26 June 2011

Picasso, Bearden, Gilliam, and Gauguin

While my mother was in New York City in April, we did a little gallery-hopping, as is our habit. I’d clipped the review of an exhibit of collages by Romare Bearden at a gallery on 57th Street and the weekend Mom arrived, there was an ad in the Times for a gallery show of Picasso portraits in far-west Chelsea. There were a few other potentially interesting exhibits, but those were the ones we ended up catching, plus one at the Marlborough, a few doors west of the Bearden show.

On Monday, 18 April, Mom and I took two busses over to the west Chelsea area between 10th and 11th Avenue to check out two galleries showing artists in which we were interested. One, the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery on West 26th Street, had a show of the works of colorist Ken Noland (who died in January 2010), but I’d never thought that, like most museums, many commercial galleries are also often closed on Mondays, and Mitchell-Innes was one. (I tried to convince Mom to go back over on another day before she left, but she just didn’t feel like making the trek to far-west Chelsea again. I mentioned Noland in passing in “Morris Louis,” my report on an exhibit at the Hirshhorn in Washington in November 2007, posted on ROT on 15 February 2010; and in my article “Art in D.C. (Dec. ’09-Jan. ’10)” on 18 January 2010.) In a New York Times article about the Chelsea art scene, Roberta Smith described the Noland show as an “invigorating survey of early, casually geometric stain paintings” emphasizing “unknown, idiosyncratic works.” Noland was a Washington artist, part of the Washington Color School like his friend Louis Morris, and I’m sorry I couldn’t convince Mom to make a second attempt to see the exhibit.

(Mom did remind me that back in the late ‘50s, when my parents were part of a small group that owned the Gres Gallery in Washington, Noland had wanted to show his work there. The managing partner, who actually ran the gallery, a respected venue for one-artist and theme shows, declined because she didn’t want Gres to become known as a Washington gallery. She won that battle: Gres was only the second gallery in the U.S. to mount a solo show of Fernando Botero’s work—MoMA bought Botero’s Mona Lisa from the Gres show—and the first to exhibit abstract paintings from Poland, a show MoMA took to New York; but as a result several artists like Noland and Morris never showed at Gres. By the turn of the decade, though, most of the partners, many of whom were Foreign Service officers, were transferred out of the country—my own parents went to Germany in 1962—and Gres Gallery closed. It had provided me with an exciting and eye-opening art education before I was a teenager and the influence has remained strong ever since. “Helping out” in the gallery—I stuffed envelopes and such—and meeting artists at the vernissages the partners hosted are some of the most vivid and cherished memories of my childhood.)

The other gallery in the area for which we were headed was the Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street, and on the chance that it might be the one gallery open on Mondays, we walked down the five blocks—and sure enough, it was indeed open! Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou (that’s “. . . Crazy Love”), on display through 25 June, included several dozen portraits—in paint, ink, and pencil as well as plaster and bronze—of Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-77), the young mistress, model, and muse of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). The works, curated by John Richardson, the artist’s biographer, and Diana Widmaier Picasso, an art historian and the granddaughter of the painter and his model, all date between 1927, when the two met by chance on a Paris street, and 1940; several portraits of their daughter, Maya (b. 1935), either alone or with her mother, are also on view. (Diana Widmaier Picasso, b. 1957, the co-curator of the exhibit, is Maya’s daughter.) The art generally shows the growth of the relationship between the artist and his model, from her earliest portrait, the drawing Marie-Thérèse coifée d’un beret (Marie-Thérèse wearing a beret, 1927) in which she’s still 17 before the affair began, moving on to the next drawing, Portrait de Marie-Thérèse (Portrait of Marie-Thérèse, 1935), which now depicts the young woman in a clearly sexual attitude. Interestingly, even though Picasso was already becoming well-known and was no longer the novice artist of his early days of Realism (he introduced himself to the 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse by taking her to a bookstore and showing her a monograph of his works on sale there), several of the pieces are realistic or nearly so, especially several of the sketches (like the two just named). Most, however, cover Picasso’s several styles—he shifted from technique to technique almost yearly, I think—for the dozen years during which the works were created. In fact, Smith asserts that Marie-Thérèse “inspired Picasso to review and preview nearly all the phases of his long career . . . .”

In the Chelsea article, Smith described L’amour fou as “a big, museum-quality show,” and that’s accurate. (I suppose any show of Picasso’s work could be small, but a curator’d have to work hard for it not to be “museum-quality.” According to the Gagosian, the exhibit was inspired by the successes of several other recent Gagosian shows: Picasso: Mosqueteros (New York, 2009) and Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (London, 2010). The gallery describes Marie-Thérèse as “the primary inspiration for Picasso’s most daring aesthetic experiments in the decade to come.” I generally distrust superlatives like that—it’s always arguable what’s “the most daring” and what’s only second-most, for instance, depending on your threshold for innovation—but this show certainly covers a gamut of experimentation and new styles, not just for Picasso, but for modern art. The exhibit contains not only paintings and the bronze and plaster sculptures I mentioned, but drawings and prints as well as several small carved wooden pieces. (These latter, about the size of large toothbrushes, along with some bronzes that seem to have been cast from the wooden models, are reminiscent of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, a comrade of Picasso’s.) Generally unified by the subject, though not all the works are specifically of Marie-Thérèse or even Maya, such as Femme nue dans un fauteuil rouge (Nude woman in a red chair, 1932) or Femme lisant à la table (Woman reading at the table, 1934), the show is an excellent primer on Picasso both for the aficionado and the novice. Because of the artist’s constant shifting of style and technique, the art on display never seems repetitive—especially since the curators didn’t arrange the 80-plus works in chronological order, so there’s no obvious progression from one stylistic adjustment to the next. Clearly, if you don’t like Picasso, then this isn’t a show for you, but if you do, or are just curious about the work of the man once dubbed “the most famous artist in the world,” then the Gagosian’s collection is perfect. Add to this the lagniappe that several of the pieces have never been seen in the U.S. before.

Two days later, we again boarded a city bus and traveled up to 57th Street, heading for the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery and a small show of 21 collages by Romare Bearden (1911-88). Since we came up on 6th Avenue, we passed the Marlborough Gallery first, however, where I knew that Tom Otterness’s sculptures were on display—so we made a detour. (I’d taken Mom to the 8th Avenue/14th Street subway station some time ago to show her the installation of Otterness’s tiny bronze figures all over the corridors and platforms. I published a profile on ROT of the artist and Life Underground on 27 April.) In the atrium of 40 W. 57th outdoors, where large works by several artists, including Fernando Botero, are on public view, there’s a monumental Otterness showing three figures in the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” pose (the sculpture’s just called See No Evil) but cast in Otterness’s characteristic style. The building’s lobby also contains a number of pieces, including Otterness’s whimsical Bear Riding Bull—which depicts exactly what the title suggests: a bear in suit and tie sitting astride a bull that’s a sort of gentler rendition of Charging Bull, the huge bronze beast in Bowling Green Park. Then we went up to the second floor gallery and spent an hour or so walking through the display of Otterness’s bronze sculptures, a few Botero works (both paintings and bronzes), one or two Jacques Lipchitzes, a wonderful Red Grooms, and several new artists we hadn’t encountered before. The Grooms piece is this year’s Snow Down, inspired by the snowstorm this past winter and the city’s inadequate response to it. (Grooms calls the three-dimensional work, which depicts a New York City neighborhood buried under snow, his homage to Mayor Bloomberg.) Among the pieces still on view from Tom Otterness: Animal Spirits (23 February-26 March) is Big Cat, a monumental bronze which may be either a huge statue of a house cat or a representation of an actual “big cat”; given Otterness’s cartoon-like style, it could be either, but my money’s on the huge house cat. (The figure’s too cute to be a real predator.) There’s also a series of middle-sized bear sculptures in various poses—Standing Bear, Sitting Bear, and so on—that are awfully reminiscent of the Pooh doll that used to be on display in the Donnell Library. I’m sure that Otterness had Pooh in mind at least subliminally, though I don’t think he intended to do a “take” on Milne’s characters. Of course, it could be just me . . . .

A few doors east, we visited the small Rosenfeld Gallery to see Romare Bearden Collage: A Centennial Celebration. (Like Tennessee Williams and Ronald Reagan, who received considerable attention earlier this year, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Beaden’s birth.) As interesting as the Picasso show was, the much smaller Bearden show could easily take several hours to navigate because each piece is so fascinating and engaging. Aside from the subjects of the works, which cover a variety of aspects of the black experience—or experiences as the artist saw it, some actual and some imagined—the collage technique makes each picture a technical wonder as well. (It’s not at all surprising that Bearden was an influence on playwright August Wilson, who said Bearden’s work "was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of black American life, but also its conscience. I was looking at myself in ways I hadn't thought of before and have never ceased to think of since.") It’s hard not to go up close to each one and see how Bearden made it, using cut-out photos, both black-and-white and color, from magazines or newspapers; bits of cloth; and just about anything else the artist found useful. (I suspect Bearden wasn’t just making collages, but bricolages as well. He also manipulated his sources somewhat: according to Roberta Smith, some of the black-and-white pictures were rephotographed and enlarged by Photostat.) Mother and I had had a mildly unpleasant encounter at the Gagosian Gallery when we leaned in close to one of the Picassos and a guard got testy, but at the little Rosenfeld we had no problem getting up close and personal, so to speak. Collages, of course, are not just abstract or expressionistic images, like a painting, but they have a texture that’s unique to each work and it’s just too enticing to see how Bearden created that aspect of the picture.

