30 April 2009
I'm sad to report that both Times pieces were right. (The article on the friendship wasn't meant to be an evaluation of the production; it just let some kitties out the sack.) Chasing Manet, which is old-fashioned dramaturgy, a well-made play, just isn't terribly exciting, either dramatically or theatrically. One review quipped that it's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest meets The Golden Girls--the TV comedy came up a lot in coverage--and I'd agree to an extent--though I'd add Heroes, I think. It's simplistic, but not inaccurate. Like Heroes, Manet's a study of the loneliness of age and the response of not going gentle into the night (with apologies to Dylan Thomas, whoever he was). As a theme, even ignoring the recent Heroes, that's been pretty well worked over, I think. There are scores of plays, movies, and TV shows that dissect that aspect of life from just about every angle and unless the writer has a really new perspective to jig things up some, she's covering well-plowed ground. The best acting in the world probably won't liven that up a whole lot. (I guess I could really just stop here, couldn't I? But I'm logorrheic, so I won't.)
Chasing Manet is the story of Catherine Sargent, a once-famous modernist painter, who now lives in the Mount Airy Nursing Home in the Bronx ("where they have that vulgar cheer")--Riverdale, her son emphatically reminds her--because, among her other ailments, she is virtually blind. The matriarch of a patrician Boston family, she is a cousin of John Singer Sargent and was once a lover of André Malraux. Her son, Royal Lowell, has installed her in this residence so she can be nearer to him (though he doesn't visit as often as he planned). Royal's something of a disappointment to Catherine: he's a professor at Columbia where, instead of writing poetry, he just teaches it. Catherine chants, "Out! Out! I want out!" and there's no place she'd rather go off to than the Paris of her youth and her dreams. When the play opens, her previous roommate has just died during the night, and Catherine gets a new one, a Jewish woman named Rennie with a swiss-cheese memory and focus. (She insists Rennie's short for Ramona, but her daughter keeps reminding her that that's her mother's name.) Rennie suffers from dementia and hallucinates; she thinks she's at a hotel and spends a lot of her time in conversation with her deceased husband, Herschel. Catherine persuades Rennie to act as her accomplice in an escape to Paris on the QE2: Rennie will be Catherine's eyes; Catherine will be Rennie's legs. (I won't say whether they succeed--unless you decide you're never going to see the play and insist I give away the ending.)
The two main characters are polar opposites, which seems quite contrived. Catherine is taciturn, erudite, aristocratic, self-centered, somewhat arrogant, depressed, and lonely. She spends the first several minutes of the play asleep in a near-fetal posture with her face to the wall. She's a little misanthropic, but though she says little most of the time, she has all her wits. Her body is failing, but her mind still works fine. Rennie, on the other hand, is loquacious, happy, friendly, loving and loved, and comfortably middle class. She's confined to a wheelchair or, for short distances, a walker, but it's her mind that's failing more than her body. But she's always surrounded by family who come to visit in packs. Just about every characteristic that's displayed is made a study in contrasts: Catherine dresses in a white satin nightgown--Rennie is partial to cotton flowered prints, sort of a Jewish Edith Bunker; Catherine wears her snow white hair long and flowing--Rennie is never without a hat over her nebbishy gray mop; Catherine is elegant--Rennie is dowdy-cute.
It turns out that much of this is drawn from Howe's own life and family. Catherine, a character the playwright has penned before in different guises, is based on Howe's Aunt Maddy but salted with aspects of a family friend, Margaret Holland Sargent, who was, in fact, a distant relative of the famous American painter and who dumped her husband in Paris. In the 1980s, when the play is set, Aunt Maddy was confined to a home in the same New York neighborhood as Catherine and she also kept to her bed as Howe and her brother visited in attempts to comfort her--much as Royal tries to cheer his mother in the play. At the same time, Howe's husband's 100-year-old uncle, a Jew like Rennie, was in an assisted-living residence where his family would gather by the dozens and gossip, eat, joke, and tell family stories. Furthermore, Howe and Alexander were college chums at Sarah Lawrence where Alexander directed and then appeared in Howe's first play, Closing Time. After graduation in 1959, the two pals sailed together for Europe, Alexander going off to Edinburgh (to study math--she was going to be a computer programmer!), but Howe, like her heroine four decades earlier, headed for Paris and the Sorbonne (to study philosophy). In Paris, as Catherine Sargent was drawn to the Louvre and Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, Howe was taken by Ionesco's The Lesson and The Bald Soprano (which had opened in 1957 at the Théatre de la Huchette and are still running there today). Howe is recorded as having proclaimed, "It changed my life. It was like a bolt of lightening going through my head." (Actually, I can imagine a little of that: I was knocked on my ass the first time I saw Waiting for Godot at my college theater a few years after Howe had her epiphany in Paris. I saw my first Ionesco, Exit the King, a few years later at the same theater.)
Anyway, it seems Howe is doing a lot of recycling for Chasing Manet: her life, her family and in-laws, and previous plays. Maybe that's part of the problem. When I wrote about Charles Busch's Third Story, I complained that he had too many balls in the air because he seemed to have done a little house-cleaning in his file of unused plot ideas. I think Howe may have done the same thing--pulled together a whole bunch of ideas she wanted to use one day and put them all into one play. They only fit together with a lot of hammering and wrenching.
As I said, I'm not a fan of Howe's work, so I don't have the continuity to make generalizations, but according to most of the reviews and commentary, her most frequent theme is the celebration of "human (and particularly female) eccentricity and willfulness." According to Howe's own statement, "The play is about all those far-flung journeys of the departing soul, [the] longing for adventure, movement, for something else." The two most dramatic moments in the play, both monologues, are about striking out and experiencing the most profound moment in one's life. Catherine explains to the family of Rennie her favorite painting, Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, a copy of which hangs over her bed--and which she says has always been with her as a talisman. With great passion, Catherine shows them that it was not the nude woman in the painting that was shocking, but the nude woman in the context of the family picnic, that she was so casually out of place. “It wasn’t the fact of her nakedness that was so shocking, but its implausibility,” Catherine tells her attentive audience. “Placing a naked woman in a public place sounded the call for artistic freedom, telling the artist he could paint not only what he wanted, but how." I suspect that was how the Ionescos had made the playwright-to-be feel when she first saw them 50 years ago. I think it's also meant to be the play's statement of its own theme.
The other poetic moment, delivered by David Margulies (an actor who was once one of my teachers at Rutgers a little over 30 years ago) as Henry, a near-silent patient who has up to this point uttered only variations on "I need help!" Suddenly he snaps into a riveting monologue that reveals he was an archeologist who discovered a mystical treasure at a dig in the Fertile Crescent. He launches into a passionate reverie of how he saw “flying dinosaurs singing actual lyrics.” Like Catherine and the Manet, this is Henry's transcendent moment, the one that's emblematic of how we're all supposed to live, but while Catherine's lecture on Manet has a rationale within the play, as wonderful as Henry's speech is as a piece of dramatic writing, it is a set piece--dropped in to an otherwise arbitrary scene of residents in an art therapy session. It comes out of nowhere, astonishes us for a moment, and then disappears, leaving no repercussions. (I'll bet it shows up in a lot of acting classes and audition sessions, though!)
As far as the production is concerned, I can't say that director Michael Wilson did anything wrong. The problems I had with the play are in the script, not in the staging. I don't believe Wilson could have done a better job, even if he didn't really do anything noteworthy or remarkable. The work of the cast is fine, so Wilson discharged that part of his job perfectly well. The set (designed by Tony Straiges with lighting by Howell Binkley), which is an open view of Catherine and Rennie's room and the L-shaped hallway downstage and stage right, is overshadowed with wheelchairs hanging from the ceiling--the one truly absurdist touch in an otherwise conventional play. (If Ionesco had such a profound impact on Howe, I'd hope his influence would shake up her dramaturgy more.) The set functions well enough, though it does make the therapy scenes, played in the downstage "hallway" area, a little cramped and unlocalized.
As for the acting, the five-actor ensemble who play all the other patients, the attendants and staff, and Rennie's visitors, are fine. The characters they have to play are often sketchy and flat, but each cast member finds at least one moment where she or he can fill out the outlines, like David Margulies's memory speech. On the whole, though, not much is demanded of them except quick costume changes and distinct vocal characterizations. (Vanessa Aspillaga, for instance, changes accents: she's a Latina as Esperanza, the attendant, and French as Marie-Claire, the art therapist. It's not subtle, but it does the trick.) Jack Gilpin, as Catherine's son Royal, has a thankless role: it's his job to stand in Catherine's room and let her scold him for being ineffectual. He plays three other roles, but Royal is his principal assignment. The two leads, of course, have more substantial fare to chew on.
