29 June 2010

Library Cuts

New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2011 (which starts on 1 July) on 6 May. It includes deep cuts in cultural and arts expenditures across the board. The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, for example, would lose $2 million if the City Council doesn’t restore the proposed cuts; the Metropolitan Museum of Art could lose $7 million of city funding; the American Museum of Natural History is subject to a $6 million loss, half its 2008 budget. The draw-down, an attempt to cover a projected $5 billion shortfall, reduces overall arts spending by 31%. But the cut I want to address is the 25% drop in funding for the city’s libraries, the largest cut in the history of the library system, including not only the New York Public Library but the Queens Borough and Brooklyn Public Library systems as well.

All city agencies, including the Department of Cultural Affairs (which will lose 11% of its funds), will be deprived of support and services everywhere in New York City. Bloomberg’s budget isn’t final, though: the City Council has restored $10 to $40 million in cuts to city cultural appropriations in recent years. The council, however, would have to put back as much as $50 million to return to the spending level of FY2010 and that seems unlikely considering the straits in which the city and the national economy find themselves. If no restorations occur, NYPL will lose $37 million. Even in 1975-76, in the midst of the city’s fiscal crisis, the cut-back was only 10%. NYPL could have to close as many as 21 branches, cut service to four days a week instead of six, lay off 30% of the staff, and drop over 25,000 programs and classes.

It’s no surprise that there have to be cuts in city spending in every aspect of its budget. The economy of the entire country is suffering serious problems and New York State must cover a $9.2 billion deficit itself. I can’t really argue with budget cuts under the prevailing circumstances, even in my beloved area of culture and the arts. I was actively working as an artist in this city in the mid-‘70s when it was about to go bankrupt and drastic cuts were made in arts support all over town, both from public funds and private sources. I watched as dozens of small theaters shut down for good, reducing the beehive of theatrical activity that was New York in the ‘60s to one suffering from colony collapse disorder. Cultural and arts institutions all over the city began to disappear and large organizations felt the bite, too. It was depressing to see, and devastating if you made your living (or were trying to) in that part of our society. But the money wasn’t there then and it’s not there now. If anyone understands how that works, it’s Michael Bloomberg. I used to assert quite emphatically that I don’t really trust businessmen in elected office because their focus is so unswervingly on the bottom line, but in this case, a successful businessman is the one to understand the fiscal situation facing this city. It certainly helps that Bloomberg, unlike his predecessor, is not just supportive of the city’s cultural life, but an avid consumer who appreciates art and culture and sees it as a vital part not only of the city’s economy but its verve and energy as well. I can deplore the necessity to cut arts spending, I can even hate it, but I can’t deny it. And it would be dishonorable to say, Don’t cut the arts, cut somewhere else instead. Where? Schools? Cops? Firefighters? Right. (Besides, they’re all getting cuts, too, anyway.)

Nonetheless, I’m going to bemoan the cuts to the libraries anyway. I love libraries almost as much as I love theaters—and possibly for nobler reasons. And just as I was around when the theaters, orchestras, and dance companies of New York City were hit hard by the near-bankruptcy of the ‘70s, I was also affected by the last big cuts in library services in the ‘80s and ‘90s when I was in grad school and then doing research for myself and other scholars. I saw the branches close one or more additional days a week (all the research facilities were closed on Mondays for years) and the reduction in staff that meant waiting longer for materials to be delivered, books to be sent from one branch to another, and returned books to be put back on the shelves. Clippings piled up uncollated and unfiled; archival materials sat in storage uncurated and inaccessible to researchers. (I’m still waiting for access to the papers of Leonardo Shapiro, a research subject of mine, who died and left his records to the Library of the Performing Arts in 1997. There’s no staff to collate and catalogue the papers.)

When I’ve been away from home for any length of time, someone always asks me if I miss New York. Aside from explaining that I miss having all my own things at hand, especially my reference materials, I always list three things I miss when I’m not here. Of course, I miss the array of theater and arts venues I have to choose from. In New York, I get to see stuff from all over the world, a selection of performances and exhibits that no other single city in the world gets. I also miss the choice of restaurants, especially the ones in my own neighborhood that do carry-out when I don’t feel like cooking. No other town I’ve visited has that variety of eating places practically right around the corner that do take-out! But most important to my kind of work—writing, teaching, and doing research—I miss the New York Public Library and its immense collection of assets that aren’t available anywhere else without a lot of effort and connivance. Nowhere else in the world that I know of has anything remotely like our performing arts library, even if you eliminate the non-book materials—which I believe is a unique resource on the planet. NYPL is an invaluable amenity—ask any writer, scholar, or researcher who’s ever used it (or wished she could). Even the great New York City universities, like Columbia and NYU, don’t have collections that can match the public library; in fact, I contend that Butler and Bobst Libraries as well as the libraries of the other New York schools don’t keep the vast holdings they might otherwise require because they rely on the accessibility of the NYPL to accommodate their students’ research needs. (Most of the great research libraries of the world, including our own Library of Congress and the library of the British Museum, severely limit access. One of the beauties of the New York Public Library is that it’s freely available to anyone. That’s why the stately edifice on 5th Avenue, the place with the lions, Patience and Fortitude, was called the People’s Palace.)

I’ve done research, most notably on some American Indian cultures, that drew on many 19th- and early-20th-century original publications. They were just there in the 42nd Street library—or in the Music Division of LPA—and I could use them just like last week’s New York Times! Stuff written by Ruth Bunzel or James Mooney or Washington Matthews. I did research for an out-of-town scholar on Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire that included not only all the major productions of the play, but the 1952 ballet and the 1995 opera. I don’t believe there’s any other place in the world where I could get materials, especially reviews, of all three versions of the play (including foreign premières such as Tokyo) except the Dance, Music, and Theatre Divisions of the public library’s performing arts collection at Lincoln Center. (It also didn’t hurt that the microfilm holdings of newspapers at 42nd Street contain papers from across the country—the opera preemed in San Francisco—and around the world. I can’t even count the times I’ve had to consult papers from Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Paris, Helsinki, or some other distant town. My research clients often asked me to get articles from such papers because I can get to them instantly but it would take weeks for the academics from Mississippi or Pennsylvania to send for them through their university libraries. They all can get the New York Times, but I can get the Atlanta Constitution, the Detroit News, Paris Arts, Soviet Pravda, the Jerusalem Post, and the International Herald Tribune. At one time or another, I’ve used all of those and more.) The breadth and depth of the holdings of the New York Public Library is unparalleled—and astonishing. I don’t have a long list of published works, but between those pieces and my graduate school work, I could never have produced much of anything—or taught most of my classes—without this resource.

At present, the NYPL, founded in 1895, consists of 87 circulating branches (in three boroughs: Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island)—one of the largest systems in the country—plus four research libraries. (Any circulating book owned by one NYPL branch can be requested by computer for delivery to any other. This used to take only a few days to accomplish, but with staff cuts, it now can take well over a week for someone at the owning branch to pull the book and send it out to my neighborhood library.) The research facilities cover literature, the humanities, and the social sciences (42nd Street, now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building); music, dance, theater, film, television, radio, and recorded sound (the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center); science, business, finance, economics, and industry (the Science, Industry and Business Library in the Madison Avenue end of the former B. Altman and Company department store at 34th Street), and African-American culture (the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem). SIBL and LPA are both circulating libraries and research facilities. At one time or another, I’ve used all four of those libraries, which offer not only reference books and a large selection of periodicals, but rare materials, archival collections, clippings, video and audio recordings, and programs, lectures, and displays relevant to their special fields. I’ve also made extensive use of all four of the major divisions of LPA (the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, the Music Division, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, and the Billy Rose Theatre Division) and most of the sections and special collections of the Schwarzman Building (the General Research Division; the Art and Architecture Collection; the Jewish Division; the Slavic and Baltic Division; the Asian and Middle Eastern Division; the Periodical Room; the Map Division; the Microforms Section; the U.S. History, Local History & Genealogy Division; the Manuscripts and Archives Division; the Rare Book Division). I deliberately listed all those esoteric sections (and there are even more that I don’t use regularly) because I want to demonstrate the incredible scope of the holdings. (The NYPL doesn’t include the libraries in Queens—61 neighborhood branches and the Central Library, and the largest library in the country in terms of circulation—and Brooklyn—58 branches, the Central Library, and the Business Library—whose systems predate the consolidation of greater New York City in 1898. I’ve also had occasion to use these facilities.)

Just listing the facilities, sections, and divisions of the NYPL, however, doesn’t really give a full impression of what this incredible place holds or what it offers. Few people know, for instance, that right next to the Art Collection at the Mid-Manhattan Library, a treasure in itself, is the Picture Collection. This little gem of a section contains thousands of folders, categorized by historical figures and subjects, each holding scores of clipped photos, drawings, cartoons, illustrations, art reproductions, and caricatures. Believe it or not, these pictures circulate—you can take them home—and they are an invaluable resource for, among other folks, set and costume designers. You want to know what an 18th-century hospital room looked like? That’s your source. Want an image of Peter Stuyvesant? Go there. Need a rendering of a Civil War-era hoop skirt and hair-do? The Picture Collection’s got it. I’ve never heard of any other place with a resource like that.

Tucked into a tiny space next to the Billy Rose Theatre Division at LPA is another unique asset, the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (known as TOFT). You do need to make an appointment to use its collection, but it’s not hard to do and what you get is a wide-ranging collection of videos, films, and tapes of performances of almost every description. (Since 1970, NYPL has made arrangements with Actors’ Equity and the other theatrical unions to document plays, even Broadway productions, for archival purposes. Theaters across the U.S. that want to videotape their productions for posterity can do so under the auspices of TOFT.) These recordings can’t be used for commercial or general viewing, but artists, students, and scholars can view them for professional use and study. (I’ve seen some very recognizable actors and directors checking out historical performances at TOFT.) But plays, TV shows, or movies aren’t the only kinds of “performances” available there. If an actor or a director ever gave a talk or an interview that was taped or filmed, it’s likely to be in TOFT’s collection. Few people know about this fantastic little lagniappe.

