:

                                               From Alba

                                               I’ve talked (remember
                                              him)
                                                before
                                                of twisting
                                             I’m not sure the twisting
                                             was not the waves upon
                                             the shore
                                                twisting

                                               to be always
                                               to be always
                                               what came after
                                               is there too

                                               So I keep us clear
                                               & with us connected
                                               as our breath
                                               to we
                                                 twisted its
                                               transportation
                                                 twisted

The twisting of this poems reality reminds, in part, of the twisting realities of so many of his poems and plays.
       In the late 1970s I recall listening, quite intently to an interview with him—in Dutch, which strangely, relaying on my Norwegian and German, I quite thoroughly comprehended—with Mac Wellman’s wife, Yolanda, in which Baraka revealed his mixed responses to these issues. For, despite Baraka’s political radicalism and, what I mention above, his intentional role as provocateur, the writer was rather intensely complex, a man who deeply involved with jazz who could create deeply lyrical writing in both poetry and drama.
     As I got to know Baraka better (I never knew his former self, LeRoi Jones), I realized that his outspoken political views were balanced—perhaps inspired—by his natural skepticism, even hostility, of/to any authority—particularly white authority. In a three day celebration of Italian-American poetry, the second of its kind organized by Luigi Ballerini and Paul Vangelisti at the University of California Los Angeles, I got to know Baraka far more personally, growing very fond of him as he, under his breath, brilliantly satirized the many academic statements that always occur at such university-sponsored events. I too have a difficulty with authority, particularly white authority, and we laughed together numerous times, forging a bond between us. Baraka had long-ago, gleefully, positioned himself as the bad boy of the U.S. literary scene, and he delighted always in playing that role—even if, at times, he uttered his positions only under his breath. He was, after all, basically a gentleman.
     After distributing one of his last poetic collections, Funk Lore, published by Littoral Books (the Dennis Phillips, Martha Ronk, and Paul Vangelisti-run press in Los Angeles), he turned over republication rights to my Green Integer Press. Because of financial difficulties, I’ve still not reprinted that important work, which I hope still to reissue in the future.
     At other times, he could not resist playing his role in more absurdly public ways, such as naming a number of his fellow professors at Rutgers as “Klansmen” and “Nazis,” or, even worse, by writing the post 10/11 diatribe “Somebody Blew Up America,” which suggested that Israeli’s were involved in that devastating attack, and had notified Jewish workers beforehand to stay home on that day. I cannot imagine how the Baraka I knew could have scribbled such nonsense; but it was equally stupid, I would argue, for the governor of New Jersey to have chosen such a figure as a “poet laureate,” a ridiculous position for nearly anyone, but a true temptation to misbehave by Baraka. Amiri was never at his best in playing such absurdly “official” roles. If often wrong-headed, the poet was always, at least in his own thinking, honest, a man of conflicting personalities intentionally demonstrating the effects of American culture on anybody who truly cared about serious issues. How could anyone like him—a radicalized Black man, later an outspoken Communist critic of white and Black culture—ever expect universal love in our highly politically divided country? For the right he represented everything they hated; for the left he was often an embarrassment. For the literary community, however, he was a goad, an important challenger of all that stood still for too long and that didn’t embrace the whole of the human race.

Los Angeles, January 11, 2012