I know I've seen Lynn Cohen before--I recognize her cherubic face from somewhere, but I can't begin to place her. (It turns out I haven't seen any of the New York shows she lists in her bio, and though I must have seen her in some of the TV and movie work she lists, I can't picture her.) She certainly bottles up the sweetness aspect of Rennie, and the bubbliness. She's more than believable whether she's being Mrs. Malaprop ("We create a division--then we make a break for it while everyone's distilled," she says to Catherine when they begin to plan their escape), chatting with Herschel, or talking about a dip in the hotel pool. Rennie's a little like Estelle Getty's part in Golden Girls in that she slips in and out of the conventional world. Sophia Petrillo couldn't censor her thoughts, which she spoke uncontrollably; Rennie can't distinguish between reality and her delusions and pops in and out of lucidity in an instant. Cohen handles this perfectly and makes it plausible, not to mention often funny. The problem is--and this isn't Cohen's fault--the laughs are cheap. In fact, they're much like Getty's on TV--the sight of a cute little old lady behaving irrationally is funny the way 12-year-olds find potty jokes funny. Mark Twain, it's not!
Finally, Jane Alexander. She's nothing if not professional, and she takes Catherine and runs with her. Her work on stage can't be faulted as far as I'm concerned. She makes the curmudgeonly Catherine not just believable but sympathetic and intriguing. The character's not one-note, but she isn't more than three or four, and Alexander wrings all the variety she can out of them. She does her friend proud--only Howe has let her down. The character doesn't really warrant the star-quality that Alexander brings to it. Tennessee Williams had a thing about Alma Winemiller--he identified with her and couldn't let her go. He wrote two plays for her, Summer and Smoke and then Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Howe has a comparable attraction for Catherine or Maddy or whatever Howe names the character, but while Williams gave his character two good vehicles (some would say at least one of them great), Howe has relegated Catherine to a contrived, middling, shallow little work, not worthy of her or the theme she articulates. (I wonder if this is why I've never become a fan of Howe's plays. D'ya think?)
Chasing Manet left little immediate impression on me; while I was watching it, I found my mind wandering and I had to make myself concentrate on the play. I looked at some of the other reviews on line and the Times was among the kindest. Only Back Stage actually praised the play; Show Business, the New York Post, and the Daily News were cool to cold, mostly summing the effort up as "a mildly pleasant diversion," "a strained dark comedy," and "a trivial pursuit." Variety was the absolute cruelest. Its opening line declared that "'Chasing Manet' almost makes you envy its mentally ill characters the good fortune of not knowing where they are. Everyone else in the theater is aware they're watching a bad example of the nursing home drama." It goes downhill from there!
26 April 2009
Those of us who remember the original Ring Lardner, Jr.-Michael Kanin film of Woman of the Year (and who with a television doesn’t) remember it as one of a string of Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicles, in which the billing was shared equally, and with a certain equity in screen time and character weight. The new musical stage version written by Peter Stone with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb is, however, very much a one-star vehicle. Lauren Bacall is handed center stage and a spot light for the opening (and title) number and she never relinquishes either. We know we are in for a treat, and a class act it is, too.
The story of the film remains basically unchanged: Tess Harding (Bacall), now a savvy Barbara Walters-type TV interviewer, and Sam Craig (Harry Guardino), a newspaper cartoonist, publicly disagree, meet, fall in love, marry, clash, separate and, to no one’s surprise, get back together. Except for up-dating and the change in professions, the only other real changes are in the form of minor omissions. The result does not suffer in the least from such judicious cutting.
Bacall is, of course, magnificent, a true star of the first magnitude, and she owns the stage at the Palace Theater. Though her acting is better than her singing or dancing, her personality and charisma are far better than all three, and I loved it. There is, however, another “star” of’ this production. Special credit and high praise must be given to the team who created Woman of the Year, Tony Walton’s sets are resourcefully appropriate, ranging from the stark elegance of Tess Harding’s apartment to the seedy comfort of the cartoonists’ hangout, The Inkpot, with its Sardis-like wall of caricatures. I especially liked the moment in scene two when Tess’s TV studio and Sam’s workshop are juxtaposed, with Tess “appearing” on a huge TV screen in Sam’s office. And while we’re in Sam’s studio, I have to mention Michael Sporn’s inspired animation of Sam’s creation, Katz, the social-commenting cat. I wish he had not disappeared so soon in the first act: he was a perfect foil for Sam and the Quintessential New Yorker. Most of all, I found the musical numbers, staged by Tony Charmoli, marvelously insidious: they snuck up on me before I knew it. I was particularly engaged by “Happy in the Morning,” a number in Act II where Russian dancer Alexi (a delightfully mercurial Eivind Harum) advises Tess on love and life while the “corps de ballet” is behind him, doing their barre. Soon they are exercising in time to the song, and then, without the slightest hitch, they are in the midst of an energetic production number.
What is so remarkable about these accomplishments is that each one has been blended by director Robert Moore into a confection of intricate control and selection. The result is a whole far more effective than the sum of all its wonderfully clever parts. For this restraint alone, Moore should be congratulated and heartily thanked, but he has far more than mere technical control. He has brought together an ensemble of players unquestionably fit to back up his star. It has been a long time since I have seen a cast so evenly talented, so painstakingly assembled and so obviously lovingly directed as this one: Guardino could not be more human and secure as Craig, and his rendition of the ballad “Sometimes A Day Goes By” is as warm as ever a love song can be; Grace Keagy and Roderick Cook are both self-important and protective as Bacall’s maid and personal secretary. But among all this high-level evenness, there is a show-stopper, and it belongs to Marilyn Cooper as the current wife of Tess’s ex. In “The Grass Is Always Greener,” when Miss Cooper asks “what’s so wonderful” about her middle-class life as compared to Tess’s glamorous adventures, we have no doubt what that life entails. She is, in one shot, an Erma Bombeck-cum-Julia Childs-cum-Heloise. Whom better for poor Tess to ask how to keep a husband?
If there is anything wrong with Woman of the Year, aside from occasional difficulty hearing some of Guardino’s and Bacall’s spoken dialogue, it is that it is over too soon. Tess Harding may be the Woman of the Year, but Woman of the Year is the play of the season.
Cooper went on tour with Woman with Bacall following its Broadway run and then on a national tour with Barbara Eden (Jeannie of I Dream of . . . .) in 1984. She continued to act until 1998 (2000 on TV and in movies), but there was never another moment like the one in Woman.
[Several of the people named in my 28-year-old report have left the stage permanently. Robert Moore, the director of Woman of the Year, died in 1984; Roderick Cook in 1990; Harry Guardino in 1995; Peter Stone in 2003; and Fred Ebb in 2004.]
22 April 2009
I don't remember when the snow started to fall, but after school, I had a doctor's appointment downtown on I (“Eye”) Street at about 20th, right where Pennsylvania Avenue intersects--the heart of the government office district. I took the trolley downtown to my appointment after school (Washington still had trolleys when I was in school) and my mother usually picked me up afterwards. During the time I was at the doctor's, the snow had accumulated to the degree that the government offices all closed so the workers could get home. When I left the doctor's office to meet my mom on the street, the downtown area was flooded with people trying to get home in the heavy snowfall; public transportation was all backed up, of course, and auto traffic was a mess as usual in D.C. when it snows. (Washington, though it gets the same weather that New York City does most of the time, still thinks of itself as a southern town and has never learned how to prepare for snow. No one in the city knows how to drive on snow, and the city has never--at least not in my childhood--purchased a fleet of snow plows or salt-spreaders.)
Mom was driving our Ford station wagon and my little brother, six days from his twelfth birthday, was with her. She had gone shopping before she met me and the groceries were in the cargo part of the wagon. Somewhere along the line, Mom picked up a couple of government office workers; I don't remember if they were already in the car when I came down from the doctor's or if she picked them up as we were going back up Pennsylvania Avenue. I don't recall, but they must have lived more or less near us or on the way to where we lived, out on the D.C.-Maryland border in what was colloquially known as "Chevy Chase, D.C." because it was right across Western Avenue from that Maryland suburb. (It was actually known as Barnaby Woods.) In any case, there were five of us in the station wagon, making our way slowly through the traffic and snow-filled roads from downtown Washington to the northwest edge of the city.
I don't remember exactly anymore how long we were in the car, but it took hours and hours to get through the clogs and navigate the slippery and unplowed streets once we got off the big avenues. I recall that my dad was home by this time and had no idea where we were. (I think Mom remembers that Dad was out of town or something and had called home to check in, but we often differ on details of family history.) In either case, there was no way to let him know where we were or that we were safe, so he was frantic. Meanwhile, my brother and I were getting hungry--it was by now well past 6 or 7 in the evening--so we climbed into the back of the station wagon and started raiding the grocery bags for any food we could eat right out of packages we could open in the car--sandwich meat, cereal, cheese . . . whatever.
As we got into the northwest residential areas of the District, the hour had gotten late and the snowfall had stopped, but we started seeing all the toffs in their evening clothes, planning to go off to the inaugural balls, sliding along slick streets and sidewalks, pushing cars out of drifts or frozen gutters. The sight of both men in tails--some even in top hats--and women in elaborate evening gowns and high heels behind slipping, sliding, careening cars, pushing them, wheels spinning on the snow and ice, out of parking places or up slippery inclines will remain with me forever! I can't tell you how often I see a period movie or TV show set on that date and in that place and note that the moviemakers never include the snow and the disaster that made of the festive evening. For some reason, the JFK Inaugural Snowstorm is not part of our popular history. But I remember it.