If the mayor’s proposed budget cuts go through intact, none of these facilities will disappear. Their remarkable holdings will remain available to researchers and readers. Some services will be slower and days like Saturdays, already sluggish because of past staff cuts, will probably be slower still. The expert assistance rendered by librarians and archivists, so necessary for the work that I do, will become harder to get and the staff will be stretched thinner to cover more duties with fewer people. What will happen, too, I imagine, is that with a cut of $9 million in the book budget, new acquisitions will be fewer or delayed and it will take longer for newly obtained material to become available to library users. Worse, when important items become available, the NYPL may have to pass them by forever and there will be gaps in the coverage of subjects where NYPL is the prime repository. Clippings or photos won’t be catalogued and filed or, worse, important articles won’t be saved at all. New productions won’t be videotaped for TOFT and years of ephemeral performances will remain undocumented. Newly acquired archives won’t be curated and will remain unavailable to researchers. Repairs and replacements will be deferred and such important tasks as the microfilming or digitizing of documents, images, and printed matter will also be postponed or even abandoned, reducing the accessibility of such items for future users. In the last draw-down, several useful databases were either removed from the library’s website or became accessible only from a research building rather than from home. This may happen again, while advances in technology may have to be forgone.

Reduced staff and budgets also mean that security is less vigilant and books and other items are lost or stolen more often. There is little more frustrating and disheartening to locate a library item that you need and which is unavailable anywhere else convenient only to discover that it’s not on the shelf or has been declared lost. Circulating books that aren’t returned for reuse by another reader will go unrecovered more often and lost items won’t be replaced. Because the nature of a lot of my research is esoteric, I often need material the NYPL doesn’t own and which isn’t in any of the nearby university libraries. This means I have to request an interlibrary loan. The process of borrowing a book or microfilm from a distant library now takes as much as six weeks, but if staff and budgets are cut again, that process will stretch out longer and ILL’s may take as much as two months or more. All similar services, like photo reproduction or document copying, will also require more time and potentially cost more. Not all of NYPL’s material is kept on the premises of the libraries, there’s just too much of it. So there are storage facilities as far away as New Jersey and four or five days notice is necessary for requests of off-site materials to be delivered to a library for use by a researcher. Staff and budget reductions may make this process take longer, too. And the turn-around time for a subsequent user will be extended as well.

I know from past experience that the NYPL staff that remains after the lay-offs will do their best to get accomplished everything the library has always done for library patrons, but it will be harder on them and slower for us. In fields like theater or dance, specialized material is best handled by librarians with expertise in those collections. They know what to look for and where it’s kept—even where it’s likely to hide if it’s not correctly shelved. Staff cuts have meant that librarians have to do duty outside their areas of special experience and those extraordinary services we get used to receiving are no longer possible. Specialists in, say, theater periodicals or music scores are impossible to replace because it has taken them years of experience in the NYPL stacks to learn what they know and share with us when we need their help. All that work I said I couldn’t have accomplished without the NYPL’s facilities and collections? I couldn’t have done it without the help of the various staffs, either. I’m pretty good at digging stuff up, but I can’t tell you the number of times some librarian or archivist has shown up in the reading room—or even called or e-mailed me at home—to say she’s found something I’d been looking for in vain. If you do what I do, it’s like getting the best present ever. That level of service is in jeopardy with lay-offs.

We can hope that the mayor’s proposed budget cuts will prove to be harsher than necessary and that the City Council will restore some of the losses. But the economic situation isn’t going to go away soon enough to save the library and the other city services from some draw-down. Closing or curtailing the availability of such subsidized institutions as community and senior centers is unquestionably devastating to those who use them. At the risk of seeming blasé, however, I feel that when the cuts are eventually restored after the financial crisis has passed, those places will recover and be pretty much the same as they ever were. But a commodity as unique, extraordinary, and irreplaceable as the New York Public Library, once it’s been damaged, doesn’t return to its former stature so easily. It’s more like a wounded body which takes time to heal. It bears the scars of the wound for a long time, and sometimes it never heals completely again. Some of the harm done to the system and its services will become permanent, their extraordinary benefits to readers, researchers, scholars, students, and writers gone forever. “These budget cuts,” said an official of the Queens library, “will destroy the public libraries in this city as we know them.” The loss to the city, to the life of the city, would be inestimable.

I have just come back from a trip to Istanbul. A century ago, the city was the capital of a vast empire and even before that (as Byzantium and then Constantinople) it was the crossroads not just of world trade but of ideas and culture. Today it’s a little shabby, threadbare; it’s more frantic than vital. It’s disheartening to contemplate what that city is compared to what it was once. The fate of the magnificent New York Public Library could be like that. The prospect of such a fall from its once great height makes me sad. A Gulliver bound into impotence by Lilliputians. Very, very sad.

24 June 2010


Between Tuesday, 11 May, and Monday, 17 May, my mother and I joined a group of 25 people for “A Six-Day Getaway” to Istanbul organized by the W&L Traveller, an extension of the alumni college of Washington and Lee University, my undergrad alma mater. The trip started at Dulles Airport outside Washington, so I took my usual Kosher Bus down on Mother’s Day, Sunday, 9 May, to give myself a day to help Mother with the last-minute prep for the trip. She insists she packed and repacked three times, but I don’t know if that includes the time she repacked my bag after I got to D.C.! (Because of the general awfulness of air travel now—and this voyage was not better than average, as you’ll see—we planned for an all-carry-on trip so economy of content and compactness were guiding principles.)

One of our fellow voyagers, Karen Boatright, who lives in Austin, Texas, has a daughter who lives not only in Washington, but right near my mom’s apartment. Karen had planned to pay her daughter a visit before leaving for Turkey, so she contacted Mom and suggested they meet and coordinate the trip out to the airport. (Mom has long asserted that she always gets lost driving into Virginia—and every time I’ve gone over there with her, we actually have gotten lost!) So on Tuesday morning, bright and early (very early!) Karen arrived in a cab to pick us up and we drove out to Dulles just ahead of the morning rush and the threatening weather. We arrived at the airport at around a quarter after 9 in the morning for a 1:13 p.m. flight to JFK. We'd been advised to allow as much as three hours to get through the check-in process, including security, and it almost looked like we’d need it when the check-in computer, which is supposed to scan our passports and then issue the boarding pass for our flight, got glitchy. It’s all supposed to be self-service for speed and convenience (yeah, right!), but we ended up requiring the efforts of a Delta employee to get us through what ought to have been a zip-and-go process. (As I so often tell my acting students: Don’t rely on technology. It will almost always let you down.)

So boarding passes in hand, we set out to find our departure gate. As we’d learn on the subsequent legs of this trip, our gates were always at the farthest point in the airport from wherever we were starting out. So we made the trek from the check-in counters through the TSA security checkpoint (which alone felt like it was in the next county), then a 10-mile hike to the gate. Once finally there, maybe 90 minutes before the flight was scheduled to board, we perched at a little table near some fast-food outlets and had our muffins and coffee and we settled in for a short break as the rest of the D.C.-originating members of our group of travelers—or travellers, as W&L would have it—began arriving. (The 19th-century spelling is a reference to Robert E. Lee’s favorite horse, Traveller.)

The flight to JFK boarded pretty much on time and we took off in a tiny plane for New York. The plane was so small that it apparently can’t handle rigid-sided carry-on luggage, so attendants took those bags from passengers—mine was a soft bag that can be squished to fit under a seat—and performed a “planeside baggage check.” After the short flight, we deplaned onto the tarmac near the terminal building—something I don’t remember doing in maybe 40 years! The planeside-checked bags were returned on the ground and we entered a long, metal walkway that eventually led us to the departure terminal—after another of what would be recurring long, long walks. We met up with Karen’s Austin companion, Margene, and had lunch at an airport Chili’s and waited the hour-and-a-half to board the Delta flight to Istanbul, scheduled to depart at 4:35 p.m. It’d already been a long day, but we were in for an unpleasant surprise shortly.

The flight to Istanbul actually boarded close to on time, and we stowed away our carry-ons and settled in to take off. I don’t remember how long we’d been on the plane when the pilot came on the PA system to announce that the safety check had found a problem with the wheel temp and we’d be holding until the techies could determine if the problem was in the gauge or in the wheel itself. It could be an hour, the captain said, but he asked us to remain on the craft in case they could take off before that. The hour passed and the pilot came back on the speakers to say that the aircraft would be sidelined and we’d have to change to another plane. One would be landing in about another hour, he explained, and the crew would go aboard as soon as the craft had been unloaded and serviced and we’d be leaving about 6:30. Needless to say, our new departure gate was not next to our old one, so we trudged to the end of the corridor—at least we didn’t end up at a different terminal or something—to wait for the replacement plane to be ready. Well, 6:30 turned into 7 p.m., and after we finally reboarded, we took off about 8 p.m. for the 10-hour flight to Istanbul. After so much enforced inactivity, starting pretty much at 8:30 that morning, we were pretty enervated by the time we finally took off from JFK, so (after getting up pretty early as well) it wasn’t hard to sleep most of the long flight.

We finally landed at Ataturk Airport at about 1 p.m. local time on Wednesday (6 a.m. New York time). The arrival was accompanied by a lot of confusion as our W&L companion, Dr. Florinda Ruiz, tried to corral all of us and direct us through the processes of getting our visas (obtained, for a $20 fee, at a booth at the end of a long, long walk from the arrival gate), passport control, baggage claim (for those who checked luggage in Washington or New York), and customs (of which there wasn’t any!). Of course, those of us with only carry-on luggage had to wait for the ones reclaiming checked bags, but we also had to find our local guide, Semih Adiyaman, who couldn’t meet us inside the security area. (Of course, we had to trust that Semih knew of the flight delay in New York and, first, hadn’t been waiting at the airport since the original 10 a.m. arrival time and, second, had been informed of the new ETA.) Dr. Ruiz sent me out to find Semih, but, of course, I had no idea where to look. I exited the main doors and was confronted by a mass of people—thousands, I’m sure—behind barricades, all waving little white signs with names of passengers or organizations written on them. I took a chance and began moving to my right—the throng extended in both directions—trying to read the signs as I walked along the barricade. Then I spotted someone waving frantically and shouting at me; it was a young woman, but I went over anyway and saw that the sign she was waving had “Washington and Lee” printed on it in the same typeface as the name tags we all were now wearing around our necks. (I felt like a second-grader, but we all mostly wore them for the first couple of days or longer. It not only helped us learn each other’s names—and W&L graduation classes if applicable—but it was a way for Flor Ruiz and Semih to keep us in view when we needed herding.) The woman, Nouray, was Semih’s assistant and she was running point, spotting for “W&L” label-wearers as we emerged from the airport. Nouray ushered me toward Semih, waiting behind the gaggle of assembled greeters in an area where there was a little space to gather.

