Monday, April 14, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "The Man Who Stands Alone" (on Ibsen's An Enemy of the People)

the man who stands alone

by Douglas Messerli

Henrik Ibsen An Enemy of the People, translated from the Norwegian by Rebecca Lenkiewicz / L.A. Theatre Works, at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater, the performance we attended was a matinée on April 12, 2014

The actors in this production were all competent stage, television, and film actors, including Gregory Harrison (as Peter Stockman), Richard Kind (Dr. Thomas Stockman), Rosalind Ayres (as Stockman’s wife, Catherine), and the veteran Alan Mandell (Morten Kiil, Catherine’s aged father). But the L.A. Theatre Works does stage their plays, but rather presents them as radio broadcasts, and the declarative mode of such productions has always left me cold, and the actors, speaking into microphones, often read their lines as if they were pronouncements instead of interactions and conversations between the play’s characters. I’ve noticed this tendency in numerous radio productions, even with the Orson Welles Theater group, who on film are quite brilliant, but over the booming microphone sound like they performing in a high school speech contest. Perhaps it is only “mode” of acting that a good director might rid his actors of; certainly I have attended wonderful “readings” of plays that did not involve radio broadcast. But, this production seemed, at times, as if each actor was trying to outshout the others.     

    If nothing else, however, such radio productions do give a strong sense of the drama’s actual structure and the clear expression of the lines the actors speak. Although I had a few qualms with the new translation of Rebecca Lenkiewicz—at times she translated the language of the 1880s Norway in a contemporized English that made the play a little “folksy” for my taste—basically the English language version served the original well.

      The character of Dr. Thomas Stockman is a rather complex one, since he begins the play as a rather naïve would-be hero, who believes his discovery of the pollution of the town’s major tourist attraction, the local curative baths, will be feted by all, including his conservative brother, Peter, the town mayor. At first, he seems to have the strong support of the local newspaper in the form of its editor, Hovstad (Josh Stamberg) and his young assistant, Billing (Jon Matthews). But when the mayor becomes determined to ignore his brother’s report, he also quickly changes the minds of the supposedly radical newsmen by explaining to them that a reconstruction of the water source of the baths will cost taxpayers thousands of kroners and will surely close the baths themselves—the town’s major financial resource—for at least three years!

     I’ve always felt that the sudden transition of those who appear to be some of the most open-minded men of the city from the Doctor’s supporters to his enemies creaked a bit. True, the mayor’s logic—that if the city were to accept his brother’s allegations, it would go bankrupt—is compelling; but their traitorous turn, from rabble rousers to men who would, like everyone else, play it safe, is difficult to accept. But then, so too is Thomas Stockman’s private belief that to the town may even celebrate his dire news with a parade in his honor! All the characters except for the single-minded mayor and Catherine’s old father—the town’s curmudgeonly wealthy tannery-owner (the major source of the pollution)—quickly become figures perfectly willing to throw away their stated values with the news of Stockman’s discovery,. Even the doctor, who fights for his beliefs to the very end, gradually shifts from a man completely involved with his community and its people to an isolated figure who proclaims Ibsen’s somewhat disturbing declaration that the “majority if always wrong,” and that only a special few have the vision to perceive the truth.

      Ibsen’s Nietzsche-inspired statements seem, at times, dangerously close to fascism and, in particular, to the later German postulates of their superiority as a race. While certainly we sympathize with the Doctor for his failed attempts to tell the truth and his attempt to keep his ability to look his sons and his family in the eyes, it is also hard not condemn him for his strong sense of self-righteousness. And the nightmarish series of events, including the loss of his job, his home, his children’s legacy, and his daughter’s job becomes, in the end, a kind of choice he has purposely made, abandoning everything else in his life for his vendetta against those who will not accept his truth.

       In any community of denial, one has to also comprehend why the deniers refuse what appears so obvious to the truth-tellers. Yes, it stems, often, from ignorance, lack of education, bureaucracy, greed, and self-interest; but that does not mean that these issues can be easily categorized or ignored. If the Doctor ends the play, as he declares, as the strongest in the community because he “stands alone,” “the enemy of the people” is still just that, a suborn enemy who will unlikely convince anyone else. And there is a true danger that he may, years later, become a bitter outsider like his father-in-law. And, in that sense, Ray’s film version, where the Doctor ultimately takes his news outside of the community in order to effect change within, is far more plausible. Ibsen’s Stockman may be determined to stand his ground in the small community which he once loved, but without any political savvy, he may simply be starving himself and his family—both intellectually and physically—from the necessities they need in order to survive. It is almost, in Ibsen’s vision, that through Stockman’s isolation, the rest of the world does not exist; it is important to remember that the Doctor has severely complained to the northern outpost where he served before returning to his beloved hometown. Even Hamsun’s hungry writer in Hunger perceived that he may have leave the country in order to survive. Thomas Stockman’s “strength” may also be his greatest weakness. Just as the newspaper typesetter, Aslakan (Tom Virtue) always preaches “moderation,” the good Doctor of An Enemy of the People always preaches a kind of extremism. There are times when you can’t save a society that doesn’t want to be saved. And we, outside the play, know that, in the end, the truth will out; after the baths sicken future tourists, both the spas and tannery will surely be abandoned and closed.