17 April 2009
I guess I should confess here, if it hasn’t become obvious from previous posts, that I think Beckett was a genius and that Godot is a masterpiece. I can’t ignore those feelings entirely, of course, but I’ve tried to put them aside when I debate Patrick on his assertions and claims in “’Godot’ and Other Trash.” You’ll determine how successful I’ve been.
With respect to my first impression of Patrick’s essay--that he was coming from personal jealousy--I can only observe that though Patrick had had some success as an Off-Off-Broadway playwright in the ‘50s and ‘60s, starting at the Caffe Cino where he was something of a fixture, and moving into the OOB arena of the early and middle ‘70s, especially in the realm of gay theater. (There used to be several significant gay and lesbian theater companies in New York City as well as a relatively prominent gay bi-weekly newspaper, The New York Native. Briefly in the 1980s and ‘90s, I wrote reviews for the Native, covering mostly OOB productions and some Off-Broadway shows. My editor was the late Terry Helbing who ran one of those gay theaters in the decade previous.)
Kennedy’s Children ran at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway from 3 November 1975 to 4 January 1976; Shirley Knight won the 1976 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance. After Kennedy’s Children, Patrick’s work returned to the OOB theaters and he began, in my opinion, to rewrite the same play--mostly based on his own life as a gay man--over and over again. In October 1986, two years before Patrick wrote his New York Times column on Godot, I was reading scripts for the 1987 Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships for American Playwrights Program in the prescreening stage of selection for residency grants. One of the plays I read was Patrick’s The Trial of Socrates, a two-act play modeled on classic theater ostensibly examining the real reason Socrates was tried and condemned. (That’s what Patrick would assert. Actually, I maintain it was really about what happens when you deny a kid a homosexual affair. The plot centered on Socrates’ infatuation with the young Alkibiades.) In my evaluation, I wrote: “. . . This is pretentious dreck dressed up to be poetic drama. Patrick is simply presenting a brief for gay love, with a little (frustrated) voyeurism thrown in for good measure.” (Before anyone charges that I was acting out of some form of homophobia, let me say that I added that there were many better gay plays and gay playwrights who could benefit from a grant. It had been Patrick’s dramaturgy, not his theme that had turned me off.)
In October 1990, I was assigned by Terry Helbing of the Native to cover Patrick’s “Hello, Bob” at La MaMa under the author’s own direction. Like Kennedy’s Children, “Hello, Bob” is a series of monologues, all of which relate in some way to the success of the Broadway play and the effect of that success on Patrick. Whereas Kennedy’s Children considered “the death of the idea of heroes as guides for our lives,” according to Patrick’s note in the published text, “Hello, Bob” seemed only to be concerned with praising Patrick--the man, the artist, the Samaritan, the lover. There were many references to Patrick as a “great guy” and to his “great play.” Over and over again, the playwright showed himself as a tireless teacher, dauntless crusader for noble causes, and unwavering friend. In most of the speeches, the playwright portrayed himself as persecuted by opponents and enemies; The New York Times characterized the impetus as “paranoia.” Aside from Patrick’s need to revisit this event 15 years later, what astonished me most was the opprobrium he heaped on Shirley Knight (a character in the play is an actress named “Shirley”)--bordering, in my opinion, on libel. He said terrible things about her in the play! Was Patrick envious that Knight had won a Tony for his play and he hadn’t? (The play had been nominated for a Drama Desk Award that season, but didn’t win. Patrick himself received no nominations of which I am aware.) Did she do something during the production of Kennedy’s Children that pissed Patrick off? Was he just mad because after that taste of mainstream success, he fell back to near obscurity and he took his anger out on Knight, whose career moved forward, with TV and movies as well as stage work? I don’t know, of course, but I have always wondered why Patrick so viciously attacked Knight in “Hello, Bob” for work I had found strong and appealing. (I saw Kennedy’s Children in December 1975. I even bought the script because I thought the monologues would be good material for acting classes. Neither The Trial of Socrates nor “Hello, Bob” have been published, though some monologues from the latter that weren’t used at LaMaMa appeared in Stages magazine in July/August 1991.)
Did Patrick then do the same thing with Beckett and Godot, railing at a more successful and respected artist because Godot was getting so much press and Patrick couldn’t get arrested by 1988? Patrick wrote in the Times: “Those working outside the canon are denied space or are defused by being placed among the space junk.” That sure sounds to me like that’s what he was doing. I’ve seen it before, of course: an artist who isn’t getting the attention he thinks he deserves turning on the establishment and blaming some bunch of villainous gatekeepers for barring him from his just recognition. For one playwright, the villains were the dramaturgs and literary advisers who blocked his way; for Patrick, it was a cabal of “ambitious young critics” who promoted bad writers over worthy ones in order to aggrandize themselves.
(Amusingly, it’s worth noting that in the late 19th century a group of French poets and novelists of considerable renown and repute who had nonetheless failed as playwrights formed a semi-formal conclave which met for elaborate dinners once a month. These writers were Ivan Turgenev--an honorary Frenchman--Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Alphonse Daudet, and Edmond de Goncourt and, because their first dramatic efforts had been booed off the stage, they called themselves the Group of Hissed Authors--le Groupe des Auteurs Sifflés. They didn’t blame anyone for their lack of success. They just found an excuse to party!)
But now, leaving aside if possible the dramatist’s apparent emotional investment, let’s see if I can refute Patrick’s logic.
It might be easier to discuss Patrick’s reasoning if I reproduced all or most of his column, but I won’t do that. I’m not even sure that would be permissible, and to make matters worse for the reader, the essay isn’t available on the New York Times website or elsewhere on the ‘Net. (Aside from the microfilm of the issue, the column can be found in the databases ProQuest Historical Database or ProQuest Historical New York Newspapers & Magazines, but only if you go to the whole page on which it appeared. Except for a clipping file somewhere, those are about the only sources I know of.) So, I will do my best to outline Patrick’s argument as scrupulously as I can.
Patrick’s argument against the importance of Beckett as a writer and Godot as theater literature is made up of three major points supported by various assertions:
- Beckett is a minor writer. [Paragraph 1 of Patrick’s essay]
- Critics of the ‘40s & ‘50s created the impression of value in such artists. [¶ 2]
- The young were fooled into accepting the values. [¶ 3]
- Audiences took the critics seriously. [¶ 4]
- Artists not accepted by the establishment are ignored. [¶’s 5 & 9]
- Standards are “incoherent,” thus so is the art. [¶’s 8 & 7]
- Our art is becoming shallow. [¶’s 12 & 10]
Now, the logical connection among the three parts of the argument is weak. Part A is developed through several steps: a syllogism based on unsubstantiated opinion. If you buy the assertion that Beckett and the other writers Patrick disparages are low-level artists, the syllogism might hold. But Patrick’s characterization is an assertion for which he offers not only no proof, but no criteria. By what standards are Beckett and his fellow modernists “mediocrities”? Why should we take Patrick’s judgment without question when he unabashedly scolds us for accepting the judgment of the critics? If you take a look at my earlier post, “History of ‘Waiting For Godot’” (20 March), you’ll see that not all critics agreed among themselves; quite a few didn’t like Godot or Beckett’s kind of writing. So, what are we left with then? We can listen to critics who agree with Patrick, but not those who disagree with him? That may be a supremely human stance, but it’s not rational argument.
Part C, on the other hand, only follows if you accept that the “canon” is made up of unworthy artists. Patrick offers no cogent argument that Jasper Johns or Beckett are inferior artists to van Gogh and Picasso, or Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson, and Harvey Fierstein, the artists Patrick holds up as worthier vessels than Beckett. Again, what are Patrick’s criteria? This is the question Patrick continually begs, of course. (Williams, by the way, was a great admirer of Beckett, who influenced Williams’s later, non-realistic works. Williams’s absurdist play Camino Real, by coincidence, came out the same year Godot was performed in Paris.) Indeed, if we apply even a general standard to judgment, say international renown and artistic staying power, we can see that the three playwrights on Patrick’s list aren’t even of equal stature among themselves, much less in comparison to Beckett. Williams is, by almost all measures, one of the two or three most important American dramatists of the middle of the 20th century. When Patrick asks, If you give Beckett a Nobel Prize, “what are you going to give” the other three, Williams could conceivably have been a contender. Lanford Wilson? He writes good plays, which I like a lot, as it happens, but is he of comparable stature to Williams? The Nobel is given for literature, not theater (the Pulitzer’s awarded for drama), and I don’t know that Wilson writes great literature. And what about Harvey Fierstein, a friend and sometime collaborator of Patrick’s? Is he Nobel material, do you think? Let’s also remember that the Nobel is awarded for a career of achievement, not a single work (that’s the Pulitzer again). Does Fierstein have a body of work that competes with, oh, say, Eugene O’Neill, the only American playwright to win a Nobel Prize for literature? Fierstein’s written some fun, interesting, and even moving plays, but I couldn’t put him in the same category as Williams much less O’Neill.