I’d guess it was about 2 or 2:30 p.m. by now, maybe later, but many of the group hadn’t gotten the checked bags yet because our luggage, having been transferred at the last minute from another craft, was the last to be pulled off the plane and routed to the carousels where the arriving passengers were waiting. Obviously, this all resulted in more standing around. My feet and legs were already getting tired and we hadn’t gone anywhere yet! (It was also at this point that I discovered that the weather in Istanbul was considerably warmer and more humid than I had expected, having looked up the average May temps during our planning stage. I was hot all during the flights and the waiting time in the two airports, but I chalked that up to the climatization in the planes and terminals and our constant hiking through airport walkways. I still don’t know if Istanbul was having a heat wave just then or if the temps reported in the guidebooks and websites—all around 61 degrees Fahrenheit (16º Celsius) and spring-like—were plain wrong. We encountered low and mid-80’s—25-30º C—bright sun, and 40-50% humidity.) Finally, everyone who was supposed to be there was, and Semih led us off to our bus. Another walk, of course, and out into the sun and heat, but at least we’d arrived and were on the way to our hotel, the Arcadia, and a wash and quick change of clothes. (We’d been in our travel togs for about 23 hours, walking through airports and lugging baggage.) Respite was at hand.


We got on our bus, a gleaming white, sleek, modern Mercedes, after loading our bags beneath the passenger compartment. Our driver, Mustafa (who’d be with us the whole stay except one day), pulled away and we were on Kennedy Caddesi into the city. (Semih and Mustafa were thoughtful enough to bring bottles of cold water which was most welcome by this time—and would be a constant necessity during our five days in Istanbul. Kennedy Caddesi took us along the European shore of the Sea of Marmara and Semih pointed out sights along the way, such as the remains of the ancient city wall built between 412 and 422 CE by Theodosius II (401-50 CE), as the traffic got denser and denser the closer we got to the Old City. Semih explained that this was how traffic always is in Istanbul, a city of about 12.7 million inhabitants (plus uncountable business and tourist visitors on any given day). Both automobile and pedestrian traffic is horrendous all the time, and the trams and buses we saw were always packed to the gunnels. We were headed to the district of Sultanahmet, the oldest part of the Old City, with narrow streets that twisted and turned without apparent logic or any concern for 21st-century automobile traffic. Mustafa was stuck at the turn off Kennedy Caddesi into Sultanahmet for a long time while other buses and cars, some coming from the opposite direction, all tried to turn the same corner. In any case, the drive to the Arcadia Hotel took us until 4:30 in the afternoon, extending our travel “day” to 26 hours.

After turning up the hill, we moved at a stop-and-go pace through those narrow, cobbled streets until, stalled halfway up, Semih suggested that anyone who wanted to get off and walk would get to the hotel faster—after a “short” uphill climb. Many of us chose that, but Mother’d had enough trudging and was too pooped and I wasn’t feeling much more chipper, so she and I and a few others stayed aboard. We lucked out, too, because the bus wasn’t supposed to drive up to the front of the Arcadia—Dr. Imram Oktem Caddesi, our little block, is usually blocked by other vehicles; we met our bus for touring at the edge of the Hippodrome at the bottom of a short, steep street—and we were delivered, with the luggage, at the Arcadia’s front door. After room assignments, we went up in the tiny elevator (there were two, each holding about three adults without baggage) to splash our faces with water, put our feet up for a few seconds, and put on fresh clothes. We’d effectively lost half a day, and Semih had planned to give us a quick city tour in the afternoon of our arrival, but that was gone now. Instead he took those who were more intrepid than Mom and I on a walk through part of Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar, but once we had gotten to our room, neither of us could gather the energy necessary to make the trek. We had a welcoming cocktail party at 7 in the Horizon, the Arcadia’s roof restaurant, so we elected to stretch out for an hour instead of doing more walking. (We’d get plenty of that in the days to come.)

It was certainly an inauspicious start to our Six-Day Getaway in Istanbul!

We had our cocktail party, with Turkish hors-d’oeuvres (meze, like Middle Eastern tapas), and we all schmoozed and got to know one another a little. Mom was easily the oldest among us, the “grandmother of the group,” as she put it. (I wasn’t far behind: there were two grads from the ‘50s and one from ’67. The rest were younger than I.) Semih pointed out some of the sights from the terrace of the Horizon Restaurant, which offers a 360-degree panorama of the old city. We were within sight of the Hippodrome with its Egyptian Obelisk, St. Sophia (everyone there calls it Hagia Sophia, its Greek name which means “Holy Wisdom”), and the Blue Mosque (AKA: Sultan Ahmet Mosque); Topkapi Palace is within view. The Sea of Marmara is in the background of the cityscape as we would see it at breakfast, often fogged in in the morning. The noshes were the same kinds of meze we’d see at most meals, including stuffed grape leaves (yaprak sarma); patlican salatasi, an eggplant puree; barbunya pilaki, a tomato-based red-bean salad; and ezme, a mash or spread that Flor said was like gazpacho without the “soup.” It was enough to make a meal, and we planned to skip dinner in favor of turning in early after a very long day of travel. But first, Mother and I initiated a quick walk into the neighborhood for a little ice cream with Karen and Margene. We sat along the curb of Divanyolu Caddesi, the big shopping street near the Hippodrome, and enjoyed a cone as we watched the still-busy shopping street throng with people as the tram rolled by up and down the street next to us. It was about 8:30 or 9 p.m. by now, and we finished our ice cream and returned to the Arcadia and turned in, exhausted and hot from the day’s travails.

While we were at our cocktail reception, we experienced the first of what would become a regular occurrence during our time in Istanbul. At about 8 p.m., the entire city, it seemed, rang with the sound of muezzins calling Muslims to prayer. The call, one of five during the day, was for the sunset prayer, the most important, and seemed to issue from minarets all over the city at once as each muezzin chanted in his individual style and rhythm. (The muezzin used to make the call from a balcony high up in the minaret, but today’s calls all come from loudspeakers mounted on those same balconies.) The calls at other times seem to be sung by fewer muezzins, and I never asked why that might have been. It’s just as well, though, because the call that comes at sunrise, about 5 a.m. at this time of year, was enough to wake us for the first couple of mornings; I must have gotten used to it, though, because after waking up part way through the call one morning, I slept through them after that.

I mention this because, aside from being a salient aspect of life in Istanbul, a city of mosques big and small, this phenomenon is emblematic of something significant about modern Istanbul and Turkey. Turkey is a society battling with itself and Istanbul, its ancient capital and largest city, is the showplace of that battle. As economist Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent New York Times column, the country’s “in an inner struggle over [its] identity.” Let me make a few superficial observations, starting with the thousands of mosques (around 3,000) with their towering minarets and prominent domes—they’re everywhere. Five times a day, the city reverberates with the call to prayer. Istanbul’s the most important city in Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, the home of most of the holiest Muslim relics (all at Topkapi Palace). The Blue Mosque is the 17th largest in the world and arguably one of the most famous among non-Muslims. Turkey’s population is about 99% Muslim, and I’d guess Istanbul echoes that. Yet Friday, the Muslim sabbath, is not the country’s day of rest. That’s Sunday, just like in Christian Europe. Stores and other businesses don’t close on Friday; they do close on Sunday. While some women and girls do wear the hijab and a few even cover themselves entirely in black, flowing robes and veils, most Turkish women dress like their European neighbors. (At one time, the headscarf was even forbidden in schools and government buildings.) Turkish banks do business on the European model, lending money at interest and so on; banks in the Middle East work within Sharia law (which prohibits interest). Arab banks with branches in Turkey may practice according to Sharia, but Turkish banks line up with the capitalist West. There are religious schools in Turkey—in recent years, Iran has sponsored what sound to my ears like madrasahs, much to the concern of many Turks—but most schools are secular. The military is adamantly secular, in opposition to the present Islamist government in Ankara.

Despite Istanbul’s status as a Muslim city, it is the seat of several Eastern Orthodox Christian sects, including the Patriarch of the Greek church. At a recent meeting of the Eastern Orthodox communion, the Greek Patriarch declared himself the Ecumenical for all the orthodox sects and met with no objections. So in the middle of one of the largest Muslim cities in a country that’s 99% Muslim, the leader of an alliance of Christian churches sits. Not in Moscow or Athens or Yerevan or Sophia or even Jerusalem. He sits in Muslim Istanbul.

In the days of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan was also the Caliph, the leader of the Islamic world. Our guide, Semih, compared the Caliphate to the Papacy but it rings to me more like the British monarch who is ex officio Supreme Governor of the Church of England (except, of course, that there are far more Muslims than there are Anglicans). When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the modern Turkish republic in 1923, the Caliphate was abolished and the new Turkey was declared to be a secular, western-looking state instead of a theocratic, Asian one. But this new orientation was established by decree and enforced by the military; it didn’t evolve organically and develop gradually—and it certainly wasn’t a confirmation of an existing status as was the constitutional establishment of the new American nation and society in the 18th century. It was Ataturk who declared that men would no longer wear caftans and fezzes, that Turks adopt family names, and that the official weekend would be Saturday and Sunday like Europe. Instead of the Arabic script that Turks had used for centuries to write their language, Turkish would from then on be written in the Latin alphabet, purging the language simultaneously of many Arabic and Persian words (and rendering instantly obsolete every book, document, and sign in the country). Turks would dress like Europeans, write like Europeans, and think like Europeans. (Ironically, a similar change was decreed recently as Turkey tried to conform to the demands of the European Union to which it had applied for membership. Just as Ataturk wanted his new republic to be westward-looking in order to move into the modern era from its almost-medieval feudalism, 20th-century Europe wanted the country to move further westward because they still feared a Muslim and potentially Islamist state within their alliance.) But when you force something to change precipitously and inorganically, there will be rifts and cracks from the tension—and today’s Turkey is rife with them.

