Saturday, October 7, 2017


A popular miscalculation in my view is the notion of a first and last in literature. Presumably to enhance their subject’s importance, scholars and critics have made out a writer to be the first or last of a kind. The problem is that no sooner is someone proclaimed the first, someone else comes up with an earlier specimen; and hardly has someone been pronounced a last, than somebody produces a later specimen. But what exactly is the benefit of being proclaimed a first or a last

Of course both can be claimed by groups or coteries such as, for example, the Romantics or the Moderns, in which situation a case may be made out for one or another member. But what if, say in a poet, though someone comes early but harks back to a remote precursor, can he or she be fully first? Could not the Pre-Raphaelites be made out a last or a first?  Where exactly would you fit in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, both as poet and as painter? Even harder is picking the last, as nobody knows what the future may bring.

Still, what good precisely is the belonging to either of those categories? Does being an earlier writer make one a better one? Or does being a last achieve that? It may come from dubious analogy with sports, where the fastest runner or the last man or woman standing is winner of a special laurel and plaudits. But to go back to poetry, is Chaucer better than Shakespeare because his “Troilus and Criseyde” comes before Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”? Why should art be comparable to sport? Physical skill or strength is nowise comparable to spiritual and artistic preeminence.

So I think we should forget about making too much of tracking down firsts or predicting lasts. At the utmost, we may designate someone as early or late, but please, no superlatives, as they don’t represent value judgments.

Now onto another subject that we may call exclusivism—making someone’s name notable for departing from the norm. By which I mean a Megan calling herself Meghan or Megyn, as some of them, still not necessarily unique, will do. It catches the attention when read, but matters not a whit in pronunciation. To be different, you must almost be African American—they come up with often ingenious or amusing first names, but these do not automatically make the bearer more interesting, let alone worthier.

But for vanity, nothing seems to register as more prestigious than an unusual spelling. For me, perhaps the worst offender is Rachael for the good, traditional Rachel. It is clearly derived from the second syllable in Hebrew Michael (godlike) whose pronounced diphthong shifted to the first syllable in English, yet retained the spelled difthong, unpronounced as such, in the second syllable. But Rachel (Hebrew for a ewe, i.e. gentle as) never had a diphthong either in Hebrew or in English.

Of course, the peculiarity stems usually from what was chosen by the parents, out of pretension or ignorance, but a sensible daughter ought to legalize and espouse Rachel, the established, traditional spelling. Is a zebra going to subtract a stripe or a cat going to adopt an additional whisker. Even if born with a sixth toe? These things are not like cars or sewing machines, where a newer model is likely to be superior to an older one.

Next, critical overpraise. Why do so many reviews approve of, or even rave about, shows that I find despicable? Is it that they cater to their editors’ stated or unstated wishes, in order to get more lucrative advertising? Or is it simply a matter of bad taste or low expectations? To be sure, positive reviews appeal to hoi polloi, whereas my allegedly elitist discriminations merely exclude and annoy them. Well, I can’t help being a minority voice, but why shouldn’t that minority earn a place among all the other minorities that are welcomed under our multicultural auspices?
What if we blend in with Toms and Dicks, but not with Harrys? Or not even with all the Toms? Somewhere or other lurk our semblables, our frères.

Finally, let us consider “Death and the Maiden,” the popular name of one of Schubert’s quartets, whose second movement is variations on an earlier Schubert song of that title, to a poem by Matthias Claudius? Think of all the versions of “Death and the Maiden” in the theater and on the big screen, most recently the 1990 drama by the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, as political as it is psychological.

What I am after is why the maiden? Why not death and the young man or boy or male infant? What is so special about the maiden? Well, something is: her beauty, her fragility, her tenderness, her vulnerability--why should they be doomed? She ought to be the most precious, the most protected form of humankind, and thus in loss the most tragical. Thus also with other dangers, such as that of the damsel in distress, lost, for instance, in the London fog in a Gershwin musical.

Granted all that is changed now, what with feminism and ERA, shattering of glass ceilings, enlistment of women even for combat, same sex marriage and legalization of every form of consensual sex?  If chivalry is no longer, independent of questions of first and last, considered by most women as patronizing or condescending, there will no longer be a seat on a crowded bus or subway offered to a woman, or a door held open for her, we will find we can live not only without it, but also without overwhelming  interest in where and when it began, and none whatever in when and where it may end. We will have yet another example of the rather supererogatory nature of the quest for the first and the last.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Who Killed Poetry?

I write as an occasional verse writer and constant poetry lover. Also one-time teacher of poetry in a writing course. Further, poetry reciter of great distinction according to my wife, though not given sufficient opportunity to display it. But what I am most concerned with is the state of poetry at present and the future it may or may not have.

And what exactly is its current state? Very sick, if you ask me. You see, I don’t believe
in free verse, too freely practiced in indiscriminate fashion as it nowadays is. I realize that mine may not be a majority position, but as a former film critic and persistent drama critic, I am used to being a minority voice.

What for me killed poetry is the reckless use of free verse, sometimes even written out as prose. But don’t get me wrong, I freely concede the rare but genuine ability of some to make poetry of free verse, and that in the theater, in good hands, it may prosper. My further point is that although many poetasters mistakenly think that anything in rhyme and meter is automatically poetry, and still more misguided souls think that their free verse is, as self-proclaimed, poetry. Most, though not
all, real poetry makes use of those wonderful devices, meter and rhyme.

Let me state who some of my favorite poets are. In Britain, Robert Graves, Louis MacNeice, Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, William Butler Yeats, Ernest Dowson, D. H. Lawrence, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney,  Harold Monro, Hilaire Belloc (with his splendid “Tarantella” and books of verse for bad children). Also the unjustly neglected Humbert Wolfe, John Pudney and A. S. J. Tessimond.  In America, it is Richard Wilbur, E.E. Cummings, John Crowe Ransom, Ezra Pound, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost, James Dickey, James Wright, W,D. Snodgrass, plus an amazing array of women including Emily Dickinson, Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, Louise Bogan and Elisabeth Bishop. Also the unjustly neglected Kenneth Patchen.

There may be others who do not leap to my mind; may they or their ghosts forgive me. Some of the above wrote very good free verse when it pleased them, but most wrote formal verse as a rule. Ah, yes, rules. Whence my preference for formal verse? It’s like tonal versus atonal music. You probably know Frost’s famous definition of free verse as playing tennis without a net. It is true that some types of constraint benefit poetry, namely rhyme and meter. I could also compare formal verse versus free verse with elegant conservative clothes versus the kind of play or gym clothes that most people nowadays wear even in places where one didn’t use to.

Let me add that formal verse has the advantage of being easier to memorize, and certainly more fit for public declamation such as many  Russian poets lustily go in for. Think also of how many English poems are memorized and on occasion recited thanks to those aide memoires, rhyme and meter. I recall how during my brief military stint in the wartime barracks, after lights out, I was able to recite and hold the attention with poems by James Joyce and Sara Teasdale (interesting collocation). But, I can’t repeat it often enough, doggerel is doggerel, no matter how much meter and rhyme it flaunts, whereas at its best, free verse can score, as I have scored with two masterpieces.

One is Kenneth Patchen’s “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?” A barroom scene in which the poet fantasizes his dead mother being welcomed by God, while  a homeless girl approaches him and wants to be taken home by him, but he himself doesn’t own a place he could take her to. The mastery of the poem lies in the way the two story lines interplay to form something bigger than the sum of the two individually touching parts.

The other is Tennessee Williams’s “Life Story,” about two gay guys on a one-night stand in a hotel, each obviously craving solace in sex, but each getting mostly a self-indulgent monologue from the other telling his boring life story, about which the hearer couldn’t care less. It is both grotesque and pathetic, and it’s all there, down to the wheezing elevator just outside.

