Thursday, December 16, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Crashing Through the Ceiling of Despair"

by Douglas Messerli

Tony Kushner Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Walter Kerr Theatre,
New York / 1993

Despite all the attendant hoopla and acclaim, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches is truly a great American play. Ranging from the Plague of the Middle Ages through American history (from Ethel Rosenberg and the McCarthy hearings to the Regan days) and into the subconscious of American belief (the play begins with a Rabbi, focuses upon a Mormon couple, and ends with a Catholic angel), the play pushes out beyond the traditional Broadway fare, and explores some rather terrifying aspects of the American psyche.

With comic horror, Ron Leibman portrays Roy Cohn as a mad Faustian force underlying American politics. Power is the only definition of the human species in Cohn’s lonely world at the top; abusing those around him and himself, Cohn denies not only his own sexuality, but sex as anything but another form of power, a sadomasochistic act in which one is either consumer or consumed. But Cohn’s world is a deflationary one; dying of AIDS he refuses to face the implications that he has become one of the consumed, eaten up by his equally predatory cronies and closet homosexuality.

Despite Cohn’s own definition of centrality, Kushner places Cohn at the edge of his play, balanced by a Mormon couple desperate to live out their religious convictions. Harper Pitt, as deluded as Cohn, lives in a pill-popping reality of hallucinatory eco-systems, fortunetelling drag-queens, and Eskimo lovers. Her lawyer husband Joe has attempted to scrub his existence clean of all usual feelings to deny his latent homosexuality; but as Cohn attempts to manipulate him into a father-son-holy savior relationship, Joe’s sexuality becomes apparent, creating a barrier around him and everything he supposedly respects and admires. Trapped on the outside of his own life, Joe rushes into the arms of Louis Ironson, a man who has also been unable to live according to his convictions.

Louis and his dying lover Prior are at dead-center of Kushner’s gay anatomy. In one of the very first scenes of this 3 1/2 hour play, Prior announces to Louis that he has AIDS, and for a while it appears that Louis, a true American idealist, will succor him and help him to face his death. But Louis, like most idealists, is more in love with language than the pain and sour smells of the human body from which it emanates. He bolts, taking with him, so it would seem, all hope of salvation. We are left at the end of act two with three versions of hell.

But Kushner refuses to allow us the sentimentality of failure; and despite occasional lapses into Boys in the Band-like dialogue and Neil Simon situations, the author undercuts any simple condemnations. No, there is something better than the condition of these poor humans; there is the vision of a Christ, so Kushner seems to argue; there is forgiveness. There is always that angel about to crash through the ceiling of one’s despair.

Religion, forgiveness, angels in a world of corrupt politics and AIDS: these are rare concepts in our either bigoted or correct-thinking dichotomies of today. It is a bold act to write such a play, and even bolder to threaten “peace” (Perestroika) as a conclusion to this panoramic examination of the heart.

Los Angeles, 1993
Copyright (c) 1993 by Douglas Messerli

Douglas Messerli "Unburying the Dead"

A scene from the 2006 New York revival
Unburying the Dead
Douglas Messerli

Sam Shepard Buried Child, Magic Theatre, San Francisco, 1978

In Rome I read Sam Shepard’s Buried Child for the first time, surprised by how similar it was to my own play The Confirmation. In both plays the action centers on a dysfunctional family to which the return of a family member accompanied by an outsider results in the revelation of a terrible family secret that may or may not be true. In both plays the vernacular of American everyday phrases and clichés combines with the bizarre behavior of family members to create a highly comical tone. I love the comic scenes of Shepard’s play, the absurd upstairs/downstairs conversation between husband and wife, Dodge and Halie; the hilarious gardening of Tilden, who discovers whole armfuls of corn and carrots in a backyard without a garden; and the mad family interchange between Dodge, Tilden, Vince and Shelley, in which grandfather and son seem unable to recognize or even recall the existence of Vince, who Halie later describes as having been “the sweetest little boy.” But then, this family hardly recognizes family members with whom they live, each describing one another as utter failures, and yet each nearly unable to care for himself.

The play is flawed, however, by the heavy metaphor (and possible reality of) the “buried child,” purportedly a child that came late in Halie’s life and was killed by her husband because it was the offspring of another man. Were Shepard simply to use this as metaphor, allowing the audience to heavily doubt Dodge’s admission—as they learn to doubt all of his other statements—it would still float heavily upon the play, but it might remain aloft. For, quite obviously, all Dodge’s and Halie’s children are “buried,” remnants of the couple’s desperate embracement of the American Dream. Tilden, the eldest, has a criminal record and, having lost his freedom, has also lost much of his mind. Bradley is half a man, an amputee and, in the manner of a Beckett character, is unable to even move throughout much of the play; Ansel—the basketball and soldier hero—is, in fact, dead, another buried child for whom Halie seeks a memorial statue, basketball in one hand, rifle in the other. This family’s refusal to recognize Tilden’s son, Vince, renders him, like the others, incapable of action, independence, escape. He may have come home to re-experience—as Shelley sees it—a Norman Rockwell vision of home life, but has found instead a household right out of The Addams Family. As a man of inaction, Vince is the rightful inheritor of the estate, and when Shelley’s departs, he is doomed to a life, like all the others, without vitality and love.

Shepard, however, cannot leave his metaphor alone, forcing Tilden to dig up the symbol and, in mud-covered clothes, visually “serve it up,” so to speak, to the audience. Like Jonathan Barofsky’s Hammering Man, Shepard drives his message home, deadening any true wonderment that previously existed in the work.

Café Mancini, Rome, October 15, 2003
Copyright (c) 2003 by Douglas Messerli

Claudio Magris TO HAVE BEEN

by Claudio Magris
trans. from the Italian by Paul Vangelisti

And so Jerry is dead, never mind, that isn't the problem, neither for him nor anyone else, not even for me who loved him and still love him, because love doesn't conjugate—my God, in that sense, of course, what's next, though love has its grammar and doesn't know tenses only verbal moods, in fact, just one, the present infinitive, when you love it's forever and the rest doesn't matter. Any love, any kind of love. It's not true that you get over it, nothing goes away, and this is often the particular rub, but you carry it along with you, like life, and even that is not really such great luck, except that you get over love even less than life. It's there, like starlight, who gives a damn if they are alive or dead, they shine and that's that, and though in the daytime you can't see them but you know they are there.

So we won't hear that guitar anymore, and that's fine too, you can learn to get along without anything. God, how he could play. And when his hand didn't work anymore, he pulled down the blinds and kissed it all goodbye. To that, I've no objection. Sooner or later it happens, and it doesn't matter much how, anyway it has to happen, and who knows how many of us here this evening, ladies and gentlemen, will be alive in a month's time, certainly not everybody, it's statistically impossible. Someone who is pushing his neighbor or complaining because the person in front of him is blocking his view of the stage has already gone to the barber for the last time, but never mind, a year more or less doesn't make much difference, I don't feel bad for those who kick the bucket and I don't envy those who keep on going, nor do I care much to know what group I fall into.

Amen for Jerry, and for everybody and everything. As I said, I can't find fault with his decision, when someone wants to get off the bus, it's right to get off, and if he prefers to jump off while it's still moving, before the stop, that's his business. Someone can be fed up, tired, unable to take it anymore, what do I know. When seeing him down like that because he couldn't play as before, to cheer him up I told him that he had been one of the greats of the guitar, and he said that for him it wasn't enough to have been. He wanted to be—it didn't matter what, a musician, a lover, anything, but to be.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, in that moment I understood what great luck it is to be born like me, or to have an uncle or grandfather or whomever, born in Bratislava or Lwòw or Kaloea or in any other dump in this shabby Central Europe, which is a hell, a real cesspool. It's enough to smell that musty odor, that stink which is the same from Vienna to Czernowitz, but at least it doesn't force you to be, on the contrary. Yes, if Jerry had understood, when his hand didn't work anymore, his great luck in having been, the freedom, the vacation, the great privilege of not having to be anymore, of not having to play anymore, his free pass from the barracks of life!

But maybe he couldn't, since he wasn't born or raised in that stagnant Pannonian air, thick as a blanket, in that smoke-filled tavern where you eat badly and drink even worse, but are happy to be there when it's raining outside and the wind is howling—and outside, in life, it's always raining and the wind cuts through you. Yes, any grocer in Nitra or Varazdin could teach all of Fifth Avenue—except for those maybe who come from Nitra or Varazdin or some other place in those parts—the happiness of having been.

Oh, the modesty, the lightness of having been, that uncertain and accommodating space where everything is as light as a feather, against the presumption, the weight, the squalor, the freight of being! Please, I'm not talking about any kind of past and even less about nostalgia, which is stupid and hurtful, as the world itself says, nostalgia, the pain of returning. The past is horrific, we are barbaric and evil, but our grandparents and great-grandparents were even fiercer savages. I certainly wouldn't want to be, to live in their time. No, I'm saying that I would want to have always already been, exempt from the military service of existing. A slight disability is sometimes a way out, protecting you from the obligation of joining in and losing your skin.

