Tuesday, April 25, 2017

STYLE

In his “Books for Living,” Will Schwalbe refers to a friend as having an enjoyable style in his writing. He does not elaborate on what made it enjoyable. But whatever it was, it had to be basically in one of two modes, formal or informal, literary or conversational. Each is subject to personal variations, but by one or the other category all writing is subsumed.

The formal style (think, for example, Flaubert) is one as close to poetry as prose can get. It uses profuse imagery, vast vocabulary, careful rhythm, and distinct cadence. It can be rightly called elegant or, in French, soigné. The informal is the way one talks, full of hesitancies, parentheses, digressions, often needless elaborations, uncorseted utterance (think, for example, Whitman.)

It is perfectly possible to score in either manner, just as one can fail in either. The former can become too demanding, too tiring; the latter, too casual, too vague. But both can charm us equally. For the formal style, take this speech attributed by Walter Savage Landor in one of his “Imaginary Conversations” to Aesop, who was for a time a Roman slave, to Rhodope, a young female slave: Laodamia died; Helen died; Leda, the beloved of Jupiter, went before. It is better to repose in the earth betimes than to sit up late; better than to cling pertinaciously to what we feel crumbling under us, and to protract an inevitable fall. We may enjoy the present while we are insensible of infirmity and decay: but the present, like a note in music, is nothing but as it appertains to what is past and what is to come. There are no fields of amaranth on this side of the grave; there are no voices, O Rhodope! that are not soon mute, however tuneful; there is no name, with whatever emphasis of passionate love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last.

No wonder that this is part of an imaginary conversation; no real one can be styled like this. Note what ingenuity, how much, if you will, style has gone into this passage. Observe the refrain-like near repetitions, the balances between phrases, the use of some fancy words (appertains, pertinaciously) the canny reference to Laodamia, who followed her beloved husband into the underworld and in one version of the myth threw herself on his funeral pyre. Catch the echo between “however” and “whatever,” also the dying fall, achieved partly by using “of which” rather than “whose.” 

For another example, take Oscar Wilde’s tribute to Walter Pater, whom he somewhat underappreciated when, as an Oxford undergraduate, he got to know him. “But Mr. Pater’s essays became to me ‘the golden book of spirit and sense, the holy writ of beauty.’ They are still this to me. It is possible, of course, that I may exaggerate about them. I certainly hope that I do; for where there is no exaggeration there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding. It is only about things that do not interest one, that one can give a really unbiassed opinion; and this is no doubt the reason why an unbiassed opinion is always absolutely valueless.” Wilde goes on to eulogize Pater, and we come upon this insight: “The critical pleasure . . . that we receive from tracing, through what may seem the intricacies of a sentence, the working of the constructive intelligence, must not be overlooked.” So here we have one great stylist about another one.  Except for the curious double “s” in “unbiassed”(which may be the British spelling), I could not agree more.

But what now of the opposite, the unbuttoned style? Perhaps the most enthusiastic exponent of it I can think of is the music critic of The New Criterion, Jay Nordlinger. Here he is reviewing a recital by the pianist Igor Levit, which focused on a work by Frederic Rzevski, “Dreams II.” Herewith Nordlinger: “Composers have given us many pieces about bells, and one of those composers is Rachmaninoff. Who wrote ‘The Bells.” a choral symphony. . . Rzewski’s  ‘Bells’ is very belly indeed. Each note has its purpose, and each is placed just so. There is an earnestness about ‘Bells,’ even a gravity. The idiom is something like ‘tonal-sounding atonality,’ to borrow phrase from Lorin Maazel. As I listened to the piece, I thought it sounded Japanese. Is that because, in the program notes, I had just read about the connection between Rzawski’s ‘Dreams” and Kurosawa’s? You have to watch these outside influences, these extra-musical influences. . . . The third piece, ‘Ruins,’ begins with Bachian counterpoint. Actually, I thought of Shostakovich, channeling Bach. (Igor Levit began his recital with some preludes and fugues of Shostakovich) ‘Ruins’ gets grand, very grand, and goes on an on, grandly. Is this visionary or merely undisciplined? I’m inclined toward the latter. “ This, however artfully constructed, conveys sheer spontaneity: spontaneous, improvisatory, conversational stuff, however, I repeat, deliberately replicated.

Not all unbuttoned writing is quite this unbuttoned, but all of it is less formal, rhetorical, more natural-sounding, more pajamas than tuxedos. To be sure these categories are not hermetically self-contained: even a formal writer has informal passages; even an informal one has corseted patches. What I am proposing here under the heading Style is for you to consider what is involved in various styles and appreciate the diversity.

In this context, let me give you another example of the natural, even chatty, style. This one is from Mark Twain. “A few years ago a Jew observed to me that there was no uncourteous reference to his people in my books, and asked how it happened. It happened because the disposition was lacking. I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is
 that a man is a human being—he can’t be any worse.” I can’t help feeling a certain irony here. The statement means that to be human is good enough. But can it not imply that there is nothing worse than fallible man? That it is bad enough just to be a man, regardless of race or religion?

