27 May 2012

Taos & Taos Pueblo: History

[Welcome to part two of my discussion of the town of Taos and the nearby Indian pueblo that predates it. (If you haven’t read part one, which gives some background and sets the scene for this exploration, I recommend going back to my last ROT post and catching up first.) This section mostly covers the history of the area, both the Indian people through colonial times and the modern town in the 20th century. If you consider the history as I’ve outlined it, you’ll get an inkling of why so many different people, from the Pueblo Indians themselves to the artists and writers centuries later to the hippies of the 1960s, were attracted to this area of the country and why some people have fought so fiercely to hold on to it and the life they made there.]

Spain conquered the territory of Nueva México between 1540 and 1542 when Francisco Vázquez de Coronado took a huge force north to find the legendary Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. The first Spanish governor of New Mexico, Juan de Oñate, was appointed in 1598. The Spanish remained in control of New Mexico until 1821, when Mexico wrested its independence from its mother country and took command of Nueva España and all its North American territories. Texas broke away in 1836 to become an independent state allied to the United States, and after the Mexican-American War, the U.S. took the territories of Arizona, New Mexico, California, and part of Colorado as booty in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The residents of the Taos Valley, Indian, Spanish, and Anglo, shifted ostensive allegiance with each change of administration. Many things changed with each shift, as you might imagine, often not for the best for one party or another.

When the Spanish first settled in Taos, relations with the native Indians were friendly for the most part. Pueblos aren’t generally hostile and their society is built on accommodation and appeasement, not aggressiveness and competition. They’re also not acquisitive so territorial conquest isn’t part of their epistemology. Land isn’t a commodity to be owned in any case, so sharing it with others, as long as everyone leaves everyone else alone to live their lives as they see fit, is not a problem. The Pueblos had been sharing the land for centuries with each other, the Hopi and the Navajo, and, less easily, the Apache. But as the Spanish grew more numerous and the reach of the Inquisition spread to New Spain, the Taos Indians felt threatened and oppressed as missionaries, looking for converts, meddled in the Indians’ religious affairs and the colonial leaders demanded tribute and slave labor. Indian men were locked up or whipped for breaking the Spaniards’ laws and forced conversions became the rule. By 1640, the tensions had grown to the boiling point and the Taos natives revolted, killing the priest and several settlers. The Indians left the pueblo for 21 years, until they were persuaded to return by the new governor, López de Mendizábal.

The situation only got worse. Punishment for infractions was brutal and arbitrary and when 40 men were hanged for refusing to abandon their native religion, Taos Pueblo became the center of a rebellion organized by Popé, a medicine man from San Juan Pueblo hiding in Taos. Popé quietly traveled from village to village, and on 10 August 1680, all the pueblos rose up in the Pueblo Revolt. The Indians killed almost 500 settlers and 21 priests in the churches the Spaniards had imposed on the villages. They tore down the churches, destroying the records of the settlements, and every Indian who’d been forcibly baptized was bathed with amole, a ritual cleanser made from yucca plants, to remove the stain of Spanish corruption. The Spanish invaders retreated back to Mexico and for a time, Nueva México and the Four Corners area was once more free of its colonial masters after 82 years. The Spanish abandoned Pueblo territory for a dozen years.

The Spanish reinvaded New Mexico in 1692, but the Pueblos remained restive, striking at the invaders from the mountains, until 1696 when Governor Diego de Vargas defeated the Indians at Taos Canyon. The Pueblos disarmed and moved back to their villages. In the 18th century, the Spanish governors of New Spain and New Mexico executed many royal land grants that carved up the territory into large tracts controlled by powerful Spanish families and soldiers rewarded for service to the Spanish Crown. The conditions for both settlers and Indians in New Mexico and Taos remained mostly unchanged into the 19th century. In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain and gained control of all of New Spain including New Mexico; the people of Taos, however, felt little change in the far-northern outpost of the new nation. Until the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1826, that is.

The Santa Fe Trail was an early-19th-century version of an Interstate Highway, stretching from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Even though New Mexico and most of the West was part of Mexico, Americans took advantage of the relatively easy route (for the day, mind you) and came to New Mexico in droves to benefit from the open land, fertile soil, and untapped opportunity; one early such traveler was 16-year-old Christopher Carson, known since childhood as “Kit,” who became a prominent and famous Taoseño. (In 1835, those same kinds of American settlers had become a powerful force in the Mexican territory of Tejas and declared the territory independent of Mexico. A revolution, including the famous Battle of the Alamo in 1836, eventually established the Republic of Texas.) By the 1830s, though, Mexican rule had reached Taos and in 1837, the alcalde (mayor) of Don Fernando de Taos was arrested and imprisoned by the Mexican government for taking a bribe to release a relative from jail. Everyone in town took up arms and on 3 August, with some Indian allies, freed the alcalde, launching the Revolt of 1837 (also called the Chimayó Rebellion). Albino Pérez, the regional governor, hearing of the uprising, headed north from Santa Fe on 9 August. When Pérez’s force met the rebels en route, his militia abandoned him and joined the insurrectionists. Pérez returned to Santa Fe for safety but fled the city with a few loyal soldiers. Pérez was intercepted by a band of Indians who killed and beheaded him; the northern rebels sent his head back to the capital. The norteños selected José Gonzales, a Taos Indian, as governor.

Gonzales’s government was no more popular than its predecessor, committing many outrages, mostly outside Gonzales’s control, and a counterrevolution ensued. Upon defeating the forces of the rebel government, the counterrevolutionaries under Manuel Armijo, a prominent soldier and politician, arrested Gonzales. The former governor and others were given amnesty, but after a month the revolt resurged and Armijo, appointed governor of New Mexico in January 1838, marched north to quell the new uprising. This time, on 23 January 1838, he executed four of the original rebels, including the alcalde of Taos who had been the catalyst for the revolt. He marched on Gonzales’s forces and the former governor fled, only to be captured and publicly executed in the plaza of Santa Cruz. Armijo remained in office until the United States Army took over the territory at the start of the Mexican-American War.

After the United States occupied New Mexico at the start of the Mexican War, the pueblo staged the Taos Rebellion in 1847. On 19 January 1847, a mob of Mexicans and Indian allies broke into Governor Charles Bent’s home in Taos, shot him with arrows, and scalped him in front of his family while he was still alive. The insurrectionists killed Brent, the sheriff, the circuit attorney, and the brothers-in-law of Bent and Kit Carson in front of the women, including Carson’s wife, and children. The next day, a larger rebel force murdered seven men at Arroyo Hondo and shot eight traders passing through the village of Mora. The American response followed quickly: Colonel Sterling Price, the military governor of the territory, marched north from Santa Fe with 300 men and routed the larger but untrained rebel force. Fifteen hundred revolutionaries took refuge in Taos Pueblo, barricading themselves behind the thick adobe walls of the Mission San Gerónimo. Colonel Price stormed the pueblo walls with axes and ladders and the Americans bombarded the church with howitzer fire and breached a hole in the wall through which Price continued to fire, killing about 150 of the rebels with rifle fire as they fled. The U.S. force captured some 400 insurrectionists in hand-to-hand combat at a loss of about seven American soldiers. In the aftermath, 28 of the rebels were tried for murder and treason and hanged in Taos. There were a few more skirmishes after the Siege of Taos, but after they were put down, the New Mexicans and Indians ceased armed rebellion.

In 1922, Taos Pueblo was a leader in forming the All Pueblo Council, aimed at defeating the Fall-Bursum bill, passed by the U.S. Senate to transfer the title of pueblo lands to American squatters living on them before 1902. The bill, requested in 1921 by President Warren G. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, and proposed by Senator Holm O. Bursum of New Mexico, was defeated in the House of Representatives with the help of several sympathetic Anglo organizations. In 1926, when governmental pressure was exerted to break pueblo ceremonialism, the entire Taos Tribal Council went to jail for defying an order forbidding the Taos Indians from keeping their sons out of school for kiva initiation. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs had informed the Taos council that their religion made the boys “half animals” and prohibited them from staying out of school for initiation rites. The members of the council refused to comply and were jailed for violating the religious-crimes law. They were released by a federal court under public pressure.

