30 March 2010

Short Takes I


Panhandlers have become more and more common on the streets and subways of New York, and even when we feel compassion for their plight, their spiels and tactics do become predictable and indistinguishable. But not always.

One afternoon, I was riding to an appointment on the Upper West Side on the IRT #2 Express. After the 34th Street stop, I was reading my paper when out of the corner of my eye I caught some activity. I looked up to see a thin black man leaping down the center aisle of the car. He was dressed in a long, black cape and was humming the theme song from the Batman TV show. I thought at first he was entertaining a child, but I looked around and there were no children in the car. Then I assumed the man was just one of the unfortunate mentally ill people who inhabit the city’s public places. He may have been, but he was certainly more than that.

Using one of the center poles, the man vaulted to a stop in front of the forward doors and announced, “I am Batman Blackman. I fight crime on your streets.” The train began to pull into the 42nd Street stop, and, as the doors opened, Batman Blackman announced, “I have to fight crime on 42nd Street, too,” and exited by the front doors, humming the Batman theme music.

Almost immediately, I heard him reentering by the center doors, explaining, “I guess I won’t be fighting crime here today.” It was then that I noticed his hair. He wore a modified “Don King,” but on either side the hair was styled into two “ears” like a frizzy version of Batman’s hood. The man swirled his cape, really just a length of thin, black cloth, and hummed the Batman theme again. Then he began his pitch for money. The delighted riders seemed more generous than usual; from the sound of coins being pulled from pockets and dropped into Batman’s container, he should have done pretty well on that IRT #2.


For two weeks one summer a number of years ago, I’d been on jury duty in the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. I was assigned to a lawsuit which involved a hospital, so, obviously, there were doctors called as witnesses. One such witness who testified on behalf of the hospital was asked in cross examination if he’d ever had contact with the attorneys representing the hospital while on its staff. The doctor, who’d been subpoenaed to appear, responded quite vehemently, “I hate lawyers. I have as little contact with them as possible. I’m a doctor, and I have a real problem with lawyers.”

While the attorneys, the judge, and the jury all burst out laughing at the witness’s earnestness, a large class of young law associates trouped into the courtroom. Our laughter increased, and the judge suggested that perhaps the court reporter ought to read back the previous statement for the benefit of the would-be lawyers. Naturally, we, the jury, agreed.

Unaccountably, however, the plaintiff’s attorney picked up his questioning at that juncture by asking, “You don’t like lawyers, is that true?” The witness didn’t need to be reminded he was under oath.


During the fall term about ten years ago, I’d been teaching writing at Felician College, a Catholic school in Lodi, New Jersey. I’m not Catholic myself, but I know that the Christmas season is particularly meaningful for Catholics, not least for the Felician Sisters, who run the College. Nonetheless, I was a little taken aback when I arrived on campus on the evening of 15 December to administer my final exam. After checking my own mail in the reception office as usual, I turned to leave. There, by the door, was a mailbox boldly labeled in large, Gothic type, “MESSIAH.”

I was somewhat disappointed to realize a moment later that the sisters weren’t really expecting Jesus to pick up his Christmas cards at Felician College. It was simply the campus mailbox designated for the College’s annual performance of Handel’s Messiah. What a let-down.


When I was a freshman at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, the school still maintained a tradition of wearing a tie to all university functions, including meals and classes. Even in the fraternity house dining rooms, we were expected to wear a tie. Though called a tradition, the practice was enforced by a student committee, and many professors wouldn’t allow informally dressed students to attend class. My German professor, for instance, was renowned for being very strict about the dress of his students, especially seniors taking their spring finals when some took liberties during their last days on campus in the warm Virginia weather. The late B. S. Stephenson, in fact, was known to have dismissed an entire senior seminar for being insufficiently formal for their exam. One class decided en masse to treat the professor to a parting gesture. When he opened the door to admit the students into the exam room, they filed in, each one dressed in a tuxedo and black tie. There’s no record of Dr. Stephenson’s reaction.


One day almost 20 years ago, I was taking my then-new dog out for his morning walk. The sidewalk in front of my building was busy with people on their way to work and students on their way to class at the Catholic high school at the western end of my block. There were also several other dogwalkers among the pedestrians around the entrance to the building and, as usual for his first-thing-in-the-morning walk, Thespis, my Jack Russell terrier mix, was anxious to get to his favorite tree plot for his first relief after spending the night at my bedside. Oblivious to everything else, he shot across the sidewalk, tangling his leash with another passing dog’s, tying up the foot traffic briefly as we owners, used to this kind of thing, apologetically do-si-do’d our way out of the tangle. One man, older, with a scraggly beard and shabbily dressed, was impatient.

“Come on,” he said irritatedly. “I don’t have all day.”

I recognized the man immediately. He spends his day sitting atop the stone wall at the entrance to the school. I see him there every day as I walk past the school with Thespis, or on my way to run errands or catch the subway on Sixth Avenue. It never occurred to me that he considered this his job--and that he commuted to his perch. He was in such a hurry that morning; do you suppose he punches in and out on a schedule? Is there a wall-sitters’ supervisor who checks to see if everyone’s in place on time and assures that no one leaves early?

(The school, by the way, has since put metal strips with points in double rows along the wall. Nobody sits there anymore.)


After I received my ROTC commission in the army, I was assigned to an officers’ basic course at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. Like most officers’ basic courses, this one included several mass meetings with representatives of the various offices and agencies of the army. One such meeting was with the officer responsible for junior officer assignments. All the student officers then at Ft. Knox, regardless of their training class, attended this meeting; there must have been several thousand novice officers, all in fatigue uniforms, sitting in a huge hall, facing a small stage from which the assignments officer was making his pitch.

The session lasted a couple of hours during which we received information regarding what sorts of assignments we could look forward to in the coming months and years, how we should let our preferences be known, how we could make package deals to guide our military careers in the directions we wished, what special training opportunities were available, and how much extra active-duty time we’d have to put in for making certain choices. It was all very important to a bunch of just-out-of-college shavetails, and we were all a little tense listening to such vital advice direct from the flagpole.

Finally it was all over, and we began to gather our field jackets and fatigue caps to return to our quarters. Of course, we were mumbling among ourselves, comparing wish lists and career plans. Then, over this hubbub, a voice asked, “Has anyone seen my hat?”

Immediately, a lone response came--as if it were the most reasonable question: “What color was it?”

The tension snapped, and a sea of olive drab burst into laughter.


The Signature Theatre's Trip to Bountiful, which I saw on a Friday night some five years ago, was quite excellent all around, and Lois Smith's performance in the lead role was superb. After the show, I made a pit stop in the men's room. When I came out, a line had formed and about three people from the door, I spotted Edward Albee. Now, that alone is a New York theater moment--like the time I saw Colleen Dewhurst sitting in the upstairs lobby of the Uris Theatre during intermission of some show. But there's more.

As I was walking past the line, I heard the guy in front of Albee, whom I didn't recognize at all, saying to him, "Some day I hope to do Virginia Woolf justice." Well, my initial instinct was to make a comment like "I kinda thought somebody already had" as I passed by, but I decided to keep my mouth shut. So I did.

I have no idea who the guy talking to Albee was. Was he a director or a play reader or what? No idea. (It's more fun to imagine . . . .) He looked youngish--say mid-30s or so--and I wasn't even sure that Albee knew him. I don't know if Albee's like Woody Allen and doesn't like to be approached in public, but he looked a little uncomfortable. Since I was just passing by on my way out, I may have caught only a momentary reaction and be misinterpreting the whole scene. Albee didn't say anything, in any case.


Actually, that wasn't the only New York theater moment I had that evening. As I was walking Thespis before I left for midtown, a large gaggle of young people passed me on my block. They looked like they were in high school, but I'm betting it's college. Anyway, just as they were going past, one guy in the middle of the bunch asked out loud, "What do you know about Ionesco?" A little guy in front--he really did look like he wasn't out of high school yet--turned around and announced, "Ionesco? I love Ionesco!" At which point, he walked backwards right into a woman trying to make her way down the sidewalk. If it had been Beckett, they'd have fallen into a heap on the pavement. But they didn't. Just a brief pinball effect.


On the Wednesday before last Thanksgiving, my mother left Bethesda, Maryland, by bus at 11:10 a.m. to join me and our family in New Jersey for the Holiday. She was scheduled to arrive in New York City at 3 p.m. I went to the station at 2 to get our train tickets for the next day, anticipating a line--but there wasn't one at the ticket counter. So I figured I had an hour to kill before Mom’s bus arrived, and I walked around, did some non-holiday shopping at a drugstore in the terminal, and then decided to go meet the bus at the drop-off site near 8th Avenue, west of Penn Station.

Now, we’d planned to meet at the cab stand halfway between 7th and 8th Avenue on 31st Street. First of all, it's got a covered walkway in case it was raining (which it turned out it was) and, second, it's a convenient and easily recognizable spot to look for one another. But I was early enough that I figured I'd save Mom the walk and the push through the throngs that were jamming the western end of 31st Street, waiting to board outbound busses. The bus company had moved the drop-off site to 31st and 8th (by the big post office) instead of 31st and 7th (the pick-up site) for some reason, and it looked like cabs were stopping a lot along 8th, so I figured I'd meet Mom at the bus and we'd catch a cab right there instead of having to drag her suitcase through the mob along the 31st Street sidewalk west of the cab stand.