Indeed, the geography of the country itself serves as a metaphor for this conflict. Split between Europe (3%) and Asia (97%)—Friedman called it “a country at the hinge of Europe and the Middle East”—the country has often shifted its focus from the West to the East and back. Anatolia was settled in the 7th century BCE by Greeks who dominated the region until the Romans defeated them there in the 2nd century BCE. Greece and Rome were, of course, European powers and both, especially the Greeks, left their stamp on the Anatolian culture. It wasn’t until the 11th century CE that the Central Asian tribes that became Turks moved into Asia Minor and established an Islamic sultanate there, turning its orientation eastward. (The Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, changing its name to Istanbul.) It remained that way until World War I when, after a disastrous alliance with Germany, the Ottoman Empire was forcibly dissolved and the Republic of Turkey took its place in Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, the small portion of the nation that occupies the southeastern corner of Europe in the Balkans. But while Turkey is 97% Asian and only 3% European, Istanbul (itself divided between continents) was its capital for centuries and remains its largest city by far (Ankara, the capital since 1923, is a third Istanbul’s size) and the business and financial center of the country. The city is expanding rapidly, but its expansion is into Europe, toward the Black Sea, not south- or eastward into Asia. The newest part of Istanbul today is the new business center, with its giant, modern highrises (at least one of which has a very familiar name: Trump Tower) that look like anything you might see in L.A., Houston, or Vancouver (or another city that’s building fast these days: Berlin). With the possible exceptions of Hong Kong and Tokyo, the models are not Asian. (And except for Dubai, it’s not Middle Eastern or Muslim, either.) The country, whose economy last year was the fastest-growing in Europe and the third fastest-growing in the world (after India and China), has business interests from Central Asia and southern Russia through the Caucasus and the Balkans to the Middle East. Turkish Airlines (recently named the best in the region) reaches destinations throughout Central Asia and the Middle East where few other carriers go.

It seems to me that our guide, Semih Adiyaman, is something of a individual example of this dichotomy. Born in Izmir on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, he went to universities there and in Ankara, also in Asia. He now lives not in Istanbul but far south in Bodrum, another Aegean coastal city. Yet he’s insistently Western in outlook and secular. In his recounting of Turkish history (one of his two degrees is in history; the other’s in engineering) and, especially, Turkish politics, he makes clear that he opposes the growing influence of Iran on Turkish culture and the rise of the Islamist movement in Turkish politics. (On our first full day, as we walked down to our bus parked on Atmeydani Sokak, alongside the Hippodrome, Semih pointed out one of the new religious schools opened by Iran. It was with decided distaste that he explained this recent phenomenon. On other occasions, he said that the people of Iran “don’t deserve” the government they have.) Semih was also most pleased with the visit just before we arrived in Istanbul of the Turkish prime minister to Greece, Turkey’s historic enemy for about a century. “If Turks can go to Greece, what else might be possible?” he asked. Certainly, he may have been dissembling for our American tour group, but his passion was too apparent for me to conclude that it wasn’t sincere. (Interestingly, he pretty much glossed over Turkey’s participation in WWI as an Axis power. I think he mentioned it once in passing.)

What Semih sees for the future—perhaps not in his own lifetime (he’s 65), but in his sons’—is a resurgent Turkey decidedly in the Western camp but serving as a bridge (as distinguished from a buffer, which is how it was treated in past centuries) with the Middle East and Asia. (He also sees a potential alliance with a democratized Iran.) Many of Semih’s countrymen, however, see the idea of a mere bridge as paltry. These Turks see the country as a “center,” the Times’ Friedman writes, considering the country’s new-found economic strength. With such economic power, they feel, Turkey should play its own political role in world affairs. Of course, Turkey has to do a lot of work to reach even the prospect of such a role. Semih, an optimist as well as a dedicated Westernist and secularist, is looking at the present through rose-colored glasses and with not a small dollop of wishful thinking, I believe. The Republic of Turkey, an associate member of the EU since ’92, has just been rejected by the European Union; the current Islamist government was not as strongly disposed to push for membership as its predecessor was when the country applied in 1987. EU members, in turn, had been less than supportive of a Turkish membership and the current Turkish government moved away from its embrace of Europe. When the EU informed Turkey it would not be a member, the country turned further toward the Middle East. “Despite being physically and historically connected to Europe,” commentator Fareed Zakaria opined, “Turkey is increasingly playing a role that distances itself from these roots.” As the incident of the Gaza-bound aid flotilla on 31 May exemplifies, Turkey has shifted from being a staunch ally of the West and Israel and founding member of NATO to an Islamic activist that lends support to organizations like Hamas. The Turkish government has also played host to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan’s president who’s been indicted in the Hague for crimes against humanity. Friedman reports that moderate and secular Turks are “alarmed” at this radical shift and, for the first time since it took power in 2002, the Islamist AKP, the ruling party, polled behind the secularist Republican People’s Party in a survey taken just before the flotilla incident.

Ethnically, too, there’s a dichotomous posture in the country. Semih was keen to explain that despite the history of violence between ethnic Turks and Armenians and Turks and Kurds, that was no longer true. “There are no more [ethnic] Turks, Armenians, or Kurds,” Semih insisted. “We’re all Turks now.” In the days of the Ottomans, the sultans decreed religious freedom and they imported the best and the brightest from throughout the sultanate to be educated in Istanbul. The sons (education was only for boys, of course; some discriminations can’t be breached, it seems) of Turks, Jews, Arabs, Persians, and Europeans were brought to Topkapi itself to be trained to serve the empire and many rose to high positions in the military, civil service, and arts and letters. But in contrast with Semih’s optimistic pluralism—and I don’t doubt that he’s sincere in his belief even if it is somewhat wishful—Friedman also states that Turkey is again becoming “more aligned with the Islamic world and values,” going far enough even to claim that Israel is backing the Kurdish People’s Party in its violent struggle for autonomy.

It’s not just politically, socially, and religiously that Turkey is in conflict with itself. As seen in its tourist attractions in Istanbul, the country’s history is in tension. In many countries, especially ancient ones, the region’s history is a palimpsest, a layered image of the periods and upheavals it has seen. There is a throughline from the earliest dwellers to the present ones that connects them all in a chain of history that reinforces the continuity the people sense in their very existence in the place. In other lands, the continuity is disrupted and one history ends and is replaced by another that is barely related to its predecessor. Such a break can be seen, of course, in the history of North America where the dominion of the Indians was halted by the arrival of Europeans and a new story line began. In some places, it seems, however, that the discontinuity is blurred or ignored. When I was in Egypt, I saw that the present-day Egyptians, an Arabic people, lay claim to the heritage of the ancient Egyptians, the builders of the pyramids and the sphinx. Of course, no such heritage exists. The Arabs swept out of the Arabian Peninsula and displaced the earlier inhabitants of all of North Africa, including the original Egyptians. (I’m glossing over other invasions and take-overs, such as the Greek and Roman occupations, but they didn’t displace the population, just the rulers.) Nonetheless, modern Egyptians maintain the sense that they are the inheritors of the culture of the Pharaohs.

Something similar is going on in Turkey. The modern Turks are not descended from the Greeks who settled in Anatolia and built Troy, the Romans who followed them, or the Byzantines who built Hagia Sophia. The Turks whose legacy is the present nation didn’t arrive until the 11th century; the Ottomans not until the 15th. Hagia Sophia is something of an exemplar: It was built by the Byzantines 1,400 years ago, a magnificent architectural achievement. In the 15th century, the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque, essentially usurping not only the Christian edifice but the Byzantine culture for itself. But the sultans didn’t obliterate the Byzantine structure—they added minarets and interior details, but simply adopted the Christian and Byzantine features as their own the way a hermit crab moves into another creature’s shell. Soon after the Republic of Turkey assumed control of the former sultanate, the mosque-that-was-a-church was secularized and turned into a museum, essentially freezing—and exposing—the dichotomy. But just as the modern Egyptians take pride in the construction of the pyramids, though it wasn’t their ancestors who built them, Turks present Hagia Sophia as a wonder of their own past though their forebears didn’t even arrive in Constantinople until centuries after it was erected.

Unlike my visit to Egypt, where little of the history shown off to visitors is Arabic, most of Istanbul’s tourist sites are Ottoman. But even there there’s a tension between the ancient and the current. A century ago and more, when sultans and harems occupied Topkapi Palace (also now a museum) and Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul was the capital of a vast and opulent empire that spanned three continents, occupying lands from southeastern Europe to western Asia to northern Africa. Even before that, as Byzantium and then Constantinople, it was the crossroads not just of world trade but of ideas and culture. Today the city’s a little shabby, threadbare; it’s more frantic than vital. The Grand Bazaar, a name that conjures an image of exotic goods for sale, a place teeming with bargaining buyers and sellers, is no more today than a cheap-jack shopping mall run by hustlers and souvenir hawkers. But there’s a disconnect between what that city is compared to the image of what it was once.