Out of these conflicts evolved the Blue Lake Controversy of 1933. In 1906, the United States Government had seized tens of thousands of acres in which the Taos Indians had hunted and worshipped for centuries. By executive order, President Theodore Roosevelt placed 130,000 acres of Taos landscape, including Blue Lake, 25 miles north of town at an altitude of 11,000 feet up Mount Taos (Wheeler Peak), into Carson National Forest, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. Decades later, in an attempt to secure property rights for Anglo residents of Taos, the U.S. Congress negotiated with the Taos Pueblo, whose Spanish land-grant title to the land had been recognized by the U.S. Government, to purchase the land on which the town of Taos sits. The pueblo council rejected the proposal because they preferred secure rights to their sacred Blue Lake, referred to as the Indians’ “cathedral.” Despite Congress’s efforts, the Taos Council refused to sign the land deal and finally Congress agreed to exchange the Taos land for secure rights to the Blue Lake area. The Taos Indians relinquished payment of $142,000, but got what they wanted: undisputed access to the home of the kachinas, the sipapu, the source of all their blessings. (Many Native Americans believe that the sipapu is where souls emerge from beneath the Earth at birth and where they return to the spirit realm after death. Arguably the most sacred site in Indian theology, it is also the gateway to the home of the gods and where prayers must go to reach them. Each tribe and pueblo has its own sipapu; Blue Lake is the Taos Indians' traditional place of emergence.)

The Blue Lake dispute was not finally resolved until 15 December 1970, however, when President Richard Nixon signed Public Law 91-550, the Blue Lake Wilderness Protection Act. Sentiments in Taos County were divided when that bill was before Congress, according to the weekly Taos News: the Taos Town Council supported the bill; the Taos County Commission opposed it, citing concern for the water rights in the Rio Pueblo de Taos Watershed, the only source of domestic water for the pueblo and the town. There is evidence that the president’s final decision was influenced by a special viewing of a documentary, made during the San Gerónimo Festival period of 1969 and aired in November 1970 on NET (the predecessor of PBS) as the penultimate episode of Our Vanishing Wilderness, an eight-part ecology series. The film, The Water Is So Clear that a Blind Man Could See, made by Shelly and Mary Louise Grossman and their collaborator, John N. Hamlet, focused on the environmentalism of the Taos Indians. “Our ancestors came out of Blue Lake, long ago,” said an elderly Indian trying to explain the significance of the legislative action. “Blue Lake nourishes everything. It is the source of our wisdom, of our life. . . . Do you understand?”

Again, in 1936, Taos incited a revolt against the dominance of pueblo affairs by the influence of a woman Indian agent; and still again, in 1949, it rebelled against demands for a new ‘democratic’ government to supplant the old council, a system of elders and heredity. In an outgrowth of the 1948 extension of the right to vote to Native Americans, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, supervised plebiscites in all pueblos to decide if the old council system should be supplanted by an elected pueblo government. Most pueblos voted to change their systems, but the ultra-conservative Taos Pueblo sent the BIA representative away, though the pressure to change the system remained strong both from within the pueblo, split between the younger residents and the older ones, and from outside. Nonetheless, the pueblo is still governed the old-fashioned way: a governor, responsible for civil and business affairs within the pueblo and relations with the Anglo world, and a war chief, in charge of safeguarding the mountains and Indian lands beyond the village walls, are appointed annually by the Tribal Council, made up of about 50 male elders. None are elected democratically.

The Taos area experienced other upheavals unassociated with the Native American population of the territory. There are still Latino and Chicano families in Taos County who trace their lineage back to the original Spanish settlers and whose land is part of old Spanish land grants going back to the 16th and 17th centuries. For them, this wasn’t the southwest—it was El Norte, the North. These norteño families, many of whom speak no English or very little (and even then, only begrudgingly), have lived in the valleys of northern New Mexico since long before Anglos came there in any numbers, when the Santa Fe Trail opened the way. Many of the present-day norteños live on the very same land that their ancestors from New Spain and later Mexico had defended against raiding Comanches. These residents of the secluded Taos Valley, which resisted assimilation into the dominant culture even by the Latino settlers—there’s just something in the water up there!—adamantly kept their traditions and Spanish/Mexican culture. Though some, especially the later generations, learned English, they maintained their fluency in Spanish even after the region became part of the United States. They don’t speak standard Spanish, however, or even contemporary Mexican Spanish, but a backwoods norteño dialect full of archaisms, colloquialisms, and contractions. Some of the villages look like towns the current residents’ ancestors might have inhabited in Renaissance Spain. These families have roots that predate the Declaration of Independence, going back to when there were no people living in the valley other than Indians. And this doesn’t even take into consideration that the Spanish settlers, unlike the English to the east, frequently intermarried with the Indian people among whom they lived so that the forbears of these northern New Mexicans include the native peoples who settled the Taos Valley centuries earlier.

Now, New Mexico’s a territory that has generally respected its Hispanic inhabitants. The upstart Anglos may have gained economic and political dominance, and prejudices and biases continue to exist, but the descendants of the norteños are among the region’s “first families,” with members in high political office, business and professional leadership, artistic prominence, and importance all across the middle class of local society. Over the decades, however, when New Mexico was a territory of the United States (1846-1912), Anglo land speculators, assisted by Chicano allies, corrupt officials, and biased courts, surreptitiously wrested title of the grant lands from the norteños, effectively stealing the legacy of their forbears without their even realizing it until it was too late. Eventually, the grantees sued, but their lawyer asked only that the court restore the title to their homes and the land they farmed; control of the remaining 21,000 acres of common land, grazing and forest land amounting to up to 90% of the grant, was retained by the Anglos who sold it for a profit. Whereas Congress eventually acted in behalf of the Taos Indians in the Blue Lake matter, the U.S. courts didn’t uphold the rights of these unworldly Latino citizens, guaranteed in 1848 by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, acting instead as an instrument of their victimization. On 5 June 1967, the resentment and anger broke out into violence in neighboring Rio Arriba County when a band of Chicanos led by Reies Lopez Tijerina, a Tejano and one-time evangelical preacher, protested the repression by police and political officials of the land-grant heirs’ attempts to press their claims and tried to make a citizen’s arrest of a local district attorney in the county seat, Tierra Amarilla. The plan went wrong and several town officials were wounded, two were kidnapped, and the National Guard—complete with tanks—occupied the town while police conducted an indiscriminate round-up of Chicano residents. This incident became known as the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid. (Though acquitted in a state trial before a sympathetic Hispanic jury, Reies was retried on federal charges in Las Cruces, transferred from Albuquerque, before an all-Anglo jury hostile to Mexicans. Reies ended up sentenced to prison time and eventually moved to Mexico in the 1990s.)

Artists were drawn to the Taos Valley in a "passive invasion” beginning in the late 19th century, in part because it had remained isolated. It is remote enough from the rest of civilization that, as one recent photographer resident remarked, the mountains keep the critics far enough away that no effort is needed to avoid hearing them. This influx of newcomers into Taos was made up of artists such as Ernest L. Blumenschein and Bert Geer Phillips who arrived in 1898 and helped establish an art colony in Taos. They were studying painting in Paris when painter Joseph Henry Sharp, considered the “spiritual father” of the Taos art scene, advised them to “paint the west before it is gone.” Sharp had come to New Mexico and visited pueblos, though not Taos, in 1883, becoming the first artist to visit the territory. Blumenschein and Phillips were on a sketching trip from Colorado to Mexico when a wheel on their surrey broke and Blumenschein carried it on horseback to the nearest village for repair. That village was Taos and when the painter saw it, he knew he’d found his home. The Taos artists, who enlivened Taos, captured a way of life that was quickly disappearing and their paintings are now valued for both their artistry and their depiction of the old days of Taos. Taos evolved into a world-renowned art colony due to its mix of beauty, mountain light, culture, and tradition. The avant-garde intellectuals and artists who recognized Taos's charm included painter Georgia O'Keeffe, photographers Ansel Adams and Paul Strand, psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and writers D. H. Lawrence and Frank Waters. They were all to one degree or another a part of the salon of Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy East Coast heiress who married Tony Luhan, a Taos Pueblo Indian, and built a home known as Las Palomas, a well-known Taos landmark. Today, Taos is still an active art center, both for working artists, many of whom maintain studios in and around the town, and galleries all over the county that sell their work. Many of the artists are themselves Native American, both from Taos Pueblo and other nearby tribes and from as far away as Colorado and California. In fact, art is something of a local industry, drawing visitors to Taos both for art tourism and serious collecting. (In Santa Fe, just 70 miles south of Taos, the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts exhibits Indian artists and the Institute of American Indian Arts there trains artists from Native American cultures from all over North America.)