Being hurts, it doesn't let up. Do this, do that, work, struggle, win, fall in love, be happy, you must be happy, living is this duty to be happy, if you're not how shameful. So, you do all you can to obey, to be as good and clever and happy as you ought, but how can you, things just fall on top of you, love smacks you on the head like a chunk of masonry off a roof, a wicked punch or worse. You walk hugging the walls to avoid those crazy cars, but the walls are crumbling, sharp rock and glass slicing your skin and making you bleed, you are in bed with someone and for an instant you understand what real life could and should be and it is an unbearable pang—picking your clothes off the floor, getting dressed, getting out and away. Luckily there's a bar nearby, how good a coffee or a beer tastes.

Yes, drinking a beer, for instance, is a way of having been. You're there, sitting down, you look at the foam evaporating, a little bubble every second, a heartbeat, one beat less, rest and the promise of rest for your tired heart; everything is behind you. I remember that my grandmother, when we went to visit her in Szabadka, would cover the sharp corners of the furniture with cloths and put away the iron table, so that we children wouldn't get hurt when we ran into something racing around the house, and she would even cover the electric plugs. To have been is this, living in this space where there are no sharp corners; you don't scrape your knee, you can't turn on the lamp that hurts your eyes, all is quiet, time out, no ambush.

So, ladies and gentlemen, this is the heritage that Central Europe has left us. A safe-deposit box, empty but with a lock on it to keep out bank robbers who might want to put who knows what inside it. Empty, nothing that grabs your heart and bites into your soul, life is there, already been, secure, safe from any accident, an out-of-circulation bank note for a hundred old crowns that you hang on the wall, under glass, with no fear of inflation. Even in a novel, the best part, at least for the writer, is the epilogue. Everything has already happened, been written, worked out; the characters live happily ever after or are dead, it's all the same, in any case nothing more can happen. The writer holds the epilogue in his hands, rereads it, maybe he changes a comma, but he runs no risk.

Every epilogue is happy, because it's an epilogue. You go out on the balcony, a breeze comes through the geraniums and the violets of thought, a drop of rain slides down your face; if it rains harder you like to listen to the drumming of the fat drops on the awning. When it stops you go take a little stroll, you exchange a few words with the neighbor you meet on the stairs; neither for him nor you does it matter what s said, it s just a pleasure to hesitate there a moment and from the window on the landing you can see way down there in the distance a strip of sea that the sun, now out from behind the clouds, lights up like a knife blade. Next week we're going to Florence, your neighbor says. O yes, its nice, I've been there. And in this way you save yourself the fuss of traveling, the lines, the heat, the crowds, looking for a restaurant. A stroll in the evening air fresh with rain, then back home. You must not wear yourself out, otherwise you'll get too excited and sleep won't come. Insomnia, ladies and gentlemen, believe me, is a terrible thing. It crushes you, suffocates you, follows at your heels, chases you, poisons you—yes, insomnia is the supreme form of being—insomnia, that's why you have to sleep, sleeping is the only antechamber of the true having already been, but meanwhile it's already something, a sigh of relief...

Copyright ©1988 by Claudio Magris. English language translation ©2007 by Paul Vangelisti. Reprinted from Claudo Magris, Voices: Three Plays (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2007). Reprinted by permission

Born in Trieste in 1939, Claudio Magris is a major Italian scholar, translator, and writer. His first book, Il mito absurgico nella letteratura austriaca maderna of 1963, focused on the Habsburg myth of Austrian literature, reintroducing many works of Central European culture to Italy. His journalist writings have been collected in Dietro le parole (Behind Words) and Itaca e oltre (Ithaca and Beyond). His first novel, Inferences on a Sabre was published in 1984. A second book, Danubio (Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea) was published in 1986. Microcosmi appeared in 1998.

Magris's plays Stadelmann (1988) and Le Voci (1999), along with the monologue printed above, established him also as a significant Italian playwright. They are collected in Voices by Green Integer.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Douglas Messerli "On the Side of the Angels"

Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Jerome Robbins

Tom Bosley and cast in Fiorello!, cover of Life

Barbara Cook in She Loves Me

by Douglas Messerli

The news of the death, on November 3rd, of Broadway composer Jerry Bock loosened within me on a series of memories relating to his numerous compositions. Combined with the death, on October 24th of Joseph Stein, writer of the book of one of Bock's greatest hits, Fiddler on the Roof, and the death of actor Tom Bosley, the lead in Bock's early musical Fiorello!, a few days earlier on October 19th, it seems almost as if an entire gathering of Broadway greats connected with Bock and his still-living lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, has been swept away.

Jerrold Bock was born in 1928 in New Haven, Connecticut, but was raised in Flushing. What I didn't know was that Bock attended what might have been my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin; he was already a noted piano player and beginning to compose. During the 1940s and early 1950s Bock worked on Sid Ceasar's and Imogene Coca's television shows, leaving for Broadway in 1955 to write for the revue Catch a Star. The following year, Bock again worked with Lawrence Holofcener, along with Joseph Stein, on the musical, Mr. Wonderful, starring Sammy Davis, Jr. It ran for 383 performances.

In 1958, Bock again worked with Stein, along with a new lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, on The Body Beautiful about a would-be fighter from Dartmouth. The musical lasted only 60 performances, but was musically strong enough that it attracted the attention of veteran director and scriptwriter George Abbott and producer Hal Prince, who chose the Bock and Harnick team to compose their 1959 production on the life of New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Fiorello!, which went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical and a Pulitzer Prize. Starring Tom Bosley as La Guardia, it ran on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre and, later, The Broadway Theatre, for 759 performances.

Fiorello was one of the earliest original cast recordings that I purchased at a time when my house still hand no record player. When my parents broke down and purchased a stereo, I listened to it time and again, until I had nearly memorized the music and lyrics. I recently heard it again, and am still humming "On the Side of the Angels," "The Name's La Guardia," and the hilarious "Little Tin Box."

"Standing firm, side by side, on the side of the angels"—at least of the "producing" kind—the team of Bock and Harnick went on the next year to write, again with Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, a musical on the 1890s red-light district of Manhattan, Tenderloin. Although this work lasted only 216 performances, it received good reviews and several of its cast members were nominated for awards. One of the show's songs, "Artificial Flowers," sung by Bobby Darin, became a popular hit.

In 1963 the two wrote an acclaimed marionette show, The Man in the Moon and still found time to compose one of their most beloved musicals, She Loves Me. Based on the film, The Shop Around the Corner and Hungarian Miklos Laszlo's play Parfumerie before that, the Bock and Harnick version featured such Broadway greats as Daniel Massey, Barbara Baxley, Jack Cassidy, Ludwig Donath, and the incomparable Barbara Cook, as a stunningly beautiful Amalia Balash.

I first heard of the musical's existence from Peggy Cass on the television show To Tell the Truth, when she begged people to attend the musical which she had seen the night before the broadcast. It is so wonderful, so magical, she suggested, that everyone should come and help it to survive.

Alas, the show lasted only 302 performances. But for me, it has lasted an entire lifetime. In 1963 I ran out immediately to buy the original cast recording, and sat for hours listening to its elegant songs. It seemed—and seems still today—unlike any other musical. It has no particularly hummable songs or any number that might stand apart from the whole—except perhaps for the purposely sentimental "Days Gone By." But then one loses the irony of that piece outside of the production. The major songs of the musical, "Tonight at Eight," "Will He Like Me?" "Vanilla Ice Cream," and "She Loves Me," are all about love in some respects, but are filled with the terror of the future, a fear of remaining unloved, and a simple nervousness that things might not go "right," none of them, except the last, really standing alone as a love song. And that title song is sung by the hero to himself, based on a realization that the love is a secret from the lover herself. Cook sings "Will He Like Me?" with such a lush trepidation that the work absolutely radiates, as does her "Vanilla Ice Cream," whose major lyrics consist of a statement of wonderment: "He brought me vanilla ice cream." Another Cook song consists primarily of the question "Where's my shoe?" Yet every song seems nearly perfect, and I listen to them often.

This musical has appeared again and again in my life at important times. As I roamed the University of Wisconsin campus in 1966, a trip that determined I would transfer from Milwaukee to Madison, I wandered far beyond the English Building, then at the top of Bascomb Hill, down to the agriculture school and other far-flung areas. I was struck with the vastness of the campus. But I was also intrigued by what looked like a large tent sitting at the top of a hill upon which, apparently, a series of bleachers had been constructed. Sneaking in through a back tent flap, I saw far below me a stage on which the actors were rehearsing, to my surprise, She Loves Me. Apparently this production was preparing, after a couple performances on campus, to travel to outlying communities throughout the state, visiting the university's agricultural constituents, serving as a kind of cultural outreach. I sat for several hours without discovery, enjoying the live performance alone.