A few weeks later, when I went to Washington, Mom and I went down to the Mall to take in the large Gauguin exhibit at the National Gallery. As I have at several exhibitions in recent years, I found I had to linger at each painting or sculpture and read the wall panel because the information was so interesting and instructive. At Romare Bearden, I had to linger also, but it was to scrutinize the artwork itself for the marvel of its construction. Ever since those years in the ‘50s when I hung around the Gres and met some of the artists, none of whose names meant anything to me at the time—I just knew they were artists and created the works I saw at the gallery—I’ve become fascinated with how that kind of creative personality fashions her or his art. I’ve been an actor and director and I write some—though not what is generally called “creative writing”—but I’m confounded by the way an artistic mind generates ideas. I know how an actor creates, at least as it worked in me, and I can imagine a little how a writer conjures words—though the more innovative wordsmiths bewilder me—but I have difficulty imagining how visual artists “think” in images. (I often have the same confusion about composers—I can’t conceive of thinking in musical notes; it’s a mystery to me.) I even made collages (cut-out construction paper, to be sure) as a child, inspired by a collagist exhibited at the gallery, but the working of the true artistic brain still mystifies me.

Of course, it helps that Bearden was a marvelous artist. (In her New York Times review of the show, Roberta Smith asserted that Bearden didn’t become a “great artist” until he started making collages in the 1960s. I don’t have the credentials to make a statement like that—or evaluate Smith’s—but I can afffirm that these collages are terrific no matter your perspective.) The works, which were created between 1964 and 1983, are colorful and stunning, filling the small galleries with vibrant and irresistible images. Bearden depicted scenes of rural life, jazz musicians jamming, and urban people working at their trades. (He worked in a different medium and style, but his focus was quite similar to that of Jacob Lawrence, a friend and artistic colleague. For me, the two also have a similar impact.) Of the Blues (1973) is not only a wonderful evocation of a Harlem nightlife scene, but a visual rendering of another form of art from a different medium and The Dressmaker (1983), as Smith notes, is a terrific variation on the artist-and-model theme as the seamstress helps her naked customer dress. One of the most charming pieces, a tall, slim work, is La Femme Martinique (1970). Done on Masonite and illustrating one of Bearden’s frequent subjects, Caribbean life, the collage portrays a woman on her way to market posed in an almost queenly posture. (Bearden’s field of interest was more than the African-American experience, he depicted scenes from the entire black world.) In another vein, he also illustrated the fall of Troy with black soldiers. Some of the collages are rendered in bright colors, like the Matisse cut-outs the informational material said had influenced Bearden. Others have clearly been distressed (with sandpaper, according to Smith) so that they resemble the ancient frescoes of Italy which the artist loved. In each one, however, the selection of materials is inspiring. The patterned dress fabric of Femme Martinique, for instance, is created by the photograph of a paisley print from some publication; the vegetables in her basket are another photo, this one in color, while the basket itself was simply painted by Bearden.

Bearden had an eclectic background, encouraged and essentially ordained by his highly intellectual parents. His education alone was—shall we say multifaceted. He ended with a BS in Education from NYU, but his route there was peripatetic. He served as a New York City social worker until 1969, even as he was studying and making art. He wrote journalism and essays, drew cartoons, even composed songs—and associated with artists and prominent thinkers, both black and white, in many media. He served in a segregated unit in New York City during World War II and then used the GI Bill to fund a trip to Paris to study art history and philosophy at the Sorbonne. While there, he met some of the most illustrious artists of the mid-20th century, along with writers James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Bearden didn’t devote himself wholly to making art until he was in his mid-40’s, in 1954. He experimented with several techniques, including reworking famous paintings using a Photostat machine. Bearden also began to explore color and eventually began making collages in the ‘60s. In this medium, he strove to “redefine the images of man in terms of the black experience.” Back when he was experimenting with the Photostat, he found that it provided two copies of an artwork: a positive and a negative. The negatives rendered the white images as black, likely an inspiration for the Fall of Troy with its black soldiers—and for Bearden’s artistic thrust in general. The Rosenfeld exhibit, however small in number of works, was a good display of Bearden’s scope and breadth.

Some weeks after visiting the Chelsea and Mid-town galleries in New York City, I made a week’s visit to Washington, D.C., principally to see the Gauguin exhibit at the National Gallery. It turns out, schedules being what they are, that I got to NGA near the end of my stay, and before going down to the Mall, my mother and I paid a short visit to the Katzen Art Center at American University on Friday, 27 May. Most of the gallery was in the process of getting new exhibits installed, but we went over expressly to see a site-specific installation, Sam Gilliam: Close to Trees, on view through 14 August. The artist conceived the work, made up of dozens of draped nylon and polypropylene cloths brightly dyed with acrylic colors, especially for the 8000 square feet of the gallery’s third floor. Gilliam has transformed the space into a forest of color which visitors move around and past the way we’d walk through a grove of trees, stopping here and there to admire one or simply to stand in its shade. (The artist says the title refers to the way you can “be so close one can reach out and touch” the work, like trees in a forest.) Like a small forest, too, Gilliam’s installation uses natural light to illuminate the acrylic rainbow. Gilliam and his installers tested the play of light in the gallery at different times of the day before deciding the final placement of the drapes, some of which hang from the ceiling and droop free like actual trees while others are mounted on walls and still others on the floor. Some draped pieces include mirrors on the floor beneath them to reflect the colors back up, and others also have scattered pieces of fabric and other material on the floor like huge leaves fallen from the trees. While the draped fabric looks much like the dyed works that Gilliam has done in other installations (including one I saw at the Museum of Folk Art in Manhattan several years ago when the artist gave a presentation of his work), the arrangement and display of these hangings is entirely different.

Like Bearden’s collages, Gilliam’s “trees” aren’t just paintings. They, too, take on additional dimensions because, first, the fabric has various textures which catch the light and absorb the paint in different ways. Second, the folds and creases of the draped material changes each “tree.” Finally, some of the trees, mostly the ones suspended from the ceiling, turn slightly under their own momentum. Since the light isn’t evened out by artificial illumination, the movement changes the way the colors, a lot of yellows, blues, and oranges, strike the eye. (Like another Washington Colorist, Louis Morris, Gilliam’s paintings often run off the edge of the canvas; even on stretched works, the color continues around the rim of the stretcher.) Like many of the artist’s works over the years, Close to Trees blurs the division between painting and sculpture. Gilliam, who was born in Mississippi in 1933, grew up in Louisville, and came to Washington in 1962, has also often worked with both texture and draping in some way or another. My mother has three Gilliams at home (the artist is a friend), and one of them is a free-form, frameless painting that is mounted directly on the wall and is made up of separate pieces of thickly painted canvas which Gilliam weaves together when he hangs it; it’s different every time its remounted. It was hung in my parents’ last apartment so that it actually turned a corner and went onto the next wall. In its present location, it climbs up the wall and spreads onto the ceiling. Another work, Flowers, of which my mother and I both have a version, is constructed of hand-made paper which Gilliam printed in abstract patterns, then cut into pieces. In a deep frame (a box, really), he reassembled the pieces into a three-dimensional assemblage of more abstractions. The frames (mine is essentially square, but Mother’s is trapezoidal) are decorated with chunks of flat stone which pierce the sides of the casing. Even in Flowers, which had an almost-conventional frame which the artist broke, Gilliam doesn’t confine himself to the picture frame. Close to Trees has elements of these in other ways: free-form, textured, and changing. The bright colors are another trademark of Gilliam’s work; he’s considered the second generation of the Washington Color School of which Ken Noland and Louis Morris were members of the first generation.

I’ve liked other Gilliam works and shows more than Close to Trees, including the large retrospective at the Corcoran in 2005. But walking through the Katzen installation is less a stimulating or revealing experience, like, say the Gauguin show at the NGA, than a pleasant stroll through a grove of really fascinating trees. Spend 45 minutes or so in Gilliam’s woods, stopping here and there, and you just feel a little happier. That, after all, is no mean achievement.

Finally, on Tuesday, 31 May, Mother and I took the bus down to the Mall to see Gauguin: Maker of Myth at the National Gallery of Art (which closed on 5 June). This show was one of the most informative and revealing I have seen in a long time, probably not since the Dada show at NGA and MoMA back in 2006. In the case of Dada, what I learned was mostly historical—how the art movement fit into the politics and events of the first decades of the 20th century—but at Gauguin, I learned a lot of startling stuff about the artist and his artistic philosophy, as it were. I don’t pretend to be well-educated in art history, and I didn’t know anything about Paul Gauguin except the general outline of his life and career. I’ve seen many of his paintings in other exhibits and collections over the years, and I like his work, but basically I associated him with Tahiti and the South Pacific and having spent some time in Arles with van Gogh. The first thing I learned is that far from being just a painter, which was all I knew before, Gauguin was an artistic polymath, engaging just about every medium and form, from pottery to sculpture. Painting remained his main métier, but he made drawings, prints, reliefs, and some wonderful wood blocks. (Pottery he’d studied in his early years, but making wood blocks was something he just decided to try on a whim.)