Well, a bus arrived at just before 3, but it wasn't the 11:10 from Bethesda; that was still 45 minutes out the dispatcher told me, so I decided I'd better stick around our designated meeting spot, and I went back to the cab stand. It got later and later, and at about 5 or so, I walked over to 7th Avenue where the busses were loading and asked a staffer there what the story was. He said the drop-off was still at 8th Avenue and that the 11:10 was "in the tunnel." (I assumed he meant the Lincoln, not the Baltimore Harbor!) I went back to the cab stand, where I could sort of keep an eye on both locations, but at 6, I walked back over to 8th Avenue. There was no one there from the bus company, but another man was waiting for his mother to come in on the same bus as my mom. He was in contact with his wife back at home, and she was in contact with the bus company, so I waited until he heard from her, and she reported that bus office had no info (which I would have guessed anyway). We decided to walk back over to 7th, where there were company staff, and see what we could learn there. It was now 6:30, 3½ hours after the bus was scheduled to arrive (and 4½ hours after I'd arrived at the station!). The dispatcher at the pick-up site reported that the 11:10 had arrived and unloaded and that everyone had gone off. They had moved the drop-off site back to 7th Avenue so the bus never went over to 8th! Well, we both decided to make one last check of 8th Avenue in case our mothers had gone there to look for us--I made a swing by the cab stand, since my mom never expected me to meet her at the 8th Avenue spot. Mom wasn't there, of course, so I went to 8th Avenue to check with the other man (I never got his name, unfortunately). No one was there, either, of course. The man lent me his cellphone—neither my mother nor I owned one--and I called home, but I got a busy signal. I figured Mother must be there making a call. I few minutes later--as we were hoofing back to 7th Avenue, I called again but got my own answering machine. The other guy lived in Queens, so he was pretty sure his mother wouldn't go on ahead, but I figured my mom would do that either when she didn't find me at the cab stand, or after she looked around a bit and concluded that I hadn't waited for her. So I hightailed it back to the apartment, hoping to find Mom there waiting.

I got home, but Mom wasn't there. Instead, I found a message on the answering machine--the call that was coming in when I tried to call home earlier, causing the busy signal. She said she figured I'd be home or on my way and she'd catch a cab to the apartment. (She had gone into Penn Station when she didn't see me at the cab stand. It must have been when I went to 8th Avenue to make that earlier check, when I met the other mother-meeter.) A few minutes after I found her phone message, she arrived at my apartment. (Thank God, I suppose, that that's all that happened!)

We now each have cell phones (neither of us having felt the need for one until then).

25 March 2010

Spook Museum

Washington, D.C., is a city of museums. One estimate numbers them at over 100 in the greater metro area. At the top of the list are the branches of the Smithsonian Institution, such as the National Museum of American History (sometimes called the Nation’s Attic), the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Air and Space Museum. Then there are the art museums, starting with the National Gallery of Art and including the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the National Museum of African Art, the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and quite a few more, both public and private. But art and history are not the only subjects of the museums in the Nation’s Capital; we have lots more, some rather peculiar, collections of objects and exhibits.

When I was a kid, one of the strangest places we could visit--and, perhaps, the most gruesome--was the Army Medical Museum, now called the National Museum of Health and Medicine. In my day, it was housed downtown in one of the many so-called temporary buildings, left over from the FDR administration to accommodate the expanded government for the recovery from the Great Depression and then the conduct of World War II. (Since the change in the museum’s designation, it’s moved to different quarters on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.) One exhibit was a display on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln which included not only John Wilkes Booth’s derringer but the vertebrae removed from Lincoln’s body where the fatal bullet had penetrated. Other exhibits in this odd collection resemble a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum (like the one I remember on Times Square when I was little--a mid-20th-century version of Barnum’s dime museum). On display in huge glass bottles and jars were limbs with elephantiasis, the fetus of conjoined twins, the lungs of a smoker (compared with those of a coal miner and an iron miner), the tongue and throat of a person who choked to death on dentures, among other grim--but often instructive--items. Established in 1862, the museum was described by its founder, Army Surgeon General William Hammond, as a collection of "all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable." The Washington Post, however, puts it more succinctly: a visit produces a “shiver-inducing, stomach-churning sensation.”

Other Washington collections include the Newseum, devoted to the news business; the Folger Shakespeare Library, home of the largest collection of Shakespeare materials in the world; the National Archives, where the nation’s founding documents, as well as other historic and significant papers, are kept; the National Building Museum, which focuses on design and architecture; and the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, a relatively new exhibition whose charter is clear from its name. (The entrance to the NMCP, like many such places, is controlled by chains on movable stanchions--but these are fashioned from handcuffs!) And I’m not even counting the government agencies, like the FBI or the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, which have their own displays; the museums and exhibits in nearby Maryland and Virginia; historic sites like Ford’s Theatre, Mount Vernon, Hillwood, and Tudor Place, or the historic downtowns of places like Alexandria, Virginia, or Frederick, Maryland (anyone remember Barbara Fritchie?). One of the most fascinating, however, is the eight-year-old International Spy Museum on Northwest F Street in downtown D.C, right across the street from the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art and a short walk from the Verizon Center.

The International Spy Museum is a private, profit-making enterprise (and, therefore, charges admission--currently $18 for adults) built by a Cleveland entertainment, news, and information firm called the Malrite Company at a cost of $40 million. It opened on 19 July 2002 and became an immediate sensation for tourists and metro-area residents as well. (It’s a destination for school groups, especially middle school classes. The biggest group of visitors when I was there was teen and pre-teen boys.) Over the year-end holidays the year the Spy Museum opened, my mother and I attempted to have a look--for professional reasons, of course. We drove by it on three different days--it’s in a bad parking area, unfortunately--and the line was always around the corner. We decided this was because it had just opened and drew all the holiday tourists and vacationing families in town, so we decided to try again when I was in town for a non-holiday visit. (I say they ought to have a special pass for former spooks--professional courtesy and all. Actually, there is an “Intelligence discount”-- not special access, though--for current spook agency workers, but not us ex-spooks.)

In development for over seven years, the museum draws on the knowledge and expertise of former intelligence specialists, both civilian and military, American and foreign. The advisory board includes two former CIA directors, other former U.S. intelligence workers, and retired Maj. Gen. Oleg Danilovich Kalugin of the KGB. The president of Malrite is Dennis Barrie, the former director of the Cincinnati Arts Center who got into a bind in 1990 for showing Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs and the former director of Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the museum’s chairman and founder is Milton Maltz and the director is Peter Earnest, who was in the CIA for 36 years. They consider the museum’s “mission” is “to educate the public about espionage in an engaging way and to provide a context that fosters understanding of its important role in, and impact on, current and historic events.” It claims to be the only public museum in the U.S. “solely dedicated to espionage” and the only one in the world with a “global perspective.” Other related exhibits, such as the KGB Museum in Moscow, the espionage display in London’s Imperial War Museum, or NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade near Baltimore, have narrower emphases or a national point of view, assert the Spy Museum’s directors.

On another trip down to D.C. in May 2004, I again went to the Spy Museum. A cousin of mine and my mom's was in town with her husband and their 12-year-old daughter, so Mother reserved tix for us for the Spy Museum one afternoon. (Mom, who’d gone earlier when someone she knew had a reception there and the museum was opened to the guests for an hour, skipped this trip.) It was a walk down memory lane for me, so to speak. I tell you, I had expected something of a joke--all James Bond and the Avengers or something--or a superficial whitewash, full of gimmicks and mock-ups. It's not. It's actually a serious museum--entertainment more than educations, despite the directorship’s assertions, but not a joke and not all that superficial. I mean, it's cleaned up for general consumption, but it's only romanticized a little, and it covers pretty much the whole business. It is skewed toward the WWII and Cold War eras, perhaps understandably, and it doesn't show much of the philosophically nastier, morally compromising aspects of the field, but it's pretty accurate in what it does show. There are James Bond and Maxwell Smart about--a replica of Bond’s tricked-out Aston Martin DB5 (from Goldfinger) and a big photo of Agent 86 on his shoe phone are on display--but for the most part, these are just what we used to call "eyewash." That was the expression we used in the army for window dressing to keep things lively when we had to deliver a briefing or other presentation. (The museum estimates that these pop-culture exhibits are about 5% of the collection.) The Hollywood-spy stuff contrasts with and spotlights the less glamorous, but more substantial, real-world espionage artifacts and displays.

The Spy Museum takes the definition of "spying" a little broadly, but that's all right in the context. For instance, the museum, which is divided into thematic sections including code-breaking, considers the Rosetta Stone (there’s a replica on display) as the first example of this. The real exhibits are actual artifacts of the spy biz from around the world. The museum promo claims it has the largest collection of such items on public display. (The 600-plus artifacts are supplemented by “historic photographs, interactive exhibits, dramatic audio-visual programming, and film to offer a hands-on and ‘immersive’ museum experience.”) Other exhibits include the Enigma machine, the legendary WWII German cipher device (it looks like a clumsy old typewriter), one of the items illustrating code-making and -breaking operations; a shoe transmitter (not to be confused with Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone), the Soviet eavesdropping device hidden inside the heel of a target’s shoe, one example of the listening apparatuses used by spy services; the type of umbrella a KGB assassin used to fire a poison pellet into the thigh of Bulgarian anticommunist Georgi Markov in London in 1978; and a mock-up of a car hollowed out so that agents, their bodies twisted and bent to conform to the secret compartments, can be hidden in it and infiltrated into a target country surreptitiously. (This last exhibit, by the way, was the same technique used in Berlin for a slightly different purpose when I was there: smuggling would-be refugees out of the East into West Germany or West Berlin. This was a field, called “exfiltration,” in which I was principally engaged for a good part of my assignment in Berlin, as I discuss in “Berlin Station”--ROT, 19 & 22 July 2009.) Represented in one way or another are personalities from Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 spy pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, to Austin Powers. In between, there’s Sun Tzu, who wrote The Art of War two-and-a-half millennia ago; Benedict Arnold, the Revolutionary War general who turned the plans of West Point over to the British; Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB; Kim Philby, the senior MI-6 officer who spied for and later defected to the Soviet Union; CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, who earned $2.7 million from his KGB handlers; and Robert Hanssen, the FBI mole who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia for 22 years until he was unmasked in 2001.