As J. A. Cuddon puts it in his wonderful “Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory’—a book I recommend to anyone who is interested in literature or writing in its many aspects—“style defies complete analysis or definition (Remy de Gourmont  put the matter tersely when he said that defining style was like trying to put a sack of flour in a thimble) because it is the tone and ‘voice’ of the writer himself; as peculiar to him as his laugh, his walk, his handwriting and the expression on his face. The style, as Buffon put it, is the man.”

Style, however, is something you choose, not something you’re born with. Accordingly, you choose “heavenly” or “celestial,” “tearful” or “lachrymose,” “jolly” or “cheerful,” “funny” or “droll” or “comical,” “person” or “individual,” “awkward” or “clumsy,” “typical” or “characteristic,” “shape” or “form,” “travel” or “voyage,” “hereafter” or “henceforward,” “choose” or “pick” or “select,” “something or other” or “je ne sais quoi.”  Choosing between them heads you toward Landor and Wilde, or Nordlinger and Twain, informal or formal. It enables you, consciously or unconsciously, to espouse a formal or informal style.

But if you are, or aspiring to be, a writer, a style you must have; without it, you are nowhere, a nonentity.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Barbara Hugo



Her name was Barbara Hugo, and she was beautiful, and perhaps a touch otherworldly in her delicate loveliness. But let me make clear, she was no fragile, pretty-pretty China doll. Perhaps more like Pre-Raphaelite Alexa, a slender, exquisite mistress-model of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, really too good for the likes of him. She was very much flesh and blood, only her flesh was somehow soft-spoken, like her clear voice.

A light brunette, she must have been about five-foot-seven, and her bearing and walk were as graceful as bearing and walk can be. But it was all somehow understated without being wishy-washy, with the softness of a pillow, not an ice cream cone.

She was married to Richard Hugo, chunky and rather unprepossessing. A tolerable poet, he was at the University of Washington along with several other disciples or acolytes of the residing genius, the poet Theodore Roethke. I considered him a good minor poet, and was never forgiven for uttering it by the entire English department. I taught at the University for a year, and of course had some use for the library. The library whose librarian was Barbara Hugo. According to the poet J. V. Cunningham reflecting back, I managed to alienate everybody at U of W. But not Barbara Hugo.

It was enchantment at first sight for me, and something like it for her at second. We started seeing each other. I was subletting a one-room ground-floor apartment where Barbara started coming to me on afternoons. The window was always open, and I can still summon up the excitement of hearing the clickety-clack of her high heels approaching on the pavement. It was as lovely as any music I ever heard, perhaps even more so.

  Once in the room, she and I got on top of the bed, but never inside it. We indulged in all kinds of loving sexual play, but there was never any real intercourse. She disallowed any penetration, out of some weird kind of minimal fidelity to her husband.

This went on for most of my year at the university, an instructor in the English and Comparative Literature Department. It is curious how I have forgotten the details of our relationship (if that’s the word for it). I do remember, however, how she told me one day that she had dreamt of still being the unmarried Barbara Williams in her parents’ house, and me driving a car through all the walls to her bedroom. One did not have to be a Freudian to interpret that dream.

As I was headed back East to Cambridge and Harvard, I had to transport some of my stuff from somewhere to somewhere else, I cannot recall from where to where, but there was a lot of schlepping to do and Barbara very touchingly helped. We were both broken-hearted, only slightly comforted by the promise of writing to each other. Nothing more. She had her husband, and I had a sexy student mistress who called herself Cheryle, in incorrect imitation of Lana Turner’s daughter Cheryl.
She joined me in Cambridge and, huge mistake, I ended up marrying her.

  Still, Barbara and I continued our affectionate correspondence until Cheryle dis-
covered Barbara’s hidden letters and, I presume, burned them. In any case, they have vanished. Barbara remained a memory that could not compete with reality, however prosaic. But marriage to Cheryle ended in a not very distant divorce.

A few years later, I attended a reading at the 92nd Street Y by Carolyn Kaiser , a poet I had befriended in Seattle. After the reading, she remarked to me that Barbara Hugo, now divorced, was very lonely, and I should write to her. Carolyn must have known about my “affair” with Barbara.

So I wrote to her, and before long we were again immersed in a glowing correspondence. What made Barbara’s letters even more endearing were the misspellings, droll from a librarian and poet. We decided to meet again as her vacation from the library was imminent. We chose a midway point, Toronto.

I was waiting for her at the airport, and then there she was, as winsome as ever. On the bus to the city, she confided that she had been worried that I might have turned
worse with time; I had similar worries. But we were happily unchanged.

Downtown, she had to go for a haircut, and I could hardly spare her that long. We picked a place called (if I remember correctly) Beaulieu for our French  Canadian holiday, but first she had to buy a bathing suit. The store had only two that fit: a very revealing bikini and I demure black one-piece suit. Barbara asked me to choose, and I chose the latter, which made her extremely happy.

About Beaulieu I can recall only that we felt fulfilled, and one detail. On a bosky hillside, we went picking wild strawberries, and competed for who could gather more. They tasted sweet, we were side by side, and I was pleasantly reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.” If there was a fly in the ointment, it was Barbara’s smoking, which she did keep infrequent.

