Thursday, July 28, 2011


The other day I read about the Williamstown Theater Festival presenting Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which title is used again and again even though it is wrong. I have waged a campaign, to no apparent avail, on behalf of the correct A Doll House. Not calling the play that is a serious mistake.

Ibsen’s point is that the husband, Torvald, has turned his wife, Nora, into a doll—not a full-fledged human being, but a plaything for himself. Their house is like that still popular toy: a miniature dwelling with a doll as its miniature mistress.

Now if you call the play A Doll’s House, you make Nora the proprietress, in command, which is precisely what Torvald and the mores of that time would not allow. The house is Torvald’s, the husband and master’s, and the play might accordingly be called A Doll Owner’s House. Ibsen’s true meaning is conveyed only by A Doll House, without the apostrophe and the final S, i.e., the possessive case. Other languages have translated it correctly. Thus in German it is Ein Puppenheim, a doll house, rather than Heim einer Puppe, a doll’s house.

This somehow led to speculation about title mistranslation and manipulation in general, most significantly of the titles of foreign films, a particularly nefarious practice. They are the ones with which the crassest liberties are taken, in most cases to lure people in under falsely provocative pretenses.

Ingmar Bergman alone has been the victim of numerous mistitlings. Take the film that first brought me to Bergman, but almost deterred me by its American title, The Naked Night, which doesn’t even make proper sense. Still, it made me think that it was yet another of those Swedish sex movies in which lovers go skinny dipping and the camera lingers pruriently on the heroine’s naked body.

Of course the film was nothing of the sort, although it does contain a very different instance of nude bathing, appalling rather than alluring. The actual Swedish title is The Clown’s Evening, which has several meanings, not least the twilight or downfall of the circus artiste, but perhaps also of other than circus people, stultified in their private lives. The British title, Sawdust and Tinsel, is nearer the mark, because there is in the film a bitter conflict between a man of the circus and a man of the theater.

Consider now the retitling of The Face as The Magician. True, the protagonist is a magician of sorts, but what is more important is that he is in disguise, as is his lovely wife, for safety’s sake disguised as a male youth. But their true faces are revealed, making a vast difference, and implying that all art is a kind of disguise, salutary in some ways, but not the bare truth. The Magician may sell better than The Face, but it derails the viewer’s attention.

Similarly, The Communicants was retitled as Winter Light. Yes, it does take place in a snow-bleached Northern winter, but the film is really about communion with the Divine and communication, or lack thereof, among humans. They try to communicate and commune, but with only mixed results. There are wintry hearts in the story, but light, if any, comes only in a very ambivalent ending. The title change reflects the striving to avoid narrowly Christian implications, but is its vagueness any kind of real gain?

Much more objectionable is the turning of the Swedish for A Passion into The Passion of Anna. That could suggest a woman in heat, whereas the film deals with the very different passions of the four principal characters, inviting also thoughts of Christ’s passion. Altogether it evokes the conflicted and conflicting  passions of all humanity, which the changed title cravenly bypasses.

To be sure, Bergman is not the only one to suffer from mistitling. Take Ermanno Olmi’s wonderful Il posto (the job), about two young persons’ desperate need to find gainful employment. In English, it became The Sound of Trumpets, from an almost throwaway line in the dialogue, but having nothing to do with the plot. It has since reverted to its original Italian title, yet again eschewing simple literal translation. Why could it at no time become The Job?

This calls attention to a more recent trend, the retaining of the untranslated original title, usually Italian, as in La Dolce Vita, L’Avventura. I Vitelloni, La Notte and many others, presumably on the assumption that people could figure out the meaning while also basking in the newness, the exoticism of the foreign title.