None of this is to say, however, that Istanbul isn’t a fascinating city or that visiting it isn’t a terrific experience. It was hot and humid, but that isn’t anyone’s fault; the city goes up and down hills (there are, as in Rome, seven) and the old streets are uneven cobblestones, but that’s what makes Istanbul what it is. The view out over the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus, and the reverse panorama from shipboard onto the landscapes of both European and Asian Istanbul is captivating. Topkapi Palace Museum, with it’s exotic history—the Harem, the Circumcision Room, the Treasury (the focus of the famous 1964 caper movie)—is as intriguing as a story from the Arabian Nights. Hagia Sophia, seen just as a monument to human ingenuity and genius, is magnificent, with its soaring dome (182 feet—about 15 stories) and the remains of the beautiful mosaics for which Byzantine culture is justly renowned, is literally awe-inspiring. How could anyone build such a structure as long ago as 537 CE? How could it have lasted, intact and still beautiful, for so long? The Blue Mosque, for all its fame, is a little disappointing because . . . well, it’s not very blue. I had expected a lot of gorgeous blue tile—we saw a lot of examples at Topkapi—but in the natural light of the afternoon (this was the explanation from Semih), the blue color is washed out and the custodians haven’t figured out how to remedy that. For all the fuss they make getting you in there, it ends up being no more than a huge mosque (it accommodates 10,000 worshippers). Dolmabahce Palace, where the sultans lived in the 19th century after abandoning Topkapi, is grand in the sense that it’s a deliberate attempt to emulate and out-do the palaces of Western Europe—there’s too much of everything and nothing really fits. (There are huge crystal chandeliers that just seem outsized—and must have given off horrendous heat in the days of candles or gas.) Our Six-Day Getaway was really only five days, and we lost most of the first one because of the aircraft problem. I can say that four days in Istanbul is barely enough to get a taste of this immense city, which, after all, has been inhabited by one people or another for at least 26 centuries (Byzantium was founded in 667 BCE).

The city has modern sights as well as historic ones, such as the five-year-old Istanbul Museum of Modern Art which concentrates on indigenous artists from the end of the Ottoman period to today. The older art here is derivative and not terribly interesting in itself, with artists having been sent to Western European capitals (mostly Paris, of course) to study Western art and bring the techniques and motifs home. But as we moved into the middle of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, as Turkish artists began finding their own visions and incorporating not only the learned techniques of the West but the images and subjects of Asia Minor, the work becomes more and more interesting. When we visited both Quebec and Vancouver, we made a point of checking out their art museums to see what local art was up to. My only conclusion is that there’s a reason there are no world-famous Canadian artists. We had a similar experience in San Juan and Ponce, Puerto Rico. The examples of Turkish art, including some ultra-modern pieces using video and computers, suggest that the same deficiency isn’t endemic to that culture. There are no internationally known Turkish artists yet, but what we saw at the Istanbul Modern shows immense promise and potential. (There’s another art museum that concentrates on modern and European works, the Pera, also established in 2005. While we were in Istanbul, it hosted an exhibit of Fernando Botero, a Colombian artist in whom my mother is especially interested, and we had intended to stop there on our own, but the time, considering the effort we’d been putting in for the scheduled sights, just wasn’t sufficient in the end and we left the Pera out. Istanbul is a designated European Capital of Culture for 2010 and is attracting exhibits and visits from all over the world in that capacity. While we were at Topkapi, there were displays from Japan and Russia in galleries of the palace museum.)

Our return flights on Monday, 17 May, were blessedly without problems, but the normal process of flying is so tedious and user-unfriendly that even an uneventful journey takes much of the pleasure out of a vacation. (Our flight back from San Juan a few years ago, which included a delay at the airport because the crew of our plane was determined to have been in the air too long and had to be switched out for a fresh crew that had yet to arrive on the island, nearly ruined a more than pleasant sojourn in the Caribbean during a winter week up north. It almost makes you wish you’d never left in the first place.) The worst that happened this time was that the plane from JFK to Dulles switched gates at almost the last minute and, of course, our arrival gate in Dulles was as far from the location of our shuttle to the city as geography allowed. We returned to Mom’s apartment at just before 10 p.m. D.C. time (we’d left Istanbul at 12:15 p.m. Istanbul time, which is 5:15 a.m. EDT) and simply went to bed. Somehow that’s just not a fitting way to end a trip to such a fabled place as Constantinople—even if it’s called Istanbul now.

20 June 2010


[Today’s Father’s Day—which obviously got me thinking about my late dad. He died on 6 February 1996 of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, with which he’d been diagnosed in early May 1992. A year or so before his death, I wrote a short essay about Dad and his illness, trying to use writing as a way to sort out my feelings about this devastating condition and what I knew must soon follow. I’ve gone back to that essay and brought it up to date. I publish it now as a remembrance of my father and a commemoration of his passing.]

My father had Alzheimer's. He was diagnosed in 1992, after my mother and I began to get worried about his failing memory, increasing loss for words, and decreasing ability to concentrate. It took a few years for the doctors to make a final diagnosis because Alzheimer's Disease then could only be positively determined after death by an autopsy; while the patient was still alive, a diagnosis of Alzheimer's could only be made by eliminating all other possible causes for the symptoms. We were pretty sure what was happening, being ignorant of any other reasons for Dad's impairments, but confirmation was slow in coming. At the same time, if the verdict was what we feared, we knew that there’d be no cure and that Dad's condition would only get worse.

No one really knows what Alzheimer's is like without seeing it first hand. Knowing as much, I guess, as anyone who’d paid attention to general news reports, we thought we were prepared for what was coming. We were wrong. Alzheimer's affects not only the afflicted person, but everyone around him. The closer you are to someone with the disease, the more profoundly you’re touched. We were not prepared. I was not prepared.

Intellectually, I knew what Alzheimer's did. I knew my father would slowly lose all his mental faculties. I knew that eventually he’d be unable to care for himself. I knew about the incontinence. Intellectually, I knew. Viscerally, I had no idea.

My father was a man for whom the designation "intellectual" was coined. (On the wall of his office, Dad had two signs he had the company’s letterer make for him. Both were mock-Latin translations of contemporary quotations he liked. One read Illegitimi Non Carborundum: “Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down.” But the other was the one I thought was most appropriate to him: Via Ovicipitum Dura Est. It was a line attributed to former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and ’56: “The Way of the Egghead Is Hard.” I’ve remembered those two little cardboard signs for about half a century.) Dad experienced the world through his mind. His work had been performed with his mind: logic was his province; words were his tools. (My mother is the emotional partner. I, unfortunately, inherited bits of both, which gives me a sort of emotional MPD. It was useful as an actor, though.) His pleasures were of the mind: reading, art (they owned a small gallery for several years), film (he was an executive in a small movie theater corporation before joining the Foreign Service as a cultural diplomat in the 1960s), theater, and travel. As a child, I knew that Dad could never simply answer a question. He lectured. Discoursed, really. History and politics were his special fields; trips through France, Spain, or Germany with my parents when I was a teenager were experiences in living history. He knew not only facts and dates, but the rationales and causes of events. Most remarkably, he understood the connections—not only between contemporaneous incidents but between the distant incident and current events.

When my brother and I were little, we often used to sit around the dinner table and Dad would lead us, amidst peals of laughter, in the continuing invention of a fantasy history of our ancestors, the royal family of the Grand Duchy of Corpakernia. Somewhere in a mythical Eastern Europe was a monarchy headed by Sophie the Scratchy (“She was an itchy bitch,” my dad would always note)—and there was a made-up language that went along with the history, too. As director of a USIS Amerika Haus, little cultural propaganda outlets in Germany in the '60s, one assignment was a particular pleasure. He was giving a series of lectures on the American Civil War—a special interest of Dad's—to German students. It was our private joke that during the series he debated whether he should let the North or the South win in the end.

When I was in college and my dad came for a visit, he’d regale my fraternity brothers with stories of the old days—the late 1930s—at the school. Dad was an alumnus of both the same college to which I went and the frat to which I belonged. He and Mom would come for dinner or perhaps afterwards and when the brothers gathered in the Chapter Room for a smoke and maybe a drink, he’d light his pipe and quietly start to reminisce. Gradually, Mom and I would be alone on a couch while everyone else was gathered around Dad, listening—no one else really talked, except maybe to ask a question which would start Dad off on another anecdote—as he would recount the unrecorded history of the pre-war years and the humorous and embarrassing tales of our predecessors. I was never sure whether to be mad at him or proud, but after his first trip to the campus, whenever the brothers heard he was coming for a visit, they wanted to be sure he’d stop in. As if he could have resisted!

When I was in grad school in the early ‘80s, one of my profs was Brooks McNamara, an expert in American popular entertainment. When Brooks learned that Dad had worked in the company that had owned the Howard and Lincoln Theatres in Washington, two important venues on the Chitlin’ Circuit, he wanted my dad to record an oral history of the African-American vaudeville days after World War II. My father immediately agreed and I have no doubt that they would have been wonderful tapes. Dad had been a natural raconteur, especially when it came to history, and I’ve always regretted that we—I—didn't follow up on that fast enough. A few years later, all those memories were lost to the Alzheimer’s.

Working with his hands was not a strong talent. Dad used to joke that after changing a light bulb, he’d have parts left over. Though he’d buy every gadget and tool that came out, and he delighted in browsing in a hardware store, he never had a home shop, never built a piece of furniture, never worked on his car. Dad lived through his intellect. (He did have visceral pleasures, too: wine—he was a true oenophile—and food among them. He also played golf well and tennis passably—and continued to do both until the Alzheimer’s made it impossible. When my family lived in Germany, we used to take skiing vacations and Dad, my brother, and I would spend all day on the slopes while Mom enjoyed the après-ski activities.)

By 1995, that was all gone for him. I don't think he had any notion of what was happening to him anymore, though of course, I couldn't be certain. He no longer responded to anything, but no one knew whether nothing was getting in, or whether something was getting in but he just couldn't express a reaction. It was almost impossible to know what he understood anymore. A year earlier, however, he clearly did know.

My family was on a visit to Dad's sister and brother-in-law at their vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. One afternoon, my father and my Uncle Herbert took a walk along the bluff that was their backyard. Herb asked Dad, who’d recently undergone some testing at NIH, if the results held any promise. "I hope so," Herb reported Dad saying; "I sure can't go on like this." A year later, my father probably couldn’t formulate such a thought, and certainly couldn’t communicate it.