Later in 1978, Howard and I caught the PBS production of the musical on television, and for a while we owned a tape of that performance, which mysteriously disappeared a few years later. I also happened to be in New York during the 1993 Roundabout revival at The Brooks Atkinson Theatre, and quickly purchased a ticket to the show. That version, staring the engaging Boyd Gaines and Diane Fratantoni ran for 354 performances. I have to admit that I loved it so much that tears remained in my eyes for most of the evening.

Only a year after this memorable work, Bock and Harnick again struck gold with their famed Fiddler on the Roof, a musical I saw upon returning from a year in Norway in a traveling production in Chicago and, later, in other cities, including, I believe, Madison.

Fiddler was, quite obviously, their greatest "hit," even if it is not my personal favorite. With Zero Mostel at the helm, Bock and Harnick's Russian hamlet of Anatevka was depicted with larger than life types. And here the team did write several songs that would become popular outside the musical setting, including "Sunrise, Sunset," "If I Were a Rich Man," and "Far From the Home I Love." One of the biggest musical hits on Broadway, it ran 3,242 performances before closing, and his been revived several times, most notably in 2004, when it ran for 781 performances.

The remainder of the Bock and Harnick musicals, the delightful The Apple Tree, The Rothchilds, and their contributions of Never Too Late, Baker Street, and The Madwoman of Central Park could not, in my estimation, match their earlier works. The Rothchilds had a long-running production of 505 performances, but I do not feel it comes close to Fiorello!, She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof in its musical energy. But who's complaining? Jerry Bock is clearly one of the great American musical composers, and the theater will be less exciting without him--as well as writer Joseph Stein, and actor Tom Bosley. In their deaths we have lost much of our courage as well as part of our hearts.

Los Angeles, December 15, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by Douglas Messerli

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Douglas Messerli "This Is It"

by Douglas Messerli

Kenny Ortega (director), with performer Michael Jackson This Is It / 2009

Joey Arias (performer), Basil Twist (director) Arias with a Twist / Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) at The Walt Disney Concert Hall, November 21, 2009

Despite the obvious outcries by viewers and critics that This Is It does not portray a performance (indeed there is no audience other than the stage workers, waiting dancers, and others involved in the show) and that it is not even a film (having been intended as a personal documentation of the rehearsals) I found the work to be extremely watchable, if only because its focus, Michael Jackson is, metaphorically speaking, so "blurred out" that he creates an even greater mystery about him than the cause of his recent death.

A boy (even at the age 50), yes, a sensational dancer (indeed, but not, necessarily, here: although many of moves are quick and lithe, the overall choreography, particularly in the robot army number, is based more on fascistic-like marches rather than the smooth glide across space we usually associate with Jackson), a singer (true, but although we get various passages from his catalogue of "greats," for the most part the performer is not singing to his full capacity in an attempt to "save his voice"; at one point when he does begun to belt out a song, he interrupts, "Don't make me sing full out.")

When he does speak, it is, for the most part, psychobabble about his caring for the earth (the worst number in the film is the unbearable "Earth Song"), a hand-joining pep talk with his talented dancers, musicians, and staff, and quiet mumblings when something goes amiss. The most insightful moments are when Jackson speaks of his art, of the necessity of waiting between beats, stepping at the right moment into the spotlight, pausing in a musical phrase, getting the precise beat of a song. If nothing else, it is clear that Jackson is a consummate showman. Yet we get little insight into the man, and only glimpses of what the final performance might have looked like. Certainly it would have been somewhat spectacular, but clearly, also, it might have revealed that the aging Michael was no longer at his top, and the directions in which his art was apparently taking him were distances from the Astaire-like perfections of "Thriller" or his famed "moon walk."

I know I will be heckled, perhaps even hated, by all those who love the "King of Pop," but I feel that Jackson's music was never his great contribution. Most of his best known songs are repetitive ditties gaffed up by inward gulps of breath and sigh. He was a great dancer, a performer who knew up until the last day of his life how to move his thin body to convey a deeply asexual sexuality that made him into something for everybody to love. But This Is It, I am afraid, is not what it/he is or was. If anything, the documentary further mystifies us in our search to find out who this "man in the mirror" was. Here he remains only a shadow of a shadow, and one wonders "Does he have any reality away from his audience?" One comes to see him, ultimately, as one of the most lonely beings in the universe, like a frightened child, demanding doctors be there every night to put him asleep. Was he afraid of death or afraid of life?

A few days after seeing This Is It, I attended a performance of the drag queen Joey Arias directed by Basil Twist. Like Jackson, Arias is an excellent performer, but here it is the voice that dominates, not the feet. Indeed for his great dance finale, Twist provides him with dozens of dancing legs and scene right out of Busby Berkeley, yet those high kicking gams are puppets, not Arias' own slim limbs.

While Jackson worked big, on a gargantuan scale, Arias does more with small, working with the stunning sets and costumes of Twist, Thierry Manfred Mugler, and Chris March.

Without any apparent logic, Arias begins his vocal narrative as a captive in a alien space ship, attentively watched over by alien men, until, evidently thrust out of this spatial Eden she falls through space into a kind of campy corduroy-covered jungle, an earthly Eden with a large python slithering through its confines.

Evidently Arias is thrown out of that heaven as well, ending up, inevitably, in Hell, sexually entrapped by Satan's slaves and soon after wrapped in the arms of a giant squid.
Appearing like a slightly pouting, perhaps betrayed dominatrix with a long pony tail, Arias sings out in raspy voice through an equally hair-extended mic in a manner that is often more interpretive than Madonna or even Bette Middler, beginning with Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and moving quickly into Lennon and McCartney's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Her moving version of Eric Carmen's "All By Myself" and the Billie Holliday-like rendition of "You Changed" is vocally more powerful than anything Michael Jackson might have spit out.

Suddenly it's time for her to get herself down to The Great White Way, but her talent is so enormous that when she arrives in Manhattan she is the size of King Kong, swallowing up male passengers on trains and in taxis as she moves through New York's neighborhoods, ending up in a scene right out of a motion picture musical.

Like Jackson's missing person, Arias' twisted being—that is, his persona—is just that, a figure of true talent, funny and entertaining enough for anyone to enjoy, but also a kind of monster who can never quite fit into everyday life.

Needless to say both audiences for This Is It and Arias with a Twist applauded with complete abandon.

Los Angeles, November 22, 2009
Copyright (c) 2009 by Douglas Messerli

Friday, December 10, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Bow Down and Be Dim"

by Douglas Messerli

Tennessee Williams Vieux Carré, conceived and performed by The Wooster Group / the performance I saw was on Sunday, December 5, 2010 at Redcat (The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in The Walt Disney Concert Hall Complex, Los Angeles

Although Tennessee Williams began writing his play Vieux Carré in 1938, the play did appear on Broadway until 1977, and then lasted only 5 performances. New York Times critic Clive Barnes summarized: " It is a play of blatant melodrama and crepuscular atmosphere," but admitted that that might be said of any Williams play. "You leave the theater with the impression of having been told a secret," he concluded.

The Wooster Group's recontructed performance of this unknown work leaves one, strangely enough, with the same feeling, that Williams is revealing something here that no matter how you reimagine its structure remains potent. If his autobiographically-tinted The Glass Menagerie only hints at personal realities, the next step of his life—Williams emergence into the dark world of New Orleans' French Quarter—is revealed with an almost horrific honesty that can only make one, at times, want to look away.

If "Rise and Shine" was the daily aspiration in that earlier play (at least for Amanda Wingfield), The Writer of Vieux Carré seems to live a life in the shadow of his mother's proclamation, in a world ruled by a declaration to "Bow Dow and Be Dim." From the beginning of the play, all the characters, except The Writer (Ari Fliakos) have learned how to crawl. The metal-like cages of the Wooster production which signify the rooms of Mrs. Wire's (Kate Valk) boarding house for the destitute are strewn with clothing and personal belongings as if the inhabitants spent most of their lives on the floor or in bed. In fact, they do precisely that.

Mrs. Wire has recently taken to sleeping in the hall in order to keep a better eye on her immoral and deceitful tenants, shouting out for the occasional help of the mad travesty of a nurse, "Nursie" (Kanez Schaal), who seems simultaneously permanently servile and yet about to revolt. The Writer's next door neighbor, the artist Nightingale (the excellent Scott Shepherd), goes about, in this version, with a large rubber dildo sprouting through the zipper of his pants. This gay Priapus is forever on the make, and knows just how to relieve the sufferings of the lonely new boy just landed in this dump. Yet, of all the characters, the consumptive artist is the most loving and caring, at times almost replacing the resilient southern mother The Writer has left. Certainly, like Amanda Wingfield, he has the most comic lines.