From the mid-1960s through the end of the decade, Taos Valley was invaded by another kind of newcomer: hippies. Thousands of flower children from the East and West Coasts, fleeing the “middle-class values” of bourgeois families, moved to the area, establishing or joining communes, or settling into individual crash-pads and, consequently, buying up property. With names like the Five Star Farm, Morningstar, the Reality Construction Company, New Buffalo, Lorien, Lila, the Tree Frog Farm, the Hog Farm, The Family, and so forth, some of these experiments in communal living and subsistence farming were financed by rich guys whose wealth was generated by the profits of large corporations. The newcomers didn’t always ingratiate themselves to the locals: they arrived not knowing the ground rules or the culture, they flouted the conventions of society, they often brought cash into the largely poor territory to buy up land. The freaks, as they were often called by both themselves and others, lived without running water or electricity in places so remote they could only bring in their supplies on foot or horseback. The newcomers offended the locals by bathing, laundering diapers, and washing pots and pans in streams and culverts where families downstream got their drinking and cooking water. Hippies, having responded to the rumors of “free land,” were overburdening the arid, desert soil that barely provided meager subsistence to the people who had been living there for generations (and who, as we’ve seen, had already suffered the theft of their land by larcenous speculators—who, like the hippies, were Anglos). Commune leaders were desperately spreading the word that new arrivals were no longer welcome. Locals complained about the conditions in which the commune dwellers lived and their apparent disregard for other residents, invoking “[p]eople who didn’t know how to dig a hole . . . shitting in the river, spreading amoebic dysentery.”

By the 1970s, the animosity had grown so bad that The New Mexico Review and Legislative Journal, a leftist monthly publication, reported, “The vibrations in Taos are bad,” and cited signs visible in shops and on vans around the county: “DESTROY THE HIPPIES” and “HELP KEEP AMERICA BEAUTIFUL, TAKE A HIPPIE TO A CARWASH”; “every fourth or fifth pickup truck” bore a gun rack holding “a rifle or two” and an “AMERICA, LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT” bumper sticker. Local restaurants announced that they “reserve the right” not to serve anyone deemed a “health menace” and stores and public agencies distributed a right-wing, red-baiting, mimeographed “venom sheet” titled SPOTlight (from the Society for the Protection of Taos) that was rabidly anti-commune. The city of Taos had canceled its long-held summer fiesta because, as the arch-conservative Taos News reported, the residents did not want to encourage a greater influx of hippies. The Taoseños responded to “the hippie problem” with “police harassment, vigilante action, intimidation, violence.” The New Mexico Review reported, for instance, that the state’s General Construction Board had planned a “red tag” raid on Taos-area communes to designate structures that did not meet building codes. The Taos school board “officially” labeled hippies “this cancerous epidemic” and the courts were routinely harsher with longhaired defendants than with native residents or tourists with money and the locals, of both ethnicities, harbored the same sentiment. Vigilante gangs, many made up of Anglo high school boys spurred on by parents, teachers, Taos News editorials and letters, and even the Chamber of Commerce, patrolled Taos County. Said one local: “The thing to do is just shoot every goddam longhair”—even if that action callously eliminated a few desirable writers and artists (not to mention traditionally longhaired Indians). “It doesn’t matter. Just shoot every guy with long hair.”

1970 began with what was locally known as “the Hippie-Chicano War,” a campaign of vandalism and even violence directed against the communards largely orchestrated by the Anglo power structure; there were many violent incidents, including bombings, shootings, and assaults, between the local residents of both Anglo and Hispanic blood and the longhaired newcomers. Calling the town “provincial,” the unidentified Review reporter (whom I believe was novelist John Nichols) alleged that “there’s nothing that quite wakes up the good citizens of the town like shooting or beating a stranger.” Though both Anglos and Chicanos resented the immigration of these outsiders, for many of the same reasons—the new arrivals’ life styles and behavior (especially their hygiene and sanitation practices), their drug use, and their acquisition of local land and real estate—the Chicanos began to see that their attention to the hippies and other newcomers was being encouraged and manipulated by and for the benefit of the Anglos—the descendants of the crooks who’d stolen their land the first time around.

By the end of the decade, though, most of the communes had run into financial problems, exacerbated by stricter regulations of building codes and sanitations laws, and individual hippies found the reality of living off the land harder and less romantic than the notion seemed in San Francisco or upstate New York. Some communes were simply evicted from their subsidized land. A few of the communes continued, but the flood of newcomers subsided and eventually halted, with a number of the former flower children staying on as, simply, new New Mexicans—as protective of the land as any of their predecessors. The Taos artist colony still thrives and is an integral part of the region’s culture, but the hippie invasion, which generated such an upheaval in the isolated little valley, has pretty much disappeared. The period is preserved, however, in numerous contemporaneous books and one remarkable amateur film, made by The Family commune in December 1969 or January 1970. Entitled Peace, Love, 2 Hours—Taos, 1970, the documentary was never released publicly, either commercially or underground, and the film isn’t listed in any catalogue or index of independent or documentary movies.

Today, Taos County is New Mexico’s third largest county and one of the poorest in the state which is 45th in per capita income in the United States. Taos, however, is a center of tourism and recreation, making the contrast stark. The ’60s mindset is still in evidence, embraced by the art community, and a certain freedom of personal expression in appearance and behavior prevails. Taos has over 20 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, including both Taos and Picurís Pueblos and the Downtown Historic District of the modern town, so there’s much of interest for the sightseer and the history or archeology buff. The Pueblo is open to visitors most days except when there’s a tribal ritual to which outsiders aren’t invited. (Cameras are permitted except during religious ceremonies like San Gerónimo, but the pueblo charges a small fee, as it does for admission, and the pueblo closes for about ten weeks in the late winter and early spring.) The ski slopes and the casino both bring in large numbers of entertainment-seekers and the art center and hundreds of galleries and studios attract art tourists and serious collectors both. The Taos Art Museum, at the Fechin House north of the town plaza, is a little gem that’s devoted to the art of Taos’s past, focusing on the early 20th century. It houses some 300 works by 50 Taos artists. (There’s also a University of New Mexico art museum, the Harwood Museum of Art, in town. Both museums charge admission; the studios, open to visitors at the pleasure of the artist, and galleries do not.) If you’re a culture vulture like I am, you can easily spend several days poking around the galleries, shops, and historic sites of Taos—and never go near the casino, ski slopes, or hiking trails!

The climate and weather, not to mention the natural beauty of the environment, of Taos County makes the town and its environs pleasant all year round. Summer daytime temperatures can get very high, but there’s little rainfall and evenings, even on the hottest days, are cool. Summer activities include hiking and camping, fishing, mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting, horseback riding, and many other outdoor pastimes. Two thirds of the Carson National Forest is in neighboring Rio Arriba County, but one third, including Wheeler Peak, is in Taos County. (If you enjoy outdoor pursuits, you could die happy here. The scenery alone could knock you out.) Taos is 1½ hour’s drive north of Santa Fe, 2½ hours northeast of Albuquerque, and 1½ hours northeast of Los Alamos.

[A few words about . . . well, words. In particular, some of the ones I used above. This article is especially loaded with words from Spanish and Indian vocabularies, some of which don’t translate exactly and carry connotations that we don’t necessarily spot readily. On the simplest level, many of the Indian words have various spellings because none of the American Indian languages had written forms until Western anthropologists invented them for the purposes of transcribing native vocabularies and creating dictionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Looking the words up will be hard unless you know that there are different ways to write most of them. Sipapu, for instance, can be spelled shipap, shipapu, shipapulima, or shipapuyna; and chiffonetti is also written chiffoneti, chiffoneta, and other variations (not to mention other, completely different words referring to the same figures in other Indian languages). Anglo, which I said means anyone who isn’t Hispanic or Indian, can refer to someone of German or even African-American heritage. In some contexts it can be a synonym for white or American, but not always. The word’s not inherently insulting or derogatory, but in the right circumstances is can have a pejorative edge, like gringo (a world I didn’t use in this article, but which is part of the same milieu), a polysemous word as it is used among the Chicanos of the Taos County mountains. Depending on its context, it can be endearing, factually descriptive, or insulting.