I joked that the visit was a stroll down memory lane for me--but it really was to a large extent. The museum is something of a rabbit warren inside. (The facility is made up of five connected buildings--some old, some new--so floors, walls, and corridors don’t necessarily line up precisely. There are over 60,000 square feet of exhibit space. Ironically, the complex, which includes one building that was the home of the Communist Party in Washington 70 years ago, is only about a block from the FBI HQ.) When I left one exhibit area and followed a corridor to another, I emerged into a space with a large sign on the opposite wall that read: "BERLIN -- City of Spies"! It was a little stage set--a café table, walls with maps of Berlin, photos of street scenes with Soviet soldiers, and so on--all from the '60s. That's only a few years before my time there (1971-74), and little had changed in appearance between then and my day (except for up-dated uniforms from the post-WWII era to the Vietnam period). Talk about déjà vu!! I might even say, “déjà vu all over again,” since I’d had a sense of returning home when I arrived in Berlin that late-July day in 1971. If you read my reminiscences “Berlin Station” and “The Berlin Wall” (29 November 2009), you’ll see that even in the 1970s, Berlin, unlike West Germany, was still occupied territory and the three western allies continued to operate there much as they had in the years right after WWII at the start of the Cold War. And why not? The former capital of the German Reich was, as the museum asserts, perfectly situated to be the main spy perch for the NATO Allies--110 miles inside the strongest of the Soviet satellites, the Soviet showplace on the border with Western Europe. It was, indeed, the spy capital of Europe. It’s taken the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of European communism, a decade-and-a-half after I left Berlin, to change the political environment in that western enclave. I must have spent a half hour in this little corner of the museum looking over the visual display and the maps, which, after all, covered the territory in which I’d operated for a quarter of a decade thirty years earlier. Ahhh, nostalgia!

The Berlin display, including a reproduction of the tunnel under the Berlin Wall built so that the Western powers could tap into East German and Soviet communications lines, is part of the section called the “War of the Spies,” which focuses on Cold War intel and counterintel campaigns. Other themes in the exhibit are the “School for Spies,” a section that looks at what’s known as “tradecraft”--spying skills, techniques, and methods; “The Secret History of History,” covering the history of the field, including such figures as Mata Hari, who used some of the tricks of the world’s oldest profession to help her in the second-oldest, and Daniel Defoe, the author who was the “father of the British Secret Service”; “Spies Among Us,” which focuses on the espionage of the two world wars, including camera-carrying pigeons in WWI, the Enigma machine, and the Navajo codetalkers of WWII; and “All Is Not What It Seems,” which addresses espionage in the 21st century. If this sounds little like it comes out of a sense of paranoia and leads visitors to feel a little of that, too--well, that’s the nature of espionage. Indeed, there are signs all around the museum informing visitors that they are under surveillance--and there are microphones planted in several locations which other visitors can tap into and overhear you and your friends in conversation. (In 1964, some may know, as many as 40 listening devices were discovered within the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. When a new embassy was built decades later, it was abandoned before it could be occupied because security breaches made the presence of eavesdropping equipment a likelihood. Do you know the Soviet formula for concrete? It’s one part cement, one part sand, and one part microphones. That’s a Russian joke, by the way.)

When I got to Berlin, the officer assigned to smooth my arrival at the unit told me that the Soviets, who were parked in black Moskvitches or Volgas right outside the entrances to our compound, would know my name, rank--we wore civvies and called each other “Mr.” and “Miss” outside the office--and duty assignment within hours. Later, my colleagues and I would often remind each other that what we did, what spies and counterspies do fundamentally, is illegal. We routinely break the laws of the country in which we’re operating. My job in Berlin was to keep the Soviets and East Germans from doing to us exactly what we were trying to do to them--gather clandestine information they didn’t want us to have. This, of course, is the morally questionable aspect of the spy business that the museum doesn’t cover--the fact that lying--I had at least one cover identity--stealing, and sometimes even killing, are basic to the job description for the profession. Maxwell Smart and Austin Powers are made to be humorous and James Bond, Napoleon Solo, and Ilya Kuryakin are romanticized heroes who practice constant derring-do for the betterment of the good guys. (Oh, and the other side believes that’s what they’re doing, too.) But the world real espionage agents see is more like the one Richard Burton faced in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold--grey, often bleak, and morally ambiguous. The International Spy Museum doesn’t want you to think about that side of the subject; it’s not on display anywhere.

(In addition to my own recollections posted on ROT, I also suggest that anyone curious about this field have a look at my column on the German mini-series Der Illegale [ROT, 5 July 2009]. It describes a 1972 German TV docudrama based on a real espionage case from the ‘60s. The mini-series was rebroadcast in Germany recently, so I assume it’s available on video--though probably not dubbed or even with subtitles. That’s too bad, because it’s about as real a depiction of the topic of the International Spy Museum as I’ve ever seen on film or tape while being excellently made and acted. A film that shows Berlin as it was during the Occupation is 1950’s The Big Lift with Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas. It’s not the greatest movie, but it was filmed in Berlin--with German actors in all the German roles and actual servicemen in the military parts other than the two Hollywood stars--and is a remarkably accurate portrayal of what it was like in the Occupation and, for the most part, right up through my time there. It comes on cable from time to time. Oh, and all that rubble the Berliners are digging out with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows in the flick? They made a mountain out of it, Teufelsberg, on top of which was the most secret installation in Cold War Berlin, an ASA--that’s the Army Security Agency--listening station. It’s decommissioned now, of course--there’s no one to listen to anymore.)

As I said, the museum focuses heavily on WWII and, especially, the Cold War, and is therefore tilted toward the U.S./NATO-Soviet rivalry of the middle of the 20th century. Though it makes a claim to being “international” and non-ideological in its outlook, the Spy Museum doesn’t make much mention of other intelligence conflicts of the present and recent past, such as Mossad vs. the Arab and Muslim adversaries of Israel, the conflict between India and Pakistan, or the efforts of the People’s Republic of China to spy on . . . well, just about everyone. (There were Chinese spies in Berlin when I was there--among those you’d expect in the European arena, such as the Czechs, Poles, Bulgarians, French, British, and Canadians. By the time the Spy Museum was conceived, the Chinese were involved as much in industrial espionage as political and military spying--and almost everyone is a potential target. PRC spies haven’t been Wo Fat vs. Steve McGarrett for decades!) Maybe the museum’s focus will broaden now that it’s gotten established a little, but when I went, it was still 1980 inside the museum.

I don’t want to give the impression that the Spy Museum is an irretrievably flawed experience. If it doesn’t cover every aspect of the intelligence field, what it does cover is truthful, interesting, and engaging. My cousins and I were at the museum for about two hours--Mother had allowed us 1½ hours for her to go and come back to get us--and we had to rush through the last third. As the Washington Post’s Michael O'Sullivan remarks, the museum’s exhibits do suggest, however implicitly, “that lying for a living isn't as easy as it sounds.” (I can attest, from personal experience, that it’s an isolating and often lonely occupation. Army people love to talk shop when they socialize, and we could only talk shop with our fellow spooks. That severely circumscribed our social interaction.) The exhibits obviously will change from time to time, of course, and there’ll be special displays on operations and events of significance, including current developments, as the staff sees them. The museum recommends ordering advanced tix (which can be done on line at www.spymuseum.org) that are date-and-time-specific. (There are plenty of eating places nearby, including the museum’s own restaurants, the Spy City Café and Zola, where you can while away an hour or two. The Crime & Punishment Museum is nearby, and the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum across the street are free.)

It’s clear that the spy genre is still popular in storytelling. The Bond movies are still going strong (though I don’t find the new ones, since the demise of the Soviet Union as a foe, as much fun as the old ones with Connery and Moore--which Spike, the cable net, makes a habit of running regularly), John Le Carré is still writing spy thrillers (though they, too, aren’t as engrossing as his classics like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People), and a popular cable series is about an ex-spy in the “equalizer” biz now. Earlier this month, I watched an episode of one of the regular broadcast series that was plotted around an old Cold War espionage intrigue, with a former deputy CIA director involved with elements of the Stasi, the East German secret police. There’s still something in us that gravitates to the old spy tales. Back when I was still in college, when the Cold War was at its height, my dad was a diplomat in Germany. In 1968, East Germany published a book called Who’s Who in CIA (yes, that was its slightly ungrammatical title), which purported to list everyone in “the civil and military branches of the secret services of the USA in 120 countries.” Back in Washington, everyone rushed to see who was in the book. If you were named, you were “somebody” around town; if not, you were in the out crowd. Dad, who was a cultural attaché and wasn’t involved with any kind of intelligence work, was listed. (He went out and bought a copy of the book, of course.) Interestingly, the book has my dad’s bio details essentially correct, except for one small inaccuracy. For his military service during WWII, the book asserts that Dad was a captain in the CIC, the Counterintelligence Corps (the precursor to Military Intelligence Branch, in which I served thirty years later). In truth, Dad was an artillery battery commander; after VE day, during the beginning of the Occupation--before he was shipped to the Pacific--he was detailed briefly to the CIC because he spoke German, which the army needed to interrogate German detainees they suspected of having been Nazis or Reich officials. That was the extent of my father’s intelligence work for the United States. The ironic coda to the story is that the actual CIA officer in the Bonn embassy (whom I won’t name, though I suspect she’s dead by now)--not an agent, of course, because her position was overt--isn’t listed in the book.