But two  poems don’t make a spring, not even if I throw in a third, James Dickey’s “Falling,” based on a true event, a stewardess falling out of an airplane. Let me however come now to my real subject: Who Killed Poetry?

It all begins with the ‘’good gray poet” Walt Whitman, somewhat fewer than at most twenty shades of gray. He more or less invented free verse, with French poets called vers-libristes, such as Gustave Kahn and Francis Viele-Griffin,  emulating him even before Americans like Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg climbed on the bandwagon. Sometimes Walt does hit it, though, notably with a couple of anthology pieces , “O Captain! My Captain!’” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” but there are not that many lilacs among all those endless wilted leaves of grass. Yet it was enough for his form—or formlessness—to engender countless stillborn—or boisterous—progeny still with us. Just open “Leaves of Grass” at random and read a few pieces, and see where it gets you.

And now here comes the major modern poetry killer, John Ashbery, hailed, worshiped and emulated the world over. I knew him, reader, back at Harvard, if only slightly. The closest I came was years later, when I ran into a common friend of ours who was off to visit John in the hospital and persuaded me to tag along. I forget what Ashbery was ailing from that had bedded him, as well as what may have been said in that threesome.

More perpendicularly, he proved amiable but distant the rare times we may have crossed paths, as amiable, I imagine, as when he smilingly murdered poetry. This September 4, it was his turn to check out, and the Times obituary began on the front page and continued inside, with a full page and pictures on both. The headline read “Pulitzer-Winning Poetic Voice Often Echoed , Never Matched,” and the glowing text by David Orr and Dinitia Smith quoted some of his poetry as follows:

All things seem mention of themselves
And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.
Hugely spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing
In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against
The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.
And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad,
Jell-O, milk and cookies. Tomorrow’s: sloppy joe on bun,
Scalloped corn, stewed tomatoes, rice pudding and milk.
The names we stole don’t remove us:
We have moved on a little ahead of them
And now it is time to wait again.

Which is worse: the menu or the poetry? No wonder Ashbery has told us he would be writing a poem when getting a phone call for some gossip, whose content he would blithely insert into the poem. So what do we have here?

Of course all things seem mention of themselves, what else can they seem? But their names branch out to other things. How do they branch out and what are these other referents? So spring is hugely here, but is it so in space or in time?? And why the dust on the weigela, a deciduous shrub, and just what is its thing? Holding up the dust? And what is fire-hammered air? Perhaps hot air, of which this poem is full? And who heaves the garbage cans against what railing, and why? Is it the railing around the tulips? And why are they already shedding just when the weigela is doing its thing? Have they been whacked by the heavy garbage that perhaps was partly heaved over the railing?

And what is the significance of Monday and Monday’s meal?  Hardly digested, must we already also get the Tuesday menu? Not very appetizing. What names have we (we?) stolen and why? Stolen from whom?  And how could any names, stolen or not, remove us?  Then how could we have managed to move ahead,  past them, even a little? And how long will we have to wait for those slowpokes to catch up? Or for whom the hell else?

So this, you see, is great poetry. And what do reviewers say? In the Times Book Review, Steven Koch calls Ashbery’s work “a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor.” Try to visualize, never mind comprehend, that. How is the incomprehensible intelligent, and how is a watery drink (drought) made up of  obscurity and languor, two irreconcilables and neither of them potable. The reviewer as disciple and imitator?

Gibberish, I say. And on goes the obituary: “It is often easier to say what an Ashbery poem feels like than what it is about," i.e., it feels terrific but I have no idea what it means.  “And Mr. Ashbery relishes that uncertainty,” i.e., leading us by the nose. A British poet and reviewer, James Fenton, speaks of times when “I actually thought  I was going to burst into tears of boredom [does boredom produce bursting tears?]” and, while respecting the talent, “not the resort to sad shadows,” so shadows have feelings, too. These reviewers sure sound influenced by the reviewee.

Another poet, Louis Simpson, was not amused  “to see a poet sneering [apropo their concern with the Vietnam War] at the conscience of others,” to which Ashbery replied that he didn’t. But obscurity risks painful misunderstanding. He said he was “ always trying to get back to this [which?] mystical kingdom.” But don’t expect much lucidity from a poet on whom the atonal compositions of John Cage “had a lasting influence.” Also one according to whom “the ocean makes grasses, and in doing so refurbishes a lighthouse.” What some oceans will do!

Two days later, on September 6, the Times published an Op-Ed tribute to Ashbery by Rae Armantrout, a poet and professor. Ashbery’s poems, she writes , “are like involved daydreams from which, as with real dreams, there is no obvious exit.” Awakening, I would say, is a pretty obvious exit from both dreams and daydreams.  “Ashbery is the one poet who can somehow be simultaneously elegiac and playful, even goofy. . . . If you could find the impossible space where Franz Kafka overlapped with the Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, John would be sitting there happily grinning like the Cheshire cat.” Aren’t these words something that could come directly from an Ashbery poem? There “the action is always in transit, always hovering somewhere between the last line and the next in a sort of quantum superposition.”

Well, isn’t that space between lines exactly where John could sit and grin? A quantum superposition, to put it a bit more obscurely. And Rae quotes something that she avers could be a fitting epitaph.

I still remember
How they found you, after a dream, in your thimble hat,
Studious as a butterfly in a parking lot.
The road home was nicer then.
Dispersing each of of the Troubadours had something to say about  how charity
Had run its course and won, leaving you the ex-president
Of the event . . .

This could be an epitaph? It may be that the stuff would make more sense in context, if a context weird enough could be found. Who is wearing the thimble hat and is studious as a butterfly? And how studious can a butterfly get if it seeks enlightenment in a parking lot?  And who were these dispersing troubadours on a  nicer road? When and to what home? Each of them had something to say about what race that charity had won? Since when was charity a racer? And what race has a presidency, of which one can be left the ex-incumbent? Perhaps it would make more sense on a tombstone if only it could fit on it.

To quote Professor Armantrout [what a Wagnerian moniker!]: as also for Whitman, “nothing was too incongruous” for John. I could suggest something: one of his poems. Or what poetry has brcome,  nonsense being as good as death,

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


In Brecht’s “Galileo” we read, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes . . . No.  Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” An amusing paradox, but coming from Brecht, a coward and opportunist, not surprising. Brecht’s personal meanness can be matched only by that of another theatrical genius, Richard Wagner, a fellow German. Isn’t it wonderful that two of the greatest wizards of the musical theater should both have been nasty Germans?

But it is perfectly understandable why Brecht considered heroes de trop. He would have preferred a country of mediocrities from which he could stand out with all his imperfections to one that had heroes to eclipse him. Look at what even one hero or heroine could do for a country—the way Joan of Arc still provides a kind of lodestar to Frenchmen (and women), fifty million of whom cannot be wrong.

Poor burned Joan—could it mean that to be a hero (or heroine) you had to die, preferably in a grandiose way, on the battlefield or at the stake? Is Lord Byron, who came to the aid of the embattled Greeks, but had to die far from the fighting, ill and in bed less heroic? And is there not something louche about Lord Nelson’s last words, “Kiss me, Hardy,” which might seem more appropriate to Stan Laurel? Ah, those British grandees, all with their homoerotic Achilles heels. Le vice anglais, as the French, homies of Verlaine and Rimbaud, would sneeringly call it.

