Monday, May 24, 2010

Douglas Messerli "The Miracle of Art" (on Tim Crouch's An Oak Tree)

by Douglas Messerli

Tim Crouch An Oak Tree / premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, 2005; the performance I saw was at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Los Angeles, on February 13, 2010

First performed in the Edinburgh Festival in 2005, Tim Crouch's play An Oak Tree, which I saw in February of this year, is ostensibly a work about three individuals trying to come to terms with a great tragedy, in this case the accidental death of a young girl. Crouch, playing a performing hypnotist, has three months earlier hit and killed a twelve-year old pianist, Claire. One day, at a performance of his show—the one we are attending a year later, we are told, in a upstairs pub near Oxford Street—a man, among invisible others from the audience, volunteers to be hypnotized: Andy, the man whose daughter has been killed, is now near madness, with cracked lips, bloodshot eyes, and other evidence of bodily decay. Played by a guest actor who has never before met Crouch and who has not seen or read the play, this new Andy must act out the encounter with Crouch/the hypnotist by following a combination of directions and lines whispered into a headphone, reading sections of script, and following verbal instructions by the author. One scene involves improvisatory movements.

Despite his daughter's death, Andy has continued to believe Claire is alive, inhabiting the very air of his and his wife's home and ultimately being transformed into a giant oak tree. His wife, on the other hand, is inconsolable about her loss, and frightened for her husband's sanity. Both husband and wife have considered suicide. The hypnotist's life, he tells us, has changed radically, and he is performing badly, just acting out his previously scheduled performances before he crashes into despair.

Each has found a way to survive, but Andy's is the most creative, since he has consistently been able to see something where no one else can, is able to create a new reality out of what others see as inanimate things.

Crouch has based the idea of his play on a noted conceptual art work, shown at the Tate Modern museum by Michael Craig-Martin in 1973. In Craig-Martin's work a three-quarter full glass of water sits on a high shelf, beside it a text which begins:

Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?
A. Yes, of course. What I've done is change a glass of water into
a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Q. The accidents?
A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size...
Q. Do you mean the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A. No. It's not a symbol. I've changed the physical substance of the glass
of water into that of an oak tree.
Q. It looks like a glass of water.
A. Of course it does. I didn't change its appearance. But it's not a glass of water, it's an oak tree.
Q. Can you prove what you've claimed to have done?
A. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass
of water and, as you see, I have. However, as one normally looks for
evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.
Q. Haven't you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?
A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its
actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of
water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter
the fact that it is an oak tree.
Q. Isn't this just a case of the emperor's new clothes?
A. No. With the emperor's new clothes people claimed to see something
that wasn't there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.
Q. Was it difficult to effect the change?
A. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.

Obviously, Craig-Martin was demonstrating the transformative ability of art, pointing to our imaginative pact that what appears to be one thing is readily perceived as something else (a few lines on paper become the face of a woman or paint on a canvas is seen as a mountain, a man, a beast).

Similarly, Crouch takes his dramatic situation and in the space between his character's troubled lives and desire for a salvable peace, he demonstrates how theater and art function.
Although the play is new territory for the volunteer-actor, Crouch, in full view of the audience, directs the actor how to perform and provides him or her (the role is performed by a different male of female actor every time) with the dialogue written in the script. The performance, as in all theater, is always different (that is, Crouch argues, why we go to see plays instead of simply reading them), while the words and character's actions stay basically the same—although he admits, "Every time this play is performed it screws up. Moments are lost, lines are stumbled over, rhythms are broken, confusions abound."

Into this contrivance, Crouch has placed these two desperate figures (and some dialogue from Andy's homebound wife) to help us to comprehend the transformative possibilities of art. At times hypnotizing his subject (convincing Andy that he can play the piano and that, later, he stands on the stage stark-naked, defecates before the audience, and accidentally hits an innocent bystander while driving) he temporarily controls his own reality. Andy, meanwhile, has done the same thing by transubstantiating his beloved Claire into a living oak.

By alternating this "dramatic" reality with the everyday talk of actor to actor, speaking as the creator of this play with a neophyte, he further forces the audience to perceive the various levels of theatrical artistry. The writer is playing a actor playing a writer, a young woman (on the occasion I attended the role of Andy was played actress Alex Kingston, and over the years has been played by hundreds of actors including Bob Balaban, Mike Myers, Laurie Anderson, and Frances McDormand) is playing an older despairing man. Despite these purposely alienating, Brechtian contrivances (at one point Crouch even asks his actor: "You didn't think it was too contrived?"), and despite Crouch's inability, in my view, to write to the poetic level he attempts to achieve, the audience was still able to feel for the individuals for whom we had suspended, time and again, our disbeliefs, thus saving the sanity of the characters. At play's end Claire both is not and is still an oak tree. Andy can, after all, play the piano, like his gifted daughter, even if he's never played a note. That is the miracle of art.