20 March 2010

The Lost Première of 'The Eccentricities of a Nightingale'

[This column is adapted from an earlier essay published in The Journal of American Drama and Theatre (11.2 [Spring 1999]: 42-59). It grew out of my research on Eccentricities and its predecessor, Summer and Smoke, which resulted in the chapter on the two plays in Philip C. Kolin’s Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998).]

From 10 to 28 October 1967, Tennessee Williams’s Eccentricities of a Nightingale was presented at the two-year-old Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, Surrey, about 30 miles from London. The production, directed by Philip Wiseman, an American who worked in England, and starring Sian Phillips as Alma Winemiller opposite Kevin Colson’s John Buchanan, Jr., was declared the “world premiere” of this new version of the story of the Winemillers and the Buchanans of Glorious Hill, Mississippi. Seven months later, the Theatre Society of Long Island announced the presentation from 14 to 26 May 1968 of the “American premiere” of Eccentricities at the Mineola Theatre. The second of four plays in the inaugural eight-week season of “Long Island’s first all-professional repertory company,” this Eccentricities, also dubbed the play’s “New York premiere,” starred the original Stella Kowalski, Kim Hunter, as Alma, with Ed Flanders as John and James Broderick as Rev. Winemiller. The director was Edwin Sherin, who later directed the 1976 production at Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre that went on to Broadway.

The problem with these proud pronouncements is that they were plain wrong. This wasn’t an incidence of reinterpretation or spin; both the British and Long Island producers were simply flat-out overlooking three previous U.S. productions of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, all professionally mounted and duly recorded in local newspapers. Furthermore, because of the publicity from the theaters and the press coverage of the two productions, the errors have become a permanent part of the historical record. In a 1965 announcement in London’s Daily Telegraph, Ronald Hastings emphasized that the British production of Williams’s Eccentricities would be “the first play by this author to have its opening performance in Britain.” The British and international press went on to designate the Guildford Eccentricities, which International Herald Tribune reviewer Thomas Quinn Curtiss further erroneously identified as “the first draft of . . . ‘Summer and Smoke’” and incorrectly predicted would go on to London’s West End “before long,” as its “world premiere.” The local paper, the Surrey Advertiser and County Times, even described Eccentricities as “a hitherto unstaged play by one of the greater American playwrights of the century”; the announcement of the theater’s season one week earlier in the Advertiser had referred to the play as a “World Premiere.”

Then, while acknowledging the earlier British presentation, the Theatre Society of Long Island also asserted in a press release that Eccentricities “has never been professionally produced in the U.S.” These assertions, too, became the record, as Long Island’s own Newsday reported that the show was Eccentricities’ U.S. debut, and Jerry Tallmer of the New York Post wrote that Williams attended opening night “when, at long last, at the Mineola Theater, L.I., ‘Nightingale’ received its American premiere.”

Once on the record for future writers or producers to look up, such statements simply become “The Facts.” In Contemporary Authors, for instance, Williams’s 1990 profile states that the first production of Eccentricities--noted only under Summer and Smoke, as a revision of that play--was in Washington, D.C., in 1966. An earlier profile reports an unspecified “summer-stock tour” in 1964, and records a production at the “Guildford Theatre, London” in the fall of 1967. Aside from its publication with Summer and Smoke, the play isn’t otherwise mentioned in these lengthy profiles; not even the television or Broadway productions in 1976 are noted. Even when the 1976 Buffalo production that moved on to Broadway was reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Edwin Wilson asserted that Betsy Palmer had “performed in the first stage version” of Eccentricities when she played Alma in the summer-stock tour that became the Studio Arena’s one hundredth production. Someone who knows that the play had been published in 1964 and suspects that a production had been mounted that year would still have a difficult time locating even the spare New York Times coverage of the event. The Times calls itself “the paper of record,” but looking up Tennessee Williams or The Eccentricities of a Nightingale in the 1964 volume of the New York Times Index, under either “books” or “theater,” reveals nothing. All three pieces that year are buried under the entry for the producing theater, making the record easy to miss unless the researcher already knows a great deal of the actual history. No other U.S. newspaper has indexes that far back, and such usual sources as the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature don’t reveal any articles on either the production or the publication of the text. It’s little wonder, then, that many have missed this significant little event.

Because many chronologies of Williams’s life and work don’t even include Eccentricities, this factual confusion’s seldom addressed. Indeed, Eccentricities, which Williams considered a new play rather than a revision of Summer and Smoke, has generally flown under the radar of most Williams chroniclers and biographers. Even when the actual première is correctly identified, the writer doesn’t mention, let alone refute, the other claims, so the error’s not even acknowledged, much less laid to rest. There are, however, records that document the actual chronology of the birth of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.

Summer and Smoke, whose première was successfully presented by Margo Jones’s Theatre ’47 in Dallas on 8 July 1947, had received devastatingly bad reviews in New York and closed on 1 January 1949. Having sailed for Gibraltar in December 1948 with his long-time lover, Frank Merlo, and his friend, writer-composer Paul Bowles, Williams was in Fez, Morocco, when he received the telegram announcing the closing. He was devastated and bitter, but the character of Alma Winemiller was indelibly printed on his soul. She “seemed to exist somewhere in my being,” he wrote, and later, during rehearsals for the Broadway première of Eccentricities, Williams candidly acknowledged, “Look, I’m Alma.” Alma had actually first appeared earlier in 1947 as the main character of Williams’s short story, “The Yellow Bird,” originally published that June in Town and Country magazine. She was named Alma Tutwiler then; Williams had first used the name Winemiller in another story, “One Arm,” written between 1942 and 1945. Unable to shake her, even after the rejection of her latest incarnation, the playwright, one of whose friends came to call him “Tenacity” Williams, determined to create a new play for the Nightingale of the Delta to inhabit.

After closing on Broadway, Summer and Smoke had a meager production record until its reputation was resuscitated by the historic Off-Broadway revival in 1952. There was a summer-stock run (22-27 August 1949) at the Mountain Playhouse in Jennertown, Pennsylvania, whose only historical significance seems to be that it’s believed to be the first summer-stock performance to include blind actors. In 1950, the Portuguese-language première, O Anjo de pedra (The angel of stone), opened at the Teatro Brasiliero de Comedia, São Paulo, Brazil, and in October of that year a tour of the Western states went out with film stars Dorothy McGuire and John Ireland as the would-be lovers and Una Merkel as Mrs. Winemiller.

Williams, who seldom let a script alone even after it was published, continued to rewrite Summer and Smoke and in the summer of 1951, while on one of his many retreats to Rome, completed a new version. Letters Williams wrote between January and September 1951 to producer Cheryl Crawford and agent Audrey Wood attest to this. At the beginning of 1951, Williams wrote Crawford, who was producing The Rose Tattoo on Broadway at the time, “I am still working on the new ‘Summer’. It has turned into a totally new play, even the conception of the characters is different,” and in June, he wrote:

I am doing a completely new version, even changing the title as it now takes place in winter, and I think I have a straight, clean dramatic line for the first time, without the cloudy metaphysics and the melodrama that spoiled the original production.

Williams was even contemplating returning the new version to the United States with “a big star like Peggy Ashcroft” or Margaret Sullavan, whom, apparently, Crawford had suggested. By August, he was writing to Wood that he’d completed a draft of the new script, which he was still calling Summer and Smoke, and by September, he must have finished the revision because he wrote Crawford that he didn’t know which version the London company would present, “the new or old one.” He added, “I prefer the new one.”

He rushed off to London where a production of Summer and Smoke was in preparation by producer H. M. Tennant. Met at the airport by his friend Maria Britneva (later Lady St. Just), who was playing Rosemary in the production, he arrived too late to substitute the new script for the one “already deep into rehearsals” under the direction of Peter Glenville who, ten years later, would direct the film version.

Williams insisted that that script, which Britneva “put safely away,” was The Eccentricities of a Nightingale--though that title didn’t appear until later correspondence--and that it didn’t resurface for “some 10 or 15 years.” A typescript of Eccentricities in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Billy Rose Theatre Collection bears the date 20 June 1961, and letters to Robert MacGregor and Jay Laughlin at New Directions, Williams’s publisher, indicate that he was working again on the new play, now under its present title, in 1963 and 1964. Except for a subtitle (deleted before publication)--The Sun That Warms the Dark (A very odd little play)--the typescript’s nearly identical to the 1964 published text. It would certainly be in keeping with Williams’s practice to have reworked his new play over a decade. It’s on record, to be sure, that Williams had begun Summer and Smoke, originally entitled A Chart of Anatomy, in St. Louis as early as February or March 1944. He continued to work on it in Mexico in 1945 (where he went to recuperate from one of a series of cataract operations); in New Orleans; in Taos, New Mexico; on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, in 1946 (where he shared a cottage with Carson McCullers while she dramatized The Member of the Wedding); and on until after its successful Dallas première. A typescript of Summer and Smoke in the Billy Rose Collection is labeled “Rome Version (March 1948)” and hand-annotated “Produced by Margo Jones at the Music Box Theatre, 6 October, 1948.” If he reworked a “successful” script for four years, why not a “failed” one for a decade? It’s not inconsistent, surely, and he did, indeed, furnish typed additions to the script of Eccentricities for a 1979 New Jersey production, three years after the Broadway outing. Even if Williams didn’t see the revision of Summer and Smoke for a decade after 1951, he clearly worked over the new play between at least 1961 and the performance in 1964.