[Among the other words denoting the various cultural groups which I mentioned in “Taos & Taos Pueblo,” Chicano refers to people specifically of Mexican background—whether they have immigrated to the United States after 1821 (or 1846), or came here with the original Spanish colonists in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. A Tejano (or Tejana) is a Latino person whose family came from Texas when it was still part of New Spain or Mexico, before the Republic of Texas was declared in 1836. (There’s a regional demonym for Texans who are descended from the Americans who established the republic, which only existed from 1836 until 1845, when Texas became the 28th state of the Union. Citizens of the modern state are Texans; citizens of the Republic of Texas are known locally as Texians.) Norteños, as I used it in the article, is a name only for those New Mexican Latinos who migrated from central Mexico in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries to the northernmost territories of New Mexico like Taos County. It shouldn’t be confused with Norte Americanos, which simply means anyone from the United States and Canada—the former British (or Franco-British) colonies of North America. Someone is a Norte Americano whether he comes from New England, Florida, Arizona, Ontario, Alaska, or the Yukon. A norteño only comes from the northern New Mexico counties and traces his ancestry back to the Spanish settlers. He can’t be from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, or Gallup, and he or is forbears can’t have moved into the state after, say, 1846. It’s also pretty much a local appellation, probably meaningless beyond northern New Mexico.

pueblo can be a confusing word because it can mean three different (though related) things. (The word is Spanish for ‘people’ or ‘town.’) Capitalized, Pueblo means the group of Indians, sometimes called Puebloans, from the desert southwest who dwell in the adobe villages like the one I’ve described here. It can also be part of the name of a specific Indian village, such as Taos Pueblo or Picurís Pueblo. Uncapitalized, pueblo refers to the village itself. One last word on this topic: I use both Native American and Indian in “Taos & Taos Pueblo.” Basically, I did that for variety, but while I was in New Mexico, many of the Indians I met there were very clear that they actually preferred that name to Native American, despite common wisdom and political correctness. It’s the name they all grew up with and it has more context than the neutral, artificial Native American. Indian may have been a name given by mistake, a white man’s appellation that bears no relation to the names Indian peoples use for themselves, but Native American can mean any non-European, native people from Inuit and Aleuts to Hawaiians and Samoans as well as American Indians. At least Indian refers explicitly to their own distinct group of people.]

24 May 2012

Taos & Taos Pueblo: Background

[On 4 May, I published a profile of writer Frank Waters, who lived in and wrote about Taos, New Mexico. One of his most passionate subjects was the Taos Pueblo and its people; Waters’s masterpiece novel, The Man Who Killed the Deer (1942), is set in and around the pueblo. In the mid-1990s, I was writing about Leonardo Shapiro, a New York stage director who lived near Taos at the turn of the ’60s and then returned there to retire and, unhappily, die. In May 2002, I took a trip around New Mexico and spent time in Taos and visited the pueblo. It’s little wonder that a writer like Waters, a painter like Georgia O’Keefe, or a theater artist like Shapiro would settle in Taos, which has become a writers’ and artists’ center, as the area has stunning landscape and is chock full of history and the clashes or overlaps of cultures as old as America itself. After writing the Waters profile, I decided to write about Taos and Taos Pueblo, too. I hope you’ll agree that it’s a fascinating subject.

[Because of the complexity of this subject, even in the cursory way I’ve covered it for
ROT, I’ve had to split the article into two parts. In part one below, I’ll discuss the geography of the area, the layout of the Indian pueblo, and some of its ceremonial events. As much detail as I’ve provided here, I can assure you that I’ve only scratched the surface. The Taos Pueblo, the Taos Indians, and their culture are intricate and complex and even the little they allow outsiders to see and understand could fill a book. In fact, it has—many, many books: you already know about Frank Waters’s writing, and in “Frank Waters,” I listed some of the other non-fiction works that discuss the Taos and Pueblo people. That short list is just the tip of the iceberg: there are plenty more where they came from, believe me! If “Taos & Taos Pueblo” whets your appetite, go spelunking in the stacks of any decent library. There’s a lot of information on the ‘Net, too, of course, but the old books, from the turn of the century through, say, the 1970s, are the best. It was all still such a surprise to everyone, such a wonderful gift. We got blasé after a few decades.]

Taos is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America, possibly the longest (there’s a debate with Acoma Pueblo), but the Spanish town, once known as Don Fernando de Taos, dates from around 1615 when the Conquistadores defeated the Pueblo Indians in northern New Spain, including present-day New Mexico. (The Spanish settlers, however, lived within the Indian pueblo until 1795, when they moved to Don Fernando de Taos, the site of the modern town.) The name Taos means "place of red willows" in the Tiwa language spoken by the Taos Indians. (The 19 pueblos in New Mexico are each a separate tribe and don’t all speak the same language. There are five distinct Pueblo languages, including Zuni, spoken only by the members of that pueblo.)

Modern Taos, incorporated only in 1934, is 130 miles northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, and 70 miles north of Santa Fe, the state capital. It’s the seat of Taos County, right in the center of New Mexico’s northern border with Colorado, and sits at an altitude of just under 7,000 feet. Wheeler Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the highest point in the state at 13,161 feet, is 10 miles north of the town; known as Taos Mountain until 1950—and still called that locally—it is sacred to the Taos Indians and located within the reservation lands. (Today the mountains, a southern branch of the Rockies, are home to a ski resort, Taos Ski Valley, begun in 1956, and the Indian-run Taos Mountain Casino, opened in 1997.) The population of Taos in 2000 was 4,700 spread out over about 5½ square miles. Today, the town and the valley are home to three cultures, Anglo (a regional term that designates anyone who’s neither Hispanic nor Indian), Spanish/Mexican, and Native American, and though there are political and social tensions among the groups, some of which have broken out into violence from time to time, the valley’s culture is a combination of all three heritages.

The Taos Valley holds attractions for many who come only to visit or pass through, both today and in decades past. (A few who stayed, following the Ancestral Pueblo People in the 3rd millennium BCE, include the Navajos and Apaches in the 13th century CE, the Spanish in the 16th century, the Mexicans in the 1820s, the Americans in the 1830s, artists from around the world in the 1890s, writers in the 1920s, and hippies in the 1960s.) The land is semi-arid and the soil, paved with a thin layer of pebbles left behind by erosion, is a fine, pewter-hued clay that gets slimy in the rain but dries brittle. As if nature had always intended this place to be a contradiction or a paradox, it is both mountain country and desert; it has bright sun that can heat up the day—the mountains aren’t high enough to shade the floor of the valley, which runs generally east to west—but the nights can be bitter cold. The lands are watered by little rivers, tributaries of the Rio Grande whose sources are in the sacred Sangre de Cristos, which can run icy and clear, lined with aspens, junipers, pines, and cottonwoods (los álamos in Spanish). All along the valleys are unique geologic formations, abundant wildlife, and dazzling scenery and short distances away, the red dirt of the desert and the table-top mesas (like the one atop which Acoma Pueblo sits, 365 feet above the desert floor) seem like a moonscape. Photographer William Davis was drawn to its beauty—“a result,” he believed, “of a rare combination of mystical and human elements.” As writer John Nichols—who lived in Taos and wrote extensively about the area—said of Taos Mountain (Wheeler Peak), which physically, emotionally, and psychologically dominates the town, the pueblo, and all the villages of the valley: It “casts spells” to keep people from leaving and lure back those who try. It’s a region that remained an isolated frontier for three centuries, becoming almost a distinct nation unto itself, surrounded by round hillocks to the south and rocky crags to the west where the Rio Grande River Gorge drops down hundreds of vertical feet.

Though the Taos Indians have a long oral history, they don’t reveal it to outsiders for religious reasons. (Taos Pueblo is among the most traditional and conservative Indian communities in the country; the people have resisted assimilation on almost every level for centuries.) What we believe about the history of the area and the village comes from anthropology and archeology by Western scholars and experts. There is evidence of human presence going back over 12,000 years and of agriculture as early as 3000 BCE. By 200 CE, pit dwellings were constructed and early permanent village life had begun. (There are excavated remains of some Ancestral Pueblo dwellings from as early as 1150 CE at Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos. Ancestral Pueblo People is the currently preferred term for what anthropologists used to call Anasazi, a Navajo word which the Pueblo people dislike because it means ‘ancient enemy.’) Settled around 900 CE, the Taos Valley saw the first large, multi-storied adobe structures around the first millennium. By the dawn of the 14th century, the village of Taos had appeared.