Los Angeles, Valentine's Day 2010
(c) copyright 2010 by Douglas Messerli

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Douglas Messerli "The Homecoming Gift" (on Harold Pinter's The Homecoming)


by Douglas Messerli

Harold Pinter The Homecoming, London, Aldwych Theatre / premiere: June 3, 1965. first American production: The Music Box / January 5, 1967

Harold Pinter The Homecoming (New York: Grove Press, 1967)

Harold Pinter The Homecoming, Cort Theatre / 2007 / the production I saw was a matinee of January 20, 2008

While in New York City in January 2008, I attended the revival of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming at the Cort Theatre.

     Although I’d read the play upon its first publication in 1967, I’d never previously seen a production of the play, and I’d forgotten much of its dialogue. The plot is not what this play is about, but I’ll briefly recount it for those readers unfamiliar with Pinter’s great work. Teddy, a professor of philosophy now living with his wife, Ruth (Eve Best in the production I saw) in the US, returns to his North London childhood home in the middle of the night. He suggests they retire to his old room—checking first to be sure it’s still “there” or, at least, empty—but Ruth prefers a short walk, the first sign there may be something amiss between the two, particularly when she promises Teddy, she’ll return. He goes to bed, and as she reenters the house she encounters the first of Teddy’s brothers, Lenny, a small time pimp, who relates several violent stories about his relationship with women before he challenges his sister-in-law by insisting he remove her glass of water. Ruth refuses to give it up, suggesting he take a sip, and even offering for him to sit on her lap before she climbs the stairs to bed.

     Upon discovering the next morning that his son has returned home, Teddy’s father Max (Ian McShane), is outraged at not being told, and when Ruth is presented to him, vociferously insists that she is a tart until they can convince him that they are, indeed, married, blessed with two children. By the second act, Ruth has been introduced to Max’s third son, Joey, an inarticulate young man who desires to become a boxer, and Max’s brother, Sam, who works as a chauffeur. Except for Sam, this “family,” it soon becomes apparent, is more like a jeering and leering cannibal clan than a gathering of a loving father and sons. It also becomes apparent that, although she appears rather refined and well-dressed, Ruth fits quite easily into this brutal situation: she is, as she admits, originally from the neighborhood, and soon after we discover that she was, in fact, a prostitute in her previous life. Before long she is languidly embracing Lenny and sexually fondling Joey on the living room floor. By play’s end she has bedded down with Joey in the upstairs bedroom, and Lenny has offered her a flat where she can ply her trade a few hours every day in order to help pay for her boarding in their house. Sam collapses in a heart attack, revealing that the boy’s mother, Jessie, had sex in his cab with Max’s former friend, MacGregor. The nearly speechless Teddy leaves, to return to his two children, alone.

     This rather bizarre series of events was obviously quite shocking to theater goers in 1965, and many equally bizarre critical theories of the play’s meanings arose, including a suggestion by some critics that Ruth and Teddy were not truly married—an idea that is given no credence by the play itself. In fact the “events” of this play seem, as strange as they are, almost inevitable given the grungy conditions of both house and inhabitants and the obviously stifling life and husband Ruth leaves behind. While Teddy seems oddly unaware of any unusual behavior in his family, and has little to say about anything—he is proud of his “intellectual equilibrium,” his abililty to operate on things, not in things—his family members are absolutely quivering with love, hate, sexuality and violence, which they brilliantly express to one another not only in their actions but through their lively language. Pinter’s play, accordingly, is not truly about what happens, but about how it happens and what is said. At the center of this linguistic battleground is Lenny, brilliantly played by Raúl Esparza. If in last year’s Company he was given little to do as an actor, in this play he is at the center of the verbal fireworks, pushing and probing through language for each character’s weaknesses. While his brother teaches philosophy, but has a focus so narrow that almost any issue is outside his “province,” Lenny is ready to consider the major questions of Western thought such as “a certain logical incoherence in the central affirmations of Christian theism,” and the “business of being and not-being.” 

“…I’ve got a couple of friends of mine, we often sit around the Ritz Bar having a few liqueurs, and they’re always saying things like that, you know, things like: Take a table, take it. All right I say, take it, take a table, but once you’ve taken it, what you going to do with it? Once you’ve got hold of it, where are you going to take it?”

When asked what a table is, Teddy can only respond, “A table.”

     Max may not be brilliant, but he is hilariously clever in his never-ending abuse of those about him. To his brother, Sam, he lectures: 

“Look what I’m lumbered with. One cast-iron bunch of crap after another. One flow of stinking pus after another. Pause. Our father? I remember him. Don’t worry. You kid yourself. He used to come over to me and look down at me. My old man did. He’d bend right over me, then he’d pick me up. I was only that big. Then he’d dandle me. Give me the bottle. Wipe me clean. Give me a smile. Pat me on the bum. Pass me around, pass me from hand to hand. Toss me up in the air. Catch me coming down. I remember my father.”