In any event, New Directions scheduled publication of Eccentricities in a single volume with Summer and Smoke for October 1964. The New York Times’ June 1964 announcement of the forthcoming publication noted that the new play would receive its première later in June in Nyack, New York, but in a February 1965 review of the book, eight months after the première had closed, theater writer George Freedley, the first Curator of the New York Public Library’s Theatre Collection since 1938, noted that his “own researching shows” that Eccentricities “has not been seen on any stage.”

On 2 June 1964, the New York Times announced the imminent première, something over three weeks before it opened, and the New York Herald Tribune covered the opening on the day of the performance. Edie Adams, the widow of Ernie Kovacs and already an accomplished star of television (The Ernie Kovacs Show, 1952-53, 1956; Here’s Edie/The Edie Adams Show, 1963-64) and musicals (Wonderful Town, 1953; Li’l Abner, 1956), was to play Alma Winemiller in the summer-stock production directed by George Keathley at Bruce Becker’s Tappan Zee Playhouse. Eight years earlier, Keathley, a friend of Williams and fellow Key West resident, had directed The Enemy: Time, the one-act version of Sweet Bird of Youth, at Studio M, Keathley’s theater in Coral Gables, Florida. That production starred Alan Mixon, who played John in the première of Eccentricities. (Mixon had so impressed Williams that the playwright sent the young Floridian to his own agent, Audrey Wood, who convinced the actor to move to New York. He’d go on to play many Williams roles both before and after John Buchanan, Jr.)

Local coverage began three days before the opening with an announcement in the Rockland County Journal-News of Adams’s impending appearance on the Nyack stage, though the paper made its own mistake by stating that Eccentricities would be Adams’s “east coast stage debut.” That certainly had occurred at least on 25 February 1953 at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre when she opened in Wonderful Town. The première of Eccentricities was seen as such a major event in Nyack that “Miss Adams and the cast, subscribers, New York and local celebrities” were bidden to a “Special Buffet” at the St. George Hotel after the début. Proclaiming, “Many top celebrities have been invited to the opening,” the Journal-News noted that after other opening nights, the “meet-the-cast party” would be at the YMCA.

The Journal-News made much of Adams’s “returning to her home area”--she had grown up in nearby Tenafly, New Jersey, and attended New York City’s Juilliard School of Music--and her original intention to become, like Alma Winemiller, a music teacher. Adams saw the production as an opportunity to stretch her dramatic muscles, acknowledging, “I had to fight to get away from the dumb blond parts. And I did. I was the ingenue and dumb blond so long that nobody thought I could do anything else.” Declaring, “This one’s for me. . . . It’s a rewrite, all on the girl. You’re on stage expounding for two and half hours,” Adams suspended her busy schedule of “singing, dancing and frothy musicals” to do the production, which New York’s Morning Telegraph still called Summer and Smoke, as “part of her education as an actress.” Explaining that working in material like Eccentricities, was necessary to establish a reputation and talent for serious acting, Adams observed that “if I wanted to do summer stock shows and make money I could do that. . . . But I wouldn’t be proving anything. I’d just be away from home.”

Announcements and festive plans, of course, aren’t proof that a performance took place. Neither are press releases or program booklets, which can be published before a performance which doesn’t occur. This, we’ll see, was the basis for the claim made by both the British and Long Island productions.

For the opening of a new play by one of America’s most renowned and respected playwrights, Eccentricities received scant attention outside Nyack. The New York Herald Tribune, while reporting that Adams had no plans to perform the show anywhere else--it wasn’t a tour as Contemporary Authors recorded-- suggested that “she has not ruled out carrying the play further at a future date.” The Herald Tribune later stated that the summer production had been a “pre-Broadway test.” Nonetheless, though the New York Times and the Herald Tribune both announced the performances, neither reviewed the opening on 25 June 1964. (Ironically, both papers covered the closing.) In fact, the only New York City paper which did review the Tappan Zee production was the New York World-Telegram and Sun. After quoting Williams’s statement--composed at the time of the play’s publication and restated in nearly every program and most production reviews--that Eccentricities was a new play and better than Summer and Smoke, reviewer Norman Nadel complained in the World-Telegram that “‘Summer and Smoke’ never looked better than it does in comparison with this revision” and that Williams “has made Alma and the play more, rather than less melodramatic.” He blamed “backstage blundering” for “a production that ranged from indifferent to catastrophic,” specifically citing miscues in Clifford Ammon’s lighting that caused inappropriate laughter when lights went on or off at the wrong times, destroying “what might have been moving moments.” Nadel went on to conclude that casting Adams was a “conspicuous error.” Though he praised “some excellent supporting performances,” particularly Alan Mixon’s, he wrote:

All Miss Adams has done is to superimpose patterned eccentricities on a kooky and rather pitiful young woman who, toward the end of the play, abruptly becomes as overtly sexy as a TV actress doing cigar commercials. Alma in this new version is neither as complex nor as sensitive a character as Williams wrote for “Summer and Smoke,” but her complexity and sensitivity go far beyond Miss Adams’ ability to communicate them more than momentarily.

Nadel’s cigar-commercial reference was to Adams’s appearances as television’s skimpily-costumed “Muriel Cigar girl” from 1962 until 1976. He summed up both the play and the performance by proclaiming, “Subtlety and tenderness have been sacrificed all along the line.”

Nyack’s Rockland County Journal-News touted the “excitement” of seeing “variations on a familiar theme” in Williams’s new version of Summer and Smoke with the “added fillip” of “a new play, still in try-out.” To this was added the appearance of Edie Adams, fresh off her Thursday-night ABC variety show that had finished a six-month run the previous March. Reviewer Mariruth Campbell confirmed that Eccentricities was, indeed, “a very odd little play”; the Nyack production was the only one that ever carried Williams’s subtitle as it appears on the typescript.

Campbell did object that the play was “over-long” and noted, “Unfortunately the on-stage figures moving scenery amused the audience, breaking the continuity of mood for which Williams aimed.” She praised Patricia Nielsen’s set in general, however, and attributed the lighting and staging style--”no curtain, changes in lighting to designate scene changes”--to “ancient oriental stage techniques.” Campbell, in contrast to Nadel, pronounced Adams’s performance “splendid,” and applauded the rest of the cast who “[a]ll worked valiantly to breathe life” into the play, though she did observe that “[m]any of the most important line[s] never were clearly heard.” Blaming some of the “dreariness” on Keathley and the company, she complained, “In real life, words spoken under great stress may be without force, may be whispers; in the theater, those same wor[d]s must be in ‘stage whispers’, reaching the last row.”

The ten-day run of Eccentricities, which launched the 1964 summer season at the Tappan Zee Playhouse, was scheduled to close on Saturday, 4 July. Sadly, early in the morning of Saturday, 27 June, just two days after the opening, a fire broke out in the theater. Discovered just before 3 a.m. by house manager Bob Olson, the fire damaged the dressing rooms. Though the New York Times reported that the blaze destroyed props and costumes, the Journal-News stated that neither the props nor the lighting instruments were damaged. Separated from the backstage area--a nineteenth-century livery stable to which the theater was added in 1903--by a thick brick wall, the auditorium suffered mostly water and smoke damage. The fire, contained by 125 local firefighters, singed the edge of a drape and the firemen had had to cut into the roof. In its report on the fire, whose origin wasn’t determined, the Times quoted some prescient lines from the script’s last scene:

ALMA: Where did the fire come from?
JOHN: No one has ever been able to answer that question.

Ironically, since the text of Eccentricities hadn’t yet been published, someone at the Times seems to have been present at a performance in order to have noted these lines. Apparently, the Times didn’t deem the production worthy of a published review, despite Williams’s prominence and the intimations that the production had been a Broadway try-out.

Along with his assertion that no production of Eccentricities had been staged by the play’s publication, George Freedley’s Morning Telegraph book review in February 1965 also quoted Williams as stating that there’d been no production of the play, but that statement had been part of his “Author’s Note” for the published edition, prepared in May 1964, before the première. In it, Williams wrote, “This radically different version of the play has never been produced.” This statement, part of the description in New Directions’ advance catalogue, was circulated with review copies of the book. It was amended in August 1964, however, prior to publication and after the stage debut had occurred, to include the words “on Broadway,” and that’s how it appears in the 1964 published text and all subsequent editions. Apparently Freedley, despite his critical and curatorial credentials, accepted Williams’s advance statement as still valid in February 1965, overlooking that a production had occurred in the meantime.

Both the British and Long Island producers gave the same justification for their claim that they were staging premières of Eccentricities. Ronald Hastings, for example, reported in London’s Daily Telegraph that “on what should have been the opening night of ‘Eccentricities,’ the [Tappan Zee Playhouse] building burned down, so the play has never been performed.” Then, in May 1968, the Theatre Society of Long Island declared that the “production scheduled for the Tappan Zee Playhouse in Nyack was cancelled [sic] when the theatre burned down two summers ago.” The Theatre Society of Long Island’s assertion even had the time-frame wrong: the fire had been nearly four years earlier, of course, not two.