The title of the exhibit suggests another aspect of Gauguin’s life and work: he drew on and created myths in and for his art. Like many artists, many of Gauguin’s pieces depict or refer to figures out of mythology and legend, including the Bible (Eve, Jacob and the angel, Jesus, Satan) and Polynesia. But like Tennessee Williams, Gauguin also made up myths about his own life—he claimed to be descended from Incan ancestors, though there’s no evidence of such heritage—so much that it became hard to tell the truth from the fiction. (The artist’s Tahitian memoir, Noa Noa, like Williams’s Memoirs, is mostly fantasy. The New York Times’s Holland Cotter quipped: “If he published it today, Oprah would be demanding an apology.”) He also combined these impulses when he invented gods for the Tahitians that never existed in their pantheon and portrayed other deities in poses he borrowed from Hindu gods (depictions of which he’d seen in museums). Nearly his entire depiction of Polynesian life was drawn from his imagination and the way he thought earlier generations, before European colonization had changed everything, had lived. He borrowed liberally from images from Easter Island, Buddhist carvings, and the photographs and descriptions by earlier visitors like Charles Georges Spitz or Louis Antoine de Bougainville. “Art is an abstraction; as you dream amid nature, extrapolate art from it,” Gauguin wrote a friend, as if to explain his impulse to create imaginary realities.

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) led something of a peripatetic early life, including five years of his early childhood in Lima with a maternal uncle who had been the last Spanish viceroy of Peru, and later stints in the merchant marine and the navy. He settled down to a life as a stockbroker in 1872 and married in 1873, fathering five children. He painted on the side as an amateur, until 1886 when he left his family, now living in Copenhagen where his wife was born, and devoted himself full time to art. His main guiding belief was that society had become corrupted by civilization and he made a series of voyages farther and farther away from Paris, the center of Western culture and art at the time. He traveled first to Brittany in 1887, a rugged part of France on the northwest coast, where he painted his version of the native life of the Bretons. In his mind, the Breton peasants, whom he painted in the fields or at play as children, were closer to the unspoiled natural people he sought. “Here in Brittany,” he wrote, “the peasants have a medieval air about them and do not for a moment look as though they think that Paris exists and that it is 1889.” His paintings from Brittany, which included several landscapes and still lifes, are almost classic Impressionism, both is tone and style. The artist would return to Brittany in 1888 (as well as making a two-month stay with van Gogh in Arles), but the spell would eventually wear off, of course, and Gauguin would move farther from civilization in search of ever more untainted lands. He set sail for Panama in 1887 and spent five months in Martinique; the art that came out of that sojourn displayed his first step toward “primitivism.” Though the subject was the Afro-Caribbean life he saw there, the style was still as impressionistic as the work from Brittany. Two years later, in 1889, he sketched himself as an American Indian. He declared himself a “savage” and promoted his wanderings as his search for the untamed and uncorrupted. “To do something new,” the artist proclaimed, “you have to go back to the origins, to humanity in its infancy.”

Also in 1889, the Universal Exhibition opened in Paris with a focus on what was then known as primitive cultures in France’s colonial territories in Asia and the Pacific. Gauguin was enchanted and took off for the South Seas to “live as a savage,” landing in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, in 1891. Later that year, the artist moved further out to a small village. He began sending canvases back to Europe where their exoticism immediately attracted attention. What Gauguin depicted in his Tahitian art, however, was based more on his romantic notions than anything actual: Tahiti and its inhabitants had been thoroughly Frenchified and Christianized by the end of the 19th century, and the Edenic society which the artist had envisioned no longer existed, erased entirely by the Christian missionaries and European colonists. So he reinvented it—adding elements, including some deities, that had never been part of the culture to start with. J. R. R. Tolkien, who was just born about this time, invented a whole mythology in his books; Paul Gauguin did, too—in his art. The painting had begun to move away from classic Impressionism and even Post-impressionism to the brightly-colored—what Holland Cotter called “crushed-fruit colors”—imaginative depictions for which the artist is mostly recognized today. They were less about feelings and sensations, the stuff of Impressionism, than imagination and dreams. (There’s nothing in his Polynesian canvases or other works that looks like Surrealism, which wouldn’t hit the art scene until two decades after Gauguin’s death, but his subjects and his approach perhaps served as a bridge to the art style that focuses on dreams and the subconscious.) Further, unlike his Impressionist colleagues back home who painted ordinary people at their ordinary lives—farmers, peasants, fishermen, diners in a café, artists and dancers, people on a street—Gauguin filled his Tahitian art with images of supernatural beings, dreamers, symbolic creatures, romanticized landscapes, scenes assembled from far-flung elements, and imagined inhabitants. He painted in bold colors, flattened his images, distorted space and the spatial relationships of figures, creating unreal juxtapositions. Moreover, Gauguin had a stronger relationship with his subjects and his art than did the Impressionists, who insisted they were mere observers, not participants in the scenes they depicted. The Impressionists may have had an emotional response to the subjects they portrayed, but they weren’t part of them. Gauguin, however, was fully invested in the world he revealed—created—in French Polynesia.

Gauguin returned to Paris in 1893, weakened by illness (he was diagnosed with syphilis in 1895), but returned to Tahiti two years later. His art sold better, his friends and supporters pointed out, when he sent his exotic scenes back from the South Seas, the expatriate artist living in Paradise, than from a Paris studio. Despite his illness, Gauguin moved 850 miles to an even more remote island in the Marquesas in 1901, reinvigorating his art. In 1903, after a series of heart attacks almost certainly caused by the syphilis, Gauguin died and was buried in the Marquesas, never having returned to France after 1895.

The nearly 120 works in the NGA exhibit, originated by the Tate Modern in London, was divided into themes based on the type of myths Gauguin made: “Identity and Self-Mythology,” “Landscape and Rural Narrative,” “Sacred Themes,” “Allusive and Elusive Tales,” “Earthly Paradise,” and others. (Some works from Russia didn’t travel to Washington due to legal problems.) The dates and styles of the art included in each section were mixed, including not only various types of painting, but prints, woodcuts, carvings (Gauguin was a marvelous woodcarver, creating full sculptures, many totem-like posts, and both bas- and haut-reliefs), and ceramics. The near-mania Gauguin displayed for creating myths, about himself and his subjects, was almost so absorbing that the art itself nearly got lost. Let’s face it: Gauguin was a rotten guy in almost every respect except his art—he abandoned his family, bullied everyone he knew, stole other people’s ideas and images, lied about his history, fabricated the world he depicted in Tahiti, took teenaged girls as his lovers—but he was an absolutely fascinating character . . . at a 100-year remove.

Cotter characterized the work in the Maker of Myth as “dark.” “Bizarre, even just plain ugly images occur,” he wrote in his review. “The atmosphere is tense, claustrophobic, depressed.” I didn’t feel that way at all. Besides being revelatory, I found the art engrossing and almost haunting at times. I’ll cop to “dark” and “bizarre” (Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post contributed “troubling and contradictory,” which are apt), though not as negative qualities but as striking and surprising aspects of Gauguin’s work that I hadn’t known about before. (I’m sure Cotter is far more conversant with Gauguin’s art and life than I was, so he may not have approached the exhibit with the same naïveté that I had when I arrived.)

Another aspect of Gauguin of which I hadn’t been aware but which is amply displayed in the works in the exhibit is his sense of whimsy. The artist liked a good joke, sometimes on himself, sometimes on his friends and colleagues, and often on those whom he disrespected. Some of his whimsical work was little more than doodling. He carved himself a walking stick (Carved Cane, 1888-90) and while in Brittany, he wore the local wooden clogs—except Gauguin decorated his by carving little bas-relief designs on the toes. Gauguin did dozens of self-portraits, many with themes of one kind or another; in 1889, for instance, he painted himself so as to evoke Lucifer, the fallen angel, against a bright (sulfur?) yellow background with a halo over his head, two apples hanging on a branch behind him, and a small snake in his right hand. His whimsy could also be macabre: he depicted himself with reference to John the Baptist in Self Portrait Vase in the Form of a Severed Head (1889). The artist’s likeness, glazed in olive green, has its eyes closed and a gaping hole in the top of its head for the vase’s opening (it’s really a mug, with a handle); the severed neck is glazed in dripping red as if freshly cut. Gauguin’s Portrait of Meijer de Haan by Lamplight (1889) portrays his friend the Dutch artist, who was Jewish, with horn-like tufts of red hair and his hand as a cloven hoof, clearly suggesting Satan.

Gauguin liked to tweak his political adversaries, especially the Catholic Church. (The artist was born Catholic and was buried in the Catholic cemetery on Hiva-Oa.) In one of his most provocative gestures, he trimmed the entrance to his residence in the Marquesas with carved wooden panels labeling the house as the “Maison du Jouir,” or “House of Pleasure.” Gauguin’s neighbor was the Catholic bishop, and it pleased Gauguin to know that every time the priest entered the house, he passed under that sign. (In French, jouir has the connotation of ‘sexual pleasure,’ even ‘orgasm,’ not just ‘fun.’)

Organizing the show around the several stories Gauguin told in and with his art, curators Belinda Thomson, an independent British art historian, and Mary Morton, curator of French paintings at the NGA, started with works that showed how the artist invented himself (“Identity and Self-Mythology”), including the self-portraits I just mentioned starting with an 1876 painting, the earliest self-portrait in the collection and one that has only recently been identified as Gauguin’s work. In his late 20’s, the image is a young man, perhaps a student (he’s wearing a sort of pillbox hat that might have been a student cap), portrayed nearly realistically with just a touch of Impressionism. The last portrait was Self Portrait with Glasses from 1903, the year the artist died, and shows an older man with a fuller face, nut-brown from the sun, with short, graying hair, wearing oval-lensed, wire-rimmed glasses. One interesting painting in this section was Self Portrait with Yellow Christ (1890): it shows a stern-faced Gauguin in dark sweater and shirt standing in front of his own 1889 painting The Yellow Christ (on display in the “Sacred Themes” section); on a shelf above the painter’s left shoulder we see his Self Portrait in Form of Grotesque Head (1889), a ceramic sculpture of the artist that I can only describe as expressionistic in its monstrousness. In contrast with the portrait as the Devil, as if to demonstrate his dichotomous nature, the 1889 Christ in the Garden of Olives is actually a self-portrait of the artist as a disheartened Jesus in a bleak landscape, depicted here with red hair and beard (like van Gogh?) but with Gauguin’s unmistakable hooked nose.