Apropos the French, their greatest hero, greater even than Marshal Foch, was Pierre du Terrail, seigneur de Bayard. His bravura, the Larousse dictionary tells us, earned him the title Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche , knight above fear and blame. Yet that was in the early sixteenth century, when knighthood was in flower, and the prevailing type of combat lent itself to heroism. Even so, Bayard was outstanding, and could only be killed from afar by a dastardly shot of harquebus. Heroism, to some extent, thrives on distance in the past and on epics such as the Iliad, which of course is fiction.

What, however, of those heroes of modern battle, Americans who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor? Surely their survival doesn’t diminish their acts of heroism. Somehow, though, medieval armor is more heroic than contemporary armament. The past, a.k.a. history, burnishes the achievement. The Roman heroes of Virgil’s day would have had scant use for Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” in which the pragmatic Swiss antihero has it all over the heroics of the swaggering Bulgarian officer, however dashing.

Without being Shavian, we tend to be suspicious of heroism. Already in 1340 the Oxford English Dictionary locates the first use of the word foolhardiness, for which Greek or Latin, I dare say, has no equivalent. “Hero worship,” too, is a modern, belittling concept, dating from the ascendancy of latterday skepticism, which views much, but not all, heroism with suspicion.

It may be that the name of Nathan Hale and his famous alleged dying words are even now drilled into our elite schoolchildren, but who, young or old, can cite the parting words of a twentieth- or twenty-first-century patriot? Or have modern heroes become tongue-tied?

Execution, to be sure, elicits heroism and heroic last utterances, but we no longer execute heroes, or, if we do, are careful not to record their final words. A Raleigh or Essex no longer ends with his head on the block, or if he does in some third-world country, no one hears, let alone records, his farewell. The gas chambers, at any rate, are not supplied with sound equipment, and death rows seem not to harbor verbal artists.

Still, best is the military death. Even if by friendly fire, as in the case of Stonewall Jackson. And we may celebrate it even if it is that of a heroic enemy, as in World War Two Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, a great German general, who, earning Hitler’s undeserved disapproval, chose to commit suicide. And perhaps the best exemplar of surviving heroism and postwar triumph is General and subsequent President Charles de Gaulle, while there are many such a questionable examples as that of William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill.

Meanwhile every country seems to have its favorite hero: Andreas Hofer for Austria, Miklos Toldi for Hungary, Emperor Dusan for Serbia, Admiral Nelson for England, William Wallace (a.k.a. Braveheart, as in his movie by Mel Gibson) for Scotland Skanderbeg fo0r Albania, and so on. Persia’s heroes, as far as I know, were its rulers (Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes), even if they were the oppressors of conquered nations. Thus it was King Leonidas of Sparta who, in 480 B.C., with a mere 300 Spartans (his allies having deserted) opposed the huge Persian army at Thermopylae for a couple of days, afterwards slaughtered along with his soldiers. He, too, has had his cinematic tribute.

Modern Persia, i.e., Iran has also occasioned heroes, mostly filmmakers who have made movies that condemned them to exile, which, to be sure is rather better than execution, only I don’t recall their names. As for pre-Revolutionary Russia, Emperor Vladimir, who defeated the Teuton knights (memorialized by Prokofiev) was its supreme hero, until the Revolution spawned several others too numerous to mention. The same must be true of various countries of the Near and Far East, as well as Africa, about which I know little or nothing.

Fame, in any case, is whimsical enough. Take the antithetical destinies of two British nurses. In World War One, the Germans executed Nurse Edith Cavell as an English spy; surviving was Nurse Florence Nightingale, heroine of the Crimean War, and the mother of modern nursing. Why does nobody remember Cavell, but  most people know who was Nightingale. Could it be merely her avian moniker?

There have been countless heroes in the various arts who resisted and overcame intense adversity. Take the great painter Vincent van Gogh, who never sold a single painting during his lifetime, save one that his brother bought for a pittance, yet Vincent persisted until his ultimate suicide. Here I must mention Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the fearless novelist steadily persecuted, and the poet Anna Akhmatova (whose ex-husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, was indeed executed),  whose own poetry did not seem quite so threatening to Stalin, and who in 1960  published the ironically titled volume “Poem Without a Hero.” Her brave life was  heroic enough.

In Hungary, I note the poet Miklos Radnoti, whose collection, “Keep Marching, You Who are Condemned to Death,” speaks loud through its mere title, and the somewhat less engaged but valiantly struggling poet Janos Pilinszky. There are several Czech, Slovak and Polish writers who defied their governments, but about whose identities I leave the word to Philip Roth. I would also argue for the heroism of some sports figures, notably Arthur Ashe, and a good many others, about whom I am insufficiently knowledgeable. But I do know about writers who assumed the burden of being ahead of their time, such as Franz Kafka (although he wanted his executor, Max Brod, to destroy his manuscripts, which Brod smartly didn’t) and James Joyce (although he had the insolence of claiming it should take the reader of “Finegans Wake” as long as it took him to write it).

And now, though I clearly realize that my two tiny acts of courage do not qualify as heroism, but upon which I look back with a modicum of pride. First, as a small boy in Abbazia, an Italian resort on the Mediterranean, where my family would vacation each Easter. A little girl who had a butterfly net tried to fish with it, only to have the Adriatic wrest it from her hand. She was desolate, and I, who was smitten with her  but not yet knowing how to swim, lept into the water fully dressed to retrieve it. I did not take note of how deep the sea was there, and it did indeed reach my chin, but the girl got her net back. My parents were absent, but a friendly lady, terrified, carried me off to her hotel room for a good dressing down, both literal and figurative. I can’t remember what dry things she wrapped me in.

More recently, in middle age, my then girlfriend and I were attending one afternoon a movie near Times Square. It was called “Theatre of Blood,” and concerned an actor avenging his adverse reviews on a series of critics by murdering them. As if that were not enough, there were in that otherwise empty theater, at the other end of our long row, a black pimp with his white hooker. They were, loudly talking, having a late lunch, noisily unpacking and variously rattling their victuals. Which even at some distance was disturbing.

So I made my way halfway through the row, called to the noisemakers to desist, and returned to my seat. Next thing I knew, there was this huge, threatening black man, towering over me, and accusing me of interfering with the lunch of two hungry people. I, though shaken, kept my cool, and responded that they could eat all they want so long as it wasn’t noisy. With a final furious remark (I forget exactly what) the man went back to whence he came. To make matters worse, as we were leaving, my friend whose nickname for me was Raccoon, audibly congratulated me with “Brave coon!” I did not stop to verify any possible reaction from the pimp.

I still feel that Brecht was wrong. I still believe that acts of courage, especially those of major heroism of whatever kind, have a beneficial effect on a society, if not an entire country, this even if recognition was considerably delayed, as Shaw’s “Saint Joan” powerfully reminds us. When the heroine, now sainted, posthumously exclaims, “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints [and, I would add, acknowledge Thy heroes]? How long, O Lord, how long?”

Friday, August 11, 2017


One of the glories of language is the witty rejoinder, riposte or retort. It is the answer in a quick, witty or caustic response (The Heritage Dictionary) to someone’s comment or verbal assault; a severe, incisive or witty reply (The Random House Dictionary), especially one that counters a first speaker’s statement, argument, etc.

Probably the most famous retort in the English language is that of John Wilkes to the Earl of Sandwich’s, “’pon my honor, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die on the gallows or of the pox.” To which Wilkes, “That must depend , my Lord, upon whether I first embrace one of your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.” The additional cleverness here is the plural “mistresses,” which not only rhythmically balances the plural “principles,” but also establishes the hapless nobleman as not only a crook but also a philanderer.  And the repeated “my Lord,” with its seeming respectfulness, adds a further bit of mockery. Perhaps it offers some consolation to  the lord that the sandwich was named for him.