At the hotel, we met a middle-aged couple who were driving back to Toronto and gave us a lift in the back seat. And then something happened reminiscent of Bergman. You may recall that in the movie the principal couple pick up a pair of young hitchhikers, who fight so vehemently in the back seat that they have to be ejected. Something similar happened to us. Barbara needed a cigarette for which we had to make a stop.

Acrimony ensued. Parting in Toronto (or was it Montreal?), was rather cool, but we professed continued correspondence. That, however, did not endure, and soon ended. There was no further contact.
 
I have now looked in Google, where in Richard Hugo’s bio there is mention of his marriage and of his divorce. No details about Barbara, of course. She could still be alive, but only namesakes can be found. Such delicate persons tend not to be long-lived.

Survival in memory is a melancholy business. So good-bye, Barbara, I loved you.



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Contra Trump

One morning, Lord Byron woke up and found himself famous. One more recent morning, we awoke and found ourselves infamous: Donald J. Trump had been elected President. Only an atom bomb would be a worse alarm clock.

Now you may ask if one did not vote for him, or promulgate him in any fashion, why would one feel guilty. Because what you are surrounded by, submerged in, taints you. Even the time to be spent deriding and deploring him is humiliating, wasted. And, of course, divisive. In a time of plague, even the rare uninfected are bound to be affected. Trump should have been stopped by a joint effort from all of us, though who knows what that might have been other than the nonvote deployed against him, which clearly proved ineffective. So we are stuck with him, his family, his toadies, his ghastly appointees, for years to come, with a couple of weeks of his presidency already proving poisonous.

His very name might have warned us. Donald, Eric Partridge’s informative “Name This Child” tells me, is “the English form of Gaelic Domhnall, [meaning] world-ruler.” Isn’t that the way the Donald sees himself? As for Trump, it has several meanings, one of them, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a helpful and admired person.” I ask you: can you trump that? Evidently part of the man’s delusional repertoire. Finally, there is “trumpery,” defined as “a worthless article” or “junk.” Which covers him, most of his family, and the whole gang of his appointees. Or would you buy a used car from Stephen K. Bannon, or share the views that Mike Pence, with equal measure of fanaticism and smugness, espouses?

Just look at Trump! Even the hair, which, though purportedly genuine, the seventy-year-old surely has blondined, just as he makes his each new spouse that much younger than himself, as if coiffed could constitute coeval. Next, the face, which I would call porcine if it weren’t an insult to honest porkers. Take the way his mouth purses itself into a horrid cuteness, to accompany the childish vocalism and prissy finger and arm gestures. All of which would be laughable if the accompanying utterance weren’t balderdash or a monstrosity. I can think of only one face equally horrible, albeit in a different way, that of Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader.

And what of Trump’s ideas? They run mostly from preposterous to deleterious, with a very rare spark of common sense here and there, though as likely as not an empty boast or promise. And the style? Why, anyone who has read a few good books, which Trump evidently hasn’t, could manage a bit better. But the disheartening thing is that the very grandiloquence and pomposity, snappishness and obloquy are what have turned, even some of his betters, into his defenders, on the naïve assumption that any change has to be for the better. You know the one about the devil we know etc. Still, the majority of Trumpsters seems to consist of uneducated and unemployed whites in the red states, who may well deserve change, but not of this kind.

It is not as if, even so, he had far fewer voters than Mrs. Clinton’s millions. But under the obsolete and absurd system of an Electoral College, no better than the Trump University, the Donald managed to slip in. It should be the eternal shame of the Republicans that they could not come up with a better candidate, although not easy, considering the available field. We did have the overwhelming popular vote, but that manifestly wasn’t enough to get rid of him. So here we are now, at the mercy of a sinister, self-serving sot for years to come. Such narcissism, such egomania, such vengefulness for the slightest disagreement, cannot but wreak substantial harm on this country, this nation.

Our only hope, such as it is, is the courts. The “so-called judge,” as Trump declared the worthy who has been able to foil him, and other judges who joined the opposition, may find  ways to curb Trump, but it will be hard. How does one get around a Republican Congress—all who put party ahead of country? One wonders what circle of hell a contemporary Dante would consign Donald to. Meanwhile what is certain is that he is making America grate, nationally and internationally. But what the hell, he is making Putin happy.

Monday, February 6, 2017

FASHION

What a bizarre, paradoxical, self-contradictory and ephemeral thing is fashion! On the one hand, it challenges haute couture to come up with ever more unique, far out, incomparable women’s clothes, if something that frequently exposes enough flesh to scandalize the conservatives can still be considered clothing. On the other hand, it prods the less affluent to emulate what lesser novelties they can afford. In other, words, it simultaneously stimulates the more daring and moneyed to be wholeheartedly, if often half-nakedly, unique, while encouraging the less fortunate and flamboyant to ignore the runway models while still following trends as much as their means and modesty allow.  

I am concerned here with modern times. I have no idea to what extent, say, the togas of antiquity resembled or differed from one another: what was worn by Demosthenes and Cicero, by Caesar and his assassins, seems all equally like bed-sheets to my unsophisticated eye. My interest in fashion begins with George Bryan Brummell, known as Beau Brummell (1778-1840), a dandy who, contrary to what you might assume, actually launched more simply cut men’s clothes, favoring trousers rather than britches, although still fancying luxuriant neckwear.