We can glean some of Patrick’s criteria for worthiness from other statements. In a 1979 interview with Bernard Weiner of the San Francisco Chronicle, the playwright complained, “If you absolutely refuse to relate your theater to life, the grants doors open wide.” The work such artists make is “a dead-end; it’s for people who take drugs and stay up late.” So, we can infer that Patrick’s theater canon would consist of plays that “relate to life.” From the work of the artists he deprecates in the same interview--Robert Wilson, Andrei Serban, Winston Tong, Richard Foreman--we can deduce that what Patrick doesn’t like is theater that is experimental or innovative in form and idiosyncratic in structure. Looking at the writers he admires so fiercely, who also include David Mamet, David Rabe, Christopher Durang, and Michael Weller, what he apparently likes, is some form of Realism: straightforward Realism, enhanced Realism, lyrical Realism, but Realism nonetheless. “These people [the experimentalists] are getting grants to work with tinker toys,” he charged. “It’s super-chic trash, and it will only stop if someone comes out and says so.” There’s little question who that someone is, I guess. “Change,” Patrick urges in the Times essay, “must come from on high.” Oh.
Patrick also embeds a red herring in his case against the avant-garde. While the opening (and the headline, assuming Patrick had a hand in composing that) of his Times essay lead us to expect that he will argue the demerits of Beckett as an artist and Godot as a play, an argument that might be hard to marshal (especially without evidence or stated criteria), Patrick moves into an assault on the neglect of home-grown playwrights whom he feels don’t get enough stage time. They are, he claims, being displaced by “Soho performance art twaddle.” But even if Mamet, Rabe, et al., are pushed aside undeservedly, that is not the same as arguing that Beckett and Godot are unworthy of being staged and viewed. It’s much easier to make a case for paying more attention to supporting American playwrights; theater artists have been saying that for several decades. (Of course, in 1988 writers like Mamet were just beginning their careers; the writers on Patrick’s list have since become almost household names--if there’s a theater devotee in your house, that is. Mamet just had two major revivals here in New York, Durang’s new play recently opened at the Public to excellent reviews, and I saw a new Weller play Off-Broadway a few months back in a top-flight production--though I didn’t end up caring much for the play, but that’s a different issue. Lanford Wilson was the subject of a Signature Theatre season in 2003, including a stunning revival of 5th of July.) Even if Patrick’s complaint about the neglect of domestic writers were true (and Patrick essentially begs this question as well, offering only an assertion without proof), it amounts to a more easily-handled distraction from his originally-stated contention: that Becket is a mediocre writer and Godot is trivial art. Besides being a red herring, the issue, even if Patrick proved it, is beside the point since Beckett’s merit has little to do with how other writers are treated and or vice versa.
Moreover, Patrick protested in the Chronicle interview: “America has turned its back on its dramatists.” But we haven’t: Patrick has set up a false dichotomy here by implying that we can either like Godot or appreciate other, less-experimental, domestic authors, but not both. That’s just not so: both Williams and Wilson won Pulitzers for drama. Wilson won in 1980 for Talley’s Folly; Williams won twice, once in 1948 for Streetcar and again in 1955 for Cat. Wilson is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and all three of the writers Patrick dubs as underrecognized by society have won Tonys or Obies and other performance awards. Furthermore, as I noted, only one American dramatist has ever won a Nobel, so it’s not as if these three have been singled out for this slight. Arthur Muller has never won a Nobel; neither has Edward Albee or Maxwell Anderson or Robert Anderson or James Baldwin or Horton Foote or William Inge or Lorraine Hansberry or Lillian Hellman or George Kaufman or Clifford Odets or William Saroyan or Neil Simon or Wendy Wasserstein or Thornton Wilder or August Wilson. (The list of prominent non-American dramatists who never won Nobels is very long as well: Anouilh, Brecht, Cao Yu, Chekhov, Cocteau, Dürrenmatt, Fugard, Gorky, Havel, Ibsen, Lorca, Rostand, Strindberg, Synge, Tendulkar, Witkiewicz--just to name sixteen.) Just because American dramatists, O’Neill aside, haven’t received Nobel recognition, doesn’t mean American society has “turned its back” on its dramatic writers; one award lacking isn’t sufficient proof of overall neglect. (This is really another question Patrick begs.) Patrick thus commits the fallacy of the hasty generalization. Specifically, he slants the evidence by using as his support the one award American playwrights have failed to win. The many other literary and theatrical awards his favored writers have won, from the Obies and Tonys to the Pulitzers, the Rockefeller and Ford grants, the fellowships, the MacArthur “genius grants,” and all the other honors America has heaped on its preeminent and emerging playwrights, including Williams, Wilson, and Fierstein--Patrick himself won a Rockefeller residency grant in 1973--are not mentioned in Patrick’s thesis, so we don’t see that most of the writers he champions are well-rewarded in public praise. That Beckett got a Nobel Prize may irk Patrick, but it’s not evidence that we overlook all other writers.
Part B is slipped in without much development, an assertion made by every artist ignored or panned by critics and the art establishment. It may, however, be Patrick’s real central point, but he’s afraid to compare himself openly to Wilson, Fierstein, and Williams, not to mention Beckett. Patrick returns briefly to B by inference in Paragraph 9, but doesn’t make the connection explicit.
The overall syllogism might look like this:
- Premise 1: Artists like Beckett are mediocre.
- Premise 2: Critics promote mediocrity.
- Conclusion: Good artists are overlooked.
The logic alone, on its surface, might work, but the truth of the Conclusion depends on the truth and accuracy of all the premises. The fallacies are that Premise 1 depends on Patrick’s judgment alone and is unprovable; Premise 2, the middle term, is undistributed, referring only to some critics, not all. For the middle premise to be distributed, there would have to be a conspiracy among all the world’s critics! (Are there meetings of the International Association of Theatre Critics at which such plans are discussed and developed? Does Homeland Security know about this conspiracy?)
Furthermore, when Patrick argues against artists he doesn’t like, he makes sweeping generalizations about them, committing the fallacy of nonqualification. While some artists like Beckett--meaning, I presume, Postmodern, experimental, and non-traditional writers--may be mediocre, Patrick cannot hold that all such artists are mediocre. (He obviously doesn’t think Williams is a mediocrity, yet Camino Real and many of Williams’s later plays are extremely experimental and non-realistic.) In tandem with nonqualification, then, Patrick commits the fallacy of composition by determining that since Beckett is a mediocre artists (if we accept Patrick’s judgment for the sake of argument), then all similar artists--that is, Postmodern experimentalists--are also mediocrities. Even if Patrick’s estimation of Beckett were correct, you can’t assert that what’s true of the parts are necessarily true of the whole. In logic, one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch.
And as far as the critics’ promotion of mediocre artists, including, in Patrick’s estimation, Beckett, the fallacy here is the false cause. Just because some critics have praised Beckett and Godot, and even if many of them have, there is no proof of a connection between that fact and Beckett’s or Godot’s acceptance into the canon. First of all, as I pointed out above, not all critics concur on the merits of Godot. Second, other groups have also embraced the writer and his play, such as academics, other artists (including other writers), and, ultimately, audiences around the world. Have they all been led by the nose by a cabal of “ambitious” critics bent on “making mediocrities a cause” through “standards tossed out cynically”? Patrick asserts we all have been “hypnotized,” but is there proof? He claims that “young people . . . drove themselves nuts delving into these mediocrities” and “accepted as great a whole stable of writers, painters and composers whose work is variously pleasant, witty or vacuous” because they were “tangled in seaweed strands of abstruse criticism.” I, for one (perhaps atypical), can attest that I fell in love with Godot as a teenager when my college theater staged it when I was a freshman or sophomore, and I had never read any criticism of either Beckett or Godot at that time. As for the more mature of mind (“the old”), Patrick believes they “tried or pretended to understand” because they were embarrassed by the rejection of “the original avant-garde,” the Impressionists. Ummm, how old does Patrick think these people are? Impressionism arose in France in the 1870s, 110 years before Patrick wrote his column and 80 years before Godot hit the stages of Paris. (After Impressionism emerged--and was at first disparaged, as Patrick notes--several other artistic movements came along, more proximate to theatrical Absurdism, and were similarly rejected at first. Consider Dadaism--1910s and ‘20s--and Abstract Expressionism--1950s and ‘60s.) Isn’t it just as likely that various individuals simply gravitated to this new form of theater in the culturally stagnating ’50s (even as others were being repelled by it) and embraced something that excited them?
There are other emotional fallacies in Patrick’s argument as well. For one, he engages in a (perhaps mild) version of the argument to the club (there are long Latin names for all these fallacies--this one’s argumentum ad baculum--but I’m not inclined to use them here if I can avoid them) which implies a threat of harm (though in this case, not actual violence) if the proponent doesn’t get his way. Here Patrick suggests that our whole culture is headed for hell in a handbasket if we continue to listen to the nefarious critics and boosters of Absurdism. We’ll be “submerged in trash and trivia” as we “produce . . . meaningless muck,” devaluing the meaningful art that is overshadowed and will “remain unknown.” “We face a world of sorcerers’ apprentices in the emperor’s new clothes,” declares Patrick. “Our common culture is barbaric.” (Danger, Will Robinson!) His final warning: “We have turned the earth over to idiocy and we may not turn it back.” At the same time, Patrick indulges in a lot of name-calling, a form of ad hominem attack. He belittles Beckett as a “collegiate skit writer” and a “mediocrity.” He dubs Godot as “vacuous” and “trash and trivia.” He labels the critics he blames for Beckett’s elevation “charlatans” and “careerists” and the art they praise as “space junk.” Thus Patrick makes sure that we know his targets are unworthy of defense or even attention. Most of his attack is deadly serious in tone, but there is also a touch of ridicule when he invokes such silly images as “the emperor’s new clothes” and calls the press attention a “wee brouhaha,” making light of the issue. Silly things aren’t worth our consideration, after all.