Barely less famous, and certainly no less witty, is Bernard Shaw’s remark at the curtain on the premiere of his “Arms and the Man .” Amid tumultuous applause, one angry voice booed from the balcony. Said Shaw, “My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?” Here again, the chumminess of the opening makes the final effect that much more stinging.

I have often quoted my probably favorite retort before, but it’s still irresistible. The aristocratic Margot Asquith was lunching with the Hollywood star Jean Harlow, who kept calling her Margott, eliciting from the lady, “No, no, Jean. The T in Margot is silent, as in Harlow.” Margot Asquith was quite a wit, as in “Lloyd George could not see a belt without hitting below it.” Or: “Lord Birkenhead is very clever, but sometimes his brains go to his head.” But then let’s not forget Dorothy Parker’s
response to one of her books, “The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature.”           

The great Hilaire Belloc gave his retort in verse to another lord. “Last night I heard Godolphin say/ He never gave himself away./ Come now, Godolphin, scion of kings,/ Be generous in little things.” That benefits from the leisureliness of a quatrain. Another effective retort draws from its opposite, concision. Take the actor Lucien Guitry (father of the endlessly witty Sacha) answering a bore who tried to defend himself by “I only speak as I think,” with ”Yes, but much more often.”

As you might expect, there are many masterly retorts from Oscar Wilde. Thus there was the homely Frenchwoman who sought to combat unsightlinss by celebrity. So she addressed Wilde with her standard, “Am I not the ugliest woman in France?’ To which he replied with a bow and “In the world, Madame, in the world.” Courtesy, or its semblance, always cuts deeper. In Wilde’s French, it was even more terse: “Du monde, Madame, du monde.”

You can even respond with both verse and brevity as in what I like to think was a spontaneous response to someone from the otherwise unknown William Norman Ewer, “How odd/ Of God,/ To choose,/ The Jews.” If eight syllables are insufficient retort to immortalize their author, this was, at any rate, a nice try.

The retort may also be to an object, as it was from the dying Oscar Wilde in a cheap Paris hotel: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” Were there ever more aesthetic dying words, confirming Wilde as an aesthete to the last with a kind of immortal hyperbole.

The music world too offers prize retorts, even if they were not by what another person provoked, but as a riposte to a widely held opinion. Thus about Wagner, from Mark Twain: “Wagner’s music is not as bad as it sounds.” Or this, from a British columnist, Beachcomber, double-edged no less: “Wagner was the Puccini of music.” That is concise enough, but sometimes a single word will do. As when an American avantguardist made Hindemith listem to his new work for half an hour. “Is this your last work,” Hindemith inquired. “No” replied the American. To which Hindemith: “Pity.”

Sometimes the retort can be insulting, but forgivable for its wit. So when Meyerbeer complained to Rossini at a chance meeting of having aches all over and added “I don’t know what to do,” Rossini, knowing that Meyerbeer was coming from a rehearsal of his [Meyerbeer’s] music, amiably responded, “I know what it is: you listen too much to yourself.” Retorts have a way of sounding better in French. Thus when a woman neighbor of Alfred Jarry’s exclaimed to Jarry, who enjoyed shooting off his gun skyward in his adjoining garden, “For heaven’s sake, Monsieur Jarry, you’re going to kill our children,” he retorted, “Qu’a cela ne tienne, Madame, nous vous en fairons d’autres.” He retorted, which sounds more powerful than in English,”Don’t let it matter, madame, we’ll make you some others.”

There is one magnificent putdown that, though written, I would like to think of as having first come in a conversation. It’s from the formidable Karl Kraus: “Psychoanalysis is the mental illness for which it considers itself the therapy.”
Kraus was quite capable of a retort to the entire female sex: “A woman is, occasionally, quite a serviceable substitute for masturbation. It takes a lot of imagination, though.” How much stronger I this made by that “occasionally.”

And now, in all immodesty, a couple of my own retorts. On the David Frost Show, Jacqueline Susann was defending a trashy novel. I had mentioned to Rex Reed, a fellow guest seated beside me, that I had read only forty pages of it. Reed was shocked: “How could one criticize a novel of which one had read only forty pages?” I answered: “How many spoonfuls of a soup must you ingest before you can tell that it is rancid ?” On another TV program, I was a guest along with a trendy art gallery owner, a husband of Gloria Vanderbilt’s, and Germaine Greer. I had become silent for quite a while and the host, David Suskind, asked why? I answered, “I have often been out of my depth, but this is the first time I have been out of my shallowness.”

But to conclude with the master, Oscar Wilde, who was once asked by a formerly prizewinning poetaster (Alfred Austin, I believe) what to do now about “the conspiracy of silence” surrounding him. “Join it,” Oscar replied. How simple yet powerful a retort can be.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Names, Titles and Some Usage Notes

It is perhaps unsurprising that there should be fashions in first names, perhaps influenced by movie stars or more arcane sources. What is certain is that the fashion for Ryan is besieging us ad nauseam, starting with the obnoxious Ryan Seacrest on morning TV. But there are Ryans lurking or larking in every nook and cranny. Consider, for example, the three kids who alternate as Charlie in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” on Broadway: two are outright Ryans, and one has Ryan for middle name.

True, some years ago there was the movie star Ryan O’Neal, father of the movie star Tatum O’Neal, but is that explanation enough? When it came to popularity, there were the likes of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Tyrone Power, and several others, admittedly star daughterless, but none of them begetting a nomenclatural avalanche. Is it just that Ryan slips off the tongue more fluidly than any of the aforementioned three? Ryan may generate illusions of originality by not being a calendar name, but, again, neither are the cited three. Only Gary Cooper may have occasioned some Garys, a mere rivulet compared to the swamp of Ryans. But then why hardly any Carys from Grant?

There are even—horrors!—some female Ryans, but no Spencers, albeit quite a few Tracys, possibly inspired by “The Philadelphia Story.” The quasi-Irishness of Ryan may also account for its favor with Irish Americans, as Bruce may appeal to Scottish ones, and Tony, or Anthony, may be the bequest of Italy. But there are very few Fritzes or Adolphs, for which blame two world wars and Hitler.

On the female side, except for some by now out of fashion Marys and Marias, there are four single or groups of names that hold sway, though even added together no match for the Ryans. They are Megan (sometimes foolishly Meghan, since the silent H needlessly duplicates the G); Katy or Cathy or other offspring of Catherine; countless variants of Christine--mostly of the Kristen, Kirsten and Kirstin version--which may have seemed original until they became ubiquitous, eliciting even a New Yorker cartoon; and Jenifer, valiantly solitary, what with Jenny barely a ripple. There is, to be sure, the beloved J-Lo, who may play a role in this. I doubt very much that most parents were cognizant of its Celtic origins as Winifred or Winifrid, meaning, as Eric Partridge points out, “white wave or stream.” Altogether, etymology figures rather less than euphony when it comes to naming.

I wonder, though, why none of these is comparable to Ryan, which may also usurp its closeness to the Hibernian Brian or Bryan, meaning “strong,” and as such, I think, appealing to the shillelagh-brandishing Irish. As for Katy and its derivatives, may they have something to do with the beloved Hepburns, Katharine and Audrey? I wonder also why there should be four top women’s names as over the single one for men. Are the parents of females slightly less regimented than those of males? If so, why?

In my own case, I don’t worry about the frequency of Johns. Let me quote Partridge’s book “Name This Child”: “The name owes most of its vast European popularity to the Evangelist; its brevity and strength have contributed to make it, in the minds of the majority, the finest of all ‘Christians.’ From Hebrew: ‘God is gracious.’” Q that about God’s graciousness in the light of the Holocaust and Babi Jar, and see how welcome you will be to survivors. Apropos Evangelists, why does John outperform the other three? In any case, my only problem with John is that when I hear it in a crowd, it often makes me turn my head in vain. I also slightly resent all the Jons, whether or not they are abridgments of Jonathan.