In “Sacred Themes,” Thomson and Morton placed many of the Tahitian works that depict the deities and religious beliefs, real and imagined, of the islanders as well as the Judeo-Christian images from the Western Bible. The Yellow Christ was in this section and here also was the fascinating Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) (1888) which juxtaposes a Bible scene with everyday Breton life. In a letter to van Gogh, Gauguin himself described this painting:

I have just painted a religious picture, very clumsily; but it interested me and I like it. I wanted to give it to the church of Pont-Aven. Naturally they don't want it. A group of Breton women are praying, their costumes a very intense black. The bonnets a very luminous yellowy-white. The two bonnets to the right are like monstrous helmets. An apple tree cuts across the canvas, dark purple with its foliage drawn in masses like emerald green clouds with greenish yellow chinks of sunlight. The ground (pure vermillion). In the church it darkens and becomes a browny red. The angel is dressed in violent ultramarine blue and Jacob in bottle green. The angel's wings pure chrome yellow. The angel's hair chrome and the feet flesh orange. I think I have achieved in the figures a great simplicity, rustic and superstitious. The whole thing is very severe . . . .

Also in “Sacred Themes” are several carved wood “tikis” that Gauguin used to depict the Tahitian gods, mostly Hina, the moon goddess, and Te Fatu, the earth spirit. There were no images of Tahitian deities by the time Gauguin arrived so his representations were based on his imagination and the depictions of the sacred figures of other cultures, such as Hindu and Easter Island. The little posts, Hina and Fatu and Hina with Two Attendants (both ca. 1892), mid-reliefs carved of native wood, are about a foot tall and look an awful lot like something you might find in a Pacific island souvenir shop today (except maybe better made). One very interesting piece in the same section was an 1899 oil painting, The Last Supper. Gauguin used elements of other cultures, such as Maori carvings (which he’d seen and sketched in an Auckland museum on a stop-over on a return from Europe), to create his image of the New Testament subject. Though raised a Catholic, Gauguin had spent many years reading and studying about the world’s faiths and he viewed religion syncretically.

In “Fictions of Femininity,” the curators assembled works that depict Gauguin’s various visions of women, including a number of renderings of Eve (among them several Polynesian Eves) and Oviri, a fictional goddess whose name is derived from the Tahitian word for ‘savage.’ This collection included Merahi Metua no Tehamana (Les Aïeux de Tehamana/The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana has Many Parents) (1893) in which Gauguin shows his young mistress with flowers woven into her hair, wearing a prim, blue-and-white striped Western dress, and holding a fan. Behind Tehamana is a wall painted with figures of gods below a panel of strange inscriptions. The background design has nothing to do with Tahiti: the gods are displayed in Indian poses and the writing is borrowed from Easter Island. In the section “Allusive and Elusive Titles” is Te Rerioa (The Dream) (1897) in which two women sit on the floor of a frescoed room, a baby in a crib in the left foreground, a dog to the left of the seated figures, and outside the open door is man on horseback. Gauguin wrote of this painting: “Everything is dreamlike in this canvas; is it the mother, is it the horseman on the path? Or is it the painter’s dream!” There are several other depictions of dreaming and dreamers, including paintings of Gauguin’s little son Clovis (Clovis Asleep, 1884, and The Little One Is Dreaming, 1881), illustrating how significant dreams and dreaming were to the artist’s work. The almost iconic Two Tahitian Women (1899)—so recognizable, Philip Kennicott suggested, that “you wonder whether it’s from the cover of a cheap paperback edition of Herman Melville”—depicting one bare-breasted woman and another with a blue cloth covering one breast, is in “Earthly Paradise” (and was the target of an incident, recounted below). In contrast to the platter of bright red flowers one woman holds, the surrounding woods is dark and ominous, lit only by a triangle of yellow sky. Is this Gauguin’s commentary on the Eden he expected to find from the accounts of Frenchmen who sent back reports over the previous century but which had turned out to be so long disappeared that the artist had to reinvent it largely from his own imagination?

There were, frankly, too many sections in Maker of Myth for me even to name each of them and too many interesting and wonderful works for me to discuss even a small percentage. The best I could do here is provide a taste of this really magnificent and revelatory exhibit and hope that you get the idea from the tip of the iceberg how deep and broad it was, even in its limited scope.

(A sidelight to the exhibit occurred on 1 April when a 53-year-old woman, Susan Burns, attacked Two Tahitian Women, trying to tear it from the wall. “I feel that Gauguin is evil,” Burns told an investigator later. “He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it’s very homosexual.” She said the painting should be burned. Burns, from nearby Arlington, Virginia, also said, however, “I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you”—which kind of undercut her protest. The painting was unharmed and remained on display.)

Since two of these venues are commercial galleries, though one has locations around the country and the world, and one was a site-specific installation, it’s probably not likely the shows will travel like some museum exhibits might. (Even the last, the Gauguin, isn’t scheduled to go on from Washington.) Still, you never know for certain—I mentioned that back in 1961, the Gres Gallery show Fifteen Polish Painters was taken in its entirely by MoMA and displayed in New York even though Gres was a selling gallery. Stuff does happen.

21 June 2011

Short Takes: Quotations On Writing, Art, & Literature

Josef Albers (1888-1976), artist and art teacher

[A]rt is concerned with the HOW and not the WHAT. . . .
—Lecture to students, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present [RoseLee Goldberg], 1988

Jean Anouilh (1910-87)

Life is very nice, but it has no shape. The object of art is actually to give it some and to do it by every artifice possible—truer than the truth.
The Rehearsal, 1950

Roger Ascham (1515-68), scholar, writer, and courtier

He that will write well in any tongue, must follow this counsel of Aristotle, to speak as the common people do, to think as wise men do; and so should every man understand him, and the judgement of wise men allow him.
Toxophilus, 1545

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.
—“Of Studies,” Essays, 1625

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate the darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.
—“The Creative Process,” Creative America, 1962

The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question that answer hides.
—“The Creative Process”

Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover's war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation, make freedom real.
—“The Creative Process”


Julian Beck (1925-85)

The power of art is the power of truth.
The Life of the Theatre: The Relationship of the Artist to the Struggle of the People, 1972

William Blake (1757-1827)

Degrade first the Arts if you’d Mankind Degrade. Hire Idiots to Paint with cold light & hot shade: Give high Price for the worst, leave the best in disgrace, And with Labours of Ignorance fill every place.
—“Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynold’s Discourses,” 1808

Rome & Greece swept Art into their maw & destroy’d it; a Warlike State never can produce Art. It will Rob & Plunder & accumulate into one place, & Translate & Copy & Buy & Sell & Criticize, but not Make.
—“On Virgil,” c. 1822

Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711), poet and critic

Of every four words I write, I strike out three.
Satire, 1665

Georges Braque (1882-1963)

Art is meant to disturb, science reassures.
Le Jour et la nuit: Cahiers 1917-52

Robert Browning (1812-89)

Because it is the glory and good of Art, That Art remains the one way possible Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine at least.
The Ring and the Book, 1868-69

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82)

And so every genuine work of art has as much reason for being as the earth and the sun.
—“Art,” Society and Solitude, 1870

Gustave Flaubert (1821-80)

You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies, and the importance of a work of art by the hard that is spoken of it.
—Letter to Louise Colet, 14 June 1853

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)

If you would not be forgotten . . . , either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.
Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1738

Paul Gachet (1828-1909), van Gogh’s psychiatrist

Love of art is not exact; one must call it faith—a faith that maketh martyrs.
—Letter to Theo van Gogh [Vincent’s brother], ca. July-August 1890

Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999)

Art is a ripening, an evolution, an uplifting which enables us to emerge from darkness into a blaze of light.
Towards a Poor Theatre, 1968

William Hazlitt (1778-1830), essayist

Rules and models destroy genius and art.
Sketches and Essays, 1839

Werner Heisenberg (1901-76)

Therefore, the two processes, that of science and that of art, are not very different. Both science and art form in the course of the centuries a human language by which we can speak about the more remote parts of reality, and the coherent sets of concepts as well as the different styles of art are different words or groups of words in this language.
—“The Relation of Quantum Theory to Other Parts of Natural Science,” 1958

Paul Henri, Baron d’Holbach (1723-89), philosopher


Art is only Nature operating with the aid of the instruments she has made.

Système de la nature, 1780

Hippocrates (ca. 460-357 BCE)
Life is short, the art is long.
Aphorisms

Henry James (1843-1916)

It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.
—“Letter to H. G. Wells, July 10, 1915”

Samuel Johnson (1709-84)

The only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.
A Free Enquiry, 1757

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Art hath an enemy called Ignorance.
Every Man Out of His Humor, 1600

John F. Kennedy (1917-63)

[A]rt establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgement.
—Speech at Amherst College, 26 October 1963

In a free society art is not a weapon.
—Speech at Amherst College

Paul Klee (1879-1940)

Art does not reproduce the visible, rather, it make visible.
—“Creative Credo,” Inward Vision, 1920/1958

Tony Kushner (1956- )

I don’t think you have to earn your income as an artist to be an artist. But if you are an artist, then art is what you do, whether or not you’re paid for doing it; it is what you do, not what you are. I regard artist not as a description of temperament but as a category of profession, of vocation.
—“A Modest Proposal,” American Theatre, January 1998

Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), poet

Clear writers, like clear fountains, do not seem so deep as they are; the turbid look the more profound.
Imaginary Conversations, 1824

Susanne Langer (1895-1985), philosopher

[T]he function of art is to acquaint the beholder with something he has not known before.
Feeling and Form, 1953


Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling.