None of the published reports of the fire and the closing of the theater indicated that the theater had “burned down,” or that Eccentricities had failed to get on the stage. Becker, who had gone to New York City with his wife and co-producer, Honey Waldman, after the second performance of Eccentricities, believed he could reopen the Playhouse in two weeks or less. On Monday, 6 July, ten days after the fire closed it down, the Tappan Zee Playhouse did, in fact, reopen, using trailers as temporary dressing rooms. Becker had broken a hole in the 14-inch wall to give the actors access to them, but the production that reopened the theater was Preston Sturges’s Strictly Dishonorable. Eleven years later, after several fires severely damaged it in the early 1970s, the historic Tappan Zee did close for good.

In her opening-night review, Campbell, too, quoted ironic lines from the play: “The fire has gone out, nothing will revive it.” The Eccentricities of a Nightingale’s première production stood at two performances. Still, it was a fully union-accredited, professional production of the first performance of a new play. Duly recorded in press reviews, both locally in the Journal-News and in New York City in the World-Telegram and Sun, and in after-the-fact reports of its closing in the Journal-News, the New York Times, and the Herald Tribune, the Nyack Eccentricities fulfilled all the requirements for an official world, American, and New York première, denying the 1967 Guildford and 1968 Mineola productions the right to claim those titles. The Guildford show, of course, remains the British première, but the Theatre Society of Long Island mounted merely one of several revivals in the 1960s.

Furthermore, even if we discount the Tappan Zee production somehow--and there seems no reason to do so--there were at least two productions between the ones at Nyack and Guildford which would have earned the designation of première. First, on 20 April 1966--a year and a half before the production in Guildford and a little less than two years before the one in Mineola--Eccentricities opened at the Washington Theater Club in the District of Columbia as “the major city premiere,” which it was. This production, which ran until 15 May, can arguably be written off as a semi-professional staging. The director was the Theater Club’s artistic director, Davey Marlin-Jones, later the theater and film reviewer for WUSA-TV in the District, and the only name in the cast that might be recognized today was John Hillerman. It was a light-weight production, perhaps, but the one that followed isn’t so easily dismissed.

Between 13 January and 5 February 1967, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago presented its revival of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, nine months before the British première and 15 months before the Long Island revival. The Goodman, one of this country’s most highly regarded companies, surely can’t be ignored in a play’s production history. In addition, the Goodman’s production of Eccentricities included a curious historical footnote--possibly even a unique occurrence. Directed by Bella Itkin, the cast included Lee Richardson as John. Richardson, who in 1952 went by the name Lee Richard, played the same character in the landmark Circle in the Square production of Summer and Smoke.

The next significant productions of Eccentricities after 1968 didn’t occur until the end of the 1970s, starting with its “Theatre in America” telecast on the Public Broadcasting Service’s “Great Performances” on 16 June 1976 with Blythe Danner and Frank Langella and the belated Broadway première which opened at the Morosco Theatre with Betsy Palmer and David Selby on 23 November. On 15 February 1979, the German première (and the only foreign-language production on record as of 2000) opened under the title Die exzentrische Nachtigall (The eccentric nightingale) at the Kammerspiele in Düsseldorf. Two productions in October that year, one by BergenStage in Teaneck, New Jersey, and the other by the Westchester Regional Theater in Harrison, New York, were the latest documented professional stagings at the time I did my research.

The Broadway première had something of a curious history itself. Betsy Palmer and David Selby headed the cast of a summer-stock production of Eccentricities. Originally directed by Jeffrey Chambers, this production had problems with its design, direction, and some of the supporting cast. Neal Du Brock, Executive Director of the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, took over for the last month of the tour. “The play was being buried under props and scenery,” Du Brock complained. He repackaged the production with the same stars but replaced half the supporting cast and remounted the production at the Studio Arena from 8 October to 6 November 1976. Du Brock brought in Edwin Sherin to replace Chambers and a Broadway-quality design team to redo the sets and costumes. When he turned the direction over to Sherin, Du Brock ordered, “[T]hrow it all out and do it on an empty stage.” The producer wanted “to let the actors speak and not have all that other stuff cluttering things up,” and the result was a spare, almost minimalist production. Sherin, harking back to his 1968 attempt on Long Island, averred, “I think some vibrations are set off, and the play’s effects are felt years and years later.” He came to Buffalo, he said, to take up the challenge of a play he had “failed to ignite the first time around.” Sherin admitted, “It’s bothered me ever since. But now it’s exactly the way I wanted to do it.” Williams, who attended rehearsals and opening night in Buffalo, is reported to have “loved this concept.” Reviewers in Buffalo apparently agreed, though the New York press found the production “skimpy.” The Broadway production closed on 12 December after only eight previews and 12 regular performances.

The record, then, is unambiguous: The Eccentricities of a Nightingale premièred on 25 June 1964 at the Tappan Zee Playhouse in Nyack, New York. This was incontrovertibly the New York, American, and world première. The production mounted at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford in October 1967 was the British première. Intervening and subsequent U.S. productions, regardless of quality or other distinctions, were merely revivals or narrowly-defined premières.

[There were a few singularities among some of the subsequent revivals. On 15 April 1977, a production of Eccentricities opened in Williams’s hometown at the Greene Street Theatre in Key West; Williams attended the opening performance and gave it his own favorable review. For a production on 26-29 October 1978 at the nineteenth-century Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie, New York, the Collingwood Repertory Company commissioned the original Suite from The Eccentricities of a Nightingale from composer Joseph Bertolozzi; the score, in manuscript, is in the collection of the American Music Center in New York City. The above-mentioned 1979 revival by BergenStage (in which I played Roger Doremus) incorporated not only material cut from the official acting edition of the text, but typed additions supplied by Williams, himself.]

16 March 2010

How Do You Measure A Year?

So, a year. Wow! It’s been that long since 16 March 2009, the date I posted my first column on ROT, launching this blog. A new administration had barely begun in Washington. In the year that followed, the flu scared everyone, Michael Jackson died (and so did Walter Cronkite, Jack Kemp, Farrah Fawcett, Horton Foote, Karl Malden, David Carradine, Charlie Wilson, and Pernell Roberts--among many others), Iran exploded over a disputed election, and North Korea tested nukes. Scientists discovered water on the moon. Ted Kennedy’s senate seat went to a Republican. Having gotten the city council to extend term limits, Michael Bloomberg was elected to a third term as New York mayor. West Side Story (1957) and Hair (1968) came back to Broadway. So did Desire Under the Elms (1924), Blithe Spirit (1941), Finian’s Rainbow (1947), Waiting for Godot (1956), A Little Night Music (1973), and Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988). A Neil Simon revival flopped (Brighton Beach Memoirs) and a Schiller soared (Mary Stuart).

A year. I can’t speak about the quality of the content of ROT; that’s for others to say, I guess. I think I’ve done a pretty decent job in terms of breadth, though--even if I hewed pretty closely to the main topic of theater. I don’t do current events (though I did do a column on the dismissal of reviewers from the Tony voter rolls: “Tony Committee to Theater Journalists: ‘Yer Out!’” 17 August 2009)--I’m not really a reporter--and I stay away from politics and religion (and, I suppose, sex, too--though that’s not so much by design). Still, there was a post on Judaism (“Crypto-Jews: Legacy of Secrecy,” 15 September 2009)--more sociological and historical than theological, however. I ventured into true crime once (“The Con Game (A True-Crime Story),” 22 October 2009). And there’s a column on scholarship and gifted students (“Davidson Fellowships,” 18 October 2009). There were several on theater for children (“Missoula Children’s Theatre,” 25 August 2009; “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Children's Theater in America,” 25 November 2009). I dipped into art and artists a number of times (“Pudlo Pudlat, Inuit Artist,” 28 September 2009; “Art in D.C. (Dec. ’09-Jan. ’10),” 18 January 2010; “Dada,” 20 February 2010; among others). Of course, there were several performance reports--not as many as I’d have liked, but I didn’t get to as much theater as I would have liked this past year. I reminisced a bit: columns on two dogs I loved (“Sobaka: A Memoir,” 31 July 2009; “Thespis,” 10 February 2010), some recollections about Berlin in the Cold War (“Berlin Station, Parts 1 & 2,” 19 & 22 July 2009; “The Berlin Wall,” 29 November 2009), a snowstorm that fouled an inaugural 49 years ago (“JFK Inaugural Snowstorm,” 22 April 2009), a TV movie I remembered from 38 years ago in Germany (“Der Illegale,” 5 July 2009). There was some other history, too: a peculiar British actor from the early 19th century (“Romeo Coates, Parts 1-3,” 30-31 May & 2 June 2009), a passel of French writers in the late 19th century (“The Group of Hissed Authors,” 7 May 2009), and the only man who served as both a general in the U.S. Army and an admiral in the U.S. Navy (“Sailor on Horseback,” 1 September 2009). I even found space to post pieces by other writers, including my friend Kirk Woodward as well as some others like Francis Pharcellus Church and David Macfarlane (“How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks,” 5 October 2009; “’Is There a Santa Claus?’” 25 December 2009; “’For Real Actors, Eyebrow Grooming Is Not The Highest Art,’” 10 March 2010). That looks like a pretty good assortment to me--a kind of Whitman’s Sampler of topics. (ROT is like a box of chocolates . . . .)

Of course, I’ve been publishing what interests me; I don’t know if anyone else is interested. I hope those who’ve found ROT have discovered articles that have peaked their curiosities. For all I know, though, I’ve been felling the proverbial tree in the unpeopled forest. I don’t know if anyone’s been reading ROT--at all, much less regularly. Few people have left comments (though, I’ve learned that the site sometimes balks at letting readers make comments; maybe more people have tried than is evident). Even my friends seem to check in only when I tell them there’s something that’d interest them on the blog.