Somewhat more subtly, Patrick also engages in an argument to the people, a kind of last-refuge-of-scoundrels approach. The abused artists, the ones who are neglected and ignored, are all American, while the artists promoted over them are foreigners--and so is the one critic Patrick names. Now, he doesn’t say this overtly, of course, and he implies, in fact, that some of the boosters of Beckett and the experimenters are domestic transgressors, but the only name he gives us is Kenneth Tynan, an Englishman, whom Patrick names twice and implies is the ringleader and instigator. Beckett, of course, was not only Irish, but he wrote in French. Patrick never mentions nationality in the essay, but by embracing artists who are all American (not to say all-American) and denigrating artists and their supporters who are all foreign, the (jingoistic) point is made. And Patrick reinforces this tactic by calling up a little pity (fallacies often reinforce one another): the poor, neglected home-grown playwright--he's being snubbed in favor of interlopers who are getting all our grant money and stage time. (Patrick doesn’t raise the issue of grants and funding in the Times directly, but he’s very specific on the subject in the Chronicle interview.)
So, out of my list of 39 logical and emotional fallacies, Patrick employs 13, a full one-third of those available, in his indictment of Beckett and Godot. For me, that makes a very weak argument and I don’t think I’m being too biased if I add, a totally invalid one. I’m sorry Patrick doesn’t like this writer and this play; I think he’s missing something way terrific, but, as my father used to like to point out, de gustibus non disputandum est--there's no accounting for taste. I doubt Patrick could ever get me to agree with him, but “’Godot’ and Other Trash” doesn’t even leave the starting gate.
In his essay “The Abstractions of Beasts,” Carl Sagan, rebutting John Locke’s affirmation that “Beasts abstract not,” posits that animals do, indeed “abstract,” only they do so in a form and at a level different from humans. Sagan suggests that our conviction that animals don’t reason is based on the assumption that since we can’t understand other species, they must not be communicating anything at all. Sagan contends that “we simply equate the absence of our style of expression of intelligence with the absence of intelligence.” Then he quotes French philosopher Montaigne: “The defect that hinders communication betwixt [animals] and us, why may it not be on our part as well as theirs?” In other words, just because we don’t understand something doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless--maybe it’s our fault for not speaking the right language, as it were. This always reminds me of the Russian word for ‘German‘: nemets. You see, the Russian adjective nemoi means ‘mute’ or ‘dumb’; to the Russians who first met Germans, the German tongue was unintelligible, so they concluded that those Teutons just couldn’t speak a proper language and must be mute. Because the Russians couldn’t understand German, they simply decided that Germans weren’t capable of intelligent communication. (In contrast, the ethnic group to which Russians belong, the Slavs, may get its name from the Slavic word for, well, ‘word’: slovo in Russian. So to the Slavs the Germans were “people who can’t speak” while to themselves Slavs were “people who know words.”) Is that what Patrick’s engaging in with Absurdist and other experimental theater? Maybe, like the animals in Sagan’s essay or the Germans who first met the Russians, they just communicate in a different way from his “style of expression” and he fails to comprehend. If he wants to walk away from Absurdist theater in disgust or frustration, fine, that’s his prerogative. But he doesn’t get to proclaim that it’s “meaningless muck,” its creators are “charlatans,” and its supporters “hardboiled careerists.” Not without evidence, he doesn’t. (Sagan also quotes George Berkeley, the Irish philosopher, who suggested, “If the fact that brutes abstract not be made the distinguishing property of that sort of animal, I fear a great many of those that pass for men must be reckoned into their numbers.” Hmmmm.)
The late Julian Beck, co-founder (with Judith Malina) of the Living Theatre, depicted avant-gardists as artists “who took the risk of exploring strange lands and of bringing back the unfamiliar things they had created out of their discoveries for all to see.” But Beck also perceived that “because [the avant-gardist] makes this voyage, he is mocked as an alien is usually mocked. Because he rejects the popular way of doing things in favor of new forms that may aid him to make his discoveries, he is regarded with hostility.” My impression is that Patrick simply doesn’t understand the Absurdists and Postmodernists, so he rejects them. In his Theatre of Mixed Means, artist, critic, and writer Richard Kostelanetz submits that “a truly original, truly awakening piece of art will not, at first, be accepted as beautiful” and observes that audiences are more willing to “acknowledge” familiar art than to consider something they do not understand. Patrick asserts, for instance, that plays like Godot don’t “relate to life,” but, of course, they do--even profoundly. What could be more relative to human life than the feeling of helplessness, the irrepressible nature of hope, the yearning for salvation, or the instinct to survive? Kostelanetz points out that Patrick’s is the kind of judgment of Postmodern theater often made by observers who anticipate a traditional theatrical performance, do not get one, and are unwilling or unable to probe an unfamiliar form. Viewers knowledgeable about only one performance genre, says Kostelanetz, are “monoliterate,” which is the same, in his estimation, as “illiterate” with respect to Beckett’s kind of theater. Those who judge this theater by what they’ve always seen (or created), Kostelanetz cautions, should glean what a particular piece is attempting. Because Patrick doesn’t understand the medium these artists use, he dismisses their work as meaningless drivel instead of copping to his mystification--or setting out to learn something. (He puts down those who have tried to learn and says of those who get it that they only “pretend to understand.” In Patrick’s epistemology, responding to Postmodern theater is either a fruitless attempt or a pretense.) Perhaps it’s viewers like Patrick whom Russian playwright Mark Rozovsky had in mind when he said: “There will be some who understand thoroughly, and some who understand nothing at all”--or as philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus put it: “Many people learn nothing from what they see and experience, nor do they understand what they hear explained, but imagine that they have.”
11 April 2009
Painters have it better. They are allowed to evolve new methods, new styles, by a reasonable gradual process [sic]. They are not abused for turning out creative variations of themes already stated. If a certain theme has importance, it may take a number of individual works to explore it fully. . . . It would help enormously if there were professional theatre centers outside of New York, so that the playwright would not always be at the mercy of a single localized group.
Seven years later, J. William Miller also quotes some of these same passages in Modern Playwrights at Work, directly connecting the letter to Williams’s bitterness about the reception of Summer and Smoke. I felt that I ought to see the whole letter in case it revealed information about Summer and Smoke useful to my research, so I began to look for it.
Williams’s “wrath broke into print,” writes Tischler, and Miller asserts Williams “denounced the critics . . . in a letter in Irving Hoffman’s column, ‘Tales of Hoffman’. . . ,” indicating that the columnist had published the letter. Neither Tischler nor Miller, however, give the precise source of the letter, published or otherwise, and no other writer quotes the letter, though a few refer to it. The only Williams bibliography that even mentions the letter, George W. Crandell’s Tennessee Williams: A Descriptive Bibliography, does so as part of the description of Miller’s book; no other reference work lists a letter to Hoffman or any column by Hoffman in which it might have been printed. Other references to the letter--for example, Signi Falk’s Tennessee Williams--cite Tischler’s book, not any primary source. Neither the letter nor any mention of it is in any file at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Billy Rose Theatre Collection, including files and scrapbooks on Williams, Summer and Smoke, The Hollywood Reporter, or Irving Hoffman.
I was certain that if one of America’s most famous playwrights, the winner of the 1948 Pulitzer Prize in drama (for A Streetcar Named Desire), had written such a bitter, complaining letter to a Hollywood gossip columnist, Hoffman would have published it immediately. That was his job, after all. Taking as my only lead the facts that Williams had written the letter after Summer and Smoke opened on Broadway on 6 October 1948, that the reviews began to appear on 7 October, that Williams had left for North Africa in December, and that Summer and Smoke had closed on 1 January 1949, I began searching through back issues of The Hollywood Reporter for that period at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Nothing turned up, however, in Hoffman’s daily column. I had noticed, though, that the issue of 13 October contained no “Tales of Hoffman,” so I flipped back to see why. I found that the issue had been mutilated--someone had slit out the page on which Hoffman’s column always appeared. Because this was just about a week after Hoffman’s own review of Summer and Smoke had appeared (7 October), and because I had run into previous instances of material pertaining to Tennessee Williams having been similarly removed from books and journals, I was convinced that this column contained the elusive letter and had been cut out by a souvenir-hunting researcher.