     Even the near mentally-retarded Joey is a philosopher of sorts; when Lenny discovers that after two hours in bed with Ruth, Joey has not gotten any “gravy,” he calls her a “tease,” to which Joey responds that a man can be “satisfied” without “going any hog,” recognizing the fact that sex is far more than ejaculation.

     In short, these men may be self-destructive criminal-types, Max, a violent braggart whom Pinter hints may even have sexually abused his children in their nightly baths, Lenny, a misogynistic voyeur, and Joey, a brutal oaf, but they nonetheless are stimulatingly alive, and in the end, Ruth inevitably prefers their company to her frigid scholar.

     There is even a suggestion that Teddy has brought Ruth into his home and now her new home as a gift to his family, as a sort of return token of his esteem. His suggestion that she is very popular with the other faculty members hints that Ruth may have been sexually involved with his fellow faculty, endangering Teddy’s position. Certainly that would explain his aloofness throughout much of the play, and his attempt to quickly escape his family’s embrace.

     By play’s end, however, Ruth has found much more than a home, she has rediscovered a career and is in control of this miserable family. As Max screams out for her attention, Joey fondles her knee, and Lenny stands simply watching, we recognize that she will not have too many familiar “duties” when it comes to her new household, that she can easily fulfill their desires for wife, mother, lover without ever having to give much of herself. Like Jessie, Max’s former wife, she will easily be able to have her own way. 

Los Angeles, February 3, 2008

(c) 2008 by Douglas Messerli


Douglas Messerli "The Conflagration" (on Max Frisch's The Arsonists)

By Douglas Messerli

Max Frisch The Arsonists, trans. By Alistair Beaton / The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s KOAN Unit / the production I saw was a matinee on May 16, 2010

More commonly known as Biedermann and the Fire Raisers or, in many American productions, simply as The Firebugs (my own favorite since it seems in keeping with the nature of its two central characters), the Odyssey Ensemble production was newly translated by Alistair Beaton, a version that presumably “demonstrates, once and for all…the universality of this modern seminal play.”

For those theater-goers who did not see one of the numerous American productions of the Frisch masterpiece in the 1960s and 1970s, I’ll recount the simple story. Herr Gottlieb Biedermann (well played by Norbert Weisser), a hardworking Swiss businessman (it’s vaguely suggested that he is a hair-tonic magnate), begins the play by reading the distressing news in the daily paper about another home that has been burned to the ground by arsonists, one of a series of such events of which the chorus-fire brigade bemoans throughout the play. A man is waiting to be permitted to speak to Biedermann, but he tells his maid to send him away, perhaps afraid that the man is one of his employees, Knechtling, a loyal and talented man, whom he has fired that very day. Yet the stranger refuses to budge, and before long stands before Biedermann to explain that all he wants is a little food.

The businessman is clearly ready to send him packing, but, in a hilariously subtle series of maneuvers, Schmitz (John Achorn), the bedraggled interloper, suggests that Biedermann is not like the others who have let him starve and suffer in the rain. Before long, Schmitz has convinced his host to feed him a meal and provide him a room for the night. And by daylight, due to a guilty conscience and an attempt to appease this potential threat, Biedermann gives in to even more ludicrous requests, including a second tenant in the form of Schmitz’s friend Eisenring (Ron Bottitta). By the next evening the two have filled the little attic with drums of petrol, and are apparently hooking up detonators.

By this time Biedermann has no choice but to collaborate, afraid that if he sends them away they will surely burn down his house. Despite his wife’s and servant’s terrified whimpers, he plans a large dinner of cooked goose, hoping to protect his home by establishing himself as their friend.

Gradually as the dinner proceeds, the two make it clearer and clearer that they will burn down the house—and others—that very evening! But even then, Biedermann and his wife Anna cannot truly comprehend their doom. Fire trucks zoom by distracted by other fires the two have set just outside the city, while Schmitt and Eisenring borrow the matches from their host to finish their job.

The fire erupts, setting off nearby gas storage towers, and the city burns. No one can save the community! Evil has won.

Written first as a radio play performed in 1953 and revised as a drama in 1958, Frisch’s well-received play, quite obviously, has long been understood as a statement of the Swiss and general European passivity when faced with the early threats of the Nazis. Frisch’s good, solid folk clearly tricked themselves that one could live a quiet life by ignoring the threats of destruction around them. Through a mix of slapstick and Brechtian statement, Frisch sent his viewer’s home with the recognition that they were all to blame for the existence of the Nazi rise and the ultimate Holocaust.