To be sure, names and titles can be problematic. Take Shaw, who expressly stated that he wanted to be known as Bernard rather than George Bernard, yet to a vast majority he remains the latter. This despite the fact that all collections of his works and books about him have him as Bernard, granted that relatively few people actually read them. Those few include American producers and publishers  nevertheless clinging to George Bernard. This may have to do with fear that the great unwashed may assume Bernard to be somebody other than George Bernard and stay away. In Germany, where he was steadily popular in translation, he always was just plain Bernard.

And now: how many times , even in my blog posts,  have I insisted that Ibsen’s play should be “A Doll House,” and not “A Doll’s House.” The genitive “doll’s” merely suggests the house of the heroine, Nora Helmer. The nominative, ‘doll’ alludes to the children’s toy, the miniature, to which the patriarchal Torvald Helmer has reduced the Helmers’ adult home. Conscientious translators all stick with the nominative, but are far outnumbered by the genitivists. Even the successful current Broadway sequel by Lucas Hnath, “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” persists in the error.

Again, how many people misspell the name of the distinguished Dwight Macdonald as MacDonald? Admittedly, the pronunciation is identical, but the spelling to any literate reader is an eye- or mindsore. Mispronunciatian, however, is flagrant in Chicago, where Goethe Street is largely pronounced as trisyllabic Go-ea-the Street.
In fact, if you correctly pronounced it the German way, a cabdriver wouldn’t know what you meant.

In France, however, the name Mozart is universally Gallicized into Mozarr even by intellectuals who know better, as a result of chauvinism rather than ignorance. But at least a cabbie knows where you want to go. And while we are on pronunciation,
how often does one cry out that the word is groceries, and not grosheries? And how come that in a prominent hospital I spent time in, not a single nurse said “lay down” instead of lie down? Should I protest in my correction, or just let sleeping dogs lay?

Thursday, June 29, 2017


Some Tonys are sound and meritorious, such as the 2017 ones for Kevin Kline Rachel Bay Jones, “Jitney,” Nigel Hook (set designer for “The Play That Goes Wrong”), Santo Loquasto, Gavin Creel, Mimi Lien (set designer for “Great Comet”). Alex Lacamoire (orchestrator for “Dear Evan Hansen”), Andy Blankenbuehler (choreographer for “Bandstand), “Oslo,” Michael Aronov (featured actor in “Oslo”), Cynthia Nixon (Birdie in “The Little Foxes”) and “Hello, Dolly!” along with the, alas, unavoidable Bette Midler in a champion role. But others are disputable.

I often wonder why drama critics and Tony people tend to have such poor taste. Case in point, the rave reviews for “Dear Evan Hansen” and its six Tonys, including the one for best musical. Helping what I consider worthless become a blockbuster. “Evan” is the only show within recent memory that I had to grit my teeth to prevent walking out on in the middle. Note that I have a strong stomach and have been able to sit through countless garbage without blinking or temptation to regurgitate. Not so, however, with non-dear “Evan.”

Let me explain. It is the story of a highschooler who has very few friends and hopelessly admires dashing and rebellious Connor Murphy. This leads the lonely boy (his single mother is too desperately busy as sole support) to send himself a chummy e-mail addressed to  “Dear Evan” and signed “Connor.”

Connor, however, out of some kind of unexplained arrogance. commits suicide. This leaves the Murphys—father Larry, mother Cynthia, and sister Zoe—understandably devastated. Coming upon the fake e-mail, though, they conclude that Connor and Evan were bosom buddies and proceed to all but adopt the writer as a cherished substitute. At the same time, with the help of two classmates, a Jewish boy and a Negro girl, Evan becomes some kind of hero. The previously withdrawn, beautiful Zoe even ends up going to bed with him.

Most peculiar are the symptoms assigned to Evan’s problematic persona. One is talking so fast as to be borderline incomprehensible; another is fits of trembling worthy of a sputtering machine gun. This is supposed to convey troubles that, in reality, would be internalized, and gain sympathy from the audience that, were if smarter, would be repelled.

Instead , the embodier, Ben Platt, has gained almost universal raves, and the Tony for leading actor in a musical. This over the much more deserving Andy Karl in “Groundhog Day.” But it is the ordinary, even slightly dopey, looks of Platt, and Evan’s terrible tremors—and later pangs of conscience about falling in with a fake persona—that endear him to the kindred viewers and Tony voters. Nothing, it seems, plays like pathos.

All this could be mitigated if Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics amounted to anything. The music, especially, is deplorable, what with not a single worthwhile tune, almost nothing that, far from being hummable, was not exasperating. There was, to be sure, some redemption in the orchestrations and arrangements by Alex Lacamoire, which at moments managed to make things sound as if there were some underlying melody there. But how much can well-made clothes do for a poorly made body?

Well, there was decent lighting from Japhy Weideman, yet not even the sets, including the projections elicited from the the fine Peter Negrini, could be countenanced. The equally fine David Korins provided several columns of piled up computer screens displaying a chaos of images, some of them related to the play, but most of them unrelatedly from (anti)social media. You couldn’t even, as the old joke has it, leave humming the scenery.

Though much was the fault of Steven Levenson’s book, I tend to suspect equal harm from the staging of Michael Greif, a director I have scant use for. Granted that he doesn’t go in for deliberate atrocities like, say, Sam Gold, his steady mediocrity is not all that preferable.

I do not, however, blame the supporting cast, which includes the appealing Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and the excellent Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s kind but overworked mother. I even wondered at the ability of most of them to sing totally tuneless stuff with a straight face. Especially absurd was the scene in which father Larry Murphy and beloved son-substitute Evan rummage through Connor’s things and come upon a barely used baseball glove, which they put to immediate joyous practice.
I will certainly try to forget the many scenes in which the dead Connor palavers with Evan or just peers at him from almost the wings. Isn’t it rude to hover?

Another questionable Tony was the one for leading actress in a play to Laurie Metcalf for her Nora in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” The play, by the oddly named but not untalented Lucas Hnath is a sequel to Ibsen’s “Doll House,” as it should be rightly named. The added possessive ‘S is wrongheaded: it is not about a house belonging to an infantilized Nora Helmer, but the ridiculous toy house in which husband Torvald Helmer has kept all of them.

But never mind. I have always admired Laurie Metcalf in various roles, but currently, doubtless egged on by her quirky director, she overshoots the mark. She is playing Nora, who, fed up with being a doll-wife, leaves, shutting the door on husband and children, and heads for a  new life. After other jobs, she finally writes a book about more or less her own life, which becomes a huge bestseller and makes her wealthy.

But husband Torvald has never bothered to divorce her, and she comes back now, fifteen years later, to seek the divorce she needs to be fully emancipated and not require Torvald’s signature on some of her dealings. Under Norwegian law, it was very hard for a wife to get a divorce, whereas a husband could have one in a trice. So she is back in a home that hasn’t changed much, and first has a long conversation with Anne Marie, the faithful retainer, who still treats her as if she were her child, but fills her in on what little has happened here. Whereas Nora has had new friends and lovers, Torvald still dithers and has never sought another marriage. Will he now give her a divorce? Nora’s grown and independent-minded daughter, Emmy, is supposed to act as a necessary intermediary, but is none too keen on getting involved.