My father’s condition got progressively worse. Mother tried to cope at home, taking care of him herself at first as his memory began to fail. She brought in home health aids during the day when Dad got too difficult for her to manage on her own. He became obstreperous and even inadvertently violent. My mom’s a tiny lady and although my dad’s not a big man, he was bigger than she and when she helped him to bed, the bath, the toilet, or the dinner table, he sometimes didn’t understand what was happening and fought her. This is common for Alzheimer’s sufferers—dementia is often accompanied by paranoia—but it became impossible for Mom to deal with it by herself. Dad also wandered off sometimes in the apartment building where they lived, roaming the halls of the rather large building. Because he’d doze off during the day, he often didn’t sleep through the night, keeping Mom up. Once or twice, he slipped in the bathroom and Mom, as small as she is, couldn’t get him up when he couldn’t or wouldn’t help her.

My folks and I had always spoken by phone Sunday mornings, but when Dad got so sick that my mother was under a lot of stress, I started calling mid-week, too, so I could check up on her and to provide some small distraction. I also started to plan to move to Washington, fearing that Dad’s deterioration would sink my mother as well. Once when I was in Washington on an extended visit—I’d begun going down as often as I could and staying as long as I could to try to relieve Mom of the burden Dad’s illness was imposing on her—when he had a real crisis. He fell in the bathroom during the night and Mom couldn’t get him up without my help. Dad was obviously completely disoriented and agitated now, far beyond just a little lost. It was evident Mom couldn’t care for him at home. We took him to his doctor the next morning and the doctor immediately admitted him to a psych ward at a District hospital for evaluation and emergency care. (Alzheimer’s isn’t really a psychiatric illness—it’s a medical condition with a physiological cause—but psychiatric wards are often the only ones equipped to handle patients with dementia, especially on an emergency basis.) While Dad was being examined and evaluated, Mom and I saw a specialist in finding long-term care for patients like Dad and making all the necessary arrangements—sort of the medical-care equivalent of a travel agent. It was apparent now that my father had to go into a nursing home; if not, Mom would end up as demented as he. My mother resisted briefly, but the need was so clear by now that we agreed to follow the expert’s recommendation. We got Dad a bed in a nursing home for the next day. He was eventually set up in a home in suburban Rockville, Maryland.

I abandoned my plans to move to Washington since it was no longer necessary for me to be instantly at hand. I continued to travel down often, lugging my work with me and setting up on a card table in my mother’s bedroom. (When Dad moved into the nursing facility, Mom took a smaller apartment in the same building. She lost several extra rooms, including the spare bedroom that was mine when I visited and the study that had served as Dad’s office.) Mom visited Dad every day, usually from lunch through dinner so she could help feed him. (Alzheimer’s sufferers eventually forget how to chew and swallow and put themselves in danger of choking on chunks of food or drowning from liquids inhaled instead of swallowed. They have to be fed carefully in a specially prescribed regimen to help prevent these accidents from happening.) When I was in town, we spent most of the day with Dad; I’d bring Thespis, my little dog, to the home with me—he was very welcome by both the staff and the other patients—and we’d sit on the screened porch or take a walk through the suburban neighborhood nearby.

Dad began having frequent bouts of pneumonia and had to be hospitalized in Gaithersburg, a little further out in exurban Maryland, several times in the last year at the home. This was aspiration pneumonia, which results from inhaling food or liquids (beverages or even the patient’s own fluids) into the lungs. The doctors said it was common for people with Alzheimer's, and that it would continue until they can't stop it. Each case would get worse, they said, and eventually they wouldn't be able to treat it. The best the hospital could do was get Dad's temperature down and his lungs cleared so he didn't cough up so much phlegm, then he was returned to the nursing home. A few days or a week later, he’d have to go back again. He had to be watched to see that he didn’t inhale his own fluids—there was a vacuum tube by his bed—but the attendants weren’t always so vigilant, and he could still aspirate his own mucus, particularly in his sleep.

Dad was in the hospital most of the time I was in Washington over the 1995-96 holidays, having gone in the day before I drove down and then released for about three days between Christmas and New Years before he was back again. There was a blizzard in Washington over the holidays and I got stuck in town because of the snow; my mom and I couldn't even get out of her apartment building for three days because the main road in front hadn't been cleared. Dad was discharged the day after I returned to New York, but went back in again on the evening of 21 January. He had a temperature of 109 and it looked like it might be the last time. Mom even began making final arrangements, but he seemed to come out of it again. (The hospital was under instructions to do nothing but make Dad comfortable and relieve his pain, but he seemed to be fighting to live—though only God knows why in his condition.) Nevertheless, every time the phone rang, I expected it to be my mother calling to tell me to come back. She wouldn't let me come down while Dad seemed to be recovering. She didn't want me to "interrupt my work." Meanwhile, she went to the hospital every day and sat with him.

After 20 December ‘95, Dad didn’t stay out of the hospital for more than a week before going back in. At the end of January ‘96, Dad went back to the hospital with pneumonia again, this time a severe case and Mom knew it would be his last unless he were treated with extraordinary measures. We decided that would be wrong and Dad was moved to a hospice in town on Thursday, 1 February, so he could be made comfortable and pain-free. His last bout of pneumonia lasted two weeks, the last five days of which he spent in the Washington hospice, essentially asleep the whole time. I had gone to Washington the day Dad went into the hospice and my mother, Thespis, and I stayed with him all day long each day. He died peacefully of pneumonia at 2 a.m. on Tuesday, the 6th—one month to the day after my parents 50th anniversary.

According to Dad’s wishes, there was no funeral, but we held a memorial service on the following Wednesday. I stayed in Washington with my mother while family and friends came to mourn and offer condolences—a sort of very reformed form of shiva. Mom drove back to New York with me on Tuesday, 13 February, and she stayed for a day, rushing back under the threat of another blizzard. It was the first time in the year-and-a-half since Dad went to the nursing home that she could leave Washington and (were it not for the threatening snowstorm) not have to worry about hurrying back or feeling guilty that she wasn’t spending time with Dad every day. For a year-and-a-half, Mom hadn't had much time to do anything but visit with Dad and see to his care. And, of course, neither of us had gone anywhere except when I'd gone to Washington to stay with her or she'd come to New York for a day or so to visit me or to New Jersey for some family event or other.

It wasn't so much my father’s death that was traumatic; it was his dying. Alzheimer's is certainly one of the most horrible ways to go—for everyone involved. Long before the end, Dad had stopped recognizing any of us. The disease had left him no longer the dad I’d loved and the man I’d always found interesting for 49 years. I knew my father was dying long before he passed away, and I figured it'd be a relief, considering the devastation of Alzheimer's—but it knocked me for a loop even so. You're never really prepared, apparently, even when you think you should be. I still miss him every day, even 14 years after he died. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t think of a line he used to say or an expression he used to use. Just the things he lost even before he finally passed from my life.

14 June 2010

Gay Actors

On 26 April, Newsweek.com, the news weekly’s website, published a column by Ramin Setoodeh in which he wrote that “it's OK for straight actors to play gay,” but, he continued, “it's rare for someone to pull off the trick in reverse.” Though Setoodeh, a regular Newsweek contributor, never said so directly in “Straight Jacket,” in a subsequent column, “Out Of Focus” (10 May), he explained his position more succinctly: “It's often hard for us to accept an openly gay actor playing a straight character.” The original essay raised enough hackles that several prominent people published comments, some quite heated, among them, most famously, actress Kristin Chenoweth, co-star of the Broadway musical Promises, Promises, in which she appears opposite Sean Hayes, the butt of Setoodeh’s remarks. Others to respond included producer and writer Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, film; The West Wing, TV; The Farnsworth Invention, Broadway) and Ryan Murphy, writer and creator of the TV shows Nip/Tuck and Glee (which also co-stars Chenoweth and features another openly gay actor, Jonathan Groff, whom Setoodeh singled out as an example). Murphy, himself openly gay (as is Setoodeh as well), even went so far as to call for a boycott of Newsweek until the periodical and the writer apologize.

I’m not sure a Newsweek boycott will have much effect right now. The magazine is in financial trouble anyway, looking for a buyer (the Washington Post, which owns it, is selling) and trying to promote new subscribers by distributing the publication free to a mailing list it seems to have culled from random sources. (My mother’s been getting it for weeks though she’s never taken Newsweek—and, what’s more, the magazine comes addressed to my dad, who’s been dead for 14 years!) I was visiting my mother recently, and I read a couple of issues that arrived while I was there. (I was a Time subscriber for years; I only read Newsweek occasionally, mostly in dentists’ offices, or for research.) As thin as it is now, it’s pretty close to devoid of content these days. Few articles are more than a page (which usually includes a large illustration or a wide title banner or both, so the text’s pretty skimpy), and most are a single page or less. On the basis of the freebies, I wouldn’t bother to pick it up anymore. It looks like the 77-year-old magazine’s in the process of shooting itself in the foot anyway; a boycott would just be redundant.

I do have to wonder why Newsweek would bother running an article like “Straight Jacket.” It’s not that they don’t have the right to, or that Setoodeh should be censored (censured, perhaps, but not censored). The writer has a right to say what he wants and the periodical can print what it pleases. Setoodeh’s entitled to his opinions. But as the saying goes, opinions are like assholes—everybody’s got one. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be exposed to them, however. There are some plays of which I say, ‘Yes, I understand. The playwright had to write this in order to move on. But why does he have to inflict it on me?’ Well, that’s what Setoodeh’s essay is: apparently he had to say this for some reason. But it doesn’t enlighten anyone to read it—so why didn’t the eds at Newsweek just thank him for his effort . . . and spike the article? Maybe the foundering publication is desperate for any attention—or maybe no one’s at the wheel. (At least on the ‘Net they didn’t kill trees and make paper waste.)

Now, lets get away from the venue and focus back on the issue raised. To paraphrase Professor Irwin Corey, there are really two points here. The one that should be the main proposition is that it’s hard to believe an actor who’s ill-suited for his or her role. Casting’s tricky under the best of circumstances, but any actor hired for a part ought to be able to handle it convincingly. Right? I mean, that’s a given, isn’t it? That criterion has nothing specifically to do with the actor’s sexual orientation, known, unknown, or suspected. If Sean Hayes can’t do Chuck Baxter in Promises, Promises credibly, his sexuality aside, then a reviewer or a spectator has every right to criticize the director for miscasting the part and the actor. Even if someone else disagrees with the estimation, it’s still a legit area of criticism. (In fact, Ben Brantley said in his Times review of Promises that Chenoweth “was not meant to play Fran, and you sense that she knows it.”) Actors may not like to acknowledge it, but not every one of them can do every role ever written. Back when I was trying to be an actor, I discovered quickly that I was better at Shakespeare, Shaw, and Noel Coward than I was at Neil Simon. We all have limitations, some more obvious than others. It’s just a truth of the business.

