Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "The Making of Blanche DuBois" (on Tennessee Williams' The Eccentricities of a Nightingale)

the making of blanche dubois

by Douglas Messerli


Tennessee Williams (screenplay, based on his rewrite of Summer and Smoke), Glenn Jordan (director) The Eccentricities of a Nightingale / 1976 (TV movie)


The other day I watched a filmed version of a production of Williams’ little-known play (based on a production at either the Louisville Actor’s Theatre or the Old Globe in San Diego—both are named at different sites). The Eccentricities is a rewrite of his Summer and Smoke, but the characters behave quite differently than they do in the former play and the tone is completely different, as Williams himself noted, far less melodramatic and certainly less symbolic that Summer and Smoke, first performed a year after his great A Streetcar Named Desire.

     One recognizes immediately, in fact, this play’s close relationship with Streetcar, whose central character, Alma Winemiller (Blythe Danner), shares many similarities with Blanche Dubois, and perhaps gives us a glimpse of some of the forces behind the over-the-top figure of Williams’ earlier play (Summer and Smoke, in earlier versions, however, predated A Streetcar).

     Alma, the daughter of the Glorious Hill, Mississippi Episcopalian minister, is a fragile being, as we recognize from the very first scene where she is frightened over and over by the fireworks going off around her on the 4th of July. She has also been performing, singing, and, particularly since—as everyone observes and she herself admits—she feels the songs so strongly, she describes herself as being overwrought. Also, she perceives her next-door neighbor, John Buchanan, Jr. (Frank Langella)—a young doctor who has been away to school at Johns Hopkins University—has temporarily returned home and, between long conversations with his mother and others, stares at her as she sits with her father (Tim O’Connor) and mother (Louise Latham) in the square. The mother, who we soon discover, is insane, is quickly whisked away, as she is throughout much of the play, Buchanan coming over to speak with Alma. But he too is soon taken off by his mother (Neva Patterson), who insists that he pay a doctorly visit to a patient that his father is too tired to attend to. Thus, Williams’ immediately sets up the situation: Alma is clearly aflutter in the presence of Buchanan, and Buchanan is obviously dominated and controlled by his mother.


     What is also apparent is that the still beautiful but virginal Alma is— in a word the play itself uses to describe her—almost hysterical, using any reason to swallow down the small white pills the doctor has prescribed for her (probably just placebos). Her father, in fact, attempts, to have a heart-to-heart talk with her in the very next scene, now Christmas, about her fluttering hands, her exaggerated gestures and speech, and—the most comical of accusations—her penchant for feeding birds in the town square. She is getting the reputation of an “eccentric.” Despite her father’s stern warnings, however, Alma stands up for her own behavior quite strongly, and we realize that despite the tensions of her home life, she has attempted to play role of a supporting daughter quite ably. Yet she is hurt, feels shunned by the local community, particularly when local carolers visit the Buchanan house but turn away from the Winemiller home. Alma seeks solace in a small gathering of town would-be intellectuals, odd people who mostly have inflated egos, confusing Blake with Rimbaud, and writing endlessly long verse plays. Only Alma, of the group, seems to know anything about poetry or literature.

     She invites Buchanan—who has again returned for a stay in Glorious Hill—to the gathering which ends in unpleasant bickering among the group and, once more, the young doctor’s being led off by his mother, who has a very different view of whom her beloved son will marry.

     The scene with the two of them, mother and son, in the Buchanan home is as close to love scene as the young doctor ever gets. Mrs. Buchanan clearly is the smothering type, who continues to control his life. Yet despite his mother’s interference, he has managed to make a date with Alma, whom he admires for her intelligence and the exciting flashes of change that run across her face. Her very eccentricities, he observes, is what makes her so special, so different from all the other women he has met and certainly sets her apart from any woman his might wish him to marry.

     Langella plays this scene, as well as others, with a kind of gentle passivity that almost angered me: why doesn’t he speak out, speak up for what he sees in Alma? Why can’t he show some anger at his mother’s bourgeois visions for his future life? Instead, he merely answers with quiet irony and, we later perceive, coded phrases that make him appear detached.