In what I now perceive as a brilliant directorial decision, Elizabeth LeCompte cast two of the characters as their polar opposites. Kate Valk, the dreadful Mrs. Wire, also plays another of The Writer's acquaintances in this zoo of lost lives, Jane Sparks, a seemingly normal young woman who has somehow lost her way, becoming trapped in a life given over to sex. The object of her desire is a seedy hick who works at the local strip bar, Tye McCool (also Scott Shepherd), who is anything but "cool," but like Nightingale goes about with a hard-on most of time and sees himself as a kind of heterosexual Priapus who won't "let a fag blow him for less than a $100." Both Nightingale and The Writer desire him, despite their recognition that he is a burned-out heroin addict. In the lonely world in which they exist, nearly anyone will do in a pinch.

Although both Nightingale and McCool are sexually consumed, however, neither can be said to be, like the Roman God they bow to, generative. And their lovemaking ends, generally, in disgust.

Indeed it is a disgusting world in which they live. McCool excuses his most recent heroin episode on his knowledge that his boss has turned his dogs upon the bar's "Champagne girl," the lead stripper, when she threatened to leave him. The dogs literally "ate" her, he reports—reminding us somewhat of the dreadful fate of Sebastian Venerable in Suddenly Last Summer. Indeed all of the figures of this play are, in one way or another, being eaten up, consumed. Jane, it turns out, has a serious blood disease and will soon die. By play's end Nightingale is so sick, symbolized the loss of his erect penis, that he is taken away to a public institution to die. McCool, we recognize, is so caught up in a world of crime and drugs that it can't be long before that he too "will go to Spain," as the underworld figures describe their colleague's sudden disappearance.

Beginning his tenure as a true innocent, The Writer has quickly gotten involved with Mrs. Wire's attempts to open a restaurant in her room, and is forced to testify that she is innocent (even though he has seen her do it) in trying to burn the photographer living below her with hot water. After an operation for a cataract of the eye, he can, symbolically speaking, no longer see the truth. By the second act of this work The Writer has become one with the destroyed beings who surround him, attempting to attack the drunek McCool and raping Nightingale.

For a few moments it seems like The Writer may escape this nightmarish society, as he meets a young man, Sky, who, about to head West for a new life, asks him to join in the voyage. But we soon discover that it is impossible. Just as Nightingale and McCool have been steoroetyped by their erect members, so is The Writer tied to his headphones, keyboard, and video screen as he attempts to tell his story as quickly as it is being told to him, or, as he tells the story to its characters as quickly as they might enact it. There is little difference; either way, we see that he is clearly frozen in space; Sky does not show up to save him from himself. At play's end, The Writer is strangely at peace with the silence surrounding the disappearance of the others with whom he has shared his life or created.

In short, The Writer, it appears, is now as corrupt and uncaring as the people he met when he first arrived in Vieux Carré, and in the process has been swept up into the evil world of his own imagination. Certainly the man we see now welcoming the quietude is the polar opposite of the boy at the beginning of the play crying out of loneliness in his room.

Los Angeles, December 10, 2010

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Douglas Messerli "My Broadway Hit"

Edward G. Marshall and Jerome Lawrence at
Barnes & Noble the day after my celebration for Jerry
Photograph (c)2010 by Douglas Messerli

Angela Lansbury in Dear World

My Broadway Hit
by Douglas Messerli

In 1969 I bought a ticket to a preview performance of the Broadway musical Dear World. This musical, based on Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, was written by the Broadway veteran libretto and playwrighting-team Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. The music was by Jerry Herman, and, like Mame, Herman’s musical based on their Auntie Mame, starred Angela Lansbury; the supporting cast included Jane Connell and Milo O’Shea. Despite my empty bank account (indeed I had no bank account in New York), I had saved up just enough to purchase this ticket, and I was excited about the prospect of seeing what promised to be another Broadway hit!

As I left the lobby of the Mark Hellinger Theatre and walked a half block to Broadway I reached into my pocket to examine my newly acquired treasure. But the pocket was empty. I tried another, felt in my back pocket, jammed my hands quickly into the deeper pockets of my overcoat. No ticket! How could I have lost it in a journey of a half block? I had, after all, held the ticket in my hands in the theater lobby. Where had I put it? Had it fallen out of my pocket? I retraced my steps without finding it, returning home — I was now living in a Columbia University apartment on 111th Street almost facing the Cathedral of St. John the Divine spiritually depressed.

It was mid-December and I’d bought this ticket as a kind of Christmas gift to myself. Now with the holiday quickly approaching, I had nothing to do, nowhere to go. For some inexplicable reason, I dressed (shabbily I am certain) for the theater on the evening for which I’d purchased the ticket and arrived at the theater just as the crowd moved forward to find its seats. I moved with it, stopping to speak confidentially to one of the ticket-takers. “Honey, you see that woman over there. Go talk to her,” the ticket-taker said. I went over to the woman she pointed out—her name apparently being Dorothy, since that was what her blouse announced—and abashedly tried to explain my presence: “I’m sorry to bother you, and I wouldn’t be bothering you, but I bought a ticket for this performance and lost it. Is there anything I can do? I’m telling you the truth.”

“Of course you are, honey. I believe you. Come with me,” she said, taking my arm and leading me up into the balcony. “Here’s a good seat,” she gestured to a location that was probably in a much better location than the one for which I had originally paid.

“Thank you,” I called out as she turned to back to the lobby. “Thank you.”

Unfortunately, the musical was not very good — was certainly not a “hit.” The work was far too intimate to survive the canyons of the Hellinger theater, and the sets by the acclaimed Oliver Smith seemed to be located in some grand palace rather than the supposedly dilapidated home of the Countess Aurelia, the madwoman of Chaillot. Jerry Lawrence later admitted to me that Joe Layton, the director, and Jerry Herman had insisted upon the larger-than-life production. But it wasn’t the kind of musical, with its dark expressionist elements, that could sustain the brassy theatricalism of Herman’s more populist work.

In any event, I did get to see my play. Don’t let anyone ever tell you New Yorkers are always rude and inconsiderate!

But this story is not meant to portray another of my coincidence-haunted New York nights. I suspect the kindness shown me was not the first or only example of Dorothy’s empathy for her patrons. I mention this event only as prelude to an evening that truly was a Broadway — my Broadway—hit, even though it didn’t occur in a regulation theater.

In 1992 I hosted a book party in celebrating the publication of a novel by William Fadiman. Fadiman was a salty Hollywood figure — he’d been Dore Schary’s assistant at MGM studios when Schary was chief of production and, later, president of that studio. Several Hollywood celebrities, accordingly, were in attendance, as well as William’s more-famous brother, Clifton, who after a long stint on NBC’s “Information Please,” had been the senior judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club, later editor in chief for the publishing house, Simon & Schuster, and The New Yorker book editor. It was there I met Jerome Lawrence.

Throughout my childhood, I had admired the Lawrence and Lee team. Auntie Mame—along with Rosalind Russell, who will always be Mame to me—was one of my very favorite characters of the stage and movies and Inherit the Wind was among the American plays I most treasured. My companion Howard and I’d also seen their The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (not one of my favorites) in an Arena Stage production in Washington, D.C. Jerry and I quickly became friends,and few weeks later I visited him at his legendary Malibu home filled with theater memorabilia—a grandly modern house that tragically burned to the ground during the canyon fires of 1993 shortly after the events I am about to describe.

We spoke of the possibility of my reprinting some of Jerry’s and Robert E. Lee’s plays. But first—there was often a carrot attached to my friendships with elderly men—might I take a look at a novel he had just completed? The book, A Golden Circle—a novel about theater based on several of the figures he’d known—was not a particularly brilliant novel, and was certainly not the kind of fiction Sun & Moon Press generally published. Yet it was an enjoyable read, a gentle and loving tribute that might attract any slightly sentimentally inclined lover of the theater. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to publish it.

The book appeared in early 1993, and I determined to promote it later that year with a party at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. We settled on a night in May, when Jerry’s friends would be in town, he suggested, to see plays before voting for the Tony Awards. He handed me a long list of invitees, to whom my assistant Diana Daves and I mailed out formal invitations. It included nearly everyone of theater fame!

For my visit, I took the Thurber suite in the hotel. We’d rented the Oak Room, and Jerry had quietly planned the performances. I had ordered hors d’oeuvres and liquor (a full bar), arranged for a photographer, and planned on serving as Master of Ceremonies and general host.