At other times there was literal translation, albeit foreshortened. Thus what was in the Italian The Nights of Cabiria became a mere Cabiria, perhaps gambling on the suggestiveness of that mysterious foreign word. On the other hand, I can understand the decimation of Lina Wertmuller’s yard-long titles. So it is that Swept Away by an Unusual destiny in the Blue Sea of August became the terse Swept Away. Even more frugally, Film of Love and Anarchy, or At Ten o’Clock This Morning at the Via dei Fiori in a Well-known Brothel was preshrunk into Love and Anarchy, superb films regardless of titular tribulations. But was even the witty Everything Orderly But Nothing Works needful of condensation into All Screwed Up, conceivably because of a far-fetched suggestion of screwing?

However, there are also cases where a literal translation was retained, but not making much sense in English. So with Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups, where in French this means painting the town red, but the English of The 400 Blows means nothing at all. Then there are the tiny, inconspicuous changes, as with that Ibsen play, which nevertheless are misleading. Why would DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves become The Bicycle Thief, when there are at least two characters to whom the title refers? I can see why Rossellini’s Paisa (homeland) was changed to Paisan (homeboy), because the latter had some resonance even for Americanized Italians. But the film is not about a single person; it is about Italy under German occupation.

I could go on and on, but what’s the use of griping? Why in a dishonest world should titling be an exception? But flagrant error, as in Doll’s for Doll, should not be tolerated and prevail. I was once invited to a Midwestern production of the Ibsen play with a seductive note about how my title correction was scrupulously observed. Even so, I didn’t attend. There are matters even more important than fiddling with titles.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Although I am an atheist, I do not dismiss religion; in fact. I envy a bit those who have it. But I don’t understand it; perhaps someone can provide me with a credible explanation.

I can see where people in the Middle Ages believed. But today? We have explored the universe and found no Paradise in it. It is said that space is infinite, and somewhere in it God may be ensconced. But the earth is far from infinite, and we can now affirm that it houses no Hell in its bowels. And even if it were a hollow sphere, how could there be room in it for all the baddies since the beginning of time?

Well, you might say we need not take everything in the Bible literally. But what would a nonliteral afterlife be like? And can you be selectively Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever? Can you partly believe in the multiplication table? Or in astrology? Can you be partly Vegan or halfway superstitious? Can you be semi-agnostic? Or half-humble?

I believe you must either swallow religion whole or you are not religious. So then how can persons with first-rate intellects be believers? Like, for example, T. S. Eliot.

Of course, intellectuals may seek recourse in Tertullian’s famous credo quia absurdum—I believe because it is absurd, I take faith on faith. But why should religion be exempt from logic? Falling in love is. True, but there, palpably, is the love object. Even the troubadour Jaufre Rudel, who fell in love with the unseen Countess of Tripoli, did so on beholding her picture.

I find incomprehensible, for instance, the belief of some perfectly intelligent people that they will be reunited in Heaven with a predeceased spouse. What of the man twice widowed and thrice happily married? Will he become polygamous in Heaven, even though he was perfectly monogamous on earth? And how will the three wives feel about it? Yet how many Christians believe such a thing, even though Holy Writ tells them that in Heaven no marriage is.

Still, I can sympathize with believers. It is human to be afraid of death, or unreconciled to it, and so invent a remedy: the afterlife, the soul’s immortality, its basking in supraterrestrial bliss. But can one perceive the soul as detachable from the body? And, by the way, when does the good Christian go to Heaven? Upon his demise or at Christ’s second coming? Both are advocated. Furthermore, what about those cremated by the family, hacked to death by a madman, or blown to smithereens by some fanatic?

What I have especial difficulty with is uniforms, the regimentation that rejects individualism. Must every Jewish man wear a skullcap, even if, for children, it can be motley rather than black? Must there be prescribed hair- or head coverings? Must a woman’s whole body be hidden from view in a standardized way? I can see wearing an artful cross on a necklace, but even that may be ostentation, zealotry, or proselytizing.

There is also the matter of ritual. I see no pressing need for circumcision, sitting shiva, weekend confinement and other restrictions. Or total immersion. To say nothing of practices such as human sacrifice, suttee, footbinding.