The Odyssey producers have attempted to extend that simple parable, arguing the Frisch is speaking of not only of the particulars of World War II but any similar threat: “It’s not just about some distant historical folk in the Nazi era. Might we have seen Enron, 9/11, the real estate collapse, the bank failures, environmental tragedies etc. ahead of time, if we’d only looked more carefully?” asks Sossi in the program notes. One local Los Angeles critic, extending Sossi’s comments, even suggests that we might use Frisch’s fears to question the politics of our own time, such as those expressed by members of the Tea Party.

Clearly Frisch’s comic paranoia can be applied to other political specters. But this playwright’s central character does not allow one simply to read him, despite his “everyman” moniker, as every country’s everyman. Even before Biedermann’s collaboration with the fire bugs, Frisch shows him as a detestable human being, as a man with little feeling for his fellow citizens. His firing of Knechtling ends with the employee suffocating in a gas-filled oven, and he and his wife’s refusal even to speak with Knechtling’s widow demonstrates their lack of feeling. Behind his wife’s back, Biedermann is also having an affair with their maid.

Biedermann is a social conservative, but is of specific Swiss and European type, a man, who despite his lack of care for his fellow men, cannot bear having people imagine him as without a conscience. And in that sense he is as bourgeois as any good burgher can be, a man without a heart who would like his fellow men to recognize him as a being of social responsibility, a man of appearances only, with little inner being.

A true American rightist, without this sense of social conscience, might have shot the interlopers before they even got into the house. Certainly he would not have fed and bedded the strangers for the night. The fire raisers of today would have more success with some of the political left than of the right. The humor of The Arsonists relies on that irony, the paradox of standing for one thing and doing another, and it is that very pull in European culture that allowed such a conflagration to occur. Without inner convictions, the Biedermanns of the world could not read the evil in men’s hearts.

The Beaton production cut Frisch’s final scene wherein Biedermann and Anna, awaiting their entrance into Hell, regret their actions and dissect their follies. Accordingly, in this production there is little sense of guilt, one of the major themes in all of Frisch’s work, but simply a sense of warning, like the chorus of firefighters ineffectively repeating throughout, “Watch out!”

Los Angeles, May 18, 2010

(c) 2010 by Douglas Messerli

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Archetypal America" (on Thornton Wilder's Our Town)

by Douglas Messerli

Thornton Wilder Our Town / New premiere February 4, 1938 at Henry Miller's Theatre / the production I saw was at the Barrow Street Theatre, New York, May 10, 2009

Few American plays can lay claim to being almost a dramatic "national anthem" other than Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Susan Bee recently suggested that everyone of a certain age who performed in high school theater was, at one time or another, in Our Town. I performed as a minor character in just such a production.

Over the years, however, it has seemed to me that this archetypal drama without sets or costumes has gotten a little stale. Howard and I attended a production at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. around 1973, when they also performed that work, among others, in the Soviet Union.

I remember that production primarily for the acting by Robert Prosky as the stage manager. Prosky performed it in a manner that was so "folksy," I could hardly bare the sentimentality of the piece. A 2003 television production starring Paul Newman and directed by James Naughton seemed even more lifeless.

I also have the feeling that over the years that in some productions more and more props have crept onto the stage despite Wilder's insistence that the play use only three props at most. But perhaps this is just an illusion brought about by the busy verisimilitude of the productions I've seen.

The 2009 production at the Barrow Street Theater in New York, accordingly, was a welcome change. Directed by David Cromer, this Our Town was a dusted-off rendition, where part of the audience, an important feature of the script, appeared on stage (me among them), several of whom were asked to read the questions in response to the academically inclined lecture of Professor Willard, who describes the geological history of Grovers Corners and surrounding territory.

The stage manager of this version, Cromer himself, lost the New England accent usually lathered on in heavy doses, and spoke in a more appealing everyday quality, sometimes injecting energy through his hurried asides into a work that has a tendency in its slow spin of story-telling to fall into lethargy. With only two tables, and four chairs Cromer created a believable pair of houses in which live the Gibbs and the Webbs, whose children grow up, marry, and die in a few short hours. The abandonment of the New Hampshireisms was a particular advantage, I felt, since the play is so universally "American"—however one defines that—that this work has always seemed to be more at home in the author's home state of Wisconsin. Wherever Grovers Corners is, it exists more in the mind that in reality, and to place it in any particular locale seems to me beside the point.

So casual were the actors, dressed in mostly contemporary clothing, that even the heart-rending wedding scene and the nearly impossible-to-perform cemetery conversation among the dead lost a great deal of its sentimentality.