I set about in search of a complete copy of the 13 October 1948 Hollywood Reporter, but no one in New York City had back issues that old. I could not obtain a copy of the issue or the column in question through interlibrary loan or any other process, including a pleading letter fired off to the Los Angeles Public Library, so it took me months--until I was in Washington and paid a visit to the Library of Congress--to discover that my deduction had been wrong. “Tales of Hoffman” was there, all right, but it dealt with something entirely unrelated to Williams or Summer and Smoke. That left me with no clue to when this letter might have been written or published. I contacted The Hollywood Reporter in Los Angeles directly in the hope that they kept an archive or maintained an in-house index, but they had no records or archives at all and could not help. My only recourse was to conduct an issue-by-issue search, so on subsequent trips to Lincoln Center on other business, I usually requested additional volumes of The Hollywood Reporter (which are stored off site and require a delivery request in advance) and browsed through Hoffman’s columns one by one, a few volumes at a time. I went up through the end of 1950 before I decided that Williams was unlikely to have written a letter about Summer and Smoke so long after it had closed, and gave up looking. My deadline had arrived some time before this, and I had sent off my copy to my editor without ever seeing the letter, but my scholarly curiosity was still piqued.
A few months later, frustrated that I had failed to find this elusive document, I attempted to locate the letter in the various Tennessee Williams archival collections around the country. I wrote to all of them that I could identify, but those that responded said they had no record of such a letter and could find no reference to it in their files. On a whim, I decided to try to track down Tischler, and found that she was on the faculty of Pennsylvania State University. (It turned out that she had retired a few months earlier but, after several abortive attempts, my letter to her was eventually forwarded.) After I reached her, Tischler wrote me that she could not locate a copy of the Hoffman letter or remember where she had originally seen it. She surmised that she may have learned about the letter in an interview, presumably of Williams, “back in the fifties.” She was, however, in the process of editing a collection of Williams’s letters for publication, and she had on hand a letter Williams wrote to New York Post columnist Max Lerner. She sent me an excerpt from this letter, written on 21 March 1951, which had language identical to that quoted in both her book and Miller’s. Tischler suggested that Williams may have quoted his own letter to Hoffman when he wrote a similar one to Lerner. From this suggestion, I determined that the letter to Hoffman would have had to appear in The Hollywood Reporter a little before he wrote to Lerner, so I once again leafed through back issues, from the date in 1950 when I had previously left off up to May 1951, the end of the bound volume that contained March. There was no letter from Williams, and I again assumed I had come to a dead end. I was ready to argue that Williams never wrote to Hoffman at all, that Tischler had made a mistake or been misled, possibly in that interview with Williams in the 1950s, and that Miller, using Rebellious Puritan as his source, had perpetuated Tischler’s error.
A week or so later, I had an opportunity to look up Max Lerner in one of the Williams bibliographies, John S. McCann’s The Critical Reputation of Tennessee Williams: A Reference Guide, which are in a different building in a different part of Manhattan from the Theatre Collection, and found that he had written a New York Post column on 16 May 1951 called “Letter From A Playwright.” The description matched the letter whose excerpt Tischler had sent me. I found the column--in yet another New York Public Library facility--and, indeed, it was the same letter from which Tischler had sent me the excerpt, and was identical in every way to the passages quoted in her book and Miller’s. As far as I was concerned, this was unquestionably the letter from which Tischler and Miller had drawn the quotations and that someone had erred regarding the attribution.
(Ironically, a clipping of this column is in one of the Tennessee Williams files at the Billy Rose Collection, but as it is under Lerner’s byline in the 1950-1956 folder--and in bad condition; I never would have located it, or recognized it if I had found it. I was still looking for an Irving Hoffman column from 1948-1949 concerning Summer and Smoke. I found the clipping in the Williams file much later, after I already knew what it was. The fact that the New York Public Library theater files, including The Hollywood Reporter, are in the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center at 65th Street and Broadway--which covers productions but not plays and playwrights, which are considered literature in NYPL’s taxonomy; the two books in question here and the newspapers on microfilm are in the History and Social Sciences Library at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue--where the materials on literature, including playwrights, are housed; and the bibliographies are in the Mid-Manhattan Branch at 40th Street and 5th--the main circulating branch containing the largest literary reference collection outside HSSL--helped protract my search. This accounted for my having searched The Hollywood Reporter after learning of the Williams-Lerner letter but before locating Lerner’s column. As a result, I searched the wrong issues of The Hollywood Reporter for the Hoffman column that I eventually found, delaying the discovery about a week.)
The text of the letter Lerner published in his New York Post column contains language identical to that quoted first by Tischler and then by Miller. Except for the switch from the Post’s American spelling of ‘theater’ to Tischler’s British ‘theatre,’ both she and Miller reproduce sections of this letter exactly, including the strange grammatical construction “reasonable gradual process,” instead of “reasonably gradual process.” It seemed odd that Williams, a poet and a playwright renowned for his lyrical language, would write such an awkward phrase. It was even odder that, if he had rewritten the same letter first to Irving Hoffman and then to Max Lerner, that he would repeat this infelicitous wording. It is well known that Williams was an inveterate rewriter: all his plays exist in several versions, the products of his constant revising. It turns out that he also does this with his correspondence. Tischler sent me an earlier version of the letter Williams wrote to Lerner, this one dated 19 March, which contains very different language from that in the 21 March letter. It also became obvious, once I saw the entire letter and the column in which Lerner published it, that Williams had written it specifically to Lerner. It also clearly had nothing to do with Summer and Smoke, which both Tischler and Miller maintain and which assertion set me on the search to begin with. The columnist had written an earlier piece entitled “Number One Boy” (6 March 1951) in which he used the recently-opened Rose Tattoo “as a jumping-off point” to discuss the critical treatment of successful artists. In his preface to Williams’s letter, Lerner explained, “I pointed out that we generally have some leading playwright who is our Number One Boy.” In that first column, which is oddly also absent from the major bibliographies of Williams despite its discussion of both the playwright and The Rose Tattoo (which had opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway on 3 February 1951), Lerner had written:
Every play of theirs must be a hit, every effort must strike twelve and keep chiming even beyond that. If they once falter, it is a sign of inner decay. There are few areas where the pressures on the successful are as merciless as in writing for Broadway. . . . But every one seems grimly to set standards for the Number One Boy to fulfill.
Wolfe Kaufman, press agent for Rose Tattoo producer Cheryl Crawford and the press representative for the play, had sent “Number One Boy” to Williams in Key West. (Apparently, Lerner also sent Williams his column, but it arrived after Kaufman’s clipping.) The playwright responded enthusiastically to Lerner’s opinions, which he saw as a reflection of his own, even though Lerner thought The Rose Tattoo was “overrated” by most critics (and “underrated” by “one or two” others). The letter that Lerner published on 16 May, and which Tischler and Miller quote, was not a letter discussing general ideas that Williams might have sent off to several correspondents. “I think that you, for the first time to my knowledge, have placed your finger directly on the most demoralizing problem that the American playwright has to face,” applauded Williams early in his letter (the emphasis is mine). He later added, “As far as I know, you are the first to reflect in print on the exorbitant demands made by critics . . . .” This very unambiguously speaks directly to Lerner about ideas he, alone, raised in “Number One Boy.”
All this suggested to me that Lerner’s column, not anything by Hoffman, was the source for the letter, that Williams wrote it to Lerner, not Hoffman, and that he had probably not copied his own letter and sent it to a second correspondent. The truth is very simple, as it turns out. Ironically, had I requested one more volume of The Hollywood Reporter and paged through the May issues, I would have uncovered it weeks earlier.
Just to be certain that Hoffman did not publish a similar letter from Williams, now that I knew when Lerner had published his, I did search further into back issues of The Hollywood Reporter. There it was at last! On 23 May 1951, Hoffman had reprinted Lerner’s entire Post column under the subtitle “Letterature.” Williams had, indeed, never written this letter to Hoffman; he wrote only to Lerner. Hoffman, like a good gossip columnist, simply reran something of interest to his readers from another writer’s column, spreading the news. Hoffman clearly gave Lerner full credit: “Post columnist Max Lerner published the following in his syndicated column last week. I thought you’d be interested in it, so I reprint.”
So the chronology of the elusive Tennessee Williams letter is thus:
• 3 February 1951: The Rose Tattoo opens on Broadway.
• 6 March: Max Lerner writes “Number One Boy,” a column about Rose Tattoo.
• Between 6 and ca. 16 March: Wolfe Kaufman sends Lerner’s column to Tennessee Williams. Later Lerner sends a copy, too.
• 19 March: Williams drafts an appreciative letter to Lerner. 21 March: composes a final version which he sends the columnist.
• 16 May: Lerner publishes Williams’s letter in a New York Post column called “Letter From A Playwright.”
• 23 May: Irving Hoffman republishes Lerner’s New York Post column with Williams’s letter in his Hollywood Reporter column, “Tales of Hoffman,” under the subtitle “Letterature.”
• 1961: Nancy Tischler publishes Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan, the first book-length study of Williams’s work. She cites Williams’s letter in the chapter on Summer and Smoke, writing that the playwright wrote it to Hoffman.
• 1968: J. William Miller publishes Modern Playwrights at Work and cites the Williams letter, repeating Tischler’s assertions.
• 1998: After 37 years of references continuing to cite the erroneous origin of the letter, the facts are sorted out.