A whole year. I never really thought about it, but if I had, I don’t think I’d have figured I’d last this long. I don’t know how much longer I can keep ROT up, but I still have a few ideas left. For now, I plan just to keep on truckin’ and see where that leads. I have to say, it’s been fun these past 12 months--finding material to write about (even if that meant resurrecting some old pieces--though that has been interesting as well) and trying to write it up so that everyone can get it. That’s been a real challenge with some of the more esoteric topics like Susanne Langer’s philosophy and the theory of rasa-bhava (“Susanne Langer: Art, Beauty, & Theater – Parts 1& 2,” 4 & 8 January 2010; “Rasa-Bhava & The Audience,” 13 January 2010). Trying to keep my thoughts down to a digestible length (I can tend toward logorrhea sometimes--maybe you’ve noticed) has been another challenge. Not having an editor (except my own self, that is) has been both a blessing and a problem. No one’s watching over my shoulder. On the other hand . . . no one’s watching over my shoulder.

Eighty-one posts. That’s how many I’ve come up with since last 16 March. Some have been harder than others. Some have required research, some have been founded on research I already did, and some came from right off the top of my head. Some were clearly opinionated, based on my feelings about the topic, some were intended to be scrupulously objective and reportorial. Some ended up being both. I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm, for instance, concerning the Davidson Fellowship program or the Missoula Children’s Theatre even though I was trying to describe them with detachment. In the end, however, they were all interesting to craft, one way or another. Of course, I hope they were interesting to read, too.

My original intent, encouraged by a friend who’d been reading my e-mail reports on plays and performances I’d seen, was to publish those reports and other pieces about theater. Hence the rather unimaginative title of Rick On Theater. The description in the heading includes the words “perhaps other topics of interest to me” because I knew at the outset that I might wander off point from time to time. I suspect I’ve done that more in reality than I had thought I would, but I’m going to keep the original title even after a year of meandering thoughts. My intention is still to discourse mostly about theater and the arts, so the title will serve as a reminder--to me, at least, if not the readers--of what I’m supposed to be up to. Maybe it’ll be more of a reprimand than a reminder. If I make it to another anniversary, we’ll see if it is. Meanwhile, ROT it is, and ROT it’ll stay. (My friend Kirk, who was the one who urged me to launch the blog last year, pointed out that those initials aren’t original with me. “Do you remember what great movie the initials ROT play a (small) role in?” he wrote me a few days after I started the blog. “I can't think of the movie with ‘ROT’ in it,” I responded--great movie maven that I am. "’North by Northwest,’” responded Kirk. “Roger O. Thornhill is Cary Grant's character, and as I recall, he gives someone a business card with his initials.” Who’d 'a' thunk it! It’s one of my all-time fave movies, too.)

First anniversary. Well, I just wanted to mark the occasion. I don’t know where I’ll go from here with ROT. I have a couple of posts ready to go, in the same vein as what’s gone before. I don’t plan any changes--hell, I didn’t plan this; it just sorta happened. I guess that’s how I’ll keep going--just sorta let it happen. If a better idea--or any idea, really--comes along, I’ll try it out. I’d like to get more “guest bloggers” to chime in, the way Kirk did on Suzan-Lori Parks. I also have a few pieces published by writers and thinkers in the past like the commentary about actors by David Macfarlane and I may post some of them because they’re interesting and provocative. (Wait till you get a load of a couple by Antonin Artaud I’ve got in reserve. They’ll blow your minds!) I expect I’ll continue to share my research with you all--I have some more on Leo Shapiro I haven’t used yet that I think people will find intriguing, and there are other odd subjects yet to be unveiled. I’m not done yet. And when I am, Kirk’s said he can’t wait to see some things from my “archives”--performance reports from the past. I’ve posted one or two of the OBG’s when they seemed à propos (“Ian McKellen’s King Lear,” 28 March 2009, when it aired on PBS and “Woman of the Year (1981),” 26 April 2009, when Marilyn Cooper died). So, we’ll have to see what comes, won’t we. (As Fats Waller was famous for saying, “One never knows, do one?”) Stick around. Should be fun.

10 March 2010

“For Real Actors, Eyebrow Grooming Is Not The Highest Art”

by David Macfarlane
Globe and Mail [Toronto] 31 May 1999: “Cheap Seats”

[David Macfarlane, a Canadian novelist and playwright, was an arts columnist for the Toronto, Ontario, Globe and Mail until 2003. He wrote this column, an appreciation of actors, when he was at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Having trained as an actor and then having tried to make a life in that profession, I’ve always had a special regard for actors, especially stage actors, among all artists and performers. I offer this in the same spirit I think Macfarlane intended it.]

Let's talk about actors. I don't think they'll mind.

But let's not get into movie stars. For a change. Here at this end of things, we write far too much about movie stars already. Just the other day, while spending a little time at your end of things, I was reading in a newspaper about how Tom Cruise attends to his eyebrows.

As informative as all this was from a personal-grooming perspective, it did indicate to me, on the column-writing side, that there is nothing more that I can possibly contribute on the movie-star front to the astonishing wealth of knowledge already at our fingertips. Somewhere out there, someone much better informed about these things is probably writing an article about how Gwyneth Paltrow or Ben Afleck trim their toenails.

But with the Shaw and Stratford openings upon us, and with Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company in the first of its five summer productions at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, I think we should make a point of not rushing from our seats to get to our parked cars at the final curtain. We should take a moment to thank actors. Real actors, if I might put it that way.

That is to say, actors who do not arrive at work in limos, but rather on bicycles, or on foot, or in cars that aren't paid for yet. Actors who don't fly Concorde but who still know what buses and trains are, and who post notices in the Green Room asking if anyone's driving to Edmonton next week. Actors who don't take a suite at the Four Seasons, but who live in rented or borrowed rooms--in Stratford, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Fredericton or St. John's.

Actors who don't eat at Prego or Balthazar, but who eat pizza in a rehearsal hall or a bowl of cereal at the kitchen counter at midnight after getting back, too tired to cook, from an evening performance. Actors who start off dreaming of doing Hamlet or Cordelia in the West End, and end up dreaming of doing Lear or Gertrude anywhere, and in between live out of suitcases across the country for an entire career of vulnerable auditions, drafty rehearsals, opening-night jitters and tearful, closing-night goodbyes.

Actors who have worked their way through the eternity of summer stock and the brief runs of winter, who have weathered both the stinging truths and the wildly unfair misjudgments of critics, who have approached the classics with the care and focus of surgeons preparing for a difficult operation, and who--a few weeks later, on the other side of the continent, wrapped in sweaters and living on coffee and cigarettes--have bravely thrown themselves into the rehearsals of some young playwright's improbable, but dramatically exciting experiment.

Actors who always weep--partly out of sentiment, partly out of sheer professional admiration--when they watch Alistair Sims [sic] in A Christmas Carol, or hear Send in the Clowns, or listen to that battered old trouper Judy Garland belt out Over the Rainbow. Actors who, trying to find their marks in the pre-curtain darkness, have got their spears stuck in a styrofoam Roman column, or who have taken a particularly wide step while climbing the plywood ramparts at Elsinore and have heard the loud, unmistakable sound of Danish breeches ripping from codpiece to hindmost. Or who, in the very middle of a Lady Bracknell to end all Lady Bracknells, have stood, frozen, stage right, as Algernon inexplicably shifts gears into a speech from Charley's Aunt. Oh, the stories actors can tell, and do, and usually rather well.

These are people who have bowed to packed audiences in big cities and small towns, and who have soldiered on through the dead air of an almost-empty house and the polite, isolated clapping of a looming failure. They learn more about triumph and disaster in a single season than most of us do in a lifetime. They do commercials to pay the bills. They fall in and out of love on an endless tour of a recycled Broadway hit that is as lucrative as it is tedious. And while they're away from their home apartments, their phones are disconnected and all their plants die.

They hope for the role of Falstaff, but also find that there are entire worlds to explore in playing Bardolph or Pistol or--if it comes to that, and if it means a season at Stratford and something resembling a steady income--in being a retainer, or an attendant, or a beadle, or a groom.

The work, the work, the work. Who among us throw themselves into work with more whole-hearted passion, more commitment, more disregard for practical concerns and more undiminished, ever-optimistic hope than an actor? Not many.

Or so I thought the other night, as my wife, our 13-year-old daughter and I sat snuffling back our tears during the heart-rending third act of Deborah Pollitt's performance as Emily Webb, in Soulpepper's production of Our Town at the Royal Alex. An ovation--loud, long and standing--seems so easy a way to say "thank you" for such magic.

[The essay above was excerpted as “In Praise of Actors” in the U.S. Actors’ Equity newsletter, Equity News, for July/August 1999.]