Feeling and Form


David Oppenheim (1922-2007), educator

The world is chaotic. Art is an ordering of that chaos.
—“School of Arts’ Location Belies Educational Status” [McCandlish Phillips], New York Times, 12 Sept. 1971

George Orwell (1903-50)

Good prose is like a window pane.
—“Why I Write,” Collected Essays, 1968

Walter Pater (1839-94)

For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.
The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, 1873

Pablo Picasso (1881-1993)

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.
Picasso on Art [Dore Ashton], 1972

Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

Artists are the antennae of the race, but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists.
—“Henry James,” Literary Essays, 1954

Jules Rénard (1864-1910), novelist and playwright

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.
Journal, 1906

Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

To be an artist, one must first be a man, vitally concerned with all problems of social struggle, unflinching in portraying them without concealment or evasion, never shirking the truth as he understands it, never withdrawing from life. As a painter, his problems are those of his craft. He is a workman and an artisan. As an artist, he must be a dreamer; he must interpret the unexpressed hopes, fears, and desires of his people and of his time; he must be the conscience of his culture. His work must contain the whole substance of morality, not in content, but rather by the sheer force of its aesthetic facts.
Diego Rivera: The Shaping of an Artist, 1889-1921 [Florence Arquin], 1971

All art is propaganda. . . . . The only difference is the kind of propaganda. Since art is essential for human life, it can’t just belong to the few. Art is the universal language, and it belongs to all mankind. All painters have been propagandists or else they have not been painters. . . . . Every artist who has been worth anything in art has been such a propagandist. . . . . Every strong artist has been a propagandist. I want to be a propagandist and I want to be nothing else.. . . . I want to use my art as a weapon.
—“The Revolutionary Spirit in Modern Art,” Modern Quarterly, Autumn 1932

[T]he rôle of the artist is that of a soldier of the revolution.
—“What Is Art For?” Modern Monthly, June 1933

David Salle (1952- ), painter

. . . I feel that the only thing that really matters in art and life is to go against the tidal wave of literalism and literal-mindedness—to insist on and live the life of the imagination.
—“Profile: Forty-one False Starts” [Janet Malcolm], New Yorker, 11 July 1994

George Santayana (1863-1952)

An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world.
The Life of Reason, 1905

Leonardo Shapiro (1946-97), stage director

Being provoked and offended by art you don’t like can be a creative, life-enriching experience. It can make you think, it can make you question your values and assumptions. Or if you are a vicious abused puppy it can make you snarl and bite.
“Tough Answers: Rebutting Tom Carson’s NEA Quiz Point by Point,” New York Press, 1-7 August 1990

Not giving the artist the necessary support to create prevents everybody from experiencing that art; supporting the artist and creating the art forces nobody to experience it.
—“Tough Answers”

We . . . confuse art and advertising. But they are not at all the same: art makes the invisible visible, advertising makes the visible attractive.
—“The Tip of the Iceberg,” Performing Arts Journal, September 1991

In a secular society, art is the necessary erotic/spiritual/ritual basis of culture. Art is soul-making.
—“The Tip of the Iceberg”

If art is only telling you what you already know, it isn’t telling you anything. It isn’t art.
—Unpublished interview, 3 March 1992

John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham and Normanby (1648-1721), poet and politician

Of all those arts in which the wise excel, Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.
—“Essay on Poetry,” 1682

Learn to write well, or not to write at all.
—“An Essay on Satire,” 1689

Joseph Stalin (1879-1953)

The writer is an engineer of the human soul.
Inside Russia Today [John Gunther], 1962

Laurence Sterne (1713-86), novelist

Writing, when properly managed . . . is but a different name for conversation.
Tristram Shandy, 1759-67

John Updike (1932- )

The artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and . . . he does it without destroying something else.
Writers at Work [George Plimpton], 1977

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Do you know that drawing with words is also an art. . . ?
—Letter to Theo van Gogh, 6 July 1882

Art demands persistent work, work in spite of everything, and continuous observations. By persistent, I mean not only continuous work, but also not giving up your opinion at the bidding of such and such a person.
—Letter to Theo van Gogh, undated [ca. July 1882]

I have a firm faith in art, a firm confidence in its being a powerful stream which carries a man to a harbor . . . .
—Letter to Theo, undated [ca. March 1883]

Art is jealous, and demands our whole strength . . . .
—Letter to Anthon G. A. Ridder van Rappard [Dutch painter (1858-92)], undated [June 1882]

[A]rt is something greater and higher than our own adroitness or accomplishments or knowledge; . . . art is something which, although produced by human hands, is not created by these hands alone, but something which wells up from a deeper source in our souls; and that with regard to adroitness and technical skill in art I see something that reminds me of what in religion may be called self-righteousness.
—Letter to Rappard, undated [April 1884]

Sometimes art seems to be something very sublime, and, as you say, something sacred.
—Letter to Wilhelmina J. van Gogh [Vincent’s youngest sister], undated [Summer or autumn 1887]

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

It is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realise our perfection; through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.
—“The Critic as Artist,” Intentions, 1891

Robert Wilson (1941- )

Artists are recording our times, and the artists are the diaries of our time. In the future this is what society will look back on as a record of our times, of what artists are saying.
—“Robert Wilson in conversation with Ariel Goldenberg at the Opéra Bastille, Paris, 1 May 1995,” In Contact with the Gods, 1996

16 June 2011

The Sound of Muzak

Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents Broadway theater musicians, is taking action against the producers of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert over the new production’s use of recorded music instead of live musicians. The union and the Broadway League, which represents producers, have decided to submit the AFM’s complaint to arbitration and at the time of the announcement in May, the parties were awaiting a date for the first session.

The AFM has campaigned against the substitution of recorded music for a live orchestra for years, ever since the practice began to appear regularly in unionized houses as a cost-saving measure; this is the strongest step of which I’ve heard since the 2003 musicians’ strike, however. In its contract negotiations in 2003 (which ostensively focused on a different issue, the mandatory minimum number of instruments assigned to each Broadway house), the union lost several guaranteed orchestra seats in the pits and Priscilla employs only nine musicians (in a theater, the Palace, contracted for 18), supplemented by some recorded music for the score, made up of disco-era songs of the 1980s. (Though there is the sound of strings in the score, there are no string players in the Priscilla pit. The play is the stage adaptation of the 1994 Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It contains no original songs in the score.) Smaller orchestras, with the acquiescence of Broadway composers, are the goal of many producers. The sound of a show may then be enhanced by music from recorded sources, synthesizers, and electronic keyboards that simulate the live music with electronically manipulated sounds.

There’s no mounting trend on Broadway to replace live instruments with electronic simulations, but producers argue that they should have the freedom to create shows that use only the musical ensembles they feel are needed for the production in question, and there is a contract provision that permits this. “Local 802 has recognized and acknowledges that due to changes in culture, some Broadway shows call for a different kind of musical sound than the traditional Broadway musical,” wrote a current 802 vice president, resulting in a “special situations” clause that accommodates musical ensembles like those in Memphis, Baby, It’s You, and American Idiot. The president of the League of American Theatres and Producers—the predecessor of today’s Broadway League—at the time of the musicians’ strike insisted, “The existence of the virtual orchestra was meant as insurance. Management has no plans to use virtual orchestras to wipe out live music.” But musicians and composers, having lost chairs in the pit already, are afraid that producers’ reliance on electronic music is a dangerous omen. “[I]t’s about the art, and we have become the gatekeepers of this art on Broadway,” wrote Local 802’s current president. They assert that theater audiences expect the experience of a live orchestra of a minimum size as part of the enjoyment of a musical theater performance. A recent example union leaders cite is the 2008 Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific with its 30-piece orchestra, much appreciated by both audiences and reviewers. In addition, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2003 revival of Nine was contractually obligated to use an orchestra of nine instruments, but had 15 in its pit. A recent poll commissioned by Local 802 showed, not surprisingly, that spectators of Broadway musicals preferred live music over recorded sound by 91%.

That’s where I fit in. I’m not a musician so I hold no brief for AFM. I’m not even particularly musically astute and can’t expound on the musical or acoustic benefits of live sound in comparison to electronic music. Neither do I know much about theater economics and what things cost on Broadway (except, of course, a ticket), but I don’t want producers to go broke over unnecessary expenses—and therefore reject potential productions because there are too many musicians required (or actors, or sets, or costumes either, for that matter). No, I want all shows to be mounted in the ideal production for the script—the best lighting, the best costumes, the best cast, sets, orchestra, and so on. (Yes, I know: it’s a pipedream. But a cat can look at a king, right?) I’ve also never been a musical actor, but I am an avid audience member. So, all I can go on is my own, personal response as a lover of musical theater. (Remember, ROT readers, that I copped to being “A Broadway Baby,” ROT, 22 September 2010.)

