Friday, October 15, 2010

John Guare "On Red Eye of Love"

On Red Eye of Love
by John Guare

in the summer of 1958 a young lawyer named Sam Cohn, out in Easthampton for a weekend, went to a road-house on the Montauk Highway, the Summer Five Spot, the honestly named home of the great village jazz joint, The Five Spot. In 1958, Easthampton had not yet become The Hamptons but was still a sleepy Long Island town a hundred miles out of New York City with some big homes by the sea and a lot of small ones where artists found a haven. Jackson Pollock had deified the place by dying there in a car crash a few years before. Willem de Kooning was there. Franz Kline. Larry Rivers lived (and still does) over in Southampton in a house he bought for the enormous sum of $10,000 lent him by the poet James Merrill. Everybody hung out in the Summer Five Spot which featured poetry and jazz. A typical evening would be Mose Allison on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, Larry Rivers, a young painter, on sax. The New York poets Frank O'Hara and Arnold Weinstein would read their work as the jazz played. The night that Sam went, the attraction was Arnold's first play: Red Eye of Love. Sam loved what he saw that night so much he decided to change his life. He would produce the play. But Arnold was not available to work on the play. Arnold was sail­ing off to Italy on a double Fulbright. Two years in Flo­rence. I asked Arnold recently: "To study what?" Arnold: "There are two arts. There's art and then there's great art, the kind of art that makes your hair stand on end. What's the difference? I thought I could find out."

He returned to New York in 1960 with no answers and called Sam and said he was ready. Sam brought Red Eye to a woman he had met named Julia Miles who ran a theater in St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn Heights. They would tryout the play. Julia, who later would be one of the founders of the American Place Theater and now runs the production company, Woman's Project, sent me a copy of the 1961 budget. Scenery: $37.57. Costumes: $31.00. Rental of lights: $36.57. Use of theater: $50.00. Author's royalty: $100. Actors' rehearsal & performance pay: $655.00. Stage Manager: $30.00. Box Office personnel: $5.00. Opening night party: $18.74. Unknown miscella­neous: $10.11. When all the expenses came in they totaled $1207.72. The play had a happy response.

Among the people who came to Brooklyn to see Red Eye was a painter and playwright named John Wulp who wanted to produce it and design it. Wulp had made an avant-garde name for himself by photographing Judith Malina's and Julian Beck's fabled Living Theater pro­ductions such as Jack Gelber's The Connection and Ken­neth Brown's The Brig. Wulp held a day job as an editor at This Week magazine, the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune, in the days when New York had a lot of daily papers. Sam who by now had married Julia took Wulp along as a partner. Arnold had fallen in love with a wonderful actress named Jane Romano who at an early age had understudied Ethel Merman in Gypsy and was clearly lined up for a great future. Jane would play Selma. A young composer named William Bolcom would write his first theater music for the play. Red Eye seemed to be a play that changed people's lives.

Realities set in. The budget for a first class Off-Broad­way production in 1961 skyrocketed the costs from $1200 in Brooklyn to an astronomical $7500. How would they raise the cash? Sam and John each called twenty-five friends, among them, Jerry Lieber (of rock 'n' roll's Lieber and Stoller), the young producer, Hal Prince (Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story) and the producer Roger Stevens (West Side Story), persuading them to in­vest $100. Arnold went to his buddies, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, and Jane Frielicher. They had no cash so each gave Arnold a painting to sell. That con­glomerate produced Arnold's necessary $2,500 share.

In June 1961, the Living Theater, off on a summer tour, leased their premises on the second floor at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue to the Red Eye Company. Wulp who had never directed before decided he would direct it as well as design it. The building inspector for the city came to look at the space. Forget it, the building isn't safe. The producers made the necessary changes to get to the open­ing. Opening night, in June, 1961, just before the performance began, the curtain locked. It had to be forced and then held open during the performance by Sam and John. It was a hot night. Heat is death to comedy. Wulp turned up the air conditioner. The owner of the pet store below ran up in a rage. The overactive air conditioning had sprung a leak, pouring water down on all the animals. "You're drowning my pets!" Wulp spent the rest of the opening night performance bailing water out of the pet shop while the show went on above. Since Arnold had never written a play, he didn't know how to read the reviews. They didn't say Red Eye was the greatest play ever written so that disappointed him. But Sam and John were happy. So what if the Times was so so. Walter Kerr in the Tribune was very good; the New York Post had a headline "Avant-garde with laughs" making Red Eye le­gitimate and bourgeois at the same time. Life magazine did an article on Red Eye: "The woes of Wulp [and Weinstein] produce a wow!"