Finally comes the awkward, somewhat painful conversation with Torvald, with bittersweet memories and some recrimination, but likelihood of a divorce. The play ends with Nora looking forward to an, as she thinks, certainly coming era when women will have full independence and privileges, something Torvald doubts will ever happen. As she is about to shut that door behind her again, they both stand close to it, but look forward to different futures.

The writing is mostly clever, though I wish Hnath wouldn’t have it both ways, with language and mores both old and new, including a goodly measure of “shits” and “fucks.” The play, although not without merit, is hardly the wonder as which it has been hailed.

Now a play in which the four characters successively talk in place can seem confined and boring. So here we have the alleged genius director, Sam Gold, given to some good as well as some bizarre ideas. He does come up with interesting movements for the actors, which almost take the place of action. But when Nora lies down on the floor or makes as if she were about to climb up the walls, we think of caged animals, which Nora is trying to get away from, while Torvald is reconciled to remaining. This does constitute a kind of kinetic scenario, but does not replace real action.

It does , however, encourage Ms. Metcalf’s doing her elegant version of  Saint Vitus dance, and accosting an interlocutor from every possible direction, behind, before or beside, till I could not but recall a famous director, I think Noel Coward, telling a fidgety Actors Studio method actor, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

My last complaint is about the short shrift accorded to the musical “Bandstand,” which may not be outstanding, but is still superior to the competition. It was nominated in only two categories and won only in one, for Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography. The choreographer did much the same also for “Hamilton” but here managed it even better. It is a sort of through-dancing, going on, when not upfront, often around the edges, yet somehow  creating not confusion but confirmation.
                                                                                                                                                                 The often spectacular acrobatics--involving highly original steps, holds, and leaps--seconded the narrative without any conflict, even when it could have easily become redundant by usurping the attention.

Equally commendable is that the show, with music by Richard Oberacker and book and lyrics by him and Rob Taylor, tells the story of six war veterans in 1945 Cleveland, each of them a musician on a different instrument, and features men all as adept with their instruments as with their roles. They form a band playing mid-century jazz, overcoming sundry dissensions in ultimately thrilling harmony.

They are also the background to the love story of their leader and pianist, Danny Novitski, with Julia Trojan, who previously sung only in church, but whom Danny, against her intense resistance, persuades to become their consummate vocalist. Everyone, including Julia’s mother, is eventually winning, with the added pleasure of Julia being played by Laura Osnes, one of our prettiest and most gifted performers.

It hardly matters that the plot is rather conventional when everything, including a hymn to the glories of Cleveland, is droll and delightful. “Bandstand” was evidently too subtle for the Tory nominators and voters to apprehend and appreciate.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


Is there anything more elusive than what constitutes sexual attraction? It comes in a great variety of types, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, and not infrequently indeterminable, undefinable, with an inscrutable etiology. That we do not understand how it operates in others is perhaps not all that surprising, but that we do not understand it in ourselves, as can be the case, surely is.

Let me start with an obvious source: hair color. We recall the books “Men Prefer Blondes” and “But Marry Brunettes.” But what about the distinguished German professor and writer I knew who declared that, for him, blonde hair wasn’t hair at all—a woman’s hair had to be dark? And for how many men, myself included, a woman’s hair had to be on the long side, a boyish haircut being a turnoff.

I myself have been attracted to and involved with far more brunettes than blondes, but that, I firmly believe, had nothing to do with my mother’s hair color than with happenstance: I came across with so many fewer blondes than brunettes interested in me, but to some of the few that were I responded to just as strongly.

One woman I was involved with insisted that men were divisible into those that go for legs and those that go for asses. I myself went equally for both but not principally for either. To some men face matters most; to others, figure. I could not fully respond to anything less than both.

Years ago it was asserted, I don’t know how validly, that American women depilated their armpits, whereas French women nurtured hairy armpits, both according to what their men went for. Some few men even dislike pubic hair and insist on shaved pudenda. Muslims consider hair so erotic that their women must go about with it covered. Religions prescribing this for mere seemliness presumably do so disingenuously.

Some men apparently even like their women bald—how else explain women with shaven heads? In the musical “The King and I,” Yul Brynner, long the king’s seemingly perennial interpreter, was bald, probably because the historic king was hairless, but perhaps also—I can vouch for it— because Yul looked more interesting  without hair.

Some men, like the actor Victor Mature allegedly, scored with an extra large penis, but haven’t women, other things being equal, been just as satisfied with a normal-sized one? Japanese men, I have been told, cherish especially the back of a woman’s neck, or is that only because doggy-fashion sex is preponderant? We are told that for centuries Chinese women’s feet were kept small by foot binding, allegedly so as to make it harder for women to run away from their men. But that is clearly nonsense; it surely had to do with men’s wanting to fondle and toy with a woman’s diminutive, plaything-like feet.

In some societies, e.g., the Minoan, women went about bare-breasted, I assume not so as to advocate their wherewithal for suckling babies. One sees them in paintings, but always with firm, shapely breasts , never with unsightly, pendulous ones. Even in puritanical Britain, you could see stage performers with exposed breasts, provided only that they stood still, presumably because that made them works of art, like statues, so often semi-nude.

All this by way of introduction to an article in the June 3rd Times entitled “In the World of the Sapiosexual, the Hottest Body Part Is the Brain.”  The reference is to men and women who fall sexually for a person of the opposite sex for his or her intelligence rather than anything external. We read: “Darren Stalder, an engineer in Seattle, appears to have coined the term ‘sapiosexual’ in 1998 to describe his own sexuality. He is quoted as having written on a social network “I don’t care too much about the plumbing . . . . I want an incisive, inquisitive, insightful, irreverent mind. I want someone for whom philosophical discussion is foreplay.” The paper goes on to say “Sapio, in Latin, means “I ‘discern’ or ‘understand.’” Actually, the primary meaning is “I know.”

The sapiosexual stimulant is allegedly either intellect or intelligence (there is a difference), which manifests itself in a person’s conversation. Already there is a problem: conversation is a special, independent gift, not necessarily contingent on a person’s intellect or intelligence: some great minds are fairly inarticulate; some much lesser ones, very articulate.

But, fundamentally, what really is intelligent conversation? It can apparently be all the things cited by Stalder as components except, notably unmentioned, subject matter. Someone can be absolutely riveting about baseball or philately, but be totally ignorant about physics or metaphysics—how intelligent or intellectual is that person? Oceanography and metallurgy may be sporadically fascinating topics, but how fulfilling in the long run?

And, in any case, may not so-called sapiosexualists be deceived about others and, notably, about themselves? It is interesting that the two pictures that accompany the Times piece are of a good-looking young black man, Aboubacar Okeke-Diagne, and an attractive young white woman, Teresa Sheffield, a comedian asserting “What I connect most with and value most as a sapiosexual is emotional intelligence and comedic intelligence.” Whoa! Comedic intelligence is a fancy way of saying sense of humor, but heaven knows what is meant by emotional intelligence. Isn’t that rather like white blackness?

Anyway, may not these attractive young individuals really appeal through their looks, which the attracted person tries to elevate into, and justify by, something more dignified, more refined? I wonder whether there is such a thing as a truly homely, unattractive person making it on telling jokes or quoting Aristotle.

One specific example in the Times article is a woman named Jacqueline Cohen, 52 and resident of the Upper West Side, claiming to be attracted even as a teenager by intelligence or even the mystery around someone’s intelligence. Now a divorcee or widow, she cites as example a date who, without being her physical type, unexpectedly recited poetry by Rilke. She says, “I was amazed at how fluid the whole conversation was . . . I could feel something happening inside me.” On the next date, the man takes her to an art exhibition and gives her “all of Rilke’s books,” since when Rilke has been one of her favorite poets.