After a few nervous rehearsals—singer Michael Feinstein does not like mornings—we were ready for the evening event. Among the attendees were caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and his wife; restaurateur Vincent Sardi; conductor Michael Tilson Thomas; poet Charles Bernstein with his artist wife, Susan Bee; lyricists and composers John Kander, Fred Ebb, Jerry Bock, and E. Y. Harburg; actors Michael York, Marian Seldes and Jan Handzlik (the original Patrick Dennis in the Broadway production of Auntie Mame); playwrights Robert Anderson and younger dramatists I’d invited such as Mac Wellman, John Steppling (coincidentally stopping in New York on his way back to Los Angeles), Len Jenkin, Jeffrey Jones, and numerous famous figures.

Pianist/singer Bobby Short begin the performance part of the evening during the cocktail hour, and when the guests were soon after seated, Michael Feinstein took over the piano and sang a song from Dear World. I took up the mike, explaining who I was and how delighted I was to see all my old friends—even though I’d never actually met them. But they were old friends, I explained, from my childhood, a time in which I memorized the Burns-Mantle playbooks, read their plays, and purchased their recordings — even before we’d owned a record player! Now I was overjoyed to meet them in the flesh.

Jerry Herman took over the piano with Michael Feinstein singing a medley of Broadway songs, and before we knew it, E. Y. Harburg had been drafted to sing “Old Devil Moon” from his Finian’s Rainbow (the musical that has reappeared time and again in my life). A reading from Lawrence’s novel by Tony Randall, Jane Alexander, and E. G. Marshall was next on the bill. Paula Robison followed with a flute solo, and Michael Feinstein returned to the piano to sing more songs, several of the audience members joining in.

On the plane to New York, I had sat next to an elegantly dressed woman who talked a great deal about the theater, and on a whim, I had invited her to the affair. As the evening came to a close, she came over to me and whispered into my ear: “This is the best thing on Broadway! I couldn’t have imagined such an evening possible.” Neither could I.

Los Angeles, June 7, 2005

Soon after this New York theatrical event, we had a smaller west coast celebration for Jerry’s book at Books & Company in Malibu. At this affair, actors Martha Scott and Burgess Meredith, along with Jerry and his young “secretary” Will, read passages from the book. In the audience Carol Channing sat throughout the performance with her purse perched atop her head, evidently for protection from the afternoon sun. I’d long before witnessed her performances of Hello, Dolly! in two different cities, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

New York, May 5, 2006


by Djuna Barnes

first published in Little Review, VI (November 1919)

Three from the Earth was first presented at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York, October 31, 1919, with the following cast:

HENRY CARSON Cesare Zwaska

Setting by James Light.

KATE MORLEY, an adventuress, a lady of leisure
Late afternoon.
KATE MORLEYS boudoir. A long narrow room, with a great many lacquer screens in various shades of blue, a tastefully decorated room though rather extreme.

At the rise of the curtain the three Carson brothers are discovered sitting together on a couch to the left. They look like peasants of the most obvious type. They are tall, rather heavy and range in age from nine teen to twenty-five. They have sandy, sun-bleached hair that insists upon sticking straight up—oily, sweaty skins—large hanging lips and small eyes on which a faint whitish down moves for lashes. They are clumsy and ill clothed. Russet shoes are on all six feet. They each wear a purple aster and each has on a tie of the super-stunning variety—they have evidently done their best to be as one might say "well dressed."

When they speak—aside from their grunts—their voices are rough, nasal and occasionally crack. They are stoop-shouldered and their hands are excessively ugly.

Yet in spite of all this, their eyes are intelligent, their smiles gentle, melancholy, compassionate. And though they have a look of formidable grossness and stupidity, there is, on second observation, a something beneath all this in no way in keeping with this first impression.
JOHN, the youngest, and the smallest, looks around the room carefully.