The pueblo, the northern- and easternmost of the existing ancient Indian villages, has been occupied in its current location for centuries (except for brief periods of abandonment during the colonial era, as we’ll see), but the present structures are, of course, not so old. The village is continuously being rebuilt as the adobe—sun-dried bricks made of mud mixed with straw—is constantly restored and new houses replace old ones. The exterior of the adobe walls, usually several feet thick, are regularly replastered with thick layers of mud and the interior walls are carefully coated with thin washes of white earth to keep them clean and bright. The five-story houses are actually many individual homes, built side-by-side like row houses, with common walls but without connecting doorways between the dwellings. (In ancient times, there were no doors or windows at ground level; entry was made through the roof, reached by ladders that could be drawn up for protection. The pueblos were often targets of marauding Apaches as well as Comanches and other tribes from the northern plains.) The roofs of the dwellings, covered with packed dirt for coolness, are supported by large timbers; smaller pieces of wood are placed side-by-side on top of the timbers.

Two buildings, considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited structures in the United States, are believed to date from the mid-16th century: Hlauuma (north house) and Hlaukwima (south house). Taos Pueblo is divided into moieties or halves, each with its own kiva, the ritual chamber, and kiva traditions. The north side is inhabited by the Winter People and the south side by the Summer People. There is a traditional rivalry between the two sides, which is openly played out in the foot races held each 3 May (Santa Cruz Dance), the beginning of the planting season, and again on 30 September (San Gerónimo Day), the end of the harvest.

About 150 people live within Taos Pueblo itself, with another 1,900 on pueblo land (the reservation), approximately 99,000 acres surrounding the village. There are other Taos Indians who live in the American towns nearby and still more who live far away and return for ceremonial events and celebrations. Today the village itself, however, is largely a ceremonial and tourist site. Indians return for religious ceremonies or during tourist season when the houses around the central plaza are used as shops for art and various local crafts such as silver jewelry, some pottery (though the most important Pueblo pottery center is San Ildefonso Pueblo, the home of the late Maria Martinez) and, because Taos Indians were traditionally superb hunters, products made from skins such as moccasins, pouches, and drums. Modern Taos has become an important art center and many Taos Indians are painters and printmakers who combine Western and Indian motifs and techniques into striking art. They maintain permanent galleries in town but in tourist season, they operate small galleries in the pueblo. (On my visit to the pueblo, I met a printmaker who ran a gallery from his mother’s house in the village during the tourist season. His main residence and studio was in Hollywood, Florida, where his family lived while he was in Taos.)

There’s one building within the pueblo that’s alien to the village’s Native American past. As in every Indian village in what was once New Spain, Taos Pueblo has a Catholic church. Spanish colonial practice was to establish a misión in each village, dedicated to a patron saint for the pueblo which would then bear its name, while the priests who accompanied the Conquistadores went about forcibly converting the Indians. The church in Taos, Mission San Gerónimo (St. Jerome), was originally built in 1619 by Indian slave labor. The Church of San Gerónimo de Taos (the pueblo’s full Spanish name) remained until the first Indian revolt against their colonial masters (which I’ll cover briefly in part two); a second chapel replaced the original one until the U.S. Army destroyed it during the Mexican-American War. The present church dates from 1850. The curious thing about the Pueblo Indians and Western religions is that, despite the early resistance and the general refusal of tribes like the Taos Indians to assimilate, they coexist. As prominent in the village as the Catholic church are the pueblo’s kivas, the native “churches,” the center of the Pueblo religious practices. The Indians see no contradiction between their adopted Catholicism (90% of Taos Pueblo’s population is Catholic) and their traditional beliefs. “Yes, most of us are Catholic,” explained one modern Taos Indian. “But that is not in conflict with our older Indian religion. We worship life—the water, the trees, all growing things. We could make room for a newborn Child who came into the world to teach us. We regard every man as an individual brother.” Indeed, when the Spanish friars arrived in New Mexico to convert the Indians, they found the Pueblos intransigent. The Indian ceremonials the priests found when they got there remained, simply redressed in Catholic garb. The Pueblos celebrated the saints’ days on the dates specified by the church, and the ceremonies began with a mass and other Catholic observances—but the celebrations themselves, the dances, prayers, rituals, were conducted just as they had been before the Conquistadores arrived in 1540. The pueblo’s most important celebration, for example, is the Festival of San Gerónimo on 29 and 30 September, a combination of traditional rites and ceremonial events and Catholic practices. All 19 New Mexico pueblos have a similar arrangement: for instance, nearby Picurís Pueblo (San Lorenzo de Picurís) celebrates San Lorenzo Day on 10 August.

Despite this apparent cultural palimpsest, Taos Pueblo is one of the most conservative places in North America. As I’ve noted, the Taos Indians resist assimilation even today. Within the village itself, old ways are enshrined. Taos Pueblo houses are owned by the women while the land is owned by the men. Most Indians speak unaccented English and have Anglo names (for generations past, both were Spanish), but among themselves they use the unwritten Tiwa language and retain Indian names which signify their reverence for the Earth and nature. There are no motor vehicles within the pueblo borders. No modern technology is permitted in the village, though homes on the reservation lands surrounding the pueblo may have modern conveniences and pueblo members who live in town or elsewhere may do as they please. (I visited one family’s home on the reservation, a small ranch-style house with a modern kitchen run off of propane tanks outside, vents for central heating, electric lighting, a TV in the living room, a pick-up truck parked out front, and a satellite dish on the roof. I didn’t see a computer, but the family made and sold jewelry and the little labels for the business included an address for a website, so I assume there’s a computer in the house somewhere.) No one in the pueblo has a TV, radio, telephone, computer, plumbing, or electricity. When visitors come for a festival such as San Gerónimo, no cameras, cell phones, tablets, or iPods are permitted; no one may photograph or record the ceremonies which, even though they may seem like little more than a carnival, are religious rites for the Taos Pueblos. Even note-taking and sketching are prohibited: one artist who attended pueblo events often said he made sketches from memory afterwards, but out of deference to “my friends here,” he wouldn’t exhibit or publish them.

Indian children may go to church and attend Anglo schools if their parents wish, but boys will all be initiated into the appropriate kiva when the time comes. Every part of Pueblo life—the arts, crafts, commerce, social structure, and religion—is intertwined and all tribe members participate in the ceremonials and rites that have been part of their people’s lives, virtually unchanged, since perhaps long before the Ottoman Empire or the Hundred Years’ War. Frank Waters, the Taos-area writer who depicted Indian life in both fiction and non-fiction books, wrote in his masterpiece, The Man Who Killed the Deer, about Martiniano, a young Pueblo man, educated in Western ways and taught to live in the modern world, who finds himself conflicted when he returns to the pueblo and must discover a way to reconcile the two cultures so that he can benefit from what both offer. (Other pueblos are not necessarily as traditional as Taos, though several are. Acoma Pueblo, for instance, also maintains many of the old traditions, including female ownership of the houses. Zuni is also very traditional, and it was the constant breaches of proper behavior, including photo-taking and recording, that resulted in the Zunis’ forbidding outsiders from attending the Shalako ceremony.)

San Gerónimo Day is 30 September, but Taos Pueblo’s celebration begins on the 29th with, as with all similar Pueblo festivals, a mass in the pueblo church. No one finds it incongruous that the Catholic priest blesses the Indian ceremonies that will follow, many of which have roots in the native religion that the Catholic Church would never recognize. Parts of the celebration are religious, or at least spiritual, and other parts are pure entertainment—a common mix among Pueblo ceremonials (and, I believe, those of most Native Americans). The Pueblo Indians have a rich dramatic expression—poetry, myth and history, song, dance, and even magic tricks and clowning—embedded in the ceremonials by which their religion is given external manifestation.