Los Angeles, April 13, 2014

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Video of Lotte Lenya | from Brecht and Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Attached is a video of Lotte Lenya singing "Moon of Alabama" from Brecht and Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Bye Bye Love" (on the Everly Brothers and the death of Phil Everly)

bye bye love
by Douglas Messerli

      On July 14, 1973, performing at Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California, Don Everly, who showed up drunk to the gig, muffed some of the lyrics to the duo’s 1960 hit “Cathy’s Clown,” in response to which his younger brother, Phil, began arguing with him. Don smashed his guitar and left the stage, never to return. Phil, left on stage alone, announced to the audience that “The Everly Brothers died ten years ago! *
    Although they performed together, from time to time, over the years following, including at a described “reunion concert” at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1983, and a year later released a new album, EB 84, the relationship continued to be fractious, for what has been described as political—Don is a Democrat, while his brother was Republican—and life-style choice issues.

Only with Phil’s death, at the age of 74, on January 3rd of the year, did his elder brother again speak out, declaring how much he missed his brother, and wished that Phil could have lived long to know that, in early April, the Library of Congress had chosen their “Cathy’s Clown” for inclusion in the National Recording Registry.
     In retrospect it is sad that one of the major US singing duos—highly influential to so many individuals and singing groups such as The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkfel (interestingly enough, two other performing groups who split up, seemingly, too early)—had been pulled apart, basically upending careers that had once been so glorious.
          Certainly, there had been signs of tension long before, particularly when it was announced that both brothers were addicted to speed and Don suffered a nervous breakdown while they were touring in the United Kingdom in 1960.
    In retrospect, it might have been apparent, almost from the beginning of their career that the brothers might have difficulties in performing together over the decades. The look-alike Everly brothers, with their pretty-country-boy faces and 1950s-styled pompadours, sang in close harmonies which almost stood as a metaphor of what their audiences might idealize as an intense brotherly love that could be interpreted by screaming young admirers, both male and female, as filial or—in their twin-like allure—as bordering on the incestuous.
      Unlike the later songs of the Beatles, whom they strongly influenced, and whose lyrics were generally upbeat declarations of love (for example “She Loves You”), the Everly brothers sang mostly of failed relationships resulting in tears and heartbreak for the males left behind. Their first major hit, by songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and performed by the Everlys when their were 15 and 17, began with an already failed relationship, declaring the end of love from its very first line: “Bye bye love / Bye bye happiness / Hello loneliness / I think I’m-a gonna cry-y” Their wailing close harmonics, punctuated by Don’s steel guitar that emphatically reiterates that love is over, leaves the two handsome males (narratively speaking, one voice) on stage in tears.

In another of their early hits, “Wake Up Little Susie,” lyrics again written by the Bryants, the boy and girl may not be breaking up, but it is clear that, after having fallen asleep in the movie theater and staying out far past their permitted hour, that their “goose is cooked,” their “reputation shot.” Even by evidently not doing anything wrong, they must now face parents and friends whose judgment of them cannot even be expressed in English but must be replaced by a kind of French phrase “Ooh la la!” The wake up call is also a cry that their relationship is finished.
      Even their ballad of love and desire, “All I Do Is Dream” keeps the lover at a distance, as the two (again speaking as a unified I) can only imagine love. “I can make you mine, taste your lips of wine / Anytime night or day.” But in doing so the lover’s life becomes completely empty: “Only trouble is, gee whiz / I’m dreamin my life away.”
      Don Everly’s memorable “Cathy’s Clown,” is another story of failed love and community mockery:
                      Don't want your love any more                                   

                      Don't want your kisses, that's for sure

                      I die each time I hear this sound

                      Here he comes, that's Cathy's clown

     In song after song, the Everly brothers express not only thwarted love, but the effects of their failure to be loved in terms of tears and death, and, accordingly the two close harmony singers seem nearly always to be lamenting a life apart from love’s fulfillment. As in the song “Bird Dog,” there is always a Johnny around to steal “their” girl. The brothers were compelled to dream of love, begging women to “Let It Be Me,” without actually finding the love they seek.

     When the Beatles first appeared on the scene in the early 1960s, I couldn’t, at first, quite comprehend their significance, whereas, throughout the late 1950s, as a young homosexual Iowan (the Everly family had lived for several years in Shenandoah, Iowa before the brothers moved to Nashville), I immediately, if only subliminally, recognized their allure—just as I did, a few years later, that of the Simon and Garfunkel duo, who every gay man must have, at one time or another, imagined as a sexual couple. In comparison the Beatles seemed too witty, chipper, and self-satisfied to ever “cry or die.” They nearly always got the girl.                
       For two heterosexual guys who, evidently, lived later in loving relationships with women, that produced several offspring, the tensions of playing the somewhat ambiguous roles which their music demanded of them must have been extremely complex. Add to that fact that they had been forced to sing together for years earlier by their performing father and mother, Ike and Margaret, and you can begin to comprehend their sibling rivalries. Don, so it has been reported, was jealous of his brother’s “lilting tenor voice,” and both felt a bit left behind with the British invasion of The Beatles, The Hollies, and other groups—made to feel a bit “old fashioned” long before their influence had waned. One can ultimately understand their inabilities to share the stage with their “other”; their on-stage personas didn’t match the offstage realities of their lives. They may have loved one another, as Don argues, every day of their lives; but that love, as expressed so beautifully in their music, was not the same as the metaphor their performances demanded of them. In real life, they were simply brothers, people with very different personalities and private lives.

*Some sources claim the opposite, that Phil destroyed his guitar, storming off stage, leaving Don on stage to declare the duo’s death. I have based my comments on Ray Connelly’s April 5, 2014 piece in London’s Daily Mail.

Los Angeles, April 5, 2014