I find this suspect for several reasons. First, did the man recite Rilke in German? There is, I speak from knowledge, no such thing as a fully satisfactory Rilke translation, indeed none seems possible of such preponderantly musical poetry. And all of Rilke’s books? Much of that Rilke’s prose output even, including volumes upon volumes of letters, mostly to women, remains untranslated. For “all” of his books in German, a full supermarket cart would be necessary, hardly suitable for visits to an art exhibition. So utter, unsapient balderdash.

Another unanswered question: how new is this supposed phenomenon? Was it there, though unmentioned, throughout history, or was engineer Stalder the first to practice it, or at least first to name and record it in 1998?

We have all known couples where one or both were physically unattractive, and God only knows what made the attraction sexual--or could there perhaps be a platonic sapiosexual attraction? I can just imagine them discoursing, preferably wittily, about the most recondite matters conceivable, and immediately thereupon falling into bed  for exemplary sex. They would not be put off by anything, not even the man’s name, Aboubacar Okeke-Diagne—one could, after all, call him Abu.

On the bottom of the Times front page, there is a small color picture of a beautiful woman I take to be Teresa unbuttoning her red blouse. I cannot envision a man for whom that would not be a greater come-on than her fluidly quoting Santayana or Schopenhauer at length.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Canadians and Others

I have nothing against Canadians save that their export in shows is always questionable, whether it is “To Grandmother’s House We Go,” “The Drowsy Chaperone, the one about the Canadian wartime flying ace whose name I have forgotten  or now “Come From Away.”

The first trouble with “Come From Away” is the ungrammatical title. You can come from afar but not from away, which is a direction, not a place. The second, bigger trouble is that the show is a bore.

Shows about multiple characters of supposedly equal importance are always problematic, and even more so here, where almost all characters play multiple parts and it becomes hard to tell who they are at any given moment.

Yet another problem is the scenery, which, aside from a back wall and a few tree trunks, consists of twelve chairs, repeatedly rearranged for diverse locations. The authors, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a married couple, are no doubt proud of their device—just think how much cheaper are a dozen inexpensive chairs than anything more elaborate.

The musical is about what ensued when because of 9/11 no planes were temporarily allowed entry into the U.S. As a result, 38 airplanes from abroad where confined to the small town of Gander on Newfoundland, whose tiny population was redoubled by the stranded passengers. How to feed and lodge them?

What emerges is a show of tremendous good intentions, the proverbial pavement leading to Hell, so that I kept waiting for its gates to gape open and start devouring. No such thing occurred, so that the lack of Hell translated into lack of interest. Worst of all was the absence of even a single decent tune, attributable to the authors’ equal lack of expertise in yet another basic ingredient. This left me and my musical comedy professor wife a couple of very drowsy chaperones. In Canada, “drowsy” can apparently mean tipsy; here it means only somnolent.

But even the chairs could not help representing in each given arrangement one of several different locations, it all contributing ultimately to a no longer avoidable indifference. This said, no blame attaches to the valiant set designer Beowulf Borritt or the equally able non-Canadian director, Christopher Ashley. Nor could the dozen actors, Canadian or American, for all their competence, achieve much with material begging for oblivion.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Another disappointment is Sara Ruhl’s “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.” Although  having succeeded with several tries mostly well received by others, Ruhl’s  plays worked only once for me. Pretentiousness does not make good bread and butter. What we have here is a quasi-serious comedy trying to be several things: an ambivalent bow to polymorphous sex, a display of the learning worthy of a poeta doctus, a conglomeration of philosophical apothegms, and speculations about whether one should slaughter—and perhaps even hunt down—the animals one eats.

The plot? Paul and his wife George (note the masculine short for Georgia) are a happily married fortyish couple, best friends with the only slightly older Jane and Michael. They all have unseen children, the latter couple an intermittently runaway high school problem daughter, Jenna. All is well enough until they become fascinated by the thought of a temp in Jane’s law office, Daborah,,self-declared member of a sexual threesome, who will casually slaughter a goat for dinner. This young woman lives with David and Freddie, and sleeps with both. That occupies the conversation of the two couples for a whole scene, at the end of which they decide to invite the trio for New Year’s Eve supper.

In the next scene, Jane and Michael are duly hosting that supper for Dah-vid, as his foreign origin has him pronounce his name, the childlike Freddie, and the lovely temp now named Pip. They all have a whale of a good time, first discussing and finally indulging in an orgy for seven. All sorts of shenanigans prevail, involving such things as karaoke singing, verse recitation, and Paul’s revelation that he once slaughtered a chicken and is now ready to do a duck.  

In the next scene, Pip, presently under yet another name, is out hunting with George in the wilds of New Jersey.  Bow and arrows somehow bring the women closer than ever, disrupted only by George’s accidentally shooting a dog she mistakes for a deer. Moreover, unlicensed for hunting, the women are briefly imprisoned (no bail?), but Pip vanishes, changed, as George speculates, into a bird.

Lastly, except for David and Freddie searching for the vanished Pip, with even George briefly running after them, pursued in turn by Paul, things are looking up, and even the escape-prone Jenna is back home reconciled.  George delivers a closing monologue, exclaiming, “Oh my God, we’re all straining so hard for transcendence, and there it was all along.”
Herewith some specimens of how Ms. Ruhl (Lady of Misrule?) writes, beyond her invention of arcane words like flexitarian, polyamory, and compersive, and her word games such as “something feral, smelling slightly of fur.”

“People judge you, you know, even in Portland.” [Wit.] “Prairie vole” as distinct from ordinary vole. [Erudition.] “In fact, it might be [Pip’s] ordinary relationship with her fearless sensuality, which does not require deodorant or lipstick, that makes everyone immediately think about sex. She is unvarnished and unashamed.”  [Phrase-making.] Throwing “garbage into garbage—it’s like our whole culture.” [Sociology.] “I feel a little foggy, like a boat. Maybe we could all go kayaking.” [Prose poetry.] Stage direction: “They kiss, it’s about forgiveness and love.” [Psychology.]
“ Maybe we should not all be fucking each other all the time. But maybe we could form like a band, or something” [Humor.] Stage direction, with reference to Jenna’s violin playing: “More and more violins are playing [Bach of course] until it feels as though 300 children were playing in one church.” [ Secular piety.]

There is good direction by Rdbecca Teichman, interestingly sleak scenery by David Zinn, apt costumes from the dependable Susan Hilferty, and good acting from the cast. We get a manly Paul from Omar Metwally, a tender George from Marisa Tomei, a sympathetic Jane from Robin Weigert, and a handsome Pip from Lena Hall. That a supposedly white European immigrant, David, is played by a manifestly American black actor, Austin Smith, is only slightly jarring. Todd Almond contributed discreet music.

“Linda” is a silly play by Penelope Skinner with a superb performance in the title role by Janie Dee, who smartly turns dross into gold. I hesitate to pronounce a performance as redeeming an entire dreary play, but this one actually does. Ms. Dee was here 17 years ago in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Comic Potential,”a much better part in a far superior play, but regrettably nothing else until now.
My comment about her performance in the Ayckbourn concluded, “It leaves one pleasurably gasping. I am not sure that I have ever seen its equal, but I am quite certain I have never seen, nor ever will see, its superior.” And here she finally is in a less good role in a much lesser play, but being no less extraordinary. All I can say is hallelujah. 

Marriage, Good, Bad and Indifferent

Marriage, what a glorious and godawful, tremendous and terrible thing it is! Of all inventions one of the few rightfully enduring ones, but surely an invention. Not something born into one automatically. Only quirkily imaginable among cavemen and women,  or what else would so many New Yorker cartoons revel in?