Twenty-three years ago, Michael Kimmelman wrote a New York Times column called “Amplification: Making It All Clear” (3 September 1988), and I wrote a letter in response, published under the headline “Amplification Endangers Theater’s Live Quality” (23 September). At the time, the technical trend on stage was miking actors, first in musicals then in straight plays, and such luminaries as actor Jason Robards (who died 12 years later) and playwright David Mamet deplored the development. I said then: “In the end, the things that make live theater exciting and unique, the immediacy and presence of living performers, will be destroyed.” That was before synthesizers and digital sound production encroached on the territory of stage musicals, but my sentiment then applies to the current situation, no matter how much further along the technology’s advanced. In fact, respected music reviewer Anthony Tommasini deemed amplification “the first step toward the virtual orchestra” as early as the 1960s. It “merged” the singers and musicians into a “wall of sound” that “destroyed the spatial sound relationships onstage.” In my letter, I made the same observation about simple miking, and Robards concluded, "It's like putting a piece of glass between the audience and the stage." Opera diva Marilyn Horne averred that “enhanced sound,” as it came to be called, would be the “kiss of death for good singing”—and, I’d assume, good musicianship.

Tommasini asserted that the miking of Broadway musicals has diminished the art form. “[W]e will never again experience the rapt atmosphere of Broadway theaters in the days when musicals relied on natural vocal talents and nurtured attentive audiences” as they did when a stage star like Mary Martin could stand head to head with opera basso Ezio Pinza and be his vocal equal, he lamented. Making matters worse, Tommasini added that the constant use of “enhancement” has made Broadway audiences “less alert, more passive” as they no longer need to “lean forward and pay attention” when a small-voiced performer like a Fred Astaire, for whom the great composers of the day explicitly wrote and orchestrated, was singing. (The music critic noted that, with the exception of Stephen Sondheim, today’s theater composers write “sappy lyrics” for a musical theater that has become “less literate and more obvious,” though he thought things were looking up again.) The musical has made its accommodation with amplification, Tommasini said, but “in doing so the art form has diminished . . . .” As orchestrator Michael Starobin (The People in the Picture, Next to Normal, Assassins, among many others) said of amplification: “This can kill the live quality of theater.” It’s still true today, applying even more aptly to electronic sound as a substitute for music played right in front of us by living instrumentalists.

Local 802 went out on strike on Friday, 7 March 2003, in part over the threat they saw represented by virtual orchestras, leaving theaters dark for almost a week. (Mayor Michael Bloomberg intervened with a mediator to resolve the walk-out, which ended on Tuesday, 11 March. Broadway theaters lost as much as $7 million overall during the strike and several shows barely survived the shut-down.) But three years earlier, the New York Times reported the appearance of a virtual orchestra in a New York City technical college revival of Evita for which no live musicians played in the pit to accompany the singers, a mix of students and pros. Where the players usually sat was a collection of various-sized speakers, one dedicated to each instrument in the score; 16 high-tech speakers, for instance, replaced the string section’s wood violins, violas, and cellos (not to mention their players). The report added that synthesizers in theater orchestra pits had been appearing for at least a decade; AFM first recognized synthesizers as a legit part of the Broadway orchestra in contract negotiations in 1987.

The creators of the system used in the Evita revival, Drs. David Smith and Frederick Bianchi, like the president of the producers’ league, insisted that the intent of the virtual orchestra wasn’t to displace live instruments in theater but to help small troupes like schools and community theaters enhance their limited ensembles. The problem with that claim, of course, is that once a technology has been invented, no one can really control how or by whom it’s used. In fact, Producer Cameron Mackintosh declared that a recent use of a virtual orchestra machine in London was “a showpiece to display to producers in America.” Allegro, Local 802’s newsletter, contended that since Smith and Bianchi formed their company, RealTime Music Solutions, in 1988, “their focus has been on a product that completely replaces an orchestra.” Indeed, during the prelude to Local 802’s strike in 2003, both RealTime and its competitor, Musical Arts Technology, founded by former 802 member Brett Sommer, a keyboardist, submitted proposals to Broadway producers to replace striking musicians. I keep thinking of all those advanced weapons developed for defensive use—but which find their ways into offensive hands nonetheless. If it’s out there, someone’s going to use it!

While Bruce Weber of the New York Times said that digitized music wasn’t “unworthy or cheap, just not as thrilling as it might otherwise be,” the Charleston, South Carolina, Post and Courier asserted in an editorial on the issue, “There is nothing as tacky as canned music in a musical . . . .” I couldn’t agree more. If a composer writes a score incorporating synthesizers and digital sampling—they’re unquestionably part of the 21st-century sound-and-musicscape—I say, fine. Just like with CGI, mo-cap, projections, and holograms, I want writers, composers, directors, and designers to use whatever’s available to create their images and express their ideas. If a show requires two kazoos or a one-man band, go for it, I say. (Yes, I know there are contractual constraints; I’m pretending there aren’t for the sake of argument.) It’s akin, I think, to Leroy Anderson’s writing a composition that incorporates an actual typewriter in its orchestral arrangement. But music meant to be played by a live, 20-piece band sounds wan and lifeless if there are just ten musicians in the pit backed by a digital music machine. As one Broadway violinist put it: “First they take away 10 of our 15 violins, and then add a synthesizer, but it’s not the sound of live people.” That’s exactly what I warned could happen at the dawn of the technical theater era if amplification proliferated: “What makes theater special—its liveness—will deteriorate.” As the Post and Courier advised: “Why not just go to the movies and see virtual drama instead?”

The union’s fears are not entirely unfounded. In addition to the threat by producers to use RealTime’s and Musical Arts’ virtual orchestras to break Local 802’s strike in 2003, most “live” shows in Los Vegas (where lately a number of Broadway musicals have moved after their New York runs) and Branson, Missouri, are performed to recorded scores. Recent tours of The Music Man and Miss Saigon went out with synthesized orchestras, Cameron Mackintosh replaced half the musicians in the pit at London’s Les Miz with a virtual orchestra in 2004, and machines are in use in small regional theaters. The Miss Saigon touring company, for example, performed with 11 musicians and a “music-making computer” that replaced 19 others. (The original Broadway production had been scored for 26 instruments.) Newsday’s Linda Winer asked, back in 2003: “Has the deeply sensual pleasure already been so diminished by amplification and mechanical imitation that we no longer can comprehend the profundity of the connection or understand the real threat of its extinction?” She added: “[T]urning the great tradition of the American musical into karaoke is not exactly waving the flag for national pride . . . .”

The synthesizer can have its place in practical theater. Aside from just filling out a short-staffed pit band, it can substitute for exotic or unusual instruments, such as the Asian percussion in the score of the traveling Miss Saigon. Composer-lyricist Maury Yeston, who generally rejects virtual musicians in favor of living ones, recounted that tours of his musicals Titanic and Phantom of the Opera, one originally scored for 26 instruments and the other for 24, could only afford to travel with 10 each. On one-night stops at large theaters, where there wasn’t time to hire and rehearse supplemental musicians locally, the companies relied on synthesizers—which Yeston said performed admirably and permitted the 20 players to have a year’s gig that otherwise would have been lost. But road shows are “streamlined,” as Bruce Weber characterized it, out of necessity and as Yeston pointed out, a Broadway house is a different matter. Weber wondered, however, “how much streamlining turns a Broadway show into something less than a Broadway show.” Furthermore, in supporting the 2003 AFM strike, Actors’ Equity (whose members were among the Broadway guilds refusing to cross Local 802’s picket lines) stated: “Our members have made it clear that they do not wish to perform to virtual orchestras,” and several prominent actors recorded statements in support of live music on Broadway even though some actors’ agents advised against such open opposition to the producers. As I said, I was never a musical actor, but I can’t imagine playing to computerized accompaniment. “You can’t hear the downbeat,” said one actress-singer, “there’s no conductor. It’s kind of a mess.” No matter how well-programmed, it will always feel “mechanical and unyielding,” as one musician expressed it. An operator of a virtual orchestra machine seemed to agree, saying that it was a useful device but would never replace live musicians: “It’s the same way you wouldn’t want a player piano to replace a piano player.” An actor in musical plays and a writer of musicals as well, Harvey Fierstein declared: “That’s not why people go to live theater. It’s not why I want to be in live theater.” And veteran Broadway music director Paul Gemignani observed: “Music has movement to it. There’s a give and take, and you take that away and it becomes one color. There’s no life.”

It’s the give-and-take Gemignani misses that’s the main deficiency in computerized accompaniment. It’s what most musicians, singers, dancers, and music directors comment on when they compare virtual musicians to live ones. No matter how well the computers can be adjusted to changing tempos and rhythms, the human heartbeat that imbues musical performances with life and warmth is never quite there. Continuing his one-color painting allusion, Gemignani concluded: “[T]here is no nuance.” The connection between a stage performer—a dancer or a singer—and a musician is visceral and, when both are talented and experienced, having rehearsed and performed together for an intense time, nearly instantaneous. A computer, even in the hands of an expert technician, can’t make that connection. A dancer and a violinist, say, have learned to speak each other’s language: they know the subtleties, gestures, and idioms of each other’s art, including the private idiosyncrasies. A technician and the dancer are like a German and a Frenchman trying to communicate: the languages just don’t line up precisely. It’ll always be an approximation.

There are other potential problems from producing with a virtual orchestra. A machine can’t compensate for an error someone else makes, either in the pit or on stage. It can change tempo if a singer speeds up or slows down, assuming the computer operator is on the ball, but it can’t jump in or improvise, skip some bars or anything that only a human player can do. Contrarily, if the computer or the operator makes a mistake, then, say in the case of the Miss Saigon tour mentioned, it’s the equivalent of 19 musicians screwing up all at once. There is also the irony inherent in the proposition that if you fire musicians (or don’t hire them) on the excuse that you don’t need them, and then replace them with a recording—aren’t you just proving you really do need the instruments (but you just don’t want to pay the players).