Interestingly, after paring down the characters lives and actions to almost abstract imitations of life, Cromer pulled out the naturalistic stops, so to speak, for the famous final scene when Emily Webb (Jeniffer Grace in this production) asks to go back "home" for one day in her life. Suddenly a curtain behind the stage was opened to reveal an entire kitchen, with a table set with plates, silverware, napkins, a working water pump and a stove where Emily's mother, costumed in turn-of-the-century dress, fries up bacon and pancakes. The startling comparison of the abstractness of the rest of the production with this highly realist scene brought home, with amazing results, one of Wilder's major themes, that we are too busy living life to really see it. Perhaps only the dead can truly smell the coffee, but on the Mother's Day Sunday I visited this play, the entire audience shared in the experience, as tears fell from nearly everyone's eyes. In a strange way, it was if Wilder had restated, within a narrow realist context, Ionesco's absurdly comic observations about living and death.

Los Angeles, May 29, 2009
(c) 2009 by Douglas Messerli

Douglas Messerli "Burned Up" (on Hedda Gabbler)

by Douglas Messerli

Henrik Ibsen Hedda Gabler, adapted by Christopher Shinn / Roundabout Theatre CompanyAmerican Airlines Theatre / the production I saw was a preview on January 17, 2009
Henrik Ibsen Hedda Gabler, in Ibsen: Four Major Plays, Volume I, translated by Rolf Fjelde (New York: Signet Classic, 1965, 1992)

As New York Times critic Charles Isherwood suggested in his piece (January 18, 2009) on the upcoming production of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, Hedda is an "antiheroine" who inevitably draws actresses to her. She is, to put it mildly, one of the nastiest people of 1890s Norway, and one of the "meanest" (as Isherwood describes her) women in theater history.

To start, she has just married the innocent scholar Jørgen Tesman without any love for the man (she cannot even abide his scholarly interests in domestic crafts of the Middle Ages) but for the reason, as she puts it, "I had danced myself out... My time was up"—in short, within the confining society of the time, as a woman in her late 20s she is in danger of being described as an old maid.

Equally without purpose, she has demanded they move into a large city house, replete with expensive furniture, this despite the fact that George has not yet been offered the teaching position he hopes will help with the expenses. Rather than accommodating George and his beloved aunt, Hedda demeans both by pretending to believe the aunt's new hat—purchased especially to please Hedda—belongs to the servant, who has tossed it upon the chair. The flowers sent to honor her return from her honeymoon are trashed.

Later it becomes clear that Hedda has had close relationships both with George's intellectual foe, the Romantic and dissipated Eilert Løvborg, and with the family's friend, Judge Brack, who has helped attain and fund their new house and belongings.

These relationships, however, are not exactly sexual, for Hedda is what we might describe today as a sexual tease, drawing the men toward her only so that she might have control over them. The minute they cross the line, she pulls out her father's (the General's) pistols and shoots. Indeed Hedda might be said to represent the military way of life. Disinterested in cultural history, she uses the past only as a method of strategy, of determining how to control the men under her "command," demanding of Løvberg, as she hands him one of her pistols, death. When Judge Brack, a far more clever opponent, wily finds a way to put her under his control, she reacts with the only response she knows, committing suicide with the remaining gun.

Hedda is, quite clearly, an intense woman burning up with desire, but so afraid of losing her self- control, so determined to rule each situation, that she must destroy everything around her, including the brilliant manuscript Løvberg has just written and lost on his way home. Like the uncontrollable behavior fuelling her actions, she burns his book in the stove, destroying his metaphorical "child," the only force of life and possibility in the play, and in that act, seals her own doom.

Yet, as Isherwood and others have pointed out, this "queen of mean" must reveal some other qualities just to make her believable. We need to comprehend her beauty, her wit, her positive qualities—whatever they are—just enough to understand why the intelligent Løvberg, the slimy Brack, and the doddering academic husband all find her so necessary in their lives. For, in the end, all she has touched, all she has thought she controlled, turns to naught. Løvberg does, indeed, die, but as the result of an accidental shooting in the groin, not a bullet through the head. Brack has no real need of Hedda; for him she is simply another tool for manipulation. And "poor" Jørgen ends up happily with Mrs. Elvsted, an attractive woman who has just left her husband to help Løvberg with his writing, who now will surely find a soul mate in Tesman. Accordingly, if Hedda is only presented as a mean, hateful being, the play ends in black hole as the energies of the piece (represented by Hedda and Løvberg) collapse, leaving us with only good, empty-headed bourgeois folk. Despite her aberrations, the audience needs to have been in love with Hedda!

Unfortunately, the preview of the production I saw in New York on January 17, 2009, offered no solution to the problem. Although Mary-Louise Parker may have been perfect as a sort of sexual gamin in previous plays such as Reckless, Prelude to a Kiss, and How I Learned to Drive, here she has little sexual warmth, mouthing Hedda's evil wit with a not so subtle wink and nod, slowing down the action so that, by the end of the play we feel superior to all the characters in the work. Her intense queries directed at Mrs. Elvsted, for example, seem more like an interrogation than the somewhat desperate questions of a jealous woman. Similarly, Michael Serveris's Jørgen Tesman is played as such a fool that even if Hedda feels his offer of marriage was her last chance, we, like Løvberg, cannot comprehend her decision. Rather than creating an innocent alternative to Hedda, Ana Reeder's Thea Elvsted seems an even greater simpleton than Jørgen, unable to understand the comic manipulations of Hedda concerning their shared years in school.