Precarious in some ways, yet almost universally desiderated, even unto some seemingly unexpectable ones. I refer to the same-sex kind, which a gay friend of mine couldn’t see the purpose of, and a lot of people deplored unless they could find some other name for it and leave the traditional kind, for better or worse, alone.

Even at a time when homosexuals no longer had to hide in the closet or (term courtesy “The King and I”) kiss in the shadows, marriage became highly useful to gays for all kinds of legal, financial or just existential purposes. And yet, and yet . . .

Although I approve of same-sex marriage with both my brain and heart, there are times when a small twinge, I can’t deny it, persists. It is by no means a twinge of disapproval, only a twinge of the unexpected, as if, say, something I dreamt about the night before actually came true in the morning, or someone I approved of managed to obtain a genius award rather than the customary politically correct winners in the arts.

But to get to the conventional marriage. The rare case among spouses is a couple whom a friend of mine knew very well since school days. They were college sweethearts who after many years of marriage remained just as emotionally and sexually attracted  to each other as before, gung ho in bed and everywhere else. I take that friend’s word for it, although I myself never encountered such a couple. The nearest thing to it I have known is a couple where the wife wore a different wig to bed every night and made her husband feel he was conquering a new woman. But even there, I wonder, how many different kinds of wigs are there in the world and would a Lady GaGa  or other kind of fright wig do the trick?

I also wonder what happens when a, let’s say, ordinary guy marries a gorgeous woman, e.g., a Diane Lane or Laura Osnes or Laura Dinanti, or even a more modest but enormously pleasant-looking Laura, her looks clearly supplemented by intelligence, like Laura Linney? A woman, let’s further say, who manages to look terrific even in her later years? Can sexual attraction possibly not wane much or at all?

Marcel Proust, who knew about such things, stipulated that sexual passion could not outlast two years, and I have heard similar things from less authoritative sources. Thus I have gathered from some smart and trustworthy couples that, although it now occurred only once or twice a week, they still had some pretty good times in the sheets.

And then, too, sex isn’t everything, in marriage as out of it. Charm, brains, wit, jolliness, genuine deep goodness, manifold individuality, and all-around helpfulness  go a long way toward cementing marriages, don’t they? Besides, there is a kind of manifest attractiveness possible in a woman who, without being explicitly pretty, is hugely appealing, perhaps just by looking winningly different. Originality is a magnet not to be underestimated. I myself have been attracted to such women almost as often as to very beautiful ones.

There are to be sure marriages that end up in pure mutual hatred. I have never  encountered one such, but have heard or read about plenty of them. There was even a recent cartoon in the New Yorker (one of the now relatively rare not inscrutable ones) with an ordinary couple facing each other across the table and the caption reading something like “Isn’t it time we started hating someone on the outside?” Indifference is more frequent than such an extreme, but not, I believe, all that much more.

Probably the more common type is what a colleague has called a Strindbergian marriage, though in a somewhat less August fashion. That means steady petty bickering, though possibly with a more hostile implicit undercurrent. There are apt to bethough not so much in real Strindberg) real brief reconciliations, even some dormant affections mostly through habituation, but the stream of insult or injury soon dependably recommences. This is especially embarrassing when there are visitors present whom this spectacle acutely discomfits.

Perhaps the most Strindbergian marriage, albeit without outside observers, is not even by Strindberg, but—you guessed it—Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which manages to shock no matter how often we experience it, and can even achieve new, startling dimensions of horror, as it apparently does in a current London production. Albee, by the way, has acknowledged his debt to the great Swede. What makes his play particularly frightening is that it contains two embattled marriages, young and middle-aged, taking place in Academia, with the elder spouses both intellectuals from whom you would expect something more civilized.

But the sad truth, mined by the play, is that intellectuals may be even better at hurting each other, although lesser couples do it well enough too. The obvious reason is that marriage partners come to know each other’s vulnerabilities and Achilles heels better than anybody else, and can thus hurl all the more hurtful darts at each other. Fiction and theater provide infinite examples of this, something so real and pervasive that neither authors nor readers or audiences ever get tired of it. It also has the advantage of lending itself to every kind of treatment from deeply tragic to madly farcical.

Lord Byron famously, though not necessarily correctly, observed something like “Women, we cannot get along with or without them.” Something similar might be applicable to marriage as well. To be sure, there is the confirmed bachelor who voluntarily, and the spinster wallflower who involuntarily, go through life alone. This is unfairly much easier for men, who can readily get their sex while single, than for women, who, save for some exceptional ones, only relatively recently acquired such sexual freedom. But the vast majority of men and women seek out marriage, sanguinely or precariously. As the seventeenth-century poet, Sir John Suckling put it (I quote from memory), “One is no number till that two be one.” (Quite a character, Sir John, who also wrote “Love is the fart/ Of every heart:/ It pains a man when ‘tis kept close,/ And others doth offend, when ‘tis let loose.”

Perhaps the best proof of the value of marriage—other than the obvious one, progeny—is that throughout literature and history we get impassioned utterances by men and women about their spouses, and is there a greater fictional ending than Charlotte Bronte’s “Reader, I married him”? And is there a more exalted term in the language than “helpmate”? (“Helpmeet” by the way is incorrect, based on the Bible’s“help meet,” where, however, “meet’ is an adjective meaning suitable, as Bryan Garner reminds us in his invaluable ”Garner’s Modern English Usage.”)
                                                                                                                                              Yes,history and literature provide far more examples of amazingly noble wives than of like husbands—which has me using the nowadays most abused word in the English language, “amazing,” without which television would apparently be inconceivable. This fidelity goes back at least to Homer and faithful Penelope, whose husband Ulysses was repeatedly unfaithful—but then what man wouldn’t be during a troubled twenty-year absence from home? Still, where is there a husband quite like Boccaccio’s patient Griselda, faithfully obedient despite her tyrannical spouse’s monstrous meted out trials?

Offhand I cannot think of a husband so faithful. There is even the one who allegedly put a chastity belt on his wife’s vagina while he was off on the  Crusades. In literature, the tendency is for men to be supremely devoted to other men, as for instance, in myth, Damon and Pythias, and in literature, the two friends in Schiller’s poem “Die Buergschaft.” In both cases, a friend is willing to endure execution in place for an absent friend. How selfish, by contrast, are Shakespeare’s Claudios, either the one in “Measure for Measure” or the one in “Much Ado About Nothing.”

But what about marriage, for which, in literature, Menander (342 BC to 292) set the tone: “Marriage, if one will face the truth, is an evil, but a necessary evil.” And so it usually figures, from Socrates to Emma Bovary and beyond, rather like Tolstoy’s families, noteworthy only when unhappy. It took a solidly Victorian poet, Coventry Patmore, with a beautiful wife, to come up with a work called “The Angel in the House,” the ultimate sentimental tribute to the missus. There is, however, no lack of uxorial tributes, sometimes even to promiscuous wives, though the latter usually from homosexual writers, who didn’t have any (viz. Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, etc.).

I could go on, but let me conclude with a well-deserved paean to  Ingmar Bergman’s “Story of a Marriage,” the uncut version, which manages to say everything that is good and everything that isn’t about modern marriage. It is a kind of compendium packed into a few hours of magisterial film that everyone concerned with marriage, as well as everyone who is not, should see and reflect about. It is by a genius who was both obsessed with and clear-eyed about who loved them and left as he was loved and sometimes left by them. In the end, though, he settled into what was a calm marriage with an extremely understanding woman who, after his quiet demise, singly outlived him. A mother figure, perhaps, and certainly the fitting haven for a profuse serial womanizer, several times previously married, at last, come to conjugal rest.

But not until he had said everything that could be said about men and women, together or apart.