Of course, there have been fops (bad) and dandies (okay) from way back, but also aficionados for whom fashion was a more levelheaded affair. Consider Shakespeare’s description of Hamlet as “the glass of fashion and the mould of form,/ The observed of all observers,” clearly intended as a model. Note the implication that he is the mirror in which all observant, discriminating persons would want to see themselves reflected. A fashion plate if you will, but surely no fop.

Yet there are no terms for female dandies, and indeed the chronicles of male and female fashions tell very different stories. The female fops, perhaps, may be called coquettes; the dandies, perhaps, chic or elegant--mere modest adjectives rather than brash nouns. Basically, the difference lies in that standard male attire resists major change, except on hipsters and showoffs. These may wear odd outfits, as to a degree do fanatical male fashionistas, who however are outside my purview. Women of fashion, conversely, go in for seemingly endless variety, ranging from the merely individual and stylish to the grossly outrageous, say from the Duchess of Cambridge to Lady Gaga.

Why the basic conservatism of male fashion and the dizzying diversity of the female? First consider what any clothing is about. It is to hide the so-called private parts of the body, not suited to public display, but also to protect from the weather. Yet why bypass the chance to make this appealing? To whom? To the dignified wearer himself: solid, but with a certain swing to it, say cinched waist and built-up shoulders. This allows for some flexibility, such as the color or length of the jacket and the choice of two or three front buttons. Also the width of the lapel, with higher or lower notch, and number and style of the pockets. Further, the length and finish of the trousers, cuffs or not, tight jeans or even bell bottoms. All relatively minor divergences, though, as between noodles and dumplings.

Accordingly, in its basic traditionalism or steadfastness, male apparel appeals to women looking for solid relationships, even marriage, from the dependable men who wear it, its near-conformity being a kind of sartorial oasis. The only area where men can safely be fanciful is—Brummell again—the necktie, of which I have a profligately profuse collection.

Thus I own scores of expensive ties, with perhaps twenty or thirty different labels, my probable favorites being, in alphabetical order, Abboud, Armani, Brioni, Chanel, Charvet, Fendi, Ferre, Hermes, Lanvin, Loewe, Mila Schön, Nina Ricci, Saint Laurent, Valentino, Versace, and Zegna, and several others (e.g., Celine and Guy Laroche) close at heel. Yet some fastidious Frenchwomen have mocked my zeal for what the French call griffé i.e., featuring prestigious labels, which they take as a sign of snobbery. But, snobbish or not, I got a nice range from them, a variety over the years, enhanced by changes of width, going from splashily wide to chastely narrow, though not quite the present pencil thin, an exiguity that strikes me as almost as bad as narrowness of mind.

But what now of women’s fashions?  Here freedom and diversity reign, from more sources than I can begin to enumerate, so I will limit myself to two great designers, both as it happens Spaniards by birth, but active in France or Italy. They are Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo and the Catalan Cristobal Balenciaga Eisaguirre, the latter referred to as the king of fashion by, among others, Women’s Wear Daily, and by Christian Dior as “the master of us all.” Fortuny because he was a pioneer; Balenciaga because—but here let me quote what Wikipedia has to say of him “the most brain-catching designer of his period because of his structural designs, that were never seen before—a master of tailoring. . . always able to translate his illustrations from paper to real life. . . . Due to his advanced tailoring skills . . . he reshaped women’s silhouette in the 50s” and beyond.

One of the reasons for the variety and exuberance of women’s fashions is that historical tradition has unjustly limited women to such minor pursuits. But it is also true that women strive for threefold appeal: to men, whom they wish to attract; to other women, whom they want to impress; and to themselves, whom they desire to gratify when they look in the mirror.  Which is where colorfulness and gaiety come in, as well as originality and variety.

All this, however, under some control, elegance or chic dictating certain judicious limitations. Many of today’s fashion designers, European or American, adhere to such restraint, but many, alas, do not.  Let me cite two egregious examples. In a photograph in the Times, which I regrettably did not keep, one of the Trump scions was seen escorting (and probably involved with) a fashion model who wore a truly curious dress--or undress. Its upper part consisted of a maze of ribbons, carefully calculated to the centimeter to reveal as much nudity as permissible while  avoiding what might be outright nakedness and considered sartorial porn. There once was a couturier called Rudy Gernreich who actually designed a topless dress, which, however, did not catch on.

My other example—this time excess rather than subtraction—is a picture in the January 29 Times Sunday Styles section, with the following caption: “Chanel’s belted crystalline slip finished in feathers [creating] an impression of modernity.” Down to well below the knee this is a straightforward dress—except for an overbroad, ostentatious, seemingly metallic belt—with two unassuming shoulder straps. It is made of an acceptable black and white, closely patterned fabric, and all is well until the extensive bottom part. From about mid-calf, we get a surrounding, dustbuster-like excrescence, apparently designed not only to ensnare the eye, but also to sweep the floor nearly as well as a broom. All feathery white, but heaven knows what color after the floors finish with it.