At about 7:30 the morning after the vespers service, shortly after sunup, the traditional foot race between the north and south kivas is run on a course extending east to west, symbolizing the celestial paths of the sun and moon. The two teams number perhaps as many as 50 on each side, ranging from boys, who do most of the running, to men of all ages, who urge the young runners on and help them recover when they’ve completed their legs of the race. The teams assemble at each end of the track, parallel to the little Pueblo River that bisects the village and worn down by decades of use to a level below the surrounding fields, the north kiva team on the north side and the south kiva runners on the south side. Behind the start is a sort of reviewing stand for pueblo dignitaries, but beside the Indian bigwigs also sit an array of santos, hand-carved wooden statues of St. Jerome and other Catholic saints carried from the church. Above them is a large cross made from branches.

The men run in relays, one runner from each kiva starting in the east like the rising sun runs westward about a half a mile where he touches the arm of another runner who returns to the east, and so forth until the winning relay team is declared. No outsider knows the real rules of the foot race; they’re kept a pueblo secret like most rituals, learned in kiva instruction. In 1935 Mabel Dodge Luhan described a race that, like all Pueblo ceremonials, looked virtually the same then as it did centuries before and as it does today: “Teeth bared, heads back, they tear along the track lightly but with incredible swiftness, and they are giving back to earth and sun what they have received.” Despite the crisp September morning, the runners are naked except for a loincloth and a belt of bells. (Spirits are attracted to ringing bells in Pueblo lore.) Most runners race barefoot over the stony, uneven ground to show their disdain for pain. On their chests and backs are painted two diagonal white stripes and their lower arms and upper legs are also painted white; their upper arms and lower legs are painted black with a white band around their ankles. Some runners also use red and yellow paint. They wear eagle feathers in their hair, worn in braids, and pasted wherever their bodies are painted white.

The purpose of the ceremonial race is to assure the sun and the moon sufficient power to make their daily journeys for another year—and to secure long life for the heavenly bodies, the runners, and the village. As one Taos native explained it: “The foot races are literally a race for life. We believe that long ago the world ended when the Sun God fell to the earth at the north end of the race track, plunging the world into total darkness. The foot races are run to draw power and strength from the sun to enable us to survive as a tribe.” Athleticism isn’t the point, of course, and winning isn’t a matter of one kiva team defeating the other; that kind of competitiveness is not an Indian virtue. My friend Leo Shapiro recounted his response to witnessing the race: “It just totally knocked me out. They were racing not against each other. It didn’t matter who won. But they really were racing.” Frank Waters put it this way: “Running not to win from one another, but extending all their strength to the sun for his new race, that once again he might return it to them, the creative power to carry the tribe forward another year.” The winner is the village, the tribe, who benefit from the strength and devotion displayed by their best young men. A well-run race is good for everyone.

Before the Spanish arrived and the Catholic church essentially coöpted the festival, it had been a trade fair at which the Taos Indians hosted their neighbors, including the Apaches, Utes, Hopis, and Navajos, so the afternoon is filled with an arts and crafts fair which includes numerous vendors of food, Indian, Mexican, and American. Today, aside from the Taoseños and Anglo tourists, Indians come from as far away as the Great Plains. Since this is a feast day, friends and family are invited to the villagers’ homes at the end of the day for a meal of red and green chilies, corn, frybread (a traditional Native American flat bread made from deep-fried dough), bread baked in a horno (the beehive-shaped outdoor adobe oven that is essentially the Indians’ traditional kitchen), and other traditional native dishes; also on the menu might be cross-over dishes like “Navajo tacos” (green chilies, beans, cheese, tomato, and lettuce wrapped in frybread), deer-meat chili, pozole soup (pre-Columbian Mexican soup of hominy, or nuxtamal, with meat—usually pork, chicken, or turkey—pork rinds, chili peppers, and seasonings), and cornbread (yes, that cornbread).

At about 4 p.m., chiffonetti (“delight-makers”) or Black Eye clowns, one of the few groups in Pueblo life who must be members of a specific, religious clan, gather around a 50-foot-tall, greased pole in the middle of the pueblo plaza, topped with harvest foods such as corn, apples, melons, and squash, a sack containing a variety of fresh-baked breads and groceries, and a slaughtered deer or sheep. The Black Eyes’ bodies, clad only in a breechcloth and moccasins, are horizontally striped black and white to represent the spirits of the dead, and their unmasked faces are painted white with black circles around the eyes and mouths. They wear their hair parted in the middle and twisted up on either side of their heads like two horns, topped with corn-husk florets. The chiffonetti also wear evergreen branches in their belts or in a bandoleer, or hold them in their hands. Thus encumbered, the chiffonetti, must climb the greased pole, the trunk of an entire pine tree, too wide at its base to reach around and tapering to a point at the pinnacle, and retrieve the food. It’s not so easy to accomplish, a real feat of will and strength. The first to the top then lowers the goods to his brothers below who distribute them to all the villagers. When the climber makes it to the top, he entertains the other villagers gathered below and on the flat rooftops to cheer him on, with jokes and teasing; his fellow Black Eyes join in amusing the crowd with horseplay, acrobatics, and magic tricks. The impromptu entertainment might include mimicking the spectators, Indian, Chicano, or Anglo; acting out local gossip; and even mocking the Catholic ceremonies. Nothing is sacred, for the chiffonetti aren’t afraid of anything, and they gleefully make fun of their own tribe and their village neighbors along with the outsiders—but all with obvious good humor and sense of fun; though some of the fun is pointed and trenchant, no bitterness, insult, or hurt is overtly intended. The victorious Black Eye slides back down the pole, greeted with whoops and cheers from below, and there’s a brief dance in the plaza. Eventually, the pole is chopped down; once climbed, it can never be climbed again.

If no clown gets to the top and gets the prize down, the Pueblos believe the next year will be bad for the village. There’s an oft-told story of one disastrous San Lorenzo Festival at nearby Picurís, which follows the same rituals as Taos, when no young man was strong and agile enough to climb the pole and the pueblo nearly vanished. As Frank Waters concluded his account of the story: “But there is no power left in Picurís, no good medicine, no strong thoughts.” (Picurís is even today the smallest and poorest of the 19 New Mexico pueblos and the tale’s considered a cautionary one.) Leo Shapiro explained that this is more than just a spiritual belief: “[I]t makes perfect sense, if you live out there, that if everybody is just sort of so out of shape that nobody’s gonna get up the pole, then it’s a pretty good predictor of the fact that they’re not gonna make it. So it’s not an abstraction.”

[Please come back in a few days to read about the history of the area and some of the cultural history of both the modern town and the Indian village. I won’t preview it here, but I’ll tell you that the area in and around Taos has an action-packed and surprising history.]

19 May 2012

It’s Not Real – It’s Art

When I recently wrote my performance report on Red (4 March on ROT), the revival of the John Logan Tony-winner about painter Mark Rothko and his assistant, Ken, that I saw in Washington in February, I added a short coda about a column written by New York Times art reviewer Roberta Smith called “What’s True in Art Studios and Onstage.” I’d originally considered appending a longer statement on Smith’s article, but as it had little to do with the performance of Red in Washington—or anywhere, really—I decided to reserve it and present it as a separate article on ROT. The column, published on 5 April 2010, four days after Red had opened on Broadway, is about the play itself and, more broadly, about the nature of theater and art. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I get a little exercised here because this really bothers me, and the source is shocking.

Smith, an art reporter for the Times since 1986, writes that she was put off because the stage world of Red “clashed so violently with my memories of the studio visits I experienced in the two decades after the action of the play.” (The play’s set in 1958-59, so Smith’s alluding to a period up to the late ’70s.) As a consequence, Smith says that at times she wished “my seat had an ejection lever.” What disturbed Smith most, she explains, was “the noise, speed and off notes” of the script; in her experience over decades of involvement with art and artists as a student, a museum intern and employee, and an art journalist, the opportunities she had for examining art and coming to understand it “were quiet, slow, often awkward experiences,” not the fast-paced and verbal exchanges Logan imagined for the stage Rothko and Ken. While Smith conceded that for the theater it’s necessary to speed up and condense time, she still insisted that “the studio, not the play, was the thing for me.” The play came most alive for her, Smith writes, “whenever the actors stopped talking and turned to the business of moving the big (surprisingly convincing) ‘Rothkos’ around, preparing stretchers and canvases, mixing colors.” The “magic” of the play came when the “wordless choreography of the wheeling, turning canvases brought back the ephemeral intimacy of one artist’s inner sanctum 50 years on, verifying the often profound accuracy of silence.”