But none of that is about sexuality per se. What Setoodeh said was that knowing that an actor is gay (he doesn’t have the same problem with lesbian actors, apparently—just gay men) makes that actor hard to believe as a heterosexual leading man. As the Newsweek writer stated, as long as the actor’s sexuality is in doubt, he can pull off the straight role. It’s only when you know (or strongly suspect) that the actor is gay that the credibility gap occurs. Now, that turns the equation around for me. If an actor actually isn’t suited for a role—say, because of physical appearance, temperament (that’s what Brantley blamed for Chenoweth’s miscasting: she’s too strong for the character), or, ummm, talent—the fault lies with the director, the producer, or even the actor (for accepting a role he can’t handle). But if the problem is that you know something about an actor, something that doesn’t show in his work, isn’t visible in his appearance, isn’t actually part of his stage- or screenwork, then the problem is with you. It’s in your head—and your attitude. It’s petty much like saying, ‘That guy can’t play Hamlet because I don’t like him.’ (An awful lot of nasty people—even ones we knew were nasty—have successfully played good guys and heroes.) It’s just not relevant. You’re bringing into the theater facts, beliefs, and suspicions that don’t belong there. (Aaron Sorkin, in his response to the whole controversy, said that “we know too much about each other and we care too much about what we know.”) A jury isn’t supposed to bring outside knowledge into court; a theatergoer should leave the real world outside during a performance. The theater creates its own universe, but if you bring the real one into the performance, the magic won’t work. That’s what it seems to me Setoodeh did: he allowed real-world facts to impinge on the created world of a play.

I don’t have any idea what Setoodeh’s motives were. Commentators of all sorts, from those who sounded off on Newsweek.com to those with platforms of their own, inferred reasons for the writer’s opinion of Hayes’s performance and the conclusions he extrapolated from it. Maybe his reasons were venal, maybe they were ignorant, but why he ever came to feel the way he did, it’s still all up in his head. It’s not real and it’s not universal. (In a separate fallacy, one with which I’ve taken exception before in reviews, Setoodeh imputed his own response to Hayes’s performance to all viewers, as if he knows somehow what “we” all think. Aside from the fact that I think he’s wrong anyway, this is arrogance of the first order.) As far as I can tell, he may even be one of a very few who ended up feeling that way either about Hayes or gay actors in general. I can say with assurance that such considerations don’t mean anything to me when I see a show. Unless you’re very, very good at compartmentalization, you can’t wall off sexuality as a evaluative criterion and not also include other aspects of an actor’s background. I can tell you that, even though I know that F. Murray Abraham isn’t Jewish, when I saw him do both Shylock and Barabas in rep a few years ago, I was thrilled with his portrayals of the two highest-profile Jewish characters in theater lit. I wouldn’t even try to describe my delight as a child when I saw Mary Martin do Peter Pan, even though I knew she was neither male nor a teenager. (When you’re 13 or so and Mary Martin sings “I Gotta Crow,” believe me, you don’t care! I still don’t—it’s a cherished memory.) Audiences knew damned well that Godfrey Cambridge wasn’t a white actor when he played a white bigot in Watermelon Man (not even in heavy make-up) but we all believed it so that the movie would work. And we all knew that Cicely Tyson was not 110 years old when she played Miss Jane Pittman on TV, but the performance remains transcendent. The fact is, you gotta take a little of Tinker Bell’s magic with you into a performance: What you know has little bearing on what you believe! All Hollywood knew that Charles Laughton was gay, but he played the most aggressively heterosexual monarch in history in a high-rated performance.

It’s not just that Setoodeh might be homophobic (or self-hating, as some of his recent correspondents decided). That’s almost irrelevant here—at least in my estimation of the situation. It’s a free country, as they say; you can hate whomever you want! No, my complaint about Setoodeh’s essay is that he based his evaluation of a performance on elements that aren’t part of the art. Michelangelo was supposed to have been gay, too—but no one judges his paintings, frescoes, or sculptures on that fact. It’s an irrelevancy—the art is just magnificent under any circumstances. (Michelangelo’s marbles are my absolute favorite sculptures in the world. I love his Moses above any other piece of stone on this planet. And I swear the David moves when I see it live. That marble has a pulse, by God!) I don’t give a damn whom he slept with or what his political beliefs were—I don’t even care if he was the vilest man in 16th-century Italy. I only care that he made unparalleled art. The same is true of van Gogh, my favorite painter in the world. He was probably schizophrenic and had aural hallucinations—and he liked whores. So what. The man’s moral failings and health problems aren’t really my business (not that I’m not compassionate). It’s mostly irrelevant to the art he created, which is stunning, even astonishing. That’s the only measure of his art I need to consider. El Greco may have been astigmatic and that may account for the elongated appearance of his figures—but that’s only a curiosity in the end. The spirituality expressed in his paintings is elevating and inspiring. That’s what matters. I see no difference with respect to Sean Hayes’s sexuality—or any actors’—when evaluating his work on stage. Either he nails the role or he doesn’t, but whether he’s gay or straight and whether he’s said so or not is outside the parameters of evaluation unless he’s making open passes at all the guys on stage and down in the pit. Okay, if he’s doing Macbeth and he prances around the stage like a faun, that’s cause for caustic criticism. Then you criticize the actor for what he did, but if he just puts his arm around Chenoweth’s Fran like any intimidated shy guy, but you don’t buy it just because you think you know he’s gay—well, that’s out of bounds. You’re judging his work for who (or what) he is, not what he did. (There’s a word for that—it’s called prejudice.) You’re applying inappropriate standards. It’s as if you decided beforehand that no redhead can be a light comedian, so any actor with red hair just fails in that kind of play. You’ve rigged the game, queered (if you’ll pardon the term) the pitch, poisoned the well. You’re not playing fair.

By the way, Setoodeh makes a point of saying that the original Chuck Baxter was played by the late, beloved Jerry Orbach, “an actor with enough macho swagger to later fuel years and years of Law and Order,” but lets remember that in the 1960 movie on which the musical was based, the character (then called C. C. Baxter) was played by Jack Lemmon, a somewhat less macho actor. (Let’s face it, Lemmon’s Baxter was a schnook.) There are apparently many problems with the revival of Promises, and Hayes’s performance got a lot of negative criticism from reviewers, but let’s allow that his and director Rob Ashford’s idea may have been to return to that less self-assured character. That doesn’t mean Hayes worked out right (although he was nominated for a best-actor Tony), but perhaps, despite Setoodeh’s fixation on Jerry Orbach, who played roles like El Gallo (The Fantasticks), Sky Masterson (Guys and Dolls), Billy Flynn (42nd Street), and Julian Marsh (Chicago)—all roles of bravado and confidence—before he finished up with Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order, director Ashford had someone of less machismo in mind for his production and Hayes’s Chuck wasn’t marred by what Setoodeh determined is the actor’s sexual preference but predicated on a different prototype. (Lemmon appeared in several movies written by Neil Simon, the book writer for Promises, Promises. It’s certainly possible that Lemmon was the model for Ashford’s idea of Chuck rather than Orbach, who, for the record, did play a self-effacing, shy character on Broadway: Paul Berthalet, the puppeteer in Carnival!.)

In 1989, after New York magazine reviewer John Simon wrote that black actors shouldn’t perform roles written for white actors, I sent an open letter to New York City publications arguing essentially this same point but from a racial standpoint. Three years later, in response to a disapproving essay in the arch-conservative publication The World & I (published by the Moonie-owned Washington Times), I wrote a letter to the editor explaining and defending non-traditional casting. I’ve mentioned and quoted from both these letters before on ROT, principally “Non-Traditional Casting” (20 December 2009) with some mention in “The Art of Writing Reviews by Kirk Woodward, Part 3” (11 November 2009). Setoodeh’s benighted position is not unlike those of Simon and David H. Ehrlich, the author of the World & I essay. All three writers appear to come into the theater with preformed ideas about what characters must look like and how they should behave. In all three cases, it seems to me, the men base those ideas on what has always been done before, what they’ve always seen, and what they know. Artists holding different or new thoughts need not apply.

After Chenoweth’s 7 May reply to “Straight Jacket” on Newsweek.com (so you don’t have to search for it there like I did, it’s in two parts on page 14 of the comments section), Setoodeh came back with a defense. He said he was trying to start a dialogue, though I’m not altogether sure about what exactly, but all he managed to start was a shouting match. (He said he was shocked, shocked that he got such vituperative responses. What planet does he live on, for Pete’s sake?) I mean, if he wants to talk about why out gay actors aren’t credible playing straight characters, I don’t see the point, since it’s a mistaken premise to start with. I say it’s not actually so, at least among the vast majority of theatergoers, including reviewers. Discussing it would be like trying to have a debate on why the sky is green. It’s not, so why talk about it? Anyone who thinks there’s an actual issue here, aside from Setoodeh’s error, is plain wrong-headed. They may, as Linda Richman, Mike Meyers’s SNL character, might suggest, talk among themselves. I won’t bother to argue with Setoodeh’s statements because others, especially Chenoweth, have taken care of that excellently. (The actress’s remarks are also republished elsewhere on the web, including Broadway.com and PerezHilton.com. Other responses are Aaron Sorkin’s on Huffingtonpost.com and Ryan Murphy’s on EW.com.) I’ll sum up my point, however, by quoting Chenoweth: “Audiences aren’t giving a darn about [an actor’s] personal life.” In other words, No one cares. It’s meaningless. Then she reminds people like Setoodeh: “It’s called acting.” That’s all that counts. Anything else is Quatsch. Quatsch mit Soße.