• 11 April 2009: This writing is the first public attempt to correct the record.Clearly, this resolves the confusion over the “missing” Williams-Hoffman letter and explains why no bibliography or library had any record of it: that letter does not exist. Tischler’s attribution of the letter to Hoffman was probably the result of an erroneous reference to his 23 May Hollywood Reporter column as the original source of what was actually the 21 March Williams-Lerner letter, first published in the New York Post on 16 May. Unfortunately, because of the second publication of the letter--and possibly influenced by something Williams had told her--Tischler cited it as one Williams sent to Hoffman and Miller picked up her mistake and restated it in his book. Why the letter, regardless of its recipient, was linked to Summer and Smoke is not clear. Tischler properly points out in a letter to me that “the issues . . . were continuing concerns for Williams,” but he did not write the letter until over two years after Summer and Smoke closed. Nevertheless, later writers accepted these assertions and, with no primary source to consult, gave Tischler or Miller as the provenience. Once published, the misattribution became “fact” and part of the record. Of course, the original source should have been the letter Williams wrote Lerner on 21 March 1951, or Lerner’s 16 May New York Post column.
Altogether, this search took eight months, though it was far from a full-time pursuit, particularly after my Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale copy had been submitted in November 1997. I continued to search for the letter in the hope that, if it turned out to be relevant, I might be able to slip a mention of it into the chapter in proofs. It is also fair to say that I wanted to pin down this reference for the scholarly satisfaction of getting it on the record somehow. All my efforts and deductions--most of which turned out to be wrong--would have been for naught, however, had I not reached Nancy Tischler and had she not provided me with the final clue to the whereabouts of, first, Lerner’s New York Post column and, then, the Hoffman column that followed from it. It is ironic that my search--which has ended up being no more than a scholarly treasure hunt since it was irrelevant to Summer and Smoke, my research subject--began with Tischler’s 1961 book and ended with her 1998 project, the publication of The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams. (If she had not been working on the letters, she would not have had Williams’s letter to Lerner at hand.) Tischler, as it were, initiated my frustration and then resolved it. It is also ironic that, though Tischler and I had been in correspondence over this letter and all it engendered, we had spoken by telephone only once and had never met until June 1999, when she came to New York City to see Not About Nightingales on Broadway.
03 April 2009
Spine: “To get someone to look after his (physical) needs.” This manifests itself in his clinging to Didi as his provider and protector (Didi keeps the food and Gogo is beaten when they are separated) and his begging Pozzo for the chicken bones in Act I and money in Act II. He waits for Godot to take care of his creature comforts. (In a passage cut from the English version, Vladimir convinces Estragon to continue waiting by suggesting they will probably sleep at Godot’s place that night--“warm and dry, our bellies full, on the straw.”)
Psychological Gesture (PG): Rubbing (or touching) some part of his body. Gogo is the more physically oriented of the pair. His concerns are his sore feet and his hunger. It is he who wants Lucky to dance (not think). His names suggest this: “Estragon” is French for tarragon, a spice used in making pickles and vinegar; “Gogo” suggests movement (go-go)--Estragon is the one who always wants to leave.
Gestus: He is earthy and physically oriented. He evokes animal images (e.g.: bear, dog). He responds to life almost instinctively and accepts himself and the world readily. He has little faith in abstract reasoning. He is subjective, skeptical, and sarcastic. He depends on Didi for security, leadership, and rational direction.
Spine: “To fulfill his responsibilities.” He looks after Gogo, insists on keeping their appointment with Godot, sympathizes with Lucky in Act I and wants to go to Pozzo’s aid in Act II.
PG: Looking to heaven (i.e., skyward). Didi is the spiritual/intellectual half of the pair. His concerns are often emotional (compassion for Lucky) or philosophical (the two crucified thieves). He remembers more and uses logic (to decide who should hang himself first), and it is he who asks Lucky to think. His names, too, suggest some of this: Vladimir is a saint’s name and means “ruler of the world” in Russian; “Didi” suggests “dis-dis,” from the French “to speak”--or “talk-talk” as opposed to “go-go.” (In the French version, there are frequent lines like this: “Dis, Didi . . . ,”-- “Say, Didi . . .”--usually translated as simply, “Didi . . . .”)
Gestus: He is more committed to the rational side of man’s nature. He is more verbal and more concerned with precision in language than Gogo. He seems more eager to present a good image to the outside world and is more susceptible to social embarrassment. He feels it is his duty to act as leader. He relates to the outer world through objective, social logic and is predisposed to accept the existence of a higher reality outside himself. He is having a hard time keeping the lid on the irrational.
Spine: “To serve; to please his master.” We know that, according to Pozzo, Lucky lives to serve him. Without this service, Lucky has no existence. He obeys all commands, and seems to have completely sublimated his own needs to those of his masters. When commanded to, he even obeys the orders of strangers. To avoid being sold away, he must serve Pozzo as well as he can. (The fact that he is inept and fails does not change his motivation or action.)
PG: Carrying burdens. Even when Lucky isn’t carrying Pozzo’s possessions, he is still carrying Pozzo and his world on his back--“Atlas, son of Jupiter,” as Pozzo (incorrectly) calls him. He is permanently stooped from his permanent burden.
Gestus: He symbolizes the Cartesian concept of man-as-machine. Clearly a cultured being, he is reduced to the status of an automaton. He seems to be more animal than human, and his actions seem unpredictable.
Spine: “To be ‘on top’; to be in control.” It is important to Pozzo that he be top man. He “owns” the land where Didi and Gogo wait; he is a person to know--and be obeyed. In order to be “on top” he will denigrate others--either implicitly (Didi and Gogo) or actually (Lucky).
PG: Cracking a whip. What more vivid action is there for a slave-driver/ringmaster/animal-tamer than cracking a whip? His commands to Lucky are whip-snap short; he even calls him his “knook”--a word Beckett made up from “knout,” a Russian whip of knotted cord. (The French version spells it “knouk,” whose pronunciation would sound very much like noeud, French for “knot.”)
Gestus: He is the personification of Raw Power and acts like the nouveau riche at its most arrogant. He believes that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and it’s important to know Pozzo.
Spine: “To do Godot’s bidding.” There is little depth to this character in the sense of his own purpose. (He symbolizes many things to Didi, Gogo, the audience, and the critic, but for himself, he has one purpose--to please Godot.) He does provide important information about Godot, but all in the line of delivering his message.
PG: Running away home. The boy is uncomfortable in the presence of Didi and Gogo (and he says he was afraid of Pozzo and Lucky in Act I), and would feel far better back with his goats.
Gestus: He functions as ironic contrast to the Greek messenger whose arrival signifies resolution. He is a goatherd--his brother, who is beaten, is a shepherd. (See Matthew, Chap. 25: “. . . he will separate men into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.”) He is the intermediary between the human and the divine.
GODOT: Since no actor plays the role, no spine or PG is needed for him, but a word or two is important. Whether or not Godot is (or stands for) God is irrelevant to a performance of the play. All we must concern ourselves with is that he represents something outside their control that Didi and Gogo both want and need so much they will return day after day in the hopes of attaining it. Though this may sound God-like to most Westerners (in the Judeo-Christian world), the intellectualizing over his label is ultimately moot and masturbatory. Each actor/audience will find its own meaning--and it will be right.
NOTES ON STYLE
Beckett originally conceived of Didi and Gogo as clowns, not tramps. He makes frequent use of “low comedy” techniques, vaudeville routines, and Commedia lazzi. Some of the traditional bits used are:
Didi makes Gogo pull up his trouser leg so they can see the wound from Lucky’s kick. The actions are those found in burlesque with Didi holding up Gogo’s leg while Gogo can hardly keep his balance. Against this background of farcical comedy is the contrasting idea of the metaphysical and spiritual wounds that man carries about with him.
Didi has found Lucky’s hat and, in the tradition of burlesque, there follows an exchange-of-hats act between Didi and Gogo. Didi gives his own hat to Gogo and replaces it with Lucky’s. Gogo then does the same, offering his hat to Didi, who replaces it for Lucky’s and hands Lucky’s hat to Gogo, who replaces it for Didi’s and so on. Here is the cyclical, endless nature of life. It is also empty and fruitless, since the hats are all identical bowlers. No advancement is made, but no loss either.
Didi suggests to Gogo: “Lets abuse each other.” There follows in rapid succession a series of name-calling. This form of insult one-upmanship is common in music-hall comic routines. This is followed by the two “doing their exercises,” described in a stychomythic exchange. Both of these comic interludes are attempts to pass the time while they wait. The play is about what happens while waiting for Godot. Both attempts end without any consequences--except that they passed some time.
Lucky falls and drags Pozzo with him. Didi and Gogo try to help them up, with the result that all four end up on the ground. Except for being under it, this is the lowest point on earth the four could be. This is “low” comedy at its most literal.
When the clown/tramps attempt to hang themselves using the cord Gogo uses to hold up his pants, the cord breaks, and Gogo loses his pants. In what ought to have been the most sublime moment in their lives--an attempt to take control of their existence--Gogo suffers the rudest indignity: his pants fall down, and he doesn't even notice. It’s the emperor’s new clothes in reverse.