Let’s look at Smith’s criticism. What she’s objecting to is that the world of Logan’s play doesn’t line up with her own real-world experience. It’s too fast and loud, she says. First, let me note that Smith never says she visited Rothko’s studio—or ever met the painter herself; she acknowledges that her understanding of Rothko’s “worldview” comes from the James E. B. Breslin 1993 bio, Mark Rothko: A Biography (the same one which Logan read and which Edward Gero, the actor I saw play Rothko in Washington, said he used as a resource as well). So, assuming that every artist works differently (like people in nearly every other profession), there’s no reason to believe that Logan’s imagination is any less truthful than Smith’s assumptions. (As a side comment here, I want to note also that Logan didn’t just invent the environment of an artist’s workspace out of whole cloth; he knew painters in Los Angeles and went to their studios to learn how they worked, “getting into the studio, getting paint under my fingernails.”) Second, when Smith visited an artist, she was changing the dynamic of the workspace to one of observation and scrutiny—the Heisenberg principle at work. What an artist does when a journalist-cum-museum representative is present isn’t necessarily the same as he does when he’s working alone or in the company of an assistant whom he trusts or takes for granted. Third, what Smith saw as apparently unnecessary “noise” in the play isn’t really conversation. What the stage characters of Rothko and Ken are voicing for us to hear are the thoughts Smith suggests were going through the minds of those seeing the art in the studios, speaking aloud so we can hear—because complete silence, despite some experiments, doesn’t work so well in theater—what the characters would otherwise keep to themselves. Because Red is a drama, which implies a level of conflict, those thoughts are expressed as dialogue because a series of related monologues would be frankly boring on stage.

Fourth, of course, is the fact that Logan never pretended that he’s presenting a slice of Rothko’s actual life in Red. He says quite frankly that he isn’t: “[T]his was the way to explore the themes I thought were interesting, which really didn't have much to do with Mark Rothko. It had more to do with my feelings about art and theatre and mentors and fathers. Mark Rothko became the vessel for things I wanted to explore." Ken, the young assistant, isn’t a real person or even a composite but a completely fictional character Logan invented for the play. If someone wants to see a true-to-life portrayal of the workings of some artist’s studio, the theater is probably not the place to go. Try a documentary: there are many, including one remarkable film of Rothko’s contemporary and fellow Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock, at work on his famous drip paintings. With all Smith’s experience of the art world, I’m shocked that she’d have gone into a theater to see a play and expected real life to unfold on the stage. And was disappointed—no “disturbed,” she says—that her world isn’t reflected in the play.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is that there apparently are people like Smith who apparently don’t get that art and life aren’t the same. Back on 15 December 1974, for example, there was another Times article, “Psychoanalyst Says Nay to ‘Equus’” by Dr. Sanford Gifford, taking Peter Shaffer’s play to task for inaccuracies in its portrayal of Martin Dysart's practices. Gifford declares that “the play paints a picture of the psychoanalytic process that demands a professional response.” He complains that “Shaffer presents us with a fictitious piece of psychopathology.” After describing the play’s conceit, Gifford asserts, “As the play’s imagery becomes murkier and more portentous, however, and the clever theatrical devices multiply, we begin to suspect that we, the spectators, are being tricked by the playwright.” Gifford calls all this “a spurious air of importance” and adds, “Perhaps in Shaffer’s skillful mixture of truth, banality and pretension there is something for us all, for doctor and patient alike, something that gratifies our universal fantasies about our therapists (and most psychiatrists were once patients).” Gifford, a Harvard Medical School faculty member, goes on to list what he sees as three “fantasies” in Equus, two of which he labels “familiar wishes, entertaining or tedious according to taste.” The first is the wish to ask the therapist personal questions so that, in Shaffer’s play, we learn that Dysart is ”unhappy, weak and fallible, like everyone else.” Second is the “familiar” desire to be “our therapist’s favorite child, his only patient, or at least his most interesting one.”

Gifford saves his greatest disapproval for what he sees as “the principal ‘message’ that Shaffer seems to have written out for us most explicitly”: that “psychopathology and the creative imagination are inseparable.” The psychoanalyst believes that Shaffer is perpetuating the notion that creativity and madness are connected in a “version of the mad artist theme” because “insanity was the price paid by the artist, in a kind of Faustian bargain, for the use of his creative powers.” In Equus, Gifford asserts, Shaffer presents the “delusional world” of Alan Strang, “a half-illiterate stable boy” as “itself a work of art.” The doctor points out that Alan isn’t an artist, but that the play treats his ”productions” as worthy of “respect, even reverence” because without Alan’s “psychotic rituals he would remain a mere village yokel capable of nothing more creative than watching TV.” Shaffer’s point, Gifford declares, “is that if we give up our symptoms, we lose our imaginative powers and must accept a bleak, plastic ‘normality,’ without color or passion.” This concept, the psychoanalyst insists, is “a pernicious fallacy” because “many of us—the ordinary and untalented as well as the artistic and creative—use just this fallacy to avoid treatment or to justify holding on to our symptoms.”

The author of the column offers that Shaffer “may know better than to believe” what he’s presented in the play, but that the playwright’s “chosen to exploit its theatrical effectiveness, or allowed himself to be carried away by his own bravura as a dramatic technician.” In that case, Gifford asserts, “we feel all the more ‘manipulated’ by the play.” Plays like Equus, he continues, “leave us feeling cheated, that we have been promised some significant glimpse of the truth and left with a bogus or trivial message.” The psychoanalyst refers to “the remarkably little compassion we feel for either the psychiatrist or his patient.” He adds, “Even as we leave the theater we have forgotten them both as human beings, suggesting . . . that we have been forcibly and mechanically ‘entertained’ rather than enlightened.” Gifford concludes his commentary by remonstrating that “surely we are entitled to a higher grade of banality from a playwright as accomplished and psychologically knowledgeable as Peter Shaffer.”

Confronting Gifford’s complaints, we may see that they’re a little harder to disarm than were Smith’s. If, in fact, Shaffer had been intent on presenting a treatment of psychiatry in action, a real-life portrait of a psychotherapist and a patient at work, Gifford might even have a valid argument, assuming that the play is wrong on the facts and the truth as the columnist says it is. (I’ll defer to Gifford on this issue, since I don’t have the expertise to dispute him. I’ll add, though, that Shaffer called on “a distinguished child psychiatrist” for advice in his work.) The question is, however, whether Shaffer, or any playwright—or artist in any medium, for that matter—should be held accountable for the factual details of his creations when compared to actual practitioners in some profession or other. (I wonder if there are bank robbers and burglars who object to the way their TV and film counterparts practice their dirty work.) The cornerstone of Gifford’s position on Equus and of my counterargument is the psychoanalyst’s assertion that Shaffer’s presenting the idea that insanity and creativity are linked or that “madness is the price of genius,” as Gifford phrases it. That’s not the play I saw (or read). Yes, Dysart debates with himself whether or not to treat Alan. But what’s at stake for Dysart isn’t Alan’s sanity versus his “creativity”—his passion, really, is the way Shaffer puts it—but Dysart’s own peace of mind, his integrity. Like Antonio Salieri in Shaffer’s other hit play, Amadeus, Dysart’s in fundamental doubt. His dilemma is that he can “cure” Alan—he does cure Alan: “I’ll heal the rash on his body. I’ll erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes”—but it’s the consequences of the “cure” that make Dysart question his purpose: “When that’s done, I’ll set him on a nice mini-scooter and send him puttering off into the Normal world . . . . I doubt, however, with much passion! . . . Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”

A few years after I saw Equus, I came across a situation that reflects the play’s theme in microcosm. I adopted a year-old dog, a beautiful, loving, and playful mixed breed. A couple of weeks after I brought him home, I discovered that he hated other dogs and became almost uncontrollably hostile when he was around them. I was taking the dog through obedience training at the time and I approached the trainer with the problem and she took my dog home with her for a weekend to diagnose it. When the trainer returned the dog to me, she explained the alternatives: she could make him manageable and controllable but he’d still have behavior problems around other dogs, or she could render him docile and calm, though he’d have no personality left. Now, I don’t mean to equate Shaffer’s characters with a dog and his trainer, but the situations are similar enough, the dilemma is parallel enough to help me understand what Shaffer’s writing about. Do I make the dog compliant enough to live quietly in society, but without passion, or do I allow him his passion but leave him with self-control problems? That’s precisely the question Dysart faces with Alan. And as with me and my dog analogy, the consequences of the answer are Dysart’s, not Alan’s.