JOHN: A nice room, eh? [He tries to whisper, but it comes forth buzzing and harsh.] JAMES: A woman's room.
JAMES: A narrow room, John.
JOHN: Well?
JAMES: Cats and narrow walls.
HENRY: [grunting] Ugh.
JOHN: Hush—I hear her coming! [The curtains part and KATE MORLEY enters. She is a woman of about forty. Handsome. Dark. She is beautifully dressed—in a rather seductive fashion. She has a very interesting head; she has an air of one used to adulation and the pleasure of exerting her will. She has a trick of narrowing her eyes. As she comes forward there is a general commotion among the brothers, but none manages to stand up.]
KATE: Good day, gentlemen.
ALL THREE: Good day.
KATE: Nice of you to call on me. [She seats herself, crossing her legs.] You are the three Carsons, John, James and Henry, aren't you? I haven't seen you for years, yet I think I should have known you.
KATE: Yes, I presume I should have known you. I have a good memory. Well, as I said, it's nice of you to come to see me. Social?
HENRY: You might call it that.
KATE: Its quite nice to get an unexpected visitor or so. I'm the kind of woman who knows just who is going to call on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday—
KATE: How's the country?
JOHN: Just the same.
KATE: It always is. Don't you go mad—watching it?
HENRY: Now and again.
KATE: And how's your father? [not pausing for an answer—almost to herself] I remember—he was always mad. He used to wear a green cloth suit, and he carried white rats all over his shoulders, [remembering the three] Ah, yes, your father—he was a barber, wasn't he?
HENRY: No, a chemist.
KATE: [laughing uneasily] I have a bad memory after all. Well, anyway, in those days he had begun to be queer—every one noticed it—even that funny man who had those three flaxen-haired daughters with the thin ankles who lives at the end of the street—And your mother—a prostitute, I believe.
HENRY: [calmly] At times.
KATE: A dancing girl without a clean word in her vocabulary, or a whole shirt to her name
JAMES: But a woman with fancies.
KATE: [sarcastically] And what ability?
HENRY: Oh, none, just a burning desire.
KATE: What's the use of going into that? How did you get here—what for?
ALL THREE: On bicycles.
KATE: [bursting into laughter] How exactly ridiculous and appropriate—and what else?
JOHN: To see how the sun falls in a place like this.
KATE: [angrily, rising] Well, you see, from left to right, and right to left—
HENRY: True.
JOHN: [quietly] And we wanted to see how you walked, and sat down, and crossed your legs—
HENRY: And to get fathers letters.
KATE: Well, you see how I walk, sit down, cross my legs. What letters?
JAMES: Letters to you.
KATE: [uneasily] So you know about that—well, and what would you fellows do with them—read them to see how clever they are?
JAMES: No, we have the clever ones.
KATE: Mine?
JOHN and
HENRY: [nodding] Exactly
JOHN: You suffer?
KATE: From time to time—there's always a reaction.
HENRY: That's vulgar, isn't it?
KATE: Not unusually.
JOHN: The letters?
KATE: [to herself] Well, there is malice in me—what of it? We've all been a while with the dogs, we don't all learn to bark.
JOHN: Ah ha.
KATE: See here, what will you do with your father's letters?
HENRY: Destroy them, perhaps.
KATE: And if I give them to you—will your father be as generous with mine?
HENRY: Father is undoubtedly a gentleman—even at this moment.
KATE: Well, we shall see about that—first tell me how you live.
JOHN: We go down on the earth and find things, tear them up, shaking the dirt off. [making motions to illustrate] Then there are the cows to be milked, the horses—a few—to be fed, shod and curried—do you wish me to continue?
KATE: Yes, yes, go on.
HENRY: [taking the tale up] We get up at dawn, and our father turns over in bed and whispers: "If you meet any one, say nothing; if you are asked a question, look stupid—"
KATE: I believe you.
JAMES: And he says: "Go about your work as if you had neither sight, speech nor hearing—
KATE: Yes—
JOHN: And he adds: "If you should meet a woman in the road—"
KATE: [excited] Then what?
HENRY: That's enough. Then of a Sunday we watch the people going to church, when we hear the "Amen," we lift a little and sit back—and then again—
KATE: Religion?
HENRY: Enough for our simple needs.
KATE: Poor sheep!
JAMES: Wise sheep!
KATE: What! Well perhaps. No one is any longer sure of anything. Then what?
JOHN: When we come home he says: "What have you seen and heard today?" He never asks, "What have you said?"
KATE: He trusts you?
JOHN: Undoubtedly. Sometimes we say, "We saw a hawk flying," or, "A badger passed," and sometimes we bring him the best treat of all—
KATE: Well?
JOHN: Something dead.
KATE: Dead?
HENRY: Anything that has destroyed the crops—a mole—a field-mouse.
KATE: And never anything that's harmless?
JOHN: Never
KATE: Well, see here. I'll give you those letters. Suddenly my heart says to me, "Kate, give the oxen the rope, they won't run away."—Isn't it so? Very well, I put my hand on a certain package and all is over—I'm about to be married, you know. [She has risen and gone over to a little box standing on the desk. Out from this she takes a package of letters tied with a red ribbon. She turns and walks straight up to JOHN.] I'll give them to you. You are the youngest, the gentlest, and you have the nicest hands. [She sits down, breathing with difficulty.]
JOHN: [putting them into his blouse] Thank you, Kate Morley.
KATE: Now, tell me about everything. How is that mother of yours? I remember her—she was on the stage—she danced as they say, and she sang. She had a pet monkey—fed it honey out of a jar kept full by her admirers: grooms, stage hands, what not—
HENRY: Yes, and she used to draw pictures of it in the style of Dürer—almost morbid—and later it caught a disease and died—
KATE: I don't doubt it—and she, she had an under-lip like a balloon—and your father kissed that mouth, was even tempted—
JAMES: My father often saw beyond the flesh.
KATE: Kissed such a creature!
HENRY: At such times she was beautiful.
KATE: [with a touch of humility] Yes, I'm sorry—I remember. Once I passed her, and instead of saying something, something horrible—she might—she looked down.
JOHN: She was beautiful, looking down.
KATE: [angry] And I, I suppose I wasn't beautiful to look at—
HENRY: No, I suppose not, that is, not for her.
KATE: [viciously] Well, let me tell you, you haven't inherited her beauty. Look at your hands—thick, hard, ugly—and the life lines in them like the life lines in the hands of every laborer digging sewers—
JOHN: There's something in that, but they are just beginning.
KATE: [turning on them] Look at you! You're ugly, and clumsy, and uncouth. You grunt and roar, you wear abominable clothes—and you have no manners—and all because of your father, your mighty righteous and original father. You don't have to be like this. You needn't have little pigs' eyes with bleached lashes, and thick hanging lips—and noses—but I suppose you've got adenoids, and you may suffer from the fact that your mother had a rupture, and in all probability you have the beginning of ulcers of the stomach, for God knows your father couldn't keep a meal down like a gentleman!
HENRY: He was delicate.
KATE: And why was he delicate? He called himself "The little Father," as one might say, "The great Emperor." Well, to have a father to whom you can go and say, "All is not as it should be"—that would have been everything. But what could you say to him, and what had he to say to you? Oh, we all have our pathetic moments of being at our best, but he wasn't satisfied with that, he wanted to be at it all the time. And the result, the life of a mole. "Listen and say nothing." Then he becomes the gentleman farmer because he discovers he cannot be the Beloved Fool. Suddenly he is the father of three creatures for all the world like Russian peasants—without an idea, a subtlety—its wicked, that's all, wicked—and as for that, how do you know but that all three of you had a different mother? Why, great God, I might be the mother of one of you!
JOHN: [significantly] So I believe, madam.
KATE: [unheeding] Do you think a man like your father had any right to bring such children as you into the world—three columns of flesh without one of the five senses! [She suddenly buries her head in her hands.]
JOHN: [gently] You loved our father.
HENRY: And you also had your pot of honey—
KATE: Thank God I had no ideals—I had a religion.
JOHN: Just what?
KATE: You wouldn't understand.
HENRY: Shoes to the needy?
KATE: No, I'm not that kind, vicious boy.
JOHN: Are you quite certain?
KATE: I'll admit all my candles are not burning for God. Well, then, blow them out, still I'll have a light burning somewhere, for all your great breaths, you oxen!
HENRY: You were never a tower builded of ivory—
KATE: You're too stupid to be bitter—your voices are too undeveloped—you'd say "love" and "hate" the same way.
JAMES: True, we have been shut away from intonations.
KATE: You wouldn't even wish to die.
JOHN: We shall learn.
KATE: Why bother?
JOHN: [abruptly rising] You have posed for the madonna?
KATE: Every woman has.
JOHN: You have done it better than most.
KATE: What do you mean?
JOHN: I looked at it when I came in. [He picks up the photograph.]
KATE: Let it be—I was playing in the "Crown of Thorns," an amateur theatrical.
JOHN: Yes, I presumed it was amateur—
JAMES: You were a devoted mother?
KATE: I have no virtues.
HENRY: And vices?
KATE: Weak in one, weak in the other.
JOHN: However, the baby had nice hands—
KATE: [looking at him] That is true.
JAMES: But then babies only use their hands to lift the breast, and occasionally to stroke the cheek—
KATE: Or throw them up in despair—not a heavy career.
JOHN: And then?
KATE: [in an entirely new tone] Won't you have tea?—But no, pay no attention to me, that's another of my nasty malicious tricks. Curse life!
HENRY: Your life is drawing to a close.
JAMES: And from time to time you place your finger on a line of Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, wondering: "How did he say it all in two lines?" Eh?
KATE: As you say. [She looks at them slowly, one by one.] You are strange things, [coming back] But at least I've given up something—look at your mother, what did she give up for your father—a drunken husband—
JAMES: A drunken lover—that's different.
KATE: I can't help thinking of that great gross stomach of hers.
JAMES: Gross indeed, it won't trouble him any more.
KATE: What's that?
JOHN: He cut his throat with a knife—
KATE: Oh, my God! [pause] How did he look?
JOHN: You can't satisfy your aesthetic sense that way-he looked—well, ugly, played out; yes, played out. Everything had been too much for him—you—us—you could see that in the way he— KATE: [in a whisper] Well, that's strange—everything seems—I knew him, you know. [She begins to laugh.] And the dogs barked?
JAMES: So I believe.
KATE: [dazed] And you, what are you three going to do?
HENRY: We are coming out of the country—we are going abroad—we can listen there.
KATE: Abroad—listen—what are you saying?
HENRY: There are great men abroad.
JAMES: Anatole France, De Gourmont—
KATE: De Gourmont is dead.
JOHN: There will be others.
KATE: [still dully] And how did you come to know such names—oh, your father, of course—
JOHN: We needed them.
KATE: Strange, I've been prepared for every hour but this—
JAMES: Yet I dare say you've never cried out.
KATE: You are mistaken. I've cried: "To the evil of mind all is evil—"
HENRY: Ah ha, and what happened?
KATE: Sometimes I found myself on my knees—
JAMES: And sometimes?
KATE: That's enough, haven't we about cleared all the shavings out of the carpenter shop?
HENRY: You at least will never kill yourself.
KATE: Not likely, I'll probably die in bed with my slippers on—you see, I have a pretty foot.
HENRY: We understand—you are about to be married.
KATE: To a supreme court judge—so I'm cleaning house.
JOHN: [standing with the photograph] But it won't be quite cleared out until this goes. [He takes it out of the frame and turning it over reads.] "Little John, God bless him." [He turns it back.] God bless him. Well, just for that I'd like to keep it.
KATE: That's my affair.
JOHN: Sol see. [He puts the photo in his blouse with the letters.]
KATE: Well, perhaps—well, you're not so stupid after all—Come, for the madonna give me back the letters—I'll burn them, I swear, and you can put the madonna at the foot of the bed.
JOHN: I shan't put it at the foot of the bed—I don't look at the foot of the bed—
HENRY and JAMES: [rising] And now we shall go.
KATE: [her hands to her head] But, gentlemen, gentlemen—
HENRY: We won't need to bother you again. We are leaving the country and going elsewhere—and there was only one of us to whom you might have shown a little generosity—in other words we do not wish to be reminded, and now we can forget, and in time become quite hilarious—
KATE: But, gentlemen, gentlemen, not this way—
JOHN: Well? [Quite suddenly he takes her in his arms, raises her face and kisses her on the mouth.]
KATE: [crying out] Not that way! Not that way!
JAMES: That's the way you bore him!

[The curtain drops behind them.]

Copyright (c) 1995 by Sun & Moon Press. Reprinted from At the Roots of the Stars: The Short Plays of Djuna Barnes (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Dead Languages"

by Douglas Messerli

Julia Cho The Language Archive / Roundabout Theatre Company/Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre / the performance I saw was on November 14, 2010

Presumably anyone interested in theater is equally interested in theater's major medium, language. That does not presume, of course, an interest in "dead languages," the focus of the major character of Cho's play, George (Matt Letscher), who is a linguist-scholar devoted to archiving dying languages before they disappear—at the rate of every two weeks, if we can believe George. Beyond that, however, any playwright must ask, as does Cho, if those numerous
dying languages might also be send to include our personal daily expressions.

At the moment George is attending to the last living speakers of Elloway, who he has brought, at great expense, from some vaguely middle European country. The major problem he discovers with this language is that the couple, who bicker only in English—Elloway is far too lovely a language to use for anger and argumentation, they claim—refuse to help with George's work. Resten (John Horton) and Alta (the wonderful Jayne Houdyshell) see no point to sharing their vocabulary: "Our world is already gone, and no amount of talk talk talk will ever bring back" what has been lost.