My friend Kirk (who’s appeared many times now on ROT) and his wife saw Priscilla. Kirk, who’s more musically knowledgeable than I am, says that in the light of the report on the AFM action, he and Pat talked about this aspect of the production. (Aside from going to many musicals, both Pat and Kirk are experienced musical theater performers and directors. Kirk composes musicals and also occasionally plays keyboard for both concerts and plays, while Pat teaches musical-theater acting. They know whereof they speak.) Their first response, Kirk told me, was that they couldn’t really hear any difference. On reflection, Kirk continued, they also decided that a synthesizer worked in Priscilla because the music is supposed to have a sort of “radio” sound to it, as if we were listening to an over-the-air broadcast or the songs had been taped from a radio program. The producers are aiming for a “synthetic pop flavor” in an attempt, they said, “to emulate the cheesy sound of drag clubs in Sydney, Australia, during the 1970s and '80s.” In other words, as I understood Kirk’s explanation, the “canned” timbre some critics of synthesized scores have heard suits Priscilla’s intention well because its music is canned. (Linda Winer characterized musicals with a digitized accompaniment as “karaoke”—but in Priscilla, many of the songs are lip-synched: they’re not really even singing karaoke.) In fact, Priscilla’s producers assert that even if the arbitrator rules in favor of the union, they’d abide by the ruling but still not change the orchestration of the show—they’d pay the string players just to sit in the pit and not play, returning to bygone tradition of “walkers,” because the play’s sound is set the way the creators want it. This situation is what I meant by a show for which a synthesizer is actually an appropriate part of the score. American Idiot may fall into the same category: its intent was to reproduce the sound of a three-man, punk-rock band in concert (or on record)—it’s not a lush Richard Rodgers score swelling up from beneath the stage. While that may not call for computerized music as Priscilla might, it does argue against predetermined, mandatory minimums for the make-up of the pit orchestra (19 for the St. James, where American Idiot ran). Even producers like Margo Lion (Hairspray) acknowledge, “We all love live music; it’s integral to the experience of going to a musical.”

Tino Gagliardi, president of Local 802, wrote:


We, as musicians, have picked Broadway as a venue to express ourselves musically. When we are required to play with a tape or a click track—supplanting the conductor’s guidance and limiting our ability to play expressively—we are deprived of the full experience of live performance.

The magic of live performance is the reason we all became musicians in the first place. When audiences hear it—when they feel it in their bodies—they know that it is incomparable.

Harvey Fierstein characterized working with digital accompaniment by declaring: “We’re professionals, we’re artists—a machine is a dead thing.” Working with a virtual orchestra, Fierstein said, is no substitute for live instruments. “It’s a computer made to sound like a roller rink—it’s not a pretty sound.” New York Times music reviewer Anthony Tommasini described the “weird, disembodied” digital music as “thin, tremulous and phony.” Bruce Weber, who went out to California to hear the 2003 tour of Miss Saigon, reported that “you can tell the difference between a fully human-powered orchestra and a part-machine-powered one. The latter has a tinnier sound, a little less round, not quite as, well, beautiful.” What digitized music sounds like to my untrained ear is the way an impressionist sort of sounds like the famous person he’s impersonating, but it isn’t quite the same. (It’s definitely Memorex.) Linda Winer summed up the experience of being in the audience of a synthesized musical, alluding to the prevalence of amplification of both onstage performers and pit instruments that make the sound in a theater so artificial and inhuman in general, by lamenting: “When the whole theater sounds like a jukebox, why should anyone care if it becomes one?”

[Local 802 has joined with the nonprofit Council for Living Music to commission a survey of Broadway audiences. In their monthly magazine, Allegro, the union will publish some of the results over the next several issues. In the June issue of Allegro, the “President’s Report” includes quoted remarks about the question from the union’s website (www.Local802afm.org), all of them in support of the musicians’ position on live music versus recorded sound. The union is also a sponsor of www.SaveLiveMusicOnBroadway.com, which includes a petition collecting signatures to support live music in Broadway theaters.]

11 June 2011

'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo'

[I should confess that though I saw Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger some months ago, I delayed publishing a report on the performance for several reasons. The first, which was beyond my control, was a computer crash which denied me access not just to the Internet (and, consequently, ROT), but also my wordprocessor. The second problem, entirely in my control, was that I simply didn’t know what to say about the play. Readers may feel that I still don’t—and I won’t debate that. The principal obstacle has been determining what the play is supposed to be about, what Joseph is writing about. I couldn’t figure it out and so I kept putting off writing my performance report. ~Rick]

My mother was in New York for a late-birthday/early-Mother’s Day visit, so we went up to the TKTS booth on Tuesday, 19 April, to see if we could score tix for some worthwhile show. I was armed with a short list of preferences, but we were open to any number of other possibilities that might be available. Among the choices I’d preselected were The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Brian Bedford was playing Lady Bracknell to great acclaim, and Rajiv Joseph’s recently-opened (on 31 March) Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starring Robin Williams as the Tiger. Both plays were available, so on the strength of several reviews and the recommendation of a friend, plus the description of the show as ground-breaking theater and reports of Williams’s performance as excellent, I chose Joseph’s Broadway début over the golden oldie (which, alas, is one of my very favorite plays of all times). I’d seen Joseph’s last New York outing, Gruesome Playground Injuries at the Second Stage Theatre last February, and though I had been very disappointed in the play, I’d read great reports of the new one, on its way then from L.A. where it had premièred with the same director, Moisés Kaufman, and most of the cast except Williams. (The tiger was played by Kevin Tighe in L.A.) Everyone who’d seen or heard of Bengal Tiger was anxiously waiting for it to open here, so I based my choice on all that anticipation, willing to give Joseph another shot because of what had been written about the young playwright, who’d already had two previous Off-Broadway plays presented here (both also at 2ST) and whose work had been frequently produced in theaters around the country over the past five or so years. (Joseph is currently a writer for the cable series Nurse Jackie.)

Bengal Tiger, a runner-up for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in drama, preemed in Los Angeles two years ago at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City before moving to the Mark Taper Forum in downtown L.A. (The drama prize last year was won by the musical Next to Normal.) In the Times review of the Broadway turn, Charles Isherwood compared Bengal Tiger to “a majestic cat serenely striding through a litter of cute-as-can-be kittens” and said it “asks us to think and feel like adults.” (Michael Feingold’s Village Voice review was almost breathless.) That makes it an attractive choice for a theater evening, a grown-up play with serious theatrical credentials, “directed with gorgeous finesse.” On top of that, Pat, the actress-director wife of my friend Kirk, saw the play in March and reported that it was “wild,” with “excellent acting,” including from Williams, who Pat said was “outstanding.” That clinched it for me, so I selected Bengal Tiger over Earnest—but I may have made a misjudgment.

Ordinarily, I don’t use reviews slavishly as my guide to theater choices. First of all, I know better: I used to write them myself on occasion and I know how personal the response of a reviewer is. Second, I have serious problems with Ben Brantley, the principal reviewer for the New York Times, so I habitually set his evaluations aside and read his notices for descriptions of the play and the productions and whatever else I can glean that’s more objective than the quality assessment. I usually have less trouble with Isherwood, with whose opinions I often find myself agreeing, and he wrote the notices for Bengal Tiger—he saw the L.A. staging, too—which he pronounced “visionary.” Furthermore, since I just recently saw Gruesome Playground Injuries, Joseph’s last play (see my report on ROT, 23 February), and had strong reservations about its dramaturgy, I should certainly have had doubts, but the report from Pat, whose judgment I respect, and the overwhelming praise that Bengal Tiger got in advance of its New York appearance encouraged me. Unhappily, the review I should have heeded, from a source I usually dismiss, was Roma Torre’s notice on New York 1, the local news channel of Time Warner Cable TV here in New York. Torre ended the opening to her review by asking: “How did this pretentious work get so far?” Torre, whose credentials as a theater reviewer are dubious (she’s also a general-subjects reporter and news anchor for the station), really nailed the analysis this time.

I’ll come back to this later, but there’s nothing wrong with the performances in the New York incarnation of Bengal Tiger, including Williams’s—though I think too much was made of the role in the press coverage. I have some complaints about Kaufman’s directing, which I’ll get to shortly, but the production’s design, like the acting, is fine. The fundamental problem, however, is entirely and wholly the result of Joseph’s script, and I’m going to dwell on that here rather than the production.

Joseph’s play unfolds from the perspective of a tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, played here by Williams, being guarded by two Marines. Williams isn’t costumed in anything reminiscent of Tony the Tiger or even Cats; his only “fur” is a full gray-streaked beard. (The Voice ran a drawing with Feingold’s review depicting Williams’s beard with tiger stripes.) The plot follows the two Marines, the tiger, and Musa, an Iraqi man who serves as the American unit’s translator, as they negotiate the aftermath of the war in Iraq in 2003, the first year of the U.S. invasion. In the first scene, the two GI’s—the cocky and as-yet untested Kev and the quieter, more combat-experienced Tom—banter about their experiences in the war, the tiger they guard from marauders, and what they’ve witnessed so far. Kev brags about the feats he’ll perform when he sees combat, and Tom confesses that he was one of the raiders who sacked Uday Hussein’s palace, where everything was made of gold, including the toilet seats—one of which the GI looted and has hidden somewhere for later retrieval—and a gold-plated pistol he carries in his knapsack. The impetuous and puerile Kev persuades Tom to show him the trophy, and while he’s wielding it, Tom ventures too close to the tiger’s cage and is mauled, prompting Kev to shoot the cat, killing him. For the rest of the play, the tiger is a ghost beast, wandering the chaotic city as the two Marines try to retrieve the buried golden toilet seat and the golden gun that changes hands like the Maltese falcon. I won’t detail the incidents that befall the characters on their increasingly desperate journey to recover the looted riches, but I will add that the tiger gets to meander through the city commenting on the events like a feline Jimminy Cricket. It seems that Joseph wants us to understand that death, apparently not quite the end of existence (there are other ghosts, including animals, a little girl, and a still-arrogant Uday Hussein), renders the recently deceased wise and clear-sighted—not to mention rhetorically enigmatic. (Calling the Ghost Whisperer!)