Christopher Shinn's adaptation of this play, as far as I could tell upon rereading the Fjelde translation of the play a day later, eliminates any possibility that Hedda may have any good qualities, such as her determination to remain faithful to her husband. Anything that might have softened Hedda, to help us to see her as the great lady we are told she is, seems to have been obliterated. In the end, when Judge Brack reacts to Hedda's suicide, "People don't do such things!" we might almost respond: "But then Hedda isn't really a person, is she?"

Los Angeles, January 24, 2009
(c) 2009 by Douglas Messerli

Monday, May 17, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Confused by Paradise" (on South Pacific)


by Douglas Messerli

Richard Rodgers (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics), Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan (book, based on Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener) South Pacific / New York, Majestic Theatre, August 7, 1949

Richard Rodgers (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics), Paul Osborn (book, based on the musical Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan (book, based on Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener), Joshua Logan (director) South Pacific [film] / 1958

Richard Rodgers (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics), Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan (book, based on Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener) South Pacific / New York, Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont / the performance I attended was on May 9, 2008

Whenever I think of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals other than the early and more energized Oklahoma! (see My Year 2003) I feel slightly claustrophobic, as if their often sugary, sweet songs and sensibilities had stuck to my skin. Certainly I recognize Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I  as great musicals, and I’ve watched the movie versions of these works countless times; but by the time of the megahit The Sound of Music (a musical I endured for several weeks of rehearsal and performances in the role of Max in high school) I could scarcely tolerate their work (I have seen the Julie Andrews movie only twice!); their Chinese-American travesty, Flower Drum Song, seems to me an embarrassment!

How could I resist, however, a revival of South Pacific—50 years after the motion picture and nearly 60 years after its original Broadway production—at Lincoln Center Theatre at Vivien Beaumont Theater, described by The New York Times: “I know we’re not supposed to expect perfection in the imperfect world, but I’m darned if I can find one serious flaw in this production.”? Even at the scalper’s price of $240—twice the listed ticket price—I was willing to put up and shut up, despite the fact that some of my friends, including Charles Bernstein, who reported he shared my reservations about the noted music-writing duo, may have felt I had fallen into some childhood reverie.

From the moment the curtain rises on two beautiful, supposedly Polynesian-French children singing “Dites-Moi,” the audience perceives that they have entered another world, a world—intimated, in this production, by the written passage by original author James Michener upon the scrim—of enormous beauty and utter strangeness, where an old woman, whom we later discover as Bloody Mary, attempts to sell the sailors human heads on an ocean beach that looks out upon a stunningly beautiful volcanic island in the distance. This is, indeed, an enchanted world, but also a world of strangers, a “crowded room”—a theater of war—wherein different cultures encounter one another.

Nellie Forbush is all in a flutter about finding the perfect man (a cultured Western European), and is even able to accept Emile de Becque’s explanation of why he is a “murderer”—after all, he killed a “bully.” Yet, it soon becomes intolerable to her that he has embraced a culture truly foreign to her, along with a Tonkinese wife, with whom he has produced the two beautiful children with which the musical begins!

The whole of American history, I would argue, might be summarized by various issues relating to our ability to assimilate almost any form of violence while being absolutely unable to accept any, but the most conventional, forms of love!

By the second scene, where the all-male chorus, who, unlike the officers, are trapped in sexual isolation (they are not permitted to fraternize with the ensigns and the French planters have placed their daughters on isolated islands) sing their paean to the special and irreplaceable qualities of the opposite sex, I came to recognize that at the heart of this work is not sexual longing—albeit something that is clearly in evidence throughout the musical—as much as the sexual innocence, along with the spiritual and intellectual innocence the Americans represent.

For the Seabees and Sailors, Bloody Mary—an earth-mother perhaps, but a poor imitation of female beauty (whose skin is as tender, we are told, as "DiMaggio's glove)—is their only available associate (“Bloody Mary is the girl I love…, now ain’t that too damn bad!). And when they sing of their sexual longing, the opposite sex is not represented by a full-bodied woman, but through the American slang word, representing a diminished notion of the sex, a “dame” (or, contrarily, if one defines the word as do the British, some one of higher position, and therefore out of their reach).

Nellie, moreover, immediately describes herself as a “hick,” and later reiterates that she is “corny as Kansas in August,” “normal as blueberry pie,” that she is a knucklehead, a “cockeyed optimist”—in short, out of sorts with the world in which she has discovered herself. As if we needed further evidence of separation, actor Kelli O’Hara speaks in a convincing southern twang (the actor was born in the South) which forces us to realize just how out of place she and the Americans are in this tropical paradise, how confused they are in being confined to such a heavenly spot. These Americans, obviously, are the terrifying innocents of Blake and, centuries later, of Graham Greene, a folk who, while pretending to embrace the world, shun everything outside themselves or often destroy or displace what they cannot comprehend—while sanctimoniously boasting of their malady.