     Alma is fearful when evening arrives for their date that he won’t show, and when he does, she is almost overwhelmed with a kind of energized force, telling him after the movie of her life-long love for him. She even suggests that they go someplace for sex, to which he demurs. Alma admits that she does not expect this friendship to any further, but if she only she might have one night, a whole evening to remember… Again he demurs, but finally agrees to take her to a hotel that specializes in just such encounters. Once there, however, it becomes apparent that nothing will happen. What doesn’t get said is quite obvious: the young doctor is gay, disinterested in sex with a woman. Alma perceives the situation immediately. And in the last scene of the play, described as an epilogue, we see her seated on the same park bench where she sat early in the play. She has aged. When she encounters a young salesman, she begins a conversation, suggesting that they visit the same hotel. Apparently, she has now found regular companions for the one-night encounters she had sought out.

     This might almost be a reincarnation or glimpse of an earlier Blanche Dubois, the young woman of entitlement, given to romantic notions of the world, but also desirous of the pleasures of sex. Like Blanche, her first love turns out to be a homosexual, unable to give her what she desires. Alma has already begun on the long downward spiral where Blanche ends, in the arms of a teenage boy in a similar seedy hotel.

    Danner’s performance as Alma is splendid, and her stunning portrayal of Williams’ “eccentric nightingale” brings this play to life in a way that Summer and Smoke, with its smoldering old maid at the center, never achieves. I might even go so far, after watching this excellent TV production, as to suggest that Eccentricities of a Nightingale is one of Williams’ best works.


Los Angeles, October 6, 2012

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2012).

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Be Again" (on Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape)

be again
by Douglas Messerli
Samuel Beckett Krapp's Last Tape / production of the Gate Theatre Dublin at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Los Angeles on November 4, 2012

Actor John Hurt's portrayal of Krapp in Beckett's 1958 play is absolutely brilliant, except for, perhaps, the near interminable pause before the actor begins speaking. The stark setting of the play, with a single spots of bright white light, gives a grand theatricality to Krapp's world, a world in which, under the light, he feels safe while being surrounded by darkness wherein, as Beckett himself described it, "Old Nick" or death awaits, a fact Hurt reiterates once or twice by daring, with some humor, to enter, momentarily, the surrounding darkness.

     On his sixty-ninth birthday Krapp, yet again, forces himself to interact with a younger incarnation. It is clear that Krapp has a fixation with his former selves. For years he has recorded tapes describing his life's events, most of them quite meaningless, but some of them of great poetry and sensibility. The tape Krapp chooses on this particular, rainy night, is "Box 3, Spool 5," the day Krapp turned 39.

     Yet director Michael Colgan reveals that what leads up to his playing the tape is as important in some senses as what is actually on the tape itself. The ritualistic acts, Krapp's continual checking of the time, his strange way of eating a banana—he puts the entire banana into his mouth holding it there for a while before biting it off, clearly a bow to the fruit's sexual suggestions—and several of his other actions, including his nearly falling on the banana peel he has tossed into the dark, reveal him as a kind of eccentric fool—in short, the typical Beckett figure. As his name suggests, he is "full of shit."

     Hurt presents Krapp with a kind of valor despite his obvious distancing of himself from the human race. Clearly Krapp's mother has been a monster, living for years in a world of "vidiuity"—the condition of being or remaining a widow. The small things he describes are both comical and life-affirming: playing ball with a dog as his mother dies, awarding the ball to the dog as he hears of his mother's death; attending a vesper service as a child, falling off the pew.

Krapp is an everyday man with romantic aspirations, or at least he was, it is apparent, at age 39, the time when we are all have arrived in the prime of life. Krapp at 39 is both a smug bore,

Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indulgence until that
memorable night in March at the end of the jetty, in the
howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the
whole thing. The vision, at last. This fancy is what I have chiefly
to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done
and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the
miracle that . . . (hesitates) . . . for the fire that set it alight.
What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going
on all my life, namely—(Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape
forward, switches on again)—

a man who will not regret any decision of his life, and is a man amazingly come alive through the love of a woman whom he describes lovingly in a scene where the two lay in a small punt as it floats into shore through the reeds.