Nicely (and perhaps a little predictably) paralleling this predicament, is George's own relationship with his wife, Mary (Heidi Schreck), who is close to giving up on the idea that George, so brilliant with languages, might ever learn the language of love. She denies leaving all the cryptic messages that George finds hidden in his books, shoes, pants, etc: "Love or explaining how to use the remote control?" "Marriage or an old cardigan?" etc. Yet her denial reveals her inability to express her own private language of frustration, suggesting that she is as incapable of saving her world as are Resten, Alta, and George.

The playwright, Cho, has slightly seasoned her brew with the introduction of George's assistant, Emma (Betty Gilpin), who clearly has an inexpressible crush on her boss, going so far as to study Esperanto, one of his favorite languages, just to please him. She cannot seem to learn the language however, perhaps because, as her teach explains, she is using it for the wrong purpose. The teacher (played also by Houdyshell) explains that she too had a crush on another, a Dutch woman, which resulted in a similar problem: she could not properly express herself, and the woman left. In short, nearly all of the characters in The Language Archive can speak brilliantly when it comes to mundane or irritating situations, but have little skill, like most of us, with the language of the doves.

By the middle of the play, Mary decides to leave George, Emma determines that she will tell George of her love for him, and the strangely dressed speakers of Elloway decamp for a plane home—all leaving the linguist utterly confounded. What has happened to his well-ordered world?

Cho does not have an easy answer; nor does she offer solutions for any of her figures. Resten and Alma fall back in love, but leave their beautiful language to fall into oblivion. George becomes determined to tell Mary that he loves her, but, after she has magically met up with a former-baker who has provided her with the perfect mother dough, she has opened her own small bakery, discovering a joyful new purpose to her life. Emma attempts to escape George as well; she, in an ever more miraculous encounter, meets up with the long dead creator of Esperanto, the Russian ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof, who examines her eyes, clouded by her love; she returns to Geroge, now recognizing what Mary has previously told the audience:

Sometimes you feel so sad, it begins to feel like happiness. And
you can be so happy that it starts to feel like grief.

Despite Mary's permanent absence, Emma never does develop a loving relationship with George, who continues to work alone, lost in the syntax of other people's lives.

Cho's play points to deeper concepts than it serves up. And the author has somewhat disappointedly spiced it up with whimsy—what some critics (mistakenly I believe) described as surreal or absurdist farce—that deflects the philosophical and psychological implications of her art. The Language Archive remains, for all that, a strong parable of what lovers—and by extension, committed believers of life—can and cannot fully express.

New York, November 15, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by Douglas Messerli

Douglas Messerli "The Gang's Still Here"

Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence, 1983

by Douglas Messerli

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee The Gang’s All Here / New York, the Ambassador Theater, October 1, 1959
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee The Gang’s All Here (Cleveland: The World Publishing
Company, 1960)

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s The Gang’s All Here (1959) is a play loosely based on the presidency of Warren G. Harding, remembered for the Teapot Dome scandal involving several of his friends and cabinet members.

Like Harding, Lawrence’s and Lee’s Ohio senator Griffith T. Hastings, name comes forth in the smoke-filled rooms of the Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel as an alternative to candidates (in 1920, General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank O. Lowden) who have Republican Party members deadlocked. Engineered by Walter Rafferty and other cronies in Lawrence and Lee’s play (in 1920 by Harry M. Daugherty) Hastings is elected and fills his major governmental posts with his “Ohio gang.”

In the play Hastings is presented as a man modest enough to admit to his limited capabilities and honest enough to claim that he is not up to the position; but through the intervention of his friends and strong-willed wife (who Hastings and others describe as “The Duchess,” Hastings, despite his misgivings, determines to run.

Once he is locked away within the presidential quarters, however, he hasn’t a clue how to begin governing, hiring on the spur of a moment a man employed to oversee his transition, and demanding the immediate presence of his cronies, who quickly fill his ears with speedy decisions concerning the issues with which he is now forced to grapple. In only a few weeks after becoming President, we see him sneaking away from the White House to play poker with his cronies—now all political advisors—and ready to sign on nearly any dotted line put before him.

Strangely, the only honest man surrounding him is Bruce Bellingham, the interim assistant he has hired. Bruce, along with Hastings’s wife, Frances, attempts to warn him away from his gang—his own Attorney General, Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Interior, and Head of the Veterans Bureau. By this time, however, Hastings has become so dependent upon their advice that he has no one else to whom he can turn and fires Bellingham, the only one willing to tell him the truth.

As the Hearn committee begins investigations, it becomes clear that Hastings must act; as he attempts to query the honesty of members of his own cabinet and staff, Rafferty reminds him that he has knowledge of Hastings’ sexual affairs which he’s willing to reveal. Rafferty’s moral jingoism, his long justification for his immorality, reminds one of Harry Lime’s argument with his friend Holly Martins in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man of ten years earlier:

He [Sam Cavendish] can afford morality. He’s rich enough. I’m not. Neither are you. The “land of plenty” for everybody except a politician, who sticks his head through the hole in the canvas and lets the goddamned free press sling mud balls at him. He can’t run his business like a business, because it’s never his business. It belongs to the blessed American public that doesn’t give a hoot in hell until some poor bastard gets his pinky caught in the cash register! Name me the job that demands more and pays less than serving the American taxpayer. The Customers’ Man can screw ‘em blind on the Big Board. That’s O.K. The Oil Boys can simmer the fat out of the ground, the Real Estate Sharks can bank a six-month million—everybody gets rich except the poor ass of a “Public Servant.” (Straight at Hastings) And you’ve got the gall to scream because a few of your friends are smart enough to do exactly what everybody else in the country is doing.

In the context of Rafferty’s argument, the actual president Harding’s campaign slogan—“Return to Normalcy”—seems bizarrely appropriate.

With the news of Ax Maley’s suicide (head of Hastings’ Veterans Bureau), Hastings must face his own political and real death as well. In Harding’s administration it was an assistant to Daughtery who committed suicide, while Fall, Miller, and, Forbes were convicted of fraud and bribery. In the Lawrence and Lee play, all other consequences remain in the future.

Harding clearly knew his presidency had been destroyed by the scandal, and in 1923 set out across the country to boost his own ratings on what he described as a “Voyage of Understanding.” Understanding for whom, one might ask: the electorate or himself? In Lawrence and Lee’s version it is Hastings who comes to the “understanding,” ultimately seeking the resignation of Rafferty before drinking a deadly medicinal concoction left behind in his Surgeon General’s bag. Harding’s illness was simply attributed to food poisoning—and his death soon after to a heart attack. At least Hastings dies with some recognition, with some sense of dignity.

The published volume of The Gang’s All Here begins with a short piece by the playwrights published in the New York Herald Tribune of September 27, 1959, warning the public to take the lessons of their play to heart in the upcoming elections. That election between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy was even more fateful in several respects than the 1920 race between Harding and the Democratic nominee James A. Cox. One candidate of the 1960 race clearly was a man (particularly in his later administration) with a notorious gang—the other a man with a notorious family.

Lawrence and Lee’s work functions as a terribly old-fashioned drama, and creaks in its historical underpinnings. Given that the 1960 election, for the first time, depended heavily upon television news coverage as opposed to the simple workings of backroom politics, the play seems particularly old-fashioned. With a cast that included E. G. Marshall, Howard Smith, Melvyn Douglas, and Jean Dixon the stage theatrics must have been almost magical; but reading it in 2003, the dramatic action seems to be missing.

What struck me most, however, as I read this play was that in terms of politics little has changed. The gang is still with us. President Bush won the 2000 election, in fact, by machinations that Rafferty and company could not even have imagined. The three R’s with which Bush and Cheney now control our country—Rove, Rumsfield and Rice—far more than those basic areas of learning, Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic—serve the President as a gang whose personal agendas far surpass those of Harding/Hastings’s petty greed. Lawrence and Lee ask a naïve question, but one that should not be glibly answered by Americans today:

If the man we fondly X’d in a voting booth turns out to be
a struggling incompetent, whose fault is it? The President’s?
….It’s too easy to blame the gang around him, because oppor-
tunists are always waiting to fill any governmental vacuum.
Perhaps the real trouble lies in our own reluctance to think
about history except on that November Tuesday.

Los Angeles, October 6, 2003

In the front of my copy of this play, I discovered, while writing this piece, the signature of cast member E. G. Marshall, which reminded me of my brief encounter with him in 1993, when I must have asked him to sign the book (purchased, if I recall, at Strand Bookstore). Marshall had long been one of my favorite actors from childhood: I had seen him in episodes of You Are There on television in the 1950s, “The Death of Socrates” (1953) and “Washington’s Farewell to His Officers” (1955), on the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of The Little Foxes (1956), in the movie Twelve Angry Men (1957), and, most memorably, as the defense lawyer Lawrence Preston in the television series The Defenders, one of my favorites of 1960s television fare.

Some might recall that he also appeared in numerous Broadway productions, including the original production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1946), Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), and the short-lived Broadway premiere, with Bert Lahr, of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1956).