And then there is churchgoing at specified hours. This might seem harmless, except that it involves sermons by preachers who are not in the class of John Donne and genuflections and uncomfortable pews. But probably the most problematic thing about religion is that it breeds intolerance toward noncoreligionists (though it denies any such thing.) In the past, this produced persecution and burning at the stake, but there is unpleasantness even in the present. Is anti-Semitism dead? Far from it. And what about Muslim suicide bombers? Is there no developing anti-Islamism?

One of the arguments for religion is that it keeps the underprivileged from murdering the privileged, that it stops crime from running riot. I am not sure to what extent that still prevails. If it does prevent criminality, it is as good as the system of law, with which no one in his right mind would want to do away.

But what about its interference with our rights? To consensual sex, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, freely available contraceptives and, above all, abortion. The chances of forced parenthood benefiting an unwanted child are slim, and even adoption by the right people is an iffy proposition. Whatever doesn’t harm other people, not mere embryos, should be allowed.

That religion creates a certain clubbiness—favoring the coreligionists—is unavoidable and would, without religion, take other forms. As indeed it does, on the basis of the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes, or even your IQ.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I have now caught the Diana Paulus production of the musical Hair for the third time, having seen it in Central Park and again on Broadway before now. This is the National Company, which has been touring and, after a two-month stint on Broadway, will resume the tour.

Galt MacDermot’s 1967 musical, with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado has two claims to fame: brief nudity and the introduction of rock to Broadway.  (I am not sure of the proper order of importance.) It is an anthem to the youth- and counterculture of the late 1960s, with its celebration of pacifism, free love, drug consumption, and resistance to the draft as a protest against militarism and the Vietnam War.

And something else: a tribute to the eponymous hair. The characters, East Village types, sport long hair, the hallmark of the then new bohemianism. There are two epithets for hairiness: hirsute, if it’s a mere matter of its presence; hispid, referring to its bristliness. And then there is something more specific that had me thinking about hair these days: newspaper pictures of Rebekah Brooks, editor of London’s News of the World, which was shut down by its owner Rupert Murdoch for having caused a major scandal.

Brooks claims that she knew nothing of the staff’s hacking into the private lives of royalty, assassination victims’ families, a murdered 13-year-old girl’s voice mail, or about hiring shady private eyes for prying and making highly illegal financial deals with the police. She has refused manifest culpability by relying not only on the passionate support of Rupert Murdoch, but also on rather close connections to Prime Minister David Cameron. The case is under investigation, though previous investigations yielded largely nothing; the more recent ones only the arrest of a couple of individuals. Ms. Brooks, despite calls for her resignation from many directions, defies them and brazenly stays on.

 But what about hair? Ms. Brooks wears her enormous red and curly tresses cascading in bold disarray, sufficient to shelter a couple of rat’s nests. Supremely unappetizing, she appears in newspaper photographs looking like the leader of some gypsy tribe or an especially arrogant teenager.

Well, what about long hair? We know that it was the fashion for men and women in ages past, though the women often tamed it in a variety of hairdos, and the men stopped it at shoulder length. As we see it in paintings and early photographs, we respond to it diversely. On women, if long and neat, it is sexy and appealing. But only up to a certain age. When the wearer is well into middle age—though opinions clearly differ about when that sets in—it looks delusional and unseemly.

Why? Because women’s hair has always been a sexual  lure, perfectly respectable but eminently erotic. And somehow—after 40, 45, 50 or whatnot—a woman is supposed to desist from sexual provocation. The exact age limit was never codified, and even its intimations varied from era to era, but long white hair on a crone may always have smelled of witchcraft.

Hair, perhaps because of its role at the pubes, has tended to be viewed as arousing. On account of its aphrodisiac quality, many European woman do not shave their armpits. Paradoxically, however, other women have been shaving off their pubic hair, presumably to appear more naked, more enticing. Such depilation may look unnatural, but is what passes for natural necessarily desirable? Nothing is more natural than an uncombed head of hair, or a loosely flowing hairdo. Yet bear in mind that Casey Anthony, while on trial for murder, kept her hair demurely upswept. But the moment she was found innocent (unjustly, as many of us think), down came her hair freely. Was it resumption of her good-time-girl status?