     The older Krapp, who realizes that his younger self could not imagine the loneliness and emptiness of the life ahead, has no patience at times with his past. His new tape, which he begins after impatiently winding the older tape ahead to escape his previous self's blindness, is filled with bitterness and anger for a failed life:

Nothing to say, not a squeak. What's a year now? The sour cud and
the iron stool. (Pause.) Reveled in the word spool. (With relish.)
Spooool! Happiest moment of the past half million. (Pause.) Seventeen
copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries
beyond the seas. Getting known. (Pause.)

He has failed, obviously, even in his writing career. Unlike his younger self, so unregretful of his past, the old Krapp is filled with the detritus of his life, all those materials left over from his disintegration. If the younger Krapp declares himself as only moving forward, the elder would "Be again!"
Be again in the dingle on a Christmas Eve, gathering holly, the
red-berried. (Pause.) Be again on Croghan on a Sunday morning,
in the haze, with the bitch, stop and listen to the bells. (Pause.)
And so on. (Pause.) Be again, be again. (Pause.) All that old
misery. (Pause.) Once wasn't enough for you. (Pause.)
Lie down across her.

He gives up this, his last tape (or perhaps simply his latest) to listen again to his former self describing his sexual moment with the woman in the punt.

       Hurt so painfully suffers and loves his former self—at one moment even embracing the machine through his young speaks—that one can almost hear his heart crack.

Los Angeles, November 6, 2012
A slightly different version of this piece about the filmed version with Hurt was published in My International Cinema (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2012).

Douglas Messerli | "Spiritual Uplift" (on Leonard Bernstein's Trouble iln Tahiti)

Spiritual Uplift
by Douglas Messerli


Leonard Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti / performed by the Pacific Opera Project, Santa Monica, California (the production I saw was on Sunday, April 15, 2012)

In early April 2012, my companion Howard heard on the radio of a young Los Angeles opera company’s plans to revive their first operatic production, Trouble in Tahiti, in a small theater space in a Santa Monica park. He immediately called for tickets.

On Sunday, April 15th, the day after we had watched the HD-live production of the MET’s La Traviata, Howard and I attended this amateur production of the Pacific Opera Project. The singers, all of whom had performed in small companies and in lesser roles in professional opera groups, introduced themselves, first performing—almost as a sort of bonus and promotion for their upcoming production, in Pasadena, of Cosi Fan Tutte—a medley of works from the Bernstein songbook, including numbers from Wonderful Town and West Side Story. Although their performances were certainly competent, the actors hammed-up their numbers a great deal, and their vocal ranges were not always best suited for the musical theater numbers they performed.

Their performance of Trouble in Tahiti, however, was near perfect—at least vocally. Using a minimal set of interlinked, painted walls, the trio of the girl (Tara Alexander) and two boys (Robert Norman and Ryan Reithmeier) perfectly captured Bernstein’s jazz-inspired riffs on “the little white house” in the numerous American suburbs where they exist. Jessica Marmey and Phil Meyer expertly played the central couple, Dinah and Sam, as they fight, battle, and wander through a day in their tortured lives, each escaping into fantasy worlds—Sam into his vision of male-bonded powe-broker and Dinah into the romance of the movie she has seen, loved, and yet mocks. Her lovely aria of a dream world of “a quiet place,” was particularly well done; indeed such longing almost breaks the heart. But this is a couple, after all, who both make up excuses, when they encounter each other in the city, why they cannot share lunch, only to sit, each of them, lonely and unfulfilled.

The remarkable thing about this small production is that, playing where it did, in a small local park in an intimate theater with about sixty audience members, both Howard and I were absolutely charmed by this theatrical experience in way that, after so many years of professional theater and opera, one begins to forget is at the heart of the art. It is a bit like attending a high school performance of a musical or opera about which one has little expectations, but is suddenly astounded by the freshness and resplendent originality of the work. While the film version I review elsewhere on this blog was brilliantly conceived and performed, this smaller production seemed somehow to get at the very heart of Bernstein’s simple two-piece operatic melodrama. And we both left the theater filled with a new kind of wonderment for both the piece and these young performers. Sometimes one simply has to go back to the roots of how one came to love theater and opera in the first place, to rediscover the simple marvel of talented individuals standing upon—in this case—a nearly empty stage and opening their mouths to sing out the pleasures and sorrows of life. Unlike all the productions of operas we have recently seen, the singers of this Trouble in Tahiti stood outside the entrance to the theater after the performance like the minister and chorus of a small town church to greet their congregation. We all shook hands and went home spiritually uplifted.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2012