So then, if you are very wealthy or very famous, or better yet both, you can get away with gowns that no prudent woman would wear, such as this one with its alleged “impression of modernity.”  Or the one cited above, with its approximation of nudity. Fashion, I repeat, is a strange thing: embraced with taste and moderation—think, for example, Oscar de la Renta or Carolina Herrera—it can be very impressive, yet also, in excess, depressing or even ludicrous.

But beware! Colley Cibber, the second-rate dramatist ridiculed by Alexander Pope, wrote in his 1696 play “Love’s Last Shift”: “As good be out of the world as out of the fashion.”  Even inferior playwrights can occasionally speak the truth.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

TEACHERS

My fans sometimes ask me whether I have learned from other writers, and if so, what and from whom. This does not elicit easy answers for more reasons than one. The first probable influence is that of Homer Nearing, my English teacher at Perkiomen High School, who solicited my input into an epistolary novel he and his far-away girlfriend were collaborating on. My senior year at the superior Horace Mann School, did not contribute any such influence.

At Harvard, I was a student of Harry Levin, and always admired, on a sympathetic rather than systematic basis, the scope of his erudition, his insight, his acuity and wit. But admiration is not necessarily learning. On a friendly basis in conversation, I probably learned a thing or two from Wilfrid Sheed, whose writing I also admired, though his novel “Max Jamison,” as he often persuasively maintained, had nothing to do with me, however often some thought otherwise. But I may have derived my sense of irony in part from him.

Some will mention Dwight Macdonald as a presumptive teacher. He surely was an admired friend, and wrote the somewhat cool introduction to my first critical collection, “Acid Test.” He did question some of my puns, as I may now the more labored ones, but not such good ones as his comment on Hollywood epics about Christ, in which “Romans were always the fall goys.”

Withal I cannot point to any specific lessons to have learned from him, admiration not being synonymous with influence. If Dwight was a model, neither in his writings nor in our many conversations, could one point to specific lessons. We usually agreed on things, as on a shallow lecture by Alberto Moravia we walked away from.

I actually recall most our one major disagreement, on Fellini’s “8 ½.” which he loved, but I found inferior to some of the earlier masterpieces. (I have since come to espouse  several of his points.) In any case, an admirer is not necessarily a disciple.

Regrettably, much as I bought his books and respected his criticism, I cannot lay claim—more’s the pity—to any serious emulation of Edmund Wilson, except to a somewhat similar, though much less extensive, intellectual voracity. I never met him except as an unintroduced bystander while walking with Renato Poggioli, with whom, at an accidental street-corner meeting, he stopped for a briefest of conversations. I was rather envious of friends who got to sit with him at a late-night Cambridge joint, and somehow mentioned my knowledge of Hungarian, which he, in connection with recent readings in translation, remarked on envying.

In English, I favored a number of poet critics such as Ransom, Jarrell, Charles Simic and Robert Graves, whom I enjoyed, along with such non-poets as Leslie Fiedler, Benjamin De Mott, William Pritchard, and the already mentioned Harry Levin. And a novelist-critic such as Vladimir Nabokov.

But I also read a number of German/Austrians, Frenchmen and women, Italians, Spaniards, Scandinavians, and Hungarians, though for some reason no Yugoslavs or Latin Americans. Yet little of it, and that mostly subconsciously, qualifies as teaching. As an occasional writer of verse (I dare not say poet), I learned from a whole bunch of poets, of whom I only mention Graves, Cummings, Ransom, MacNeice and Wilbur, as well as Erich Kaestner, whom I translated, and Jacques Prevert.

I must however look at one possible teacher more particularly: Kenneth Tynan, from whom I hope to have learned irony (just short of sarcasm) and, in so far as this is possible, wit, which, after all is mostly innate and automatic. I cannot resist quoting some of his boutades—here the French imposes itself, with the English sallies, witticisms, epigrams largely subsumed.

“When you have seen all of Ionesco’s plays . . . you have seen one of them.” “Whenever [Chekhov’s] Platonov deceives his wife, he is stung by an attack of remorse so savage that it can be alleviated only by deceiving her with someone else.” “As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have  preferred foam rubber.” “The true objection to [Genet’s “The Balcony”] is that nobody but M. Genet could have written the first half at all, while almost anyone else could have written the second half better.”

Or this: “Synge is often praised for his mastery of cadence, and for the splendor of his dying falls, Dying they may well be, but they take an unconscionable time doing it. Synge seldom lets a simple, declarative sentence alone. To its tail there must be pinned some such trailing tin can of verbiage as—to improvise an example—‘the way you’d be roaring and moiling in the hug of a Kilkenny ditch, and she with a shift on her would destroy a man entirely. I’m thinking, and him staring till the eyes would be lepping surely from the holes in his head.’” These are all negatives, but Ken could also be positive, about which some other time.

I am sorry that I didn’t get to know him better. At my one visit, when I asked him what he thought about my praise in an essay, he responded that it was merely to use him as a cudgel to clobber. George Steiner in the same essay.