Throughout South Pacific, however, we get evidence of cracks in that wall of sexual “normality.” In their isolation, the all-male chorus comes to define the homoerotic nature of much of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, a situation underlined in the Lincoln Center production by Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, wherein several of his male dancers cavort with each other, posing in positions of the opposite sex.

Seabee Luther Billis—who beautifully washes and irons Nellie’s clothes (he’s especially good with the pleats), cleverly weaves native skirts, prefers the all-male boar’s-tooth ceremony to the other sites of Bali Ha’i (even when he does embrace a woman, it is during a religious ceremony), and later performs as Nellie Forbush’s “girlfriend” Honey Bun—is much ridiculed as a representative of a love that not only cannot speak its name, but in the World War II atmosphere of the writing, suffers no language with which one could even ask.

The “saxy lieutenant,” Joe Cable, who Bloody Mary picks out for her beautiful daughter Liat, is also an innocent—so innocent that he cannot even imagine that Mary might have a daughter, as if Liat were of virgin birth—and, enveloped in innocence, is only too ready to copulate with the young girl, who the story hints, is not even of (American) legal age. He is unable to embrace the idea, moreover, that in the morality of Tonkinese culture such an act might be understood as a prelude to marriage! As Bloody Mary describes him, he is indeed a "stingy bastard."

While Nellie tries to convince herself that the irrationality of racism is somehow natural and innate, Joe recognizes it is something learned, a thing “carefully taught,” which he expresses in one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most politically aware songs of their career, which for me washes away some of that sticky residue of their sentimental songs better than Nellie is able to wash her would-be lover “out of her hair.”

For James Michener and, consequently, Hammerstein and Logan, the only solution to such a crisis is to follow Papa Hemmingway’s lead and send the male characters on a hunting expedition, in this case a search for Japanese naval movements in the neighboring islands. Despite their moral outrage against racism, the writers sacrifice Joe Cable—if he survives, he, after all, is now ready to marry Liat—allowing the Frenchman de Becque to return to the wiser Nellie, ready to forgive him his earlier racial “transgression,” and to embrace both his children and life.

For all my seeming sarcasm, however, by musical’s end most of the characters have the potential for change. Despite the violence around them, love has altered their lives, and those who return home will hopefully arrive as figures—like the leading characters of this work—transformed by the culture(s) they have been forced to face, a fact that could not have been made clearer than in the Lincoln Center’s production of the penultimate scene, where the soldiers, gathered in military formation, march off—not to the strains of some patriotic anthem, as one might expect, but to the quietly chanted lyrics of the absurd love-song “Honey Bun”: “A hundred and one pounds of fun, That’s my little Honey Bun. Get a load of Honey Bun tonight.”

New York, May 10, 2008 

  If in my statements above I sound highly critical of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, I should assert that my feelings about their work were not always so ambivalent. As a child I was quite enthusiastic about their early musicals. In 1956, for example, my parents took me, without my six-year-old brother and three-year-old sister, to a drive-in movie showing of Carousel. Despite what I thought—even at nine years of age—was a rather kitsch opening scene—with Billy Bigelow shining up the stars of heaven—I loved the movie, particularly since it presented a tragic viewpoint rather than a primarily comic one. Although I had difficulties imagining how a petty thief who commits suicide had gotten through the pearly gates, I recognized in his early “Soliloquy,” that Billy basically was a loving, well-meaning being who simply wound up in the wrong company. What I didn’t know then was that in the original Molnar play, Liliom—upon which Carousel was based—Billy was condemned to Hell for slapping his daughter, even though, as in the musical version, she claims that the slap felt like a kiss.

Carousel clearly was an important influence on my continued love of American musical theater. So enchanted was I with musicals that the same year, having glimpsed the trailer of The King and I in the Paramount Movie Theater in downtown Cedar Rapids (a building flooded this year by the Cedar River), for years I was convinced that I had seen the whole movie—such was the power of even a few scenes.

Los Angeles, August 4, 2008

(c) 2008 by Douglas Messerli

Douglas Messerli "Cataloging Evil" (on Jens Bjorneboe's plays The Bird Lovers and Semmelweis)

by Douglas Messerli

Jens Bjørneboe The Bird Lovers, translated from the Norwegian by Frederick Wasser (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994)
Jens Bjørneboe Semmelweis, translated from the Norwegian by Joe Martin (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1998)

As I mention in My Year 2007, in the 1990s I published two plays by the noted Norwegian writer Jens Bjørneboe, The Bird Lovers in 1994, and four years later, Semmelweis. Both works are "didactic" in the sense that the writer is determined to convey to his audience large, banner-like themes. In the early 1960s Bjørneboe stayed for a time with the Berliner Ensemble, working through a kind of apprenticeship with many of the major figures of Brechtian theater, and these plays, both of which contain songs that point up dramatic events, show the influences of the German playwright.