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Pure Poetry" (on Cole Porter's Anything Goes)

pure poetry
by Douglas Messerli
P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, revised by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, revised again by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman (book), Cole Porter (music and lyrics) Anything Goes / the production I saw was on December 1, 2012 at Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles

The musical Anything Goes has been rewritten so many times, adding Porter’s songs from other musicals while subtracting several of the original songs, that one might almost describe what I witnessed the other day as a shadow of its first conception, even if, arguably, the layering revisions have burnished it into a better work. Most of the changes, however, have been to the story, and since the silly couplings and un-couplings of the work hardly matter, it is hard to be interested in the “ur-text.” I will be glad to except Timothy Crouse’s and John Weidman’s assurances that they were “purists” “but only to a point.” What is important is that they restored as much of Porter’s score as they could, adding only three wonderful Porter songs “Friendship,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye.”
The story, in fact, pretty much lives up to the musical’s title, the characters almost changing partners willy-nilly. This time round nightclub singer (former evangelist?) Reno loves Billy, Billy loves Hope, Hope pretends to love Lord Evelyn Oakleigh but really loves Billy, Lord Evelyn loves Reno, Elisha Whitney loves Evangeline Harcourt, and Erma loves everybody. Enough said. The book—whatever version you choose—makes soap operas, by comparison, look like grand operas. “Frothy” is the appropriate word.

      Yet this chestnut has been immensely popular since its 1934 opening in New York, running 420 performances even during the great depression, and reappearing in successful productions in England and New York in 1935 (261 performances), 1962, 1987 (784 performances), 1989 and 2011 (521 performances). What I saw was a sold-out performance of the touring version of the 2011 production. Why has it succeeded again and again?

     The answer, quite obviously, is not just a cast of talented singers and dancers (a requirement of course!) but Cole Porter, who in this and other works turns what might have been tin-pan ditties into pure American poetry. Sure, the music itself is spritely and often borders on a kind regularized jazz. But those words! No one, not even Stephen Sondheim, can write as wittily idiomatic lyrics while pulling his audiences into a kind of licentious world that hints of everything from adultery and drug addiction to sexual orgies and open homosexuality, with his characters simultaneously hoofing up innocent-seeming line dances across the stage.

      The fun begins with this show’s very first song, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” where Broadway libertine Reno Sweeney (the talented Rachel York) tells Billy about her frigidity concerning everyday life:

                                 I get no kick from champagne.
                                 Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all,
                                 So tell me why should it be true
                                 That I get a kick out of you?
                                 Some get a kick from cocaine.
                                 I’m sure that if I took even one sniff
                                 That would bore me terrific’ly too
                                 Yet I get a kick out of you.

The whole idea of sexual excitement being likened to a “kick,” compared to champagne and cocaine would be unimaginable in Irving Berlin’s near-Puritanized romances. Berlin could be funny, even witty, but couldn’t be funny, witty, and naughty at the same time. When Berlin’s characters said they loved someone they meant it, for all time. For Reno and numerous other characters of Porter’s world love my haunt one, even torture one, but it was seldom seen as permanent and could even be an everyday occurrence, something to traffic in, something someone might what to “buy”—just like champagne and cocaine.

     Or consider the wonderful shifts in the notion of “friendship” in the song titled that. It begins as a song of spirited support of one being for another, in this case the musical’s two major “hustlers,” Reno and Moonface Martin (the 13th most wanted criminal):

                  If you’re ever in a jam, here I am
                  If you’re ever in a mess, S.O.S.
                  If you’re so happy, you land in jail. I’m your bail.

But gradually as they each try to outdo one another is imagining life-saving necessities, the song becomes a kind of contest which reveals that underneath their “perfect friendship” there is not only an open competiveness but a true hostility:

                  If they ever black your eyes, put me wise.
                  If they ever cook your goose, turn me loose.
                  If they ever put a bullet through your brain, I’ll complain.

The lyrics grow even more outlandish as they imagine the worst for one another:

                   If you ever lose your mind, I’ll be kind.
                   And if you ever lose your shirt, I’ll be hurt.
                   If you ever in a mill get sawed in half, I won’t laugh.

It finally ends with imagining each other being eaten by cannibals, in which the second half answers “invite me.”