Altogether, the question of from whom I may have derived demonstrable teaching is a thorny one, hardly ever fully provable, and except in the cases of full-blown discipleship perhaps not all that important. So much more characteristic and interesting is the innate and perfected independent talent, whatever it may be, and largely derived, however indirectly, from one’s living.

It is as with travel writing. One may get quite a bit from reading other travel writers, but you can truly learn only from your own experience, from your own travels. Even the best teachers are essentially road signs; the true discoveries are based on your own experiences.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Bittersweet

“Sweet Charity” is as good a musical as can lap at the heels of top tier, and can even, in the right production, make it there. It does, after all, have a book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and is based on a movie by Federico Fellini—what better credentials can there be? Now add to this the lead played by Sutton Foster, and you should have a non plus ultra. But some problems remain.

You may recall that this is the story of Charity Hope Valentine, the defiantly optimistic dance hall hostess, a variation on the topos of the whore with the heart of gold, only here not quite a whore and with not only a heart of gold, but indeed, as embodied by Sutton Foster, pure gold from top to toe.

In the 1957 Fellini film, “Notti di Cabiria,” the heroine is in fact a hooker, but for America in 1966 things had to be made a bit more decorous, and Neil Simon’s book, transferring the action from Italy to New York managed to be neither wholly funny nor especially moving. But Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon did make things exciting, a married couple as were Fellini and his Cabiria, Giulietta Masina. And the premiere 608 performances were not too bad for that pre-Fantasticks and pre-Phantom time.

But then as now, much depended on the female star, and Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 movie, like Debbie Allen in the 1986 Broadway revival, did pretty damn well too. Not so much, however, Christina Applegate in the 2005 Broadway version., which made it only to 279 performances, despite commendable support from Denis O’Hare and Paul Schoeffler. How many will the show net this time round?

At the Pershing Square Signature Center, we are offered what may be viewed as a chamber musical version, small-scale and very low-budget. In a small theater, however, with the audience on three sides, one gets to be almost within hugging distance of the superb Sutton, and how well she acts, sings and dances her role, how girlish she manages to look in a blond wig, and how boldly she jumps up to straddle the waist of a new customer, no matter how disappointing the last one was.

Unlike the other girls in this dance hall, for which the good designer Derek McLane has simply designed a porous back wall and a bare wooden floor, Charity, with sweet naivete, hopes that the next client will be her redeemer. It is a bit too hard for that floor to impersonate the river into which a heartless customer, after fleecing her, tosses Charity so she almost drowns, and this is where the film or a grander staging comes off better. But of course sight lines in theater in the round, or even near round, do not allow for much scenery. 

Clint Ramos had no such problem with the costuming, and has done particularly well by the short, inexpensive, pale blue dress, almost like a child’s play dress, which is all Charity has on when not working. Ms. Foster’s wears it with a touching grace.

The big problem here is the low-rent casting. Joel Perez simply isn’t a versatile enough actor for four parts, least of all for that of the older star actor, Vittorio Vidal, who after a tiff with his young girlfriend picks up Charity for a one-night stand, which doesn’t come to much after the girlfriend returns and Charity has to hide in the closet. I did rather like Emily Padgett as a fellow taxi dancer, Helene, but intensely disliked Shuler Hensley as Oscar.

Oscar is the seeming good guy who will apparently marry Charity, but turns out to be another loser, showing his true color when he panics in a stalled elevator with Charity and, terrified, drops his pants. Eventually he too crumps out on Charity, which, given how unprepossessing this overweight actor has become, may make it a blessing when he decamps. It pays off to follow Fellini’s casting of the accountant Oscar with Francois Perier, a presentable if ever so slightly sinister actor. Likewise, the star Vittorio is best played by an actor like Amedeo Nazzari, an older, polished, very popular leading man of the De Sica variety.

The orchestra has been reduced to six women seated visibly on a balcony above the action. The reduced orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell work reasonably well, and such female contribution is fitting. Song like “Hey, Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” and “There’s Got to Be Something Better Than This” are still winners.

But Leigh Silverman, the canny director, has moved to the ending “Where Am I Going,” substituting a semi-dark number for both Simon’s and Fellini’s endings, each somewhat different, but both vaguely hopeful

There remains the all-important matter of the choreography, which from Bob Fosse was innovative and dazzling. That of Joshua Bergasse is more conventional, not bad, but not even as good as the one he did for the last revival of “On the Town.”

Yet finally all this pales in comparison to Sutton Foster performing her customary wonders. You would think that even those dastardly males that toss her about could not resist her; the ecstatic audience certainly can’t.








Thursday, December 8, 2016

More Second Opinions

“Dear Evan Hansen” was, in my view, an undeserved hit Off Broadway, and is so again on Broadway, once more harvesting critical raves as numerous and useless as fallen autumn leaves.

In one respect, though, this show is typical—indeed archetypal—of current musicals: it has poor, monstrously repetitive lyrics, and absolutely not a single tune, either sung or instrumental. It is a wonder that such so-called music can be sung at all, although false notes would fit imperceptibly in.