Yet as Joe Martin points out in his introduction to Semmelweis, Bjørneboe's theatrical "alienation," similar as his views are to Brecht's, takes his plays in very different directions from the master. Indeed, both of these plays work nicely with Bjørneboe's more complex late trilogy, The History of Bestiality (1966-1973), of which I wrote (through the example of Kruttårnet [Powderhouse]) in my 2007 essay. In these fictions, as well as in the two plays, Bjørneboe is primarily interested in cataloging evil rather than assigning it or even creating solutions which might prevent it.

In The Bird Lovers, a small group of working Italians who served together in the war and were imprisoned by the Germans, gather regularly at a bar to talk and to eat; they are particularly fond of serving up the small game birds in the region. Enter Mrs. Director Stahlmann, a bird lover who is determined to stop the practice of killing birds in the village and, with the support of the National Society for Animal's Rights, plans to bring new tourists to the region by establishing it as a bird sanctuary. The various verbal volleys between the two groups are predictable and mostly comic, with the locals clearly getting the better of the situation.

To this town also comes Huldreich von und zu Greifenklau—a German judge determined to enjoy the local songbirds for their music—and his servile friend, Johannes Schulze, both of who are immediately recognized by the cafe regulars as men who tortured them and killed their friend in prison. Despite the protests of one of the men's wife, the group is bent on kidnapping the two from the local hotel and putting them on trial for murder.

The mock trial reveals the horrible evils of Grifenklau's past, and the group is ready to hang both him and Schulze until the defendant's assigned lawyer, Father Piccolino points out that the evil these men have perpetuated came as much from their superiors. Like the Nazis after World War II, Piccolino argues (despite his belief they are guilty) that they were merely doing their duty. But Piccolino also argues from another point of view, that of the executioners, pointing out to them that if they proceed with the hanging, they too will be guilty, just as Americans who strung Blacks up in trees, as Turks who drove the Armenians into the desert, as the English who shot and hung the Irish, and the French who electrocuted the Algerians. The theme, highly reminiscent of Bjørneboe's listings and descriptions of punishment in Powderhouse, turns the tables, so to speak. Gradually, one by one, the men see the folly of their acts, and "sell out" by accepting the Germans' promises to financially help them when the city becomes a tourist spot.

In short, as translator Frederick Wasser points out, Bjørneboe does not attempt to answer what to do about evil, but merely wants to recognize it in all of us. It is as if Bjørneboe, despite his hatred for all the tortures of individuals by human beings and institutions, does not comprehend a way to end it—accept through comedy and, of course, death. We are a race unforgivably cursed by our past.

So too is the great Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis mocked by all those around him for his theories about handwashing before operations. The doctors and students he calls "murderers" are just that, men who because they refuse to see the truth do not take the proper precautions and kill every year hundreds of their patients—particularly women during childbirh. One of comic frustrations of this drama is the outlandish statements of the scientific belief of the day, that child-bed fever is not contagious but is brought on by the sexual enjoyment of women of the lower class. These and other such notions would be merely comical except for the fact that they cover up any truth, and they use these beliefs, moreover, as tools to ruin Semmelweis.

But as in The Bird Lovers, Bjørneboe's "heroes," Semmelweis and Kolletschka, are also fools. Semmelweis is a kind of mad innocent, a man so devoted to his beliefs that he has no notion of how to properly achieve it or to make any compromise that might cause his theories to be practiced. Despite his seeming purity of purpose, Semmelweis drowns his sorrows in sentimentality, wine, and whores, ultimately dying of a kind of slow suicide. Kolletschka dies, ironically, of the very disease which he once proclaimed was not contagious.

Bjørneboe's play centers less on individuals that on the institutions, the universities, the hospitals and other organizations which, while supposedly searching for truth, fight any possibility of discovering it. The reality of these organizations is that the teachers, students, and doctors were to admit to being wrong, they would be crushed by the very thing they believe they are promoting. Accordingly, truth is the last thing that such institutions can permit. The playwright makes this even more ironic, but encasing his play in a student protest which ends with a male student insisting that such protests have been the "forerunners of fundamental change" while the students within the play are often the most resistant to Semmelweis' dictums.

Once again Bjørneboe makes it clear that evil is so prevalent that everyone can share in its curse. The students of 1968 may have been admirable for their refusal "to allow [themselves] to be used for oppression and genocide," but we know that the students of just a few years later would become the powers behind new atrocities.

Los Angeles, March 27, 2010
(c) 2010 by Douglas Messerli