[In addition to having been nominated for a Tony for his performance in Promises, Promises, Sean Hayes was invited to host the 64th Annual Tony Awards ceremony last night. (Hayes didn’t win the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical; it went to Douglas Hodge for La Cage aux Folles.)]

09 June 2010

Dancing & Acting

On Saturday evening, 24 April, I went to a dance program in which a choreographer friend had a piece. It was an interesting program of four pieces each staged by a different choreographer for the dancers of the same New York company, but since I’m not a dance person and know very little about the art, I’m not going to try to report on the performance the way I would if it were a theater performance. I’m not even going to name the company or identify the performance because I don’t want to give the impression that what I’m going to say here is directed at them. I want to make some observations about dance from the perspective of a theater person, however inexpert that may seem. The program the other evening will serve as an illustration, a stand-in for dance in general. Despite my ignorance of dance as an art and a craft, I’ve seen enough performances that I think my assessment is valid.

The dancers in this presentation were all young—not students and not beginners, but early in their careers. (The dancers’ bios all listed several companies with which they’d danced before, after finishing their training. I’d estimate that they’ve all been dancing for three to five seasons, perhaps a little longer.) To my eyes, the dancers were still focusing a lot on the steps and the movements, the way a novice actor might concentrate on the lines and blocking while leaving character and the action of the scene in the background. I particularly noticed this focus among the men in the lifts—they looked a little as if they were thinking, ‘Okay, be careful: don’t slip—don’t drop her!’

I think the pertinence of my observation at this program was enhanced by the nature of the pieces performed. All four dances were old ones, reconstructed by various means from performances originally given 50 years ago and more. This meant the dancers were doing someone else’s steps, dancing someone else’s role. It also meant they were less free to do what their own inspiration may have dictated or interpret the movements according to their own artistry and talent. I suspect that this circumscription required that the focus on the steps and the movements be all that much stronger. I believe this magnified the significance of a phenomenon I noticed which, thinking back, is probably evident in most, even all, dance performances.

When I said before that the performance the other night reminded me of actors who were concentrating on their lines and blocking over character work and the emotional or psychological substance of the moment, I wasn’t far away from the point I want to raise. While all the dancers were fine with respect to their dance moves, what I found lacking in much of the evening was any expression of personality—or character, if we go back to theater terms. I’m not talking about ego, and I realize that dance isn’t always narrative so that there aren’t actual characters in the obvious sense. This isn’t Nutcracker or Romeo and Juliet—the roles don’t have names and there’s no story anyone’s telling. (One of the four pieces was, in fact, a narrative dance. Its inclusion in the program served as a contrast that highlighted what I missed in the other pieces.) Still, the dancers were all people, not just moving bodies, but I got the feeling that I was watching technical movement, not dancing humans.

Okay, I know there are some dances that are pure movement and that the intrusion of personality might damage the performance. I’m going to leave those kinds of dances aside for the purposes of this discussion. They’re the dance equivalent of Color School paintings—where the viewer is meant to experience only the nature of the colors, the shapes and forms in a purely visual encounter with no meaning, emotional response, or psychological reaction intended. It’s supposed to be pure beauty and enjoyment brought on by the way the arrangement of the colors hits the viewer’s eyes—or, in the case of the dances, the way the moving bodies strike the spectator’s vision. Let’s put this kind of dance aside for the moment.

Let’s also touch on and dispatch the obviously narrative ballet like those I named earlier. It’s pretty clear that the dancers must create characters in those performances much the same way that actors do in plays. Prokofiev's Romeo is really no different from Shakespeare’s—except that the ballet Romeo expresses his character though movement while his theater counterpart gets to use words. I don’t know what kind of work a dancer does to create a character like Romeo, but I’d bet he does some variation of the work an actor does to prepare the role. The choreography must be the tools he uses to express the character, but the content, the emotional life, the psychological truth of the young lover, the most romantic youth who ever trod a stage, is largely up to the performer—actor or dancer.

Well, I maintain that there needs to be some of this same character prep in the non-narrative dance, too. One of the pieces the other night was based on a collection of 16th-century dances as reimagined by the dance’s creator. But who does dances like the pavane, the tordion, or bransles? People, right? Not “bodies” or automatons—people at a ball. As these were court dances, those people were probably aristocrats and nobles, mostly in the French courts of François I and II, Henri II and III, and Charles IX. He’s the Duc de Quelque-chose. She’s the Comptesse de Quelque-part. Those are characters. An actor would imagine a whole lifetime for people like that! Even if he were only playing the third courtier on the right or she, the second lady-in-waiting up left—they’d have a whole history devised. Is his partner his wife? Is hers her lover? Maybe they’re opponents in some court intrigue! Is this a fun ball—or one they have to attend because the king commanded it? Maybe they’d rather be somewhere else. All that’s what was missing in the performances I watched the other night. No one was a person doing the dances. They were all dancers—choreographic subjects. Sure they smiled nicely—but it was like someone said “Cheese!” and they posed for pictures. Like celebrities on the red carpet posturing for the paparazzi.

One reviewer made some of the same points I have here with regard to the dance piece itself—describing the “characters” and their “actions” (my terms, not the reviewer’s). He even formulated a little narrative for the dances. But he never remarked on whether he felt the dancers had captured the characters and my observation was that they hadn’t. The clues were there, but the dancers just didn't seize them.

Here’s what I think seems to be missing from the development of performances like the one I saw—and others I’ve seen over the years. The dancers need to learn something about acting. Without meaning any disrespect to dancers as artists, I know that in the production of musical plays, when directors decide they need someone in the ensemble to say a line or two, they turn to singers, not dancers. The reason, they’ll tell you, is that singers just say lines better than dancers as a rule. Only one member of the corps listed musical theater credits in her bio. Only one of the choreographers offers any theater-related credits, and there’s no one listed on the troupe’s artistic staff with any theater in her or his background. I wouldn’t have expected there to be any of that in a dance company—I suspect it would be most uncommon. But that’s what I think is needed in this world.

About 30 years ago, opera companies saw that their exclusive focus on singing and voice left their acting weak or even nonexistent. The operas were sung well, but there was no drama coming from the stages of opera houses. So they began to hire stage directors who either staged the operas themselves or worked as acting coaches alongside opera directors. The result, within a few years, was that Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette had an impact on its audiences more like its Shakespearean source than what had previously been little more than the appreciation of the singing on display. Instead of the elaborate costumes and complicated sets serving as window dressing for a bunch of magnificent voices, there was drama on the stage! The singers were . . . acting! Well, what’s to stop ballet companies from doing the same thing? And why aren’t they? I mean, we know that acting and dancing—theater and ballet—aren’t incompatible. We have Oklahoma! and West Side Story, among other examples, to prove that.

With all they have to do, first in their training days and then as members of a ballet company learning and then performing the repertoire, maybe it’s too much for dancers and choreographers to study acting in their conservatories or in their dance troupes. I don’t know that opera singers take acting classes either. But what they do get is acting coaching during the rehearsal period. They either get it directly from the director or there’s a stage director as part of the staff who serves as the acting coach. Dancers could do with some of that. At the very least, they need to be taught to think in acting terms—to consider character and circumstances—even if they don’t get basic acting instruction on technique. I think they need the latter, too, of course—and I’d recommend to dance companies that they put an acting coach on staff to start developing this aspect of the performances just as the opera companies have done. Listen, no one’s taking anything away from the choreography. It’s not going to be diminished—this isn’t a zero-sum equation where you have to reduce one expression if you increase the other. It’s a pure enhancement: the choreography remains; you just add an aspect to the whole.

I believe that dance people, reviewers, ordinary dancegoers, and artists alike, don't realize anything's really missing. Dance in the West has been divorced from acting so long that no one expects anything out of the ordinary. (It’s different in, say, Asia where dance, opera, and ballet are all one performing art form—Kabuki, Kathakali, Beijing Opera—and the distinction just doesn't exist.) Unlike opera, perhaps because it’s closer to theater, the dance world hasn't noticed that acting is missing from the performances, which is why I think most dance reviews are so technical—they address almost exclusively how well the dancers execute the movements and steps.

By the way, going back to the pure dance pieces I dismissed earlier. I believe that acting has a place even there as well. Remember, no one needs to know what the dancers are up to inside. In the narrative dances, it shows, of course. It’s supposed to. In the expressionistic/impressionistic, non-narrative dances, it can show up a little, as much or as little as the choreographer wants. (Those aristocrats dancing in the French court can show as much or as little of the character as the creative director determines is appropriate.) But in the pure dance performances, the audience doesn’t have to see anything specifically character-revealing. It all remains internal. As I’ve written in other contexts, the dancers are up to something, but the audience never knows what it is. They only see that there’s an inner life operating on the stage, coming out over the footlights—something dynamic and engaging that they can’t name or describe. The dancers’ bodies and faces are animated and vibrant. An astute spectator might say to herself, ‘That guy’s got something going on,’ but she won’t be able to name it. But she’ll feel it. (I wrote about this acting phenomenon in one context or another in four other posts: “Phèdre,” 13 October 2009; “Psychological Gesture & Leading Center,” 27 October 2009; “An Actor’s Homework, Part 1,” 19 April 2010; and “An Actor’s Homework, Part 2,” 22 April 2010.) I know that this might sound like I’m describing something magical or mystical—but I’m not, believe me. It’s one of the fundamental techniques actors work on from the start of their training. It’s the difference between cooking with only the main ingredients of your recipe—the meat, potatoes, and veggies—and then making the same dish with the addition of spices and herbs. The one’s nice. The other’s extraordinary!

[This article marks the 100th I’ve posted on ROT since I launched the blog on 16 March 2009. All the columns I’ve run haven’t been my original work; I’ve been glad to post pieces by friends (and hope to do more of that) and I’ve republished writing by authors from Mark Twain and Francis Pharcellus Church to more contemporary writers like David Macfarlane (and I’ll do more of that, too). I’ve focused on theater, some on other arts, and then ranged beyond into many unrelated topics I just thought were interesting. I’ll do more of that, too, you can be sure. I hope anyone who’s come across ROT and liked what he or she’s found will keep coming back to see what I’m up to. Thank you. ~Rick]