A long-time friend of Jerome Lawrence’s, Marshall read from Jerry’s novel A Golden Circle with Tony Randall, Jane Alexander, and Jerry himself at my Algonquin evening (described in My Year: 2005); but he also joined Jerry and me the next day as we taxied over to a Barnes & Noble bookstore on the West Side for another reading of Jerry’s novel. I recall little of our conversations during these encounters, but I remember him as being brisk but friendly. He died five years later, in August 1998.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Douglas Messerli | "The Smell of Olives" (on Harold Pinter's The Collection)

the smell of olives

by Douglas Messerli

Harold Pinter (screenplay, based on his stage drama), Michael Apted (director) The Collection / 1976 (TV movie)

Harold Pinter's brilliant short play of 1961, The Collection, is a work about two couples, Stella (Helen Mirren) and James (Alan Bates), married for two years, and Harry (Laurence Olivier) and Bill (Malcolm McDowell), living together for a number of years. Both pairs are clearly dissatisfied with their relationships or, at least, interested in sexually exploring alternatives—but fearful, also, of destroying the commitments they have made. Although James runs his wife's dress business, it is clear that she is the designer. Bill, as Harry tells both James and the audience, has been picked up in the slums, and is obviously a completely dependent upon his older lover.

     The play begins with a late night/early morning telephone ring to the Belgravia house of Harry and Bill by a caller who refuses to divulge his name, a man seeking Bill. This call, in turn, sets off a series of calls and, soon after, visits by James to the house in search of Bill, who, he has been told by his wife, sexually molested her in her hotel room during a meeting of clothes manufacturers in Leeds.

     We never discover whether or not such an encounter actually occurred; both Bill and Stella change their stories several times in the course of the play. But it hardly matters, for the true energy of this play occurs not in the discovery of any "truth," but in the opportunity for new encounters—for James it might almost be described as stalking—with other beings, and the danger that their interchanges represent.

     If indeed Bill and Stella met in Leeds, even to simply talk about sexual possibilities, as Bill insists late in the play, there is a parallel pattern in James' visits to Bill. Both of these rendezvouses are highly sexually charged and physically threatening. Yet both also began and end in a war of words. Despite his position as intruder, Bill invites himself to drinks, demanding olives—in a typically brilliant Pinteresque non sequitur—and a place to sit, while gradually insinuating himself into James' life, going even so far as to query him about Harry and his supposed allergic reaction to rabbits (those animals which so prolifically fuck).

     It all ends, quite absurdly, with Bill lying prone on the floor, James standing over him in an overtly sexual position while the "conquered" man alternately denies and confirms James' imaginative recounting of the "rape" of his wife. Although Bill denies nearly everything, in the very last moments of their encounter when James reports that he called his wife while Bill was still sitting on the bed, Bill corrects him, "Not sitting, lying," hinting that there was truth in most everything the seemingly jealous husband has reported.

     Although nothing is spoken about James' visit to Bill, Harry certainly suspects something, and tension arises as he attacks his lover the next morning over endlessly reading and re-reading the newspaper, demanding he given it up only to insist that he has no desire for it, the kind of Pinter-like maneuver performed by those wanting to vent a problem when they cannot openly do so. Possession of the newspaper becomes a substitute for the possession of the truth and, ultimately, of their sexual rights and physical control of the other.

     Meanwhile tensions are also mounting between James and Stella, played out in a meaningless discussion of biscuits--which James argues will make his wife fat--and his desire for olives, which she also doesn't have in the house, hinting to James that she has never cared about his likes or dislikes. James carries the game somewhat further by admitting that he has already visited her Leeds "lover," admitting that he enjoyed their company and found him quite attractive, although lying about his being quite forthcoming. James focuses on his respect for Bill and the fact the he too is an opera man, just as James himself is, although he always kept it a secret--hinting perhaps that he has hidden his homosexual interests. (Aren't all male opera connoisseurs gay? Certainly they might been presumed to be in the 1960s.) James concludes, "It looks as though, by accidently, you have opened up a whole new world for me."

     The second visit by James to Bill actually seems like an arranged "date" between the two, since James has prepared a cheese board and put out a bowl of olives. As the two verbally spar, the conversation turns to a discussion of each other's bodies which ends in a shared stare in the mirror, and a witty repartee in which the offered olives are denied by James, despite his insistence that he be served them on his previous visit:

james: I don't like them.
bill: Don't like olives?
What on earth have you got against olives?
james: I detest them.
bill: Really?
james: It's the smell I hate.*


It doesn't take a Freudian psychologist to make one realize that they are not talking about the fruit of the Olea europaea, and that James, although clearly attracted to the other man, has some reservations when it comes to acting out what he feels.

     Meanwhile, Harry pays a visit to Stella, asking her if she knows Bill Lloyd. She doesn't and has never heard the name, she insists. But as the two continue in conversation, she claiming that her husband has made up a fantastic story, she does admit knowing that Bill was in Leeds even though she never met him. James has been overworked and seems quite mentally ill, she insists. Harry suggests that she might take James on a trip to the South of France to cure him. He leaves, presumably satisfied that the relationship between Stella and Bill has been all made up.
     Back at the meeting with Bill and James, since James has expressed his abhorrence of olives, Bill suggests he have cheese, having a "splendid cheese knife."


james: Is it sharp?

bill: Try it. Hold the blade, it won't cut you. Not if you handle it properly

(moving closer). Not if you grasp it firmly up to the hilt.


     James temporary moves of the seduction. Only a few minutes, however, he has picked up another cheese knife, challenging Bill to a duel a Bill again plays "the sissy," refusing to act out the phallic challenge that James has offered up, and puts down his cheese knife. But James picks it up, not only now, as Bill points out, having two knives, but claiming to have another in his hip pocket.

     Bill wonders, what does he do? "Swallow them."

     James' comeback is hilariously campy: "Do you?"

     This time, however, James impetuously propels his words, for the first time in the play, into action: tossing the cheese knife into the air and cutting Bill's hand, producing, perhaps, something tangible in the way of a small scar, which Bill has proven not to have in the first visit, despite talk of James' wife's attempt to keep off her assailant by mildly scratching him.

    In a world only of talk, finally something has happened, someone has at least been palpably touched. Harry, observing this scene behind the doorway—having returned from his conversation with Stella—knows quite clearly what the sword play means. He has clearly watched the older and younger attractive interloper playing with knives in Roman Polanski's 1962 film, Knife in the Water. Pouring his guest another drink he tells him that James that he has met with his wife and she has admitted that she has made the whole story up. "Women are most strange...if I were you I'd go home and hit over the head a saucepan or something." and lashes out in an emotional outburst of hate against the "slum-boy slug" he has brought into his proper home:


There's nothing wrong with slugs, in their place, but he's
a slum slug, there's nothing wrong with slum slugs in their
place, but this one won't keep his place, he crawls all over
the walls of nice houses, leaving slime, don't you boy?


    The older Harry is clearly fighting to keep his young lover the only way he knows how. Like James he dominates the passive Bill, but unlike James his is only a world of words, and he can only wonder when action may again breakout. Ultimately, of course, James must also retreat, as the civilized British society insists. They all return to talk, meaningless politeness. The talk utterly defeats any acts of love. Love, after all, in this world has less to do with action, than accretion, is something held together through time and repetition. As Harry says to Stella about James: "I found him in a slum, you know, by accident"—as if he were an object he discovered in a shop to be brought home to add to his collection.

    Yet behind their language looms terror. James returns home to reassure himself that his wife did indeed do nothing but talk to Bill that night in Leads. "You didn't do anything, did you?" he almost pleads. "That's the truth, isn't it?" Her silent look, "neither confirming nor denying," "her face friendly and sympathetic," with, in the television version I saw, an ever so slight smile upon her lips, tells us nothing. As Pinter knows, silence is so dangerous.

     We cannot know "truth" in this world of linguistic games. Did Stella make up the story simply to make her inattentive husband jealous? Was James truly attracted to the homosexual he discovered who had supposedly had sex with his wife, or was simply out to make sure the "fag" got what was coming to him? He could as well be repelled and attracted both, unable to act on his own desires, which explains his wife's dissatisfaction. Perhaps only Harry's motivations are apparent, his attack on his lover merely meant to keep him in his place, beside him in his bed. He is forced to clean up the mess Bill makes behind him, smoothing over the labyrinth of lies and ineffective actions that he collects around him in his relationships with others.

     Although this version of Pinter's remarkable play seems a little busy in its fruitless attempts to leave the drawing room of the playwright’s purposely claustrophobic setting, the sets themselves perhaps a bit overwrought in their attempt to create a sense of stylish realism, one couldn't ask for a better cast.


*Olives are a slang term for a man’s balls.

Los Angeles, December 27, 2008

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (December 2008).