     These are not the words of supportive human beings, but of criminals who might turn on each other in a minute. Pluming the unconscious depths of American’s fascination with violence—notably present in the entertainments of the 1930s—Porter has created almost a paean to the macabre, a world wherein people land up in jail, put bullets through brains, lose their minds, get sawed in half, and are consumed by cannibals, lines somewhat reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’ observation “the pure products of America / go crazy” and Allen Ginsberg’s opening line in Howl: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….”

     Hearing once more the musical’s title song, “Anything Goes,” I realized that, once again, the most important thing about this work is its lyrics—which unfortunately, in the quick-paced rhythms, got somewhat lost in York’s rendition; suddenly it became clear to me that the original Reno, played by Ethel Merman, with her emphatic pronunciations of every word, may have been the perfect Porter interpreter.

     Like the peeved reactions of conservative parents through the mid 1960s, Porter presciently reiterates the very same issues of change in his opening refrain:

                                    Times have changed
                                    And we’ve often got a shock,
                                    When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
                                    If today,
                                    Any shock they should try to stem,
                                    ‘Stead of landing of Plymouth Rock,
                                    Plymouth Rock would land on them.

The song goes on to explain the topsy-turvy morality of the contemporary world:

                                     The world has gone mad today
                                     And good’s bad today,
                                     And black’s white today,
                                     And day’s night today,
                                     When most guys today
                                     That women prize today
                                     Are just silly gigolos

Porter might almost have added: “Or are gay today.” Indeed, Porter does add himself, indirectly, to that list:

                                     Good authors too who once knew better words,
                                     Now only use four letter words
                                     Writing prose, Anything Goes.

The incessant repetition of the word “today” simply reiterates the inescapable contem-poraneity of it all, the insistence of this song’s presentness without past or future. Porter’s world—at least in this musical—is without guilt or consequence, a godless place where “grandma’s who are eighty” sit in nightclubs getting “matey with gigolos,” where  “mother’s pack and leave poor father” to become “tennis pros,” and “The set that’s smart / Is intruding in nudist parties in studios.”  It is a world we all imagine we live in or, at least, might liked to have lived in, even if the truth is something far different; and for that reason, the elderly audience with whom I sat at the matinee performance, instead of being even slightly taken aback, leaned forward with complete enthusiasm, as the cast tap-tap-tapped.

In such an “anything goes” atmosphere Porter was freed up to even question the normal structure of his songs, to query and even challenge the standard introductory lead-ins and normalized language of Broadway music:

                           I feel a sudden urge to sing
                           The kind of ditty that invokes the spring

                           I’ll control my desire to curse
                           While you crucify the verse.

                           This verse I started seems to me
                           The Tin-Pantithesis of a melody.

                            So spare us all the pain,
                            Just skip the darn thing and sing the refrain…      

Of course, what they sing is “delightful, delicious, de-lovey, delirious” in its de-construction of the English language, letting themselves go in thrilling, drilling (de-de-de-de) of words that suggest being out of control.

Indeed, Porter’s lyrics almost always seem to be slightly over the top, about to spill over into pure ridiculousness as they finally do in “You’re the Top,” where the same couple, Reno and Billy, again in an attempt to outdo one another, compare each other with almost anything that comes to mind, from the Louvre Museum, to a symphony by Strauss, to a Shakespeare sonnet and even Mickey Mouse. Blithely jumping across the bodies of outstanding individuals, expensive drinks, glorious visions of nature, national institutions, celebrity salaries, to end in marvelous industrial creations, moving across the whole society as if it were all of one glorious piece, again not unlike Williams in his Spring and All.

                                        You’re the top!
                                        You’re Mahatma Gandhi.
                                        You’re the top!
                                        You’re Napoleon Brandy.
                                        You’re the purple light
                                        Of a summer night in Spain,
                                        You’re the National Galley
                                        You’re Garbo’s salary,
                                        You’re cellophane.

Never has the simple metaphor been used to such an extreme example! At one grand moment the couple compare each other to the great romantic poets only to suddenly drop into the most banal of American consumer products:

                                         You’re Keats.
                                         You’re Shelley,
                                         You’re Ovaltine. (,)

hinting at the purist poetry possible!

Los Angeles, December 4, 2012