The show was perceived of as a hit, but did not make money. Was it the hot summer that kept people away? On Mondays, the show's dark night, Sam and John and Arnold showed avant-garde Stan Vanderbeek movies or Charlie Chaplin's silents to make the weekly rent. When the Living Theater wanted to come back home in the fall, Jane Romano in full costume and Sam and Julia and John and Bolcom and the musicians and Arnold formed a parade and led the cast across Greenwich Village to the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street where they set up shop. Yes! the theater where Eugene O'Neill had made his fame as a playwright more than a genera­tion before and where Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett's double bill of The Zoo Story and Krapp's Last Tape had made theater history only the year before. And now here was Red Eye. It was a new generation. The 6os were not yet the 6os, but the 6os had begun.

In the September 1961 issue of Plays and Players, the London theater magazine, Saul Colin wrote that "Red Eye of Love became an immediate success with the crit­ics and the public because and 'becount' of many rea­sons—being original, witty, topical and general, anecdotic and episodic alike, alternately farcical, deeply moving and slapstick, poetical and prosaic. Furthermore, it is extremely healthy in our sick world... this play should be given in London as soon as possible. I just learned that Audrey Wood who is the agent of Tennessee Will­iams has just signed up Arnold Weinstein. Under her able guidance, he should go far for our exquisite plea­sure and for the good of theatre."

Red Eye never reached London.

The producers had one theater party scheduled for November and kept hanging on through the fall to make that date. Red Eye closed in New York in November 1961.

Jane Romano died in 1962.

Arnold wrote a musical in 1962 with the composer Francis Thorne called Fortuna based on a play of the great Italian playwright Eduardo de Fillippo. Sam Cohn and John Wulp produced it. It did not do well. Sam Cohn produced no more but went on to become the artists' rep whose name is now always preceded by the adjective "legendary." Flash forwards: Julia Miles would go on to found the American Place Theater with Wynn Handman and currently, The Woman's Project. Wulp would pro­duce Dracula with designs by Edward Corey, first at his theater on Nantucket and later on Broadway, starring Frank Langella. Today he lives on an island in Maine where he paints.

But go back in time.

In 1964, Arnold wrote an extraordinary opera called Dynamite Tonight with the Red Eye composer William Bolcom. The Actors' Studio production was directed by Paul Sills, Lee Strasberg, Arnold himself and Mike Nichols. Dynamite was the first play Mike Nichols ever directed. It starred the great Barbara Harris and Gene Wilder. It opened and closed not once, but in four sepa­rate incarnations in the next few years.

At the end of the 6os, John Gruen published a book called Close Up in which he interviewed the august likes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, Samuel Beckett and—Arnold Weinstein. Gruen interviewed Arnold on the eve of the opening of the fifth revival of Dynamite Tonight.

In this book of fame, Arnold was present as the world's foremost expert on the art of failure. Among his credits, Arnold was president of ffof, that is, Foul Fumes of Failure, a worldwide subsidiary of itof, the Interna­tional Theater of Failure

Did Arnold have any worries?

"I should miss ffof and itof if the revival proves a hit. Failure fans have a hunger for immortality and they like to rub against other failures because that way they have a little contact against death and are as it were inoculated against it.

"I suppose failure has gone to my head. You see, fail­ure excites me. It gets me hot. I like to roll in it. Tousle its hair. Pinch it out of shape. I like to kick it around the room for laughs. It helps me dress well. It makes me devilishly attractive. And, oh, the reading I get done—a) because I run out of money and b) because I have to teach, prepare and hang around in the company of Ben Jonson and other failures... think of the tedium, predict­ability and impersonality of reviving a success. Life is too short! Great failures never die! They won't even fade away."