Aside from these specific examples of music-hall and burlesque routines, there are many occasions for mime, pantomime, and visual lazzi. Gogo’s constant examination of his feet, Didi’s playing with his hat and his urinary problems, Pozzo’s feasting on chicken legs--all are fertile ground for great comic turns. Beckett was taken with the Marx Brothers and his movie Film starred Buster Keaton, the great silent-movie pantomimist; it stands to reason that Godot should make frequent use of the comic acting techniques of this genre. It is not for nothing that his characters so closely resemble Chaplin’s “Little Tramp.” It should also not be surprising that the roles of Didi and Gogo have been played by some of the greatest vaudeville clowns, circus mimes, and stage comics we've produced: Bert Lahr, Zero Mostel, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, and Bill Irwin.
01 April 2009
Remember, please, that these are my own ideas--informed though they were by research and reading--and while you may disagree with my interpretations, perhaps even vehemently, I trust my thoughts will loosen up some of your thinking and maybe throw out an idea you hadn’t considered. Besides, none of this is like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa: it’s not permanent. And you can cherry-pick. You don’t like one idea, toss it out and start over!
I’ll begin with some considerations of the play as a whole, saving the analysis of Beckett’s characters for another time. (In this discussion and the next, you’ll note that I use some theater jargon drawn from various sources. It’s shorthand, and I won’t take the time here to define the terms and expressions. All of them are standard in one teacher’s or writer’s system or another, and you can find them easily enough, probably even on the ‘Net somewhere. A few hints where to look: “spine” is a term used by Harold Clurman; “psychological gesture” [PG] is from Michael Chekhov; “gestus” is a Brechtian concept.)
Spine of the Play: “To find salvation”--which usually becomes “to survive; to get through the day,” or, to use Vladimir’s words, “to keep the ball in play.”
Theme: Universal helplessness and uncertainty. Beckett’s key word is “perhaps”; he deals not with knowledge and strength, but ignorance and, therefore, impotence. Beckett believed the first spoken words should introduce the theme of the play: “Nothing to be done”--i.e., we have no control over what happens.
It’s important to note that “helplessness”--the inability to have an effect on events--is not hopelessness. Lack of control isn’t synonymous in Godot with doom--there’s always the possibility of hope. We just can’t be sure. One of Beckett’s favorite statements is from St. Augustine: “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved; do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.” Beckett liked it for the symmetry of its form; but it also balances hope with despair in equal measure--and Vladimir even sees this dichotomy in Godot.
Metaphor: The central situation of the play--the uncertain and endless waiting (the French title, En attendant Godot, actually means “while waiting for Godot”)--is analogous to waiting for a bus at night on a strange route without watch or timetable. [This was conceived, of course, before the advent of cell phones. So add in that you’re out of range of a tower or your battery’s dead.] You may be at the right spot for the bus to stop--or you may not; the last bus may have already passed--or you may be on time. If you wait, and the bus hasn’t gone by, and you’re in the right place, you’ll catch your bus and be on your way (i.e., “saved”). If the bus has passed, or you’re in the wrong place, you’ll wait all night to no avail and jeopardize your chances of catching another somewhere else or finding a taxi. But if you leave to find another spot, the bus may come at any moment and leave without you. Your complete ignorance of the essential facts--time, bus route, schedule--makes you impotent to take any specific action.
It’s important to note that this is not a hopeless situation. Beckett has presented Gogo and Didi--and us--with a situation that’s absolutely uncertain--we can never know what will happen in the next moment--but not without hope. There is a significant difference. After all, there’s as much chance that the bus will come as that it won’t. We simply cannot rely on any outside elements to provide us with guidance in making a decision. Hope exists--right alongside uncertainty.
Circularity: The play’s structure is circular. It seems to go nowhere, and returns to the start. Note the circular, repetitive activities--especially in the “routines” of Didi and Gogo; and Pozzo and Lucky travel in a circle. (They come in one side in Act I and return from the opposite way in Act II.) Even with the subtle changes that occur from Act I to Act II (and between repeated moments) we can see that “le plus ça change, le plus c’est la même chose.”
Pairings: Gogo and Didi are two halves of a whole personality. They are the Id and the Ego, the Body and the Mind, the Gut and the Head, the Unconscious and the Conscious. Pozzo and Lucky are also mated--Master and Slave, Sadist and Masochist, Operator and Machine, Exploiter and Exploited, Materialistic and Spiritual/Cultural.
Even the pairs are pairs: Gogo and Didi are essentially passive--waiters, longers, victims--while Pozzo and Lucky are active--doers, goers, searchers.
Balance: Besides the pairs (active/passive, slave/master, thinker/doer, etc.), there are other balances in Godot. Hope is balanced with death (green leaves on the dead tree). Pain is balanced with pleasure (hanging may bring on sexual gratification). Salvation is balanced with damnation (one thief was saved, the other condemned). Comedy is balanced with tragedy (to hang himself, Gogo loses his pants). It’s this balance that manifests the disproof of Beckett’s touted pessimism. He can’t be pessimistic--implying a certainty of doom--since he offers alternatives at every turn. He just doesn’t know which will turn up. Life is a crap-shoot.
Barrenness: There is, of course, the devastated landscape (Beckett’s “blasted heath”?) and the bare tree; note, also, the tramps (Beckett thought of them as circus clowns) are dressed in tatters and eat roots and bones. There are few objects (i.e., “props”) on the stage. (I don’t hold with the Peter Hall notion of strewing the place with garbage and trash. Spareness was Beckett’s style, not clutter.) Even the theme is barren: “Nothing to be done.”
Circus/Burlesque: Gogo and Didi are evocative of Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and Emmet Kelley’s “Sad Willie”--they engage in vaudeville routines, music-hall stychomythy and pantomime, and Commedia lazzi. They also represent the traditional music-hall team reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and even Martin and Lewis (or Martin and Rowan a generation later--or Martin and Aykroyd another generation further on). Pozzo is the image of the ringmaster and animal-tamer (whip and chair, and his monosyllabically barked commands to Lucky) and Lucky is his wild beast (he even has a leonine mane of white hair--the “lion wig” of Kabuki theater).
The significance of circus to Beckett is born out by the fact that his Film starred the great silent clown Buster Keaton. Roger Blin, the original French director of Godot, wanted at first to stage the play as a circus (but decided Beckett was right that that would be too restricting).
POINTS OF REFERENCE
Locale: Barrenness of the landscape = emptiness of life; isolation in space and time. Unlocalized setting = life is the same the world over; no place is special.
The road suggests movement--but it goes nowhere. The “active” people use the road, though they get no place.
The tree - more barrenness; lifelessness. No sustenance from outside.
Time: Circular - same things happen in same sequence. Important to Pozzo when he can see; loses significance when he can’t. Didi and Gogo can’t keep time straight - it’s all the same.
Past and Future: There is none. Both past and future require temporal relativity, and these characters have no reference points to judge pasts and futures. They’re not even sure what day today is, and can’t judge the passing of time in any sense. Were they here yesterday--or some place else? They don’t know. Did they meet one another before? Have they ever met? They aren’t sure. Where will they go tomorrow? How can they know--the future, in the concrete sense, doesn’t exist for them: if they have no past, how can they have a future?
Absolutes: Beckett has said that the key word in his play is “perhaps.” There are no certainties--neither hope nor despair are inevitable. Nothing is predictable or sure. As Beckett observed about James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, his own work is characterized by an “absolute absence of the Absolute.”
Light and Dark: After the message that Godot won’t come, darkness falls: light = hope; dark = despair.
Tragicomedy: A strong balance of the lamentable and the laughable. Almost every subject or situation is inherently ironic and dramatic because it can be both tragic and comic, depending on the point of view. Eugene Ionesco: “Light makes shadow deeper, and shade accentuates the light.” Tragicomedy provides Beckett the most natural way to represent the confusion, ambiguity, and absurdity of life. Laughter is a substitute--or preventative--for crying.
Theater of the Absurd: Absurdist plays convey a sense of alienation and of people having lost their bearings in an illogical, unjust, and incomprehensible world. Although serious, this perspective is generally depicted with considerable comedy, often low comedy of the vaudeville variety; an ironic note runs through much of the Theater of the Absurd. The comic turns are often balanced by tragic or threatening images (see tragicomedy).
Absurdist dramatists structure their plays so that they not only proclaim absurdity, they embody it. The structure of absurdist scripts departs from conventional dramatic structures, logical from a beginning through the development of the plot to a conclusion. Plots are often circular and repetitive, sometimes parodying the conventional “well-made play.” Events and characters are frequently illogical in the Theater of the Absurd and so, too, is language, which often employs non sequitur as well as nonsense and cliché. Samuel Beckett reduced character, plot, and dialogue to a minimum to emphasize fundamental questions of human existence.
There's an element of the ridiculous in the actions of absurdist characters: they frequently exemplify an existential approach to human behavior. The two main characters in Waiting for Godot are devoid of biographies and personal motivation. We are told nothing of their backgrounds or their family life or their occupations. As characters they exist; they are, but without explanation: there is no cause-and-effect of traditional character development. Having no past, they exist for the moment, in the here and now. Consequently, they have no future, either.
The first absurdist plays, such as the works of Jean Genet (The Maids, 1947) and the early plays of Eugène Ionesco (The Bald Soprano, 1950; The Lesson, 1951; The Chairs, 1952) in addition to Beckett’s first plays, often shocked audiences and confused critics at their premières, but their techniques are now common in avant-garde theater and in some mainstream works.