And what about men? I know women who find long male hair hugely attractive, indeed seductive. Others don’t. It seems to me that the more silky, undulant, and flowing it is, the more it looks feminine and an abrogation of masculinity. On the other hand, it does call attention to itself, and being noticed is the beginning of any kind of relationship, amorous or not.

There is no denying either that running one’s hand through a loved person’s hair is pleasurable. It doesn’t even have to be a lover; perhaps just a child, not even necessarily one’s own. Still, I believe that every youngster resents parental ruffling of his hair. It is a form of playfulness when the recipient doesn’t feel particularly playful. In a sexual situation, however, it is always welcome.

Women’s long hair, at any rate, has earned literary, indeed legendary, tributes. Think Rapunzel or Melisande or Lady Godiva. Think of the title of one of Debussy’s most popular piano pieces, “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.” Think of O. Henry’s charming story, “The Gift of the Magi.” Recall that when Rossetti buried his love poems with his beloved young wife, it is with her long red hair that he intertwined the manuscript. (Never mind that later he dug it up.)

That Muslim women are supposed to cover their hair attests to its perceived erotic role in that culture; shaving the heads of Frenchwomen who cohabited with Nazis during World War Two testifies to hair’s all-important allure. I am guessing that the self-induced baldness of so many young blacks has to do with their viewing its crinkliness as inferior to the smooth Caucasian kind. Even removed, hair asserts its importance by its very absence. Think if you will of Samson.

Hair is prominent in poetry and song. I cite only two notable examples, Alexander Pope’s “Fair tresses man’s imperial race ensnare,/ And beauty draws us with a single hair”; and Stephen Foster’s “I dream of Jeanie with the  light brown hair,/ Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air.” And let’s not even go into its eulogy on television by Rogaine and the likes.

Finally, hair embodies the relativity of all things human. A copious head of hair on a woman is excellent; a hairy chest on a man is questionable; hairy legs on either sex are anathematized. And what of a beard, a mustache, or bushy eyebrows? How desirable are they? Why is hair under the nose considered better than above it?

Hair, I say, is the great mystery, the carrier of glory and ignominy, an object of affection and revulsion, an instrument of romance and rebellion. No wonder that a show called Hair, if I may put it so, keeps cropping up.

Friday, July 1, 2011


Is there any doubt left that Leos Janacek (1854-1928), though born into the middle of the 19th century, was arguably the first truly modern composer, and a great one to boot. He composed superbly in every conceivable genre.

Janacek’s later music far surpasses the earlier, and if he had not died prematurely at age 74, when he was on a roll, from consequences of his unrequited love for an unworthy woman, who knows what further masterpieces he might have written. But the woman’s daughter was lost in the woods, and Janacek gallantly searching for her caught a chill that led to a fatal pneumonia.

“The Cunning Little Vixen” of 1922-23, premiered in 1924, was the seventh of Janacek’s nine operas, known in Czech as “The Adventures of Vixen Sharpears.” It is  based on a short novel by the journalist Rudolf Tesnohlidek, whose handwriting was hard to read, so that the typesetter mistook sharp feet for sharp ears, a fortuitous improvement.

It was Tesnohlidek’s editor on The People’s Paper who made the young pessimist write a text to some 200 drawings by the optimistic artist Stanislav Lolek, a text its author thought little of, but which nevertheless came out in book form the following year. (An excellent English translation, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is heartily recommended.)  It seems to have been the housekeeper who brought the Vixen to the master’s attention.

Janacek’s libretto from the novel is much less satirical but more poignant. The animals of the forest and barnyard talk among themselves and understand human speech, but there is no communication between man and beast. This despite the animals’ very human behavior.

The aging Forester captures young Sharpears and she grows up in his yard. She defies the wife’s disapproval and the grandson’s teasing, has a friendship with the dog, and manages to kill the rooster and hens and feast on them. She is punitively tethered, but bites through the rope and escapes into the forest. Various animals, birds and insects live there, and provide commentary on or counterpoint to the main action.