The contrived and pretentious book is by Steven Levenson, the music and lyrics are by the currently hotshot team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose previous flukes include “Dogfight,” “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” and “James and the Giant Peach.”  All of them should be subtitled “The Musical,” lest the score be mistaken for so much noise.

This is the tale of prototypical nerd Evan Hansen, a high-school kid sorely lacking friends and advised by his shrink to write himself encouraging letters. He signs them “Me.”  One such is printed in the school computer lab and pocketed by a fellow student, Connor Murphy, who later commits suicide due to loneliness and depression.

Connor’s bereaved parents, Larry and Cynthia Murphy, find Evan’As letter signed “Me” in Connor’s pocket, on the basis of which they assume that Connor and Evan were secretly bosom buddies, and, what with Evan loath to disillusion them, more or less adopt him as a substitute son. This partly because his own mother, Heidi Hansen, a single parent constrained to toil at two jobs, has scant time for her boy.

There is also the Murphy daughter, Zoe, the class belle, who warms to Evan as he co-founds, with a couple of other kids (one Jewish, one black—make your own deductions), a manifold memorial, turning the hostile Connor into a posthumous hero, with a feel-good ending for all concerned.

The cast, even under the undistinguished direction of Michael Greif, does well enough—I particularly liked Laura Dreyfus (Zoe), Rachel Bay Jones (Heidi) and, as Evan, Ben Platt, doing almost frighteningly well down to the last stammer and nervous tremor in his legs. The final insult, presumably to epitomize the role of the Internet, consists of dogged but irrelevant projections by Peter Nigrini onto David Korins’s drab, dromomaniac panels, depressingly matching a certifiably tuneless score.

The quasi-autobiographical story of Chazz Palminteri’s early life, “ A BronxTale,” can match any Indian cult of avatars with reincarnations worthy of the phoenix. Having begun as a play and re-emerged as a movie, it now pops up as a musical, with who knows what further variations to come. A comic strip? A ballet?

As a musical, it has lyrics by Glenn Slater and music by Alan Manken, the former an old hand and the latter an all but perennial one. It returns co-directed by Jerry Zaks, another old pro, and Robert De Niro, who co-directed and starred in the movie version. So, you see, there is a kind of Bronx Tale industry, somewhat larger than a cottage one, but just as dedicated. The book of the musical, need I say, continues to be by Chazz.

I won’t go into details of a plot that you can hardly have wholly avoided, but will say that it is the story of a boy with two fathers: the real one, a decent hard-working bus driver, and an adoptive one, Sonny, crime boss of the neighborhood, who took him on after the kid, then nine years old, refused to finger him upon witnessing a flagrant murder.

Chazz figures as the plucky boy and, later, devoted Sonny protege called Calugero, which the gangster, good at cutting lives and names short, reduces to a mere C. As C.  Calugero becomes head of his own, noncriminal gang, and courts a black girl from a neighborhood with which his Italian one has strictly no truck. He does get support and a sexual education from Sonny (which is quite amusing), and, under his real father’s guidance, manages to outlive the murdered Sonny and, we assume, go straight.

The show makes it all amorally jolly, and Sergio Trujillo furnishes it with a lively choreography. There is good scenery from Beowulf Boritt and authentic costuming from William Ivey Long, as well as helpful lighting by Howell Binkley.

But here again, the score, with only passable lyrics, gets second-rate support from the experienced Alan Menken. Having provided music for so many works in various media, largely for Disney, Menken may have depleted his stock that, for his penultimate, “Aladdin,” still managed rather better. Which is not to say that it does not surpass drear [sic] “Evan Hansen.”

 The acting is mostly fine, though I do not prefer the current Calugero, Bobby Conte Thernton, to the previous one at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. But there is one performance that outshines all others, the Sonny of Nick Cordero. This, down to the tiniest threatening facial expression and most sparing minatory gesture, is sheer perfection, making criminality unleashed fun. You may have reservations about everything else, but Cordero, even in an ominous silence, is an ungainsayable last word.

“Sweat” is another show hailed by the reviewers as a masterpiece, though it is not the author’s finest. Lynn Nottage is, along with August Wilson, the black theater’s best; the rest, no matter how many genius awards are lavished on them, are not in the same league. Among Nottage’s virtues are the not inconsiderable ones of never repeating herself, and of basing her work on irreproachable on-site research.

Here she deals with blue-collar workers of uneventful Reading, Pennsylvania; the  bar in which they hang out; their financial, social, emotional problems; their friendships and hostilities; their boozing and gossiping. It is impossible to provide a précis of the goings on, what with nine characters’ tribulations complicatedly interwoven and in constant, however minor, change.

What is particularly good about “Sweat” is the capture of these mentalities and misadventures in the exact language in which they are given voice, rendering them incontrovertibly real. But therein lies also the danger: in this long, perhaps overlong, play, no character commands more than a genuine but transient empathy. Turns and tensions abound, but our feelings are never vitally engaged.

This said, Kate Whoriskey has perceptively directed a persuasive cast, and we can practically smell the beers and hard liquor being prodigally consumed. Except perhaps for Johanna Day, we get a set of most likely unknowns, thus favorably contributing to our not viewing them as actors. In John Lee Beatty’s detailed scenery and Peter Kaczorowski’s unsparing lighting, we get a kind of reality show unknown to television.