05 March 2010

Mark Twain & The Little Church Around The Corner

On Tuesday, 20 December 1870, a well-known and beloved actor, George Holland, died at his home in New York City. Holland, born in London on 6 December 1791, began his acting career, after some years in the silk and lace trades, in 1817--at the relatively late age of 25. He remained on the stage for 53 years--despite a somewhat inauspicious start. In Holland’s third stage engagement, his appearance was so unsuited to the role he was playing, having allowed some “brother actors” to do his hair and make-up, that he was laughed off the stage and stayed away from acting for a time. He returned, however, and became one of London’s best-known actors. In 1826, Holland received an invitation from Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852), manager of New York’s Chatham Theater (and father of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth) who’d been touring England that year, to come to the United States to work. In 1827, Holland sailed for New York. His first U.S. appearance on 12 September at the Bowery Theatre in the role of Jerry, man of many disguises, in A Day after the Fair (a brief comic opera apparently of Holland’s own composition) was a hit with audiences and he continued to tour the country, playing theater cities like Boston, Louisville, Charleston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans (where he stayed for eight years). Before finding a permanent home, Holland toured for 16 years, becoming popular and famous for his comic singing and feats of ventriloquism. He associated with the best actors in the country, working with the likes of Charlotte Cushman. He returned to New York in 1843 and spent eight years as a member of the company at Mitchell’s Olympic Theatre; in 1855, he joined the company at Wallack’s Theatre in New York and performed burlesques and farces there for the most part until 1868 when he went to work for Augustin Daly. His last engagement, at Daly’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, was on 12 January 1870 in Olive Logan’s farce Surf. His age was telling on him, but even then his mere appearance on a stage was met with applause. At a benefit performance for him on 16 May, he uttered his last words from a stage: “God bless you!” Despite his popularity and acting success, Holland, the father of six children (four of whom also became actors, including his son Joseph Jefferson Holland), never accumulated wealth and lived in near poverty all his life. He was 79 when he died, a man, the New York Times observed, “without a stain on his name, or the performance of any part in the drama of life over the memory of which those who loved him need blush.”

On Thursday, 22 December, Holland’s long-time friend Joseph Jefferson (for whom Holland’s son was named), the renowned comic actor, and Holland’s second son, Edmund, tried to arrange for his funeral at the Church of the Atonement, an Episcopal church at Madison Avenue and 28th Street, where the actor’s widow was a parishioner. The rector, Rev. Dr. William Tufnell Sabine (1838-1913), however, wouldn't conduct the funeral service at his church because Jefferson’s friend was a “play-actor.” Jefferson then asked Sabine, “Well, sir, in this dilemma is there no other church to which you can direct me from which my friend can be buried?” The pastor recommended "a little church around the corner where they do that sort of thing." “Then, if this be so,” Jefferson responded, “God bless ‘the little church around the corner!’” That church, another Episcopal house of worship, was the Church of the Transfiguration at 5th and 29th, which became known thereafter as "The Little Church Around the Corner" and became the unofficial actors' chapel. There Rev. Dr. George Hendric Houghton (1820-97) agreed wholeheartedly to perform the funeral for Holland at his church. Holland was buried from the Little Church Around the Corner on Friday, 23 December, while “many a well-known comedian . . . sat silent and dejected in the gloom.” Accounts of the service described it as “thoroughly consonant with the life and character of the deceased . . . as plain and unostentatious as possible.”

Jefferson (1829-1905; actually Joseph Jefferson III) was the best-known member of an acting family that stretched back to the 18th century and a British actor curiously named Thomas Jefferson (1732-1807). One of the latter’s sons, Joseph Jefferson I (1774-1832), came to the United States in 1795 and stayed, becoming a popular and famous actor in New York. Joseph Jefferson III started on stage at the age of four and toured with his family until he went out on his own. He eventually became nationally known--and critically praised--for playing Rip Van Winkle in Dion Boucicault’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s story, which Jefferson first performed in London in 1865. (Jefferson had compiled his own adaptation from other plays as early as 1859.) The role remained Jefferson’s repertory mainstay for some 40 years. Four of his children also went on the stage.

In an interview published in the New York Times a week later, Rev. Sabine acknowledged that he “had a distaste for officiating” at the funerals of “play-actors.” He even stated that he “always warned professing members of my congregation to keep away from theatres and not to have anything to do with them.” (Sabine must have followed his own advice since he claimed not to have known the man he spoke to had been Joseph Jefferson, one of the country’s most beloved actors.) Though Sabine said that he didn’t think there was any general prohibition in the Episcopal Church against burying actors from the church--he’d been willing, he’d told Jefferson, to conduct a funeral service at Holland’s home--nor was he certain how other Episcopal clergy felt on the subject, he “did not care to be mixed up in” a church service for a “play-actor” because “I don’t think that [theaters] teach moral lessons.”

After Holland’s death and funeral, the tale made its way into the press. The New York Times reported it on 29 December and the story appeared in papers around the country. Another local paper denounced Sabine’s “insolence, bigotry and ignorance.” When actors were social outcasts in many circles, seen as dissolute, disreputable, and immoral people, Rev. Houghton's kindness appealed to the conscience of the nation. (Houghton, an avid abolitionist, had created a congregation that served the neglected, downtrodden, and oppressed of the city, irrespective of race, ethnicity, or nationality. Before emancipation, Houghton harbored runaway slaves and in 1863, during the draft riots, he gave sanctuary to African Americans hounded by the mobs. Actors were among the outcasts to whom Houghton ministered at his church.) Even though Houghton had no interest in theater himself, having attended a play only one time when he was 15, actors started coming to the church. Jefferson's description stuck (though there’s some dispute about what the famous comedian actually said), and soon songs and plays about "The Little Church Around the Corner" became popular. A number of famous theater folk were married or buried there, including Vernon and Irene Castle, the Astair/Rogers of their day (married), and Edwin Booth (buried, with Joseph Jefferson as a pallbearer).

Prompted by the incident, theater writer William Winter, the renowned (if highly conservative) reviewer for the New York Tribune, set about arranging a testimonial to Holland as a benefit for his widow and children. In his speech, Winter said of acting as a profession:

The art itself is as ancient as civilization, and is honorable with the honor of celestial gifts and of beautiful achievements. It has developed genius. It has fired patriotism. It has commemorated virtue. It has extolled freedom. It has stimulated culture. It has soothed the troubles of care-worn minds. It has stored literature with gems of thought and feeling; and it has enriched history and biography with character and wit.

No less a figure than Mark Twain was incensed by the episode and wrote a reproach in his regular column for the February 1871 issue of The Galaxy, a monthly magazine of literature and entertainment for which he worked in 1870-71. (The founders of Galaxy were William Conant Church and his brother Francis Pharcellus Church. Perhaps you recognize that latter: he became an editorial writer at the New York Sun, where brother William was an editor, and wrote the famous 1897 response, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" [see ROT, 25 December 2009].) The Times also published Twain’s essay on 17 January 1871, apparently in advance of the magazine’s appearance. In his essay, entitled “The Indignity Put upon the Remains of George Holland by the Rev. Mr. Sabine,” Twain railed against the “Cardiff giant of self-righteousness . . . crowded into [Sabine’s] pigmy skin.” (The Cardiff giant, which Twain invokes as a metaphor, was a famous hoax. It purported to be the petrified remains of a 10-foot-tall man unearthed in Cardiff, New York, in December 1869 but was revealed as a fake in February 1870.) While Twain excoriated Sabine for his uncharitable judgment of Holland, which he labeled “a ludicrous satire . . . upon Christian charity,” the writer lavishly praised the actor for “mak[ing] his audience go and do right, and be just, merciful, and charitable--because by his living, breathing, feeling pictures, he showed them what it was to do these things, and how to do them, and how instant and ample was the reward!” Twain went on to extend his defense of Holland’s moral stance to the whole of the theatrical field, arguing that plays like King Lear and Othello are more effective lessons on “filial ingratitude” and “harboring a pampered and unanalyzed jealousy” than “ever a sermon preached.”

Twain, in fact, “averred” that

nine-tenths of all the kindness and forbearance and Christian charity and generosity in the hearts of the American people to-day, got there by being filtered down from their fountain-head, the gospel of Christ, through dramas and tragedies and comedies on the stage, and through the despised novel and the Christmas story, and through the thousand and one lessons, suggestions, and narratives of generous deeds that stir the pulses, and exalt and augment the nobility of the nation day by day from the teeming columns of ten thousand newspapers, and NOT from the drowsy pulpit!

(We have to acknowledge, of course, that Twain was writing when theater was the popular entertainment of the age. Today we’d have to compare the priest’s presence to that of movies and, more obviously, TV. What would that do to Twain’s argument, I wonder? I wonder, too, what Twain would make of contemporary Hollywood in general and I keep thinking that he was deliberately overlooking Restoration comedy which celebrated naughtiness.)

While Twain denied that he was dismissing the good efforts of priests and preachers, he observed that the time preachers are before their audiences and can influence them (“twice a week--nearly two hours, altogether”) is minuscule by comparison to the access actors and playwrights have to their “large” audiences (“seven times a week--28 or 30 hours altogether”). The writer went on to include “the novels and newspapers [that] plead, and argue, and illustrate, stir, move, thrill, thunder, urge, persuade, and supplicate, at the feet of millions and millions of people every single day, and all day long, and far into the night.” Oh, Twain did “give the pulpit its full share of credit in elevating and ennobling the people” . . . by “boring” them “with uninflammable truisms about doing good” and so on, but he reserved his most extravagant praise for actors and, specifically, Holland:

Honored and honorable old George Holland, whose theatrical ministry had for fifty years softened hard hearts, bred generosity in cold ones, kindled emotion in dead ones, uplifted base ones, broadened bigoted ones, and made many and many a stricken one glad and filled it brim full of gratitude . . . .

Twain concluded by characterizing Sabine’s denial of funeral rites to Holland as the actor “figuratively spit upon in his unoffending coffin by this crawling, slimy, sanctimonious, self-righteous reptile!”

Sabine, by the way, went on to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church in 1907! The Church of the Atonement, however, no longer stands; it merged with another church in 1880. On the other hand, the Church of the Transfiguration, which Houghton founded in 1848, prospered and has been expanded considerably. In 1923, the Episcopal Actors' Guild, of which many prominent actors in New York and Hollywood have been members, was founded and headquartered at the church and in 1973, the Little Church Around the Corner became a National Landmark.