The clever Vixen manages to maneuver the infuriated Badger out of his den, which she takes over. A male fox, Goldenmane, courts and wins her. Married by the Woodpecker, they start a family of many little foxes.  The poultry dealer and poacher Harasta shoots the foolhardy Vixen dead. When the Forester rests at his favorite spot, he mistakes one of the Vixen’s daughters for her mother. Similarly the Frog whom he catches proves the grandson of one he caught long ago. Time has moved on and wrought its changes; the Forester, nostalgically reminiscing, catches the forest’s autumnal mood, shared no doubt by Janacek, now 70.

Along with the largely animal story line there is also the human one. This takes place chiefly at Pasek’s inn, where the Forester and his cronies, The Parson and the Schoolmaster, drink beer and play cards. It emerges that the Forester is not overeager to go home to his formidable wife; that the Parson in his youth had a misadventure with a girl that soured him on women forever; and that the Schoolmaster was in love with a village girl, Terynka, who ended up marrying Harasta. The Forester recalls the amorous beginning of his marriage, its passion now spent. The only fully happy relationship is that of Sharpears and Goldenmane.

In the recent New York Philharmonic version of the opera, the orchestra and its conductor, Alan Gilbert, did solid work. During passages when there was only music all was well. But the theatrics, costumed and directed by Doug Fitch, and choreographed by Karole Armitage, were a less felicitous matter.

There is, to be sure, a problem for theater having to share space with a very large orchestra. Still, Fitch using every kind of gimmickry, made good with last year’s similar offering, Ligeti’s “Le grand Macabre.” But that was a postmodern clown show with no claim on the emotions. Janacek’s delicate and profound work does not take kindly to Fitch’s shenanigans.

Fitch turned the “Vixen” into a kind of kiddy show, largely defanged and cutesy. Thus whereas Janacek’s libretto contains one sunflower, Fitch had some 35 in back of the orchestra, turning a forest into a flower patch. Up front, three or four trees were represented by transparencies suggesting nothing much.

Other things, too, suffered in the relatively narrow space in front of the orchestra, even supplemented by a runway that zigzagged into the front rows of Avery Fisher Hall. With only one level, the Badger’s burrow was a kind of hut. The hens were costumed as lower-class housewives with rubber gloves for crests (the costumes were mostly made of mundane objects transformed with mixed results ), the rooster was a soprano with heavily padded shirtfront. These fowls did not get killed by the Vixen, presumably so as not to alienate children and benighted adults.

The smaller animals were played, as the composer wished, mostly by children, who sang sweetly and executed the simplistic Armitage choreography adequately. Instead of a major ballet number for the Dragonfly, Armitage had one for what was meant to be Terynka (who could guess it?), looking much too sophisticated and even kneeling to commune with the tethered vixen.

The scenery could not deal with Pasek’s inn, reduced to a small, solitary counter plunked down in the middle of nowhere. So the alehouse atmosphere was lacking.

The singing was respectable throughout, with Isabel Bayrakdarian a delightful vixen, vocally, visually and histrionically. She has sung the part in her native Canada in Czech, and found it both onerous and inapposite to sing it in English, given the necessary changes and Janacek’s vaunted musical approximation of Czech speech and animal sounds. Goldenmane, meant to be another soprano, was sung nicely by the mezzo Marie Lenormand. Joshua Bloom’s baritone did handsomely by Harasta; Keith Jameson and Wilbur Pauley satisfied as Schoolmaster and Parson, respectively. As the Forester, the respected bass Alan Opie sang opulently and feelingfully. The closing scene for him and the new generation of beasties was properly moving. Here the pathos of aging and death expectancy is beautifully subsumed by the sense of nature’s renewal, which the music conveyed through fearless motivic iteration.

Sadness and ecstasy were both here, as in most Janacek endings, and what cavils one had with the production were erased through the composer’s genius.