The fifth revival did not work.

Except it was great.

I had met Arnold in 1966 at Yale, that annus mirabile when Robert Brustein took over the Yale school of Drama. Brustein brought the likes of Irene Worth, Jonathan Miller, Robert Lowell, AndrĂ© Gregory, Linda Lavin, Ron Leibman, Kenneth Haigh to be in residence. I was a fellow along with Sam Shepard and Kenneth Brown (of the afore-mentioned Living Theater who wrote The Brig) and Barbara Garson who had just writ­ten the scandalous political bombshell MacBird. Arnold taught playwriting. He asked me one night to stop by for a drink at his rooms in one of the colleges. I climbed up the stone steps and opened the door to the smoky room. A remarkable hawk-nosed man stood on his head playing the saxophone. Was that Larry Rivers? A beauti­ful young woman seemed to be in a state of slumber on a pile of pillows. The poet Honor Moore. Someone played drums in the dark part of the room. I was finally here! This was Bohemia! Rent? La Boheme? Eat your heart out.

I remember the dazzlement of sitting in one of Arnold's classes. Robert Lowell's adaptation of Prometheus was about to open. I loved the fact that Arnold had served in the Navy with the rank of Fireman, but I had forgot­ten the fact that Fireman Weinstein received his Harvard degree in the classics. That day at the Yale School of Drama, Arnold had the original Greek text strewn in front of him and Lowell seated beside him. Arnold spot-translated the two texts, comparing the Aeschylus to the Lowell and then having Lowell explain his choices. It was a thrilling lesson in the art of translation and the­ater. I can still see Arnold pounding out the Greek rhythms to Lowell's amazement and delight as they talked about Aeschylus as the original Marxist.

Brustein also revived Dynamite that year in New Ha­ven and I saw it 14 times. Its spirit seemed indestructible as it transferred to New York in its aforementioned fifth incarnation. It wilted in New York. What happened? Its indominatible spirit had vanished. Was the theater that ephemeral that a small masterpiece could not weather a journey from New Haven to New York?

What of Arnold since then? Remember the line in Red Eye: "Have you failed in your several chosen fields?" Hardly. Arnold has had and is having a glorious and typi­cal life in the theater. He did an adaptation of Brecht and Weill's Mahoganny which did not succeed commer­cially. David Merrick optioned a brilliant play of his called The Party which never got produced. Arnold wrote an opera called McTeague with Bolcom, now a composer of international renown, based on the Von Stroheim film Greed that was directed and co-authored by Robert Altman, produced at the Chicago Lyric Opera and has yet to be heard in New York. He and Bolcom have just finished their opera of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge for Chicago Lyric. Arnold also has written a new joyous piece of magic called Shlemiel with traditional klezmer music which is about to have its third incarna­tion at Brustein's American Conservatory Theater at Harvard. When it appeared in 1995 at the Lincoln Cen­ter Theater's Serious Fun Festival, it received a rave in the New York Times and a four-page rave by John Lahr in the New Yorker. So why is Shlemiel still looking for a New York home? It's called life in the theater. You hang in there because it still contains the possibility of the most fun anywhere. And what about Red Eye? In 1996, it was read at Milan's great Piccolo Teatro by members of that august theater, translated into Italian as L'Occio Rosso d'Amore in a benefit to raise money for the rebuilding of the burnt La Fenice opera house in Venice. I asked Arnold, no insult, but why out of all the plays in the world, they picked this play? He said "Obviously some­one in Milan thought it was more famous than it was." La Fenice—Italian for phoenix. Talk about phoenixes.

Red Eye of Love is back finally back in print for which we should be eternally grateful to Sun & Moon Press. Red Eye is no longer lost. The ink is still wet on it. It may not be on stage where it belongs but at least Red Eye is in print where it will bring people together who will fall in love with it all over again for the first time and each other and produce it all over again only this time—this time—everything will have a happy ending.

Red Eye belongs to that timeless place, sometimes called Paris in the 20s or New York in the 50s or London in the 60s, that time and place where everyone is always young, the music is new, careers are being born in road­side bars and an eviction notice only means a parade. Read Red Eye and find its spirit. It'll be the best part of you.

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