For the moment, let me just quote NY1’s Torre: “There is a case to be made for such a provocative conceit. But Joseph only seems capable of raising profound questions. There's little here in terms of insight or understanding. And his storytelling is disjointed.” When my mother turned to me, first at intermission and then at the end, to ask what it had all meant (I deferred my answer at intermission), I couldn’t help her much, but I should have cited Torre. Joseph has stated that he’s interested in “how primal forces like longing, or desire or a hunger for faith can take us to wild places,” which was the philosophical basis for GPI and I take it that the playwright’s exploring the same theme here only in a more fraught circumstance with more deadly consequences. (At the risk of giving too much away, I’ll reveal that by the end of the play, most of the characters have died violently.) So we see that in a drive for glory, wealth, and survival, Joseph’s characters, especially the Marines, venture more and more deeply into dangerous circumstances and actions. Well, isn’t that news! Soldiers and survivors in war and in the aftermath of war engage in extreme behavior. (Let’s not even get into the fact that the extreme acts in which the characters in Bengal Tiger engage are war crimes: theft and murder.) Can that over-obvious lesson be what Joseph is writing about? (When I was going through the officers’ basic course in the army back in 1969, a point one instructor made was that combat increases all a soldier’s appetites: the desires for comfort, food, drink, gambling, sex, and risk. If the army was telling us that over 40 years ago, it can’t be much of a revelation today.) This all reminds me of a well-known slogan from the ‘60s anti-war movement: “War is not healthy for children or other living things”—which was as obvious a statement then as it is now.

Most of the reviews offered the same basic interpretation of the play, which Patrick Healy called a morality play in the New York Times: it’s about the depths to which humans can fall under the kinds of pressures that afflict them in a war zone. After all, we saw it in Vietnam, which was a similar combat experience in that the front lines were undefined and the enemy—the threat—was all around and indistinguishable from friends and allies. We’re seeing it in Afghanistan as well. Torre summed the themes up this way: “What's the meaning of life? War is hell. Where is God?” adding, “Round and round it goes . . ., a two hour riff on such existential imponderables.” The obstacle I have is that, aside from being an obvious statement that’s already been made in numerous movies and TV shows (and not a few plays) since the ‘60s, Bengal Tiger doesn’t make that point very clearly or directly and loads the message with symbolism and ambiguous imagery that just wasn’t easy for me to follow. Not only is the main figure of revelation and rationality the ghost of the tiger, a confusing enough image on its own, but the dead Uday Hussein comes and goes as well, and I can’t be sure what he represents. Perhaps it’s over-obvious, but I presume there’s something in the fact that the interlocutor of the play’s themes is a beast who’s become an anthropomorphic philosopher while the human characters are each in thrall to the part of them that’s bestial. The animals who’d been locked in the zoo had all been killed or run off, but the animals in human form still roam the city. But I can’t help feeling that Joseph is trying to say something more by having Tom steal two iconic items from the looted palace, a gun and a toilet seat. Since the Marine makes the point that everything in Uday’s palace was made of gold, why single out those two objects? Violence and biological needs? I guess the gun, aside from being a plot element (it was used first to kill the tiger, after all, and then others), is obvious—greed + violence—but in a war environment, a gold gun has some general significance. But the toilet seat? I suppose it’s just a funny item, but it nags at me that Joseph is saying something, especially since it’s the object of the treasure hunt that propels the rest of the play’s plot. A prosaic object rendered irresistible to greed? Other symbols in the mesh include Uday’s garden where the tiger ends up, landscaped with animal topiary, now drying up and dying for lack of water and care, and Tom’s loss of a hand after which he returns to Baghdad from the States (with a prosthesis and phantom pain) only to die at the hands of Kev in the hunt for the gold toilet seat. These elements of the plot came flying at the audience so fast and with so little context most of the time that I couldn’t sort them out and finally lost track as I tried to keep up with the convoluted story. GPI was plagued with incomplete episodes, lives and characters that started but didn’t conclude. Bengal Tiger has a dramaturgical fault that doubles up on this: the plot elements, episodes that aren’t quite as disconnected as they are in GPI, not only don’t end but don’t really begin, either. They start from nowhere (except maybe in Joseph’s head) and then roil the drama before evaporating unexplained. It seems clear that others either follow Joseph’s thinking—or are pretending to; I couldn’t. Marilyn Stasio called Bengal Tiger a “metaphysical drama” in Variety, but I wonder how well metaphysics works on stage. (In Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, I saw how poorly political philosophy fares.) The tiger’s philosophical meditations, dotted with profanities, get hard to focus on. The Voice’s Feingold called them “triple-decker speeches,” implying that they communicate (or don’t) on many levels at once, but I found that distracting and confusing. I said I usually dismissed NY1’s reviews: I feel they’re low-brow. Maybe that’s my problem with Bengal Tiger: I’m just not smart enough to get it. Even after trying to suss the meaning of Joseph’s play out, I was unable to.

I have to assume that Kaufman had some idea of what the play should be about, and I guess he directed it to make that point. It has to be a failing that he didn’t communicate it to me, though maybe he made himself clear to everyone else (except, of course, my mother). I also wonder if perhaps Kaufman chose the wrong style for the script. While Joseph’s play can be seen as a basically realistic war story with a moral, it isn’t. Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post described it as a blend of black humor and surrealism, which pretty well capsulizes the writing style. The situations are slightly incongruous (a golden gun, a garden of topiary) and all those ghosts surely lift us above any kind of quotidian actuality. But Kaufman lets Joseph’s narrative and prose poetry do the work of establishing the production’s style, making no attempt to capitalize theatrically on the supernatural aspects of the script. I wonder if maybe he ought to have developed a staging style more in concert with the play Joseph wrote, a kind of North American magical realism, say, instead of one undercutting it.

As I said, the performances are fine. The Tom of Glenn Davis and Kev of Brad Fleischer are appropriately driven and haunted, each in his own individual way. Fleischer’s tightly wound Kev is irrepressibly immature—and reminded me of a young soldier with whom I served in Berlin in the ‘70s who got himself into deep, deep trouble of a different kind for somewhat different reasons; but both are driven by their youth and unchecked urges. Arian Moayed’s Musa, the Marines’ translator and sometime foil, moves from a kind of anguished subservience through confusion and puzzlement to his own driven quest. In fact, despite Williams’s personal stardom and the fact that he’s the title character, Moayed’s Musa, Uday Hussein’s gardener who created the topiary park, is by far the most interesting character in the play and if the script weren’t so diffuse, both Moayed’s character and his performance would be the center of the drama. (Moayed was the subject of a New York Times profile, “From Starry-Eyed to Star” by Melena Ryzik, 2 May.) Other cast members are good to excellent, including the repellent Uday of Hrach Titizian, and the production elements (the two-level set by Derek McLane, the costumes by David Zinn, the lighting by David Lander) are all effective. Robin Williams is restrained and controlled as the sagacious tiger, avoiding the kind of manic (and usually hilarious) performance style that marks his stand-up gigs and his appearances on talk shows like Letterman. (One critic suggested that the role might have been selected to give Williams a respite because of his recent bypass surgery.) I can’t fault his work in the title role of Bengal Tiger, but I’m confounded a little by the fuss made over the part. One typically hyperbolic notice (in the Hollywood Reporter) dubbed Williams’s presentation as “Lenny Bruce meets Friedrich Nietzsche in the body of a man-eating predator,” and Variety’s Stasio called it “phenomenal.” Maybe it’s just that it’s Williams’s Broadway acting début—he’s done comedy performances on Broadway but this is his first play there—but while the actor’s work is more than acceptable, it’s hardly a part worthy of all the hype or congratulatory press he’s gotten. (Williams was conspicuously omitted from the Tony nominations in May.) The tiger comes and goes for a few minutes at each appearance, speaking words of wisdom, and then disappears for large chunks of the play. The character demands no pyrotechnical acting, just strong confidence and honesty, which Williams provides admirably. Aside from the scruffy attire—the tiger’s outfitted in a T-shirt, khakis, and an open vest—with his beard, Williams looks as much like an itinerant rabbi as anything else.

I suppose that my profound confusion suggests that none of the artists did their jobs flawlessly, but I’m loath to blame the actors and director for not untangling the muddle caused by the playwright. In my report on GPI, I quoted one reviewer who asserted that that production was an example of what a good director can make of a flawed play; that I don’t feel that happened with Bengal Tiger is not a reflection on the work of Kaufman or his company. If the wherewithal to make the repairs isn’t in the script somewhere, there’s only so much others can do. I don’t think my mother and I were the only spectators who left the Richard Rodgers Theatre that night without fully appreciating the production. The applause at the end seemed a little unenthusiastic to me—though maybe I’m projecting. What really astonishes me, though, is the press reception I’ve read. Beginning with the reports from L.A. last year, the press seems to have been primed for a dramatic home run. How come so many theater journalists saw something in Bengal Tiger that I missed so completely?