The ending may be just a trifle pat, but this is forgivable after the authentic disorder we have been witnessing. You can apply quite a few gritty phrases to the proceedings, but “Don’t sweat it,” is not one of them.

In my opinion, Richard Greenberg , author of numerous plays, has scored only one winner: “Take Me Out,” directed by Joe Mantello and given a flawless production. Otherwise, neither his spotty wit nor his latent sentimentality has carried much weight with me.  It was Frank Rich, in a Times rave review for what may have been Greenberg’s questionable first attempt, who put this smartass on the map despite such blatant turkeys as “The Violet Hour” and “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” among others.

We now have “The Babylon Line,” neither his worst nor his best, but in which Greenberg tries to be a bit different. He has undoubtedly taught some classes in writing, and this is about such a one in unglamorous Levittown on Long Island’s Babylon railway line in what is doubtless some second-rate institution.

The unrewarded but conscientious teacher is the youngish Aaron Port, author seemingly of only one story in an obscure academic journal. His six students are three variously typical Jewish Long Island housewives  and mothers, and a weird, goyish, childless woman, plus one middle-aged man whom life has passed by and one quite oddball younger one, working on the first paragraph of a yet unwritten thousand-page opus . None of these have an easy time providing a piece of writing for discussion, though they do come up with eventual bits, as comic as they are banal.

Joan Dellamond is at least a strange kind of intellectual; Frieda Cohen is humorously commandeering; Anna Cantor is a squeaky mouse; and ludicrous Madge Braverman is somewhere in between. Aaron, in most cases, might have an easier time extracting the entrails from a goose, but, an underpaid and humble commuter from the Village, he tries to do his best.

There are some funny moments, and even a smidgen of pathos in an aborted love story between Aaron and Joan (a partial recluse who dreams of kicking a baby), but somehow the whole thing does not jell. You hope for a resolution, a purpose, at least an arc, but you just keep getting numerous short scenes, on and on, not leading anywhere. A pat ending is mercifully avoided, but something more is desperately needed.

Still, under Terry Kinney’s sedulous direction, an expert cast does yeoman’s work. As Frieda, Randy Graff, one of our finest actresses, is marvelous as a loudmouth and know-it-all, expertly making an annoying character just enjoyable enough but not too lovable. There is lovely work from one of our top comediennes, Julie Halston, as Madge Braverman, who comes into her questionable own, and Maddie Corman, who squeezes maximum life out of subaltern Anna Cantor.

On the men’s side, that most dependable of balding actors, Frank Wood, does touchingly by painfully ordinary Jack Hassenpflug; Michael Oberholtzer, as the untalented fanatic Marc Adams, couldn’t be more droll. The most notable character, Joan, may not be quite nailed by Elizabeth Reaser, but she comes disturbingly close enough. Richard Hoover (set}, Sarah J. Holden (costumes) and David Weiner (lighting) make sterling contributions.

On a show-off level, some of this works passably enough; if you can keep your expectations as low as those of Aaron Post, winningly acted by Josh Radnor, you can have a tolerably good time.

We come now to the modest Off Broadway musical “The Band’s Visit,” which I find slight but likable. Based on an Israeli movie by Eran Kolirin, this is a story of the uniformed Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arriving at an invitation of the Israeli Betah Tikva  Cultural Department to perform at the Culture Center. At the outskirts of Bet Hatikva, they are informed that there is a Petah Tikva or a Bet Hatikva, but no Betah Tikva, and, as the owner of Dina’s Café and hangers out inform them, there is “Not culture, no Israeli Culture, no Arab, no culture at all.”

This leads to the first songs and much comical disputation about where the visitors are or should be, to the probable latter there being no bus any longer till next morning. What follows is the varied fascinating interaction among the Egyptians and sundry Israelis--chiefly, but by no means exclusively, between Dina, the spunky café owner, and Tewfyk, the widowed and repressed conductor of the orchestra.

There are quite a few minor characters with their several intertwined stories, including one family with a variously passed around baby, a young man afraid to woo a desired melancholy young woman, another chap glued endlessly to the sole payphone, hoping for a call from his girlfriend that doesn’t seem to be coming. Also some provocative female soldiers and a character or two whizzing about on roller skates, plus others just waiting for something different to happen.

The show is staged by David Cromer, a famous but somewhat overrated director, who can be effective as he is here, turning turmoil to scenic advantage. Conveyed is a sense of something larger, implied and all-encompassing, that bespeaks a confused and confusing society to which, however, music and goodwill may bring redemption.

The book is by Itamar Moses, whom I don’t trust as a writer, but who proves an acceptable adapter. David Yazbek has provided pleasant music and rather less impressive lyrics, although a kind of love song with “Omar Sharif” for refrain is not without piquancy. At the very least, credit must be given for Tewfiq and Dina not having the expected fling, despite her flagrant efforts.

And speaking of Dina, her embodier, Katrina Lenk, strikes me as the most interesting actress currently on view, displaying a perfect fusion of talent and looks, and easily worth the price of admission. Altogether, this “Visit” is worth visiting.