Gifford is wrong about the play’s point: it’s not Alan who’s mind is in jeopardy—it’s Dysart’s soul. Equus isn’t about whether Alan Strang must sacrifice his passion for normalcy—but whether Martin Dysart can keep on making that God-like decision with impunity. See, the play’s not only not about psychiatry, it’s not about Alan, either. It’s about Dysart who’s having a secular crisis of faith (another parallel this play has with Amadeus). In the last scene, the doctor says, “Essentially I cannot know what I do—yet I do essential things. Irreversible, terminal things. I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads!”

Gifford engages in some writing tactics that aren’t very even-handed, on top of the erroneous argument he makes. First, he does something that always aggravates me when reviewers do it: he speaks throughout his article of “we” and “us,” as if he knew what was in the minds of all the other spectators in the theater. Unless psychoanalysis has made some advances of which I’m unaware, he can’t possibly. For instance, he avers that “we feel” little compassion for Dysart and Alan. Well, I, for one, felt immense compassion for Dysart; Equus had a profound effect on me after I saw it. I sympathized with Alan, but Dysart’s crisis tore me up and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks afterward. (For years I wanted to play Dysart in that show.) Gifford can speak for himself and say what he felt and thought, but he can’t attribute his notions to anyone else. If he conducted a survey, then he must say so; otherwise, he’s assuming knowledge he can’t have.

In addition to that rhetorical fault, Gifford never uses the characters’ names in his column. It’s a way of diminishing them so that they don’t take on the dimensions of individuals: they have no names, so they can’t be people. Therefore we can’t attribute to them human characteristics and personalities. If they take on human dimensions, as Shaffer clearly intended—that’s what playwrights do—then we can see them as individuals not as whole classes of people. Dr. Dysart is one man, one doctor—not all psychiatrists or, worse, psychiatry the profession. Gifford goes further, though. He uses many loaded words, like “murky,” “spurious,” “pretension,” “Faustian,” and “pernicious,” to poison the well. He chooses words to describe Alan and Dysart that denigrate them, words Shaffer doesn’t use in the play. He calls Alan a “yokel,” “half-illiterate,” and a “stable boy”—all ways of dismissing him so we won’t empathize with him. The fact that Alan doesn’t read—though it’s not necessarily true that he can’t—and that he does work part time in a stable doesn’t alter the reality that this is diction intended to demean Alan so we won’t care about him as Dysart is supposed to have.

Gifford also writes of Alan’s “creativity,” styling the boy as an artist and calling his life a work of art, though that’s not how Shaffer characterizes his character. Though the dramatist has Dysart speak of the boy’s passion, Gifford seems to want to be sure we see the play’s psychiatrist as aggrandizing Alan, puffing up his significance, portraying him as a martyr. Shaffer doesn’t do that: he presents Alan as a boy trying to recapture his freedom to “gallop,” to live life with fervor. Here, Gifford writes of Alan’s “perverse passion for horses,” but it’s not his feelings for horses that Dysart envies; it’s the boy’s passion for living. And it’s not Alan’s passion that’s at the center of Equus; it’s Dysart’s. Gifford sets Alan up as a straw man so he can knock him down and appear to weaken Shaffer’s point. These tactics are why I said that Gifford’s objections are harder to dispute than Smith’s: she’s far more honest in her statements than Gifford is. Then, she’s a reporter—he’s a headshrinker. And he has the temerity to object to Shaffer’s having Dysart confess to using tricks!

Art and life aren’t supposed to be the same. Realism, the art style that is still the form of most Western theater, isn’t reality. Art may reflect life or be informed by reality, but it isn’t a replication of real life. Hell, if it were, we wouldn’t need artists at all. We’d only need a bunch of photocopiers and those Star Trek-type replicators and holodecks. Technicians would do the job. The result wouldn’t be art, of course, it’d be programming. Now, there are a lot of things about which someone can complain and criticize in a piece of art, including that it’s factually incorrect (though that one may be misguided, too, as Gifford’s objections to Equus suggest—though I don’t advocate outright lying, of course) or that the reality on which it comments isn’t worth the effort, or that it’s ineffective and meaningless, and so on. But I reject that it’s even legitimate to criticize an artwork because it’s not like reality. As if to make my point for me, Gabe McKinley, author of CQ/CX (see my report on ROT, 9 March), a fact-based play that recently ran at the Atlantic Theater Company, stated: “It’s important to remember that as a playwright, sometimes getting away from the facts, you actually get closer to the truth. . . . It’s not a historical document; it’s a play.” Playwright Logan didn’t want to recreate Rothko’s studio or the life that went on in it. He had something he wanted to say about relationships—specifically father-son relationships—and he found the character of Mark Rothko as he gleaned it, both from the painter’s art and from his biography, an apt vehicle through which to make his point. Shaffer wasn’t writing about the practice of psychiatry but the dilemma faced by one man when confronted by one situation. As in Amadeus, Shaffer’s looking at a crisis of the soul, a professional doubt so deep that it effects one person’s very being. The writers’ scripts aren’t reality—but they’re informed by reality and they make comments on reality. Reality as the playwrights see it and understand it—but that’s why they’re artists, not reporters or documentarists. There’s a difference, hard to define perhaps, between photography that’s intended to record and preserve and photography that’s art.

Maybe there’s an insoluble difficulty when practitioners in a field see plays about their profession. Not only do they know too much, sort of like jurors with special knowledge not shared by their fellow panelists, but they may suffer from tunnel vision. They may see the play as about the profession, and lose sight of the fact that the playwright is writing about the people. When I see plays (or movies and TV shows) about theater and acting, I spot all the inaccuracies and misrepresentations—a friend and I have been sharing some objections about the current series Smash which is about actors, singers, dancers, directors, producers, writers, and composers—but of course, those are seldom the point of the drama. Plays like The Royal Family, Light Up the Sky, Noises Off, A Life in the Theater, or The Dresser aren’t really about theater: they’re about the characters, their conflicts, and their interrelationships. Red isn’t about painting and Equus isn’t about psychotherapy. Since I think both plays are magnificent theater pieces, I can’t help but feel that Roberta Smith and Sanford Gifford, and others like them, have missed something wonderful because they misdirected their focus.

Reading Smith’s and Gifford’s columns, I couldn’t help wonder what someone with a reality fetish must make of Shakespeare’s plays. Even if you overlook 20th- and 21st-century knowledge and just focus on what folks in 16th- and 17th-century England would have known, his plays are chock full of breaches of reality. The Bard fudged a lot of what were even then known as facts to make dramatic points. The great Realist playwright, Henrik Ibsen, has all kinds of untruths in his plays. He believed, for instance, that moral transgressions will have physical repercussions—a bad life will give you cancer, say. He also believed that a child can inherit his father’s syphilis. No? Well, that dispenses with Doll House, Ghosts, and The Master Builder. Smith admits to having been “an art critic for longer than she cares to recall who before that held various small-time jobs around the art world.” How would she react, I wonder, if some dancer or choreographer wrote a criticism of one of Degas's paintings because it wasn't an accurate portrayal of a dance studio or a ballet class? Ridiculous! It's art, I’d imagine she’d cry, not real life! Precisely. QED.

14 May 2012

'The Caretaker'

There seem to be some playwright-actor pairings that were ordained in theater heaven. Some have lasted for only a short period and others went on for the actor’s career. Matthew Broderick was the embodiment of Neil Simon’s young alter ego, Eugene Jerome. Elizabeth Ashley is tailor-made to portray most of Tennessee Williams’s Southern heroines from Maggie the Cat to Princess Kosmonopolis. Mary Martin could do almost any musical role, from the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up to Agnes Snow of I Do! I Do!, but she and the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein were connected at soul level. Julie Andrews took up Martin’s mantle (and one of her roles for the film adaptation!), but with Lerner and Loewe, she was untouchable and indelible. (On film, I think of the team of director Billy Wilder, screenwriter I. A. L. Diamond, and actor Jack Lemmon: Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Irma la Douce, Fortune Cookie, The Front Page, Avanti!, Buddy Buddy.) So when I read that Jonathan Pryce was coming to BAM in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, I had the feeling that this was another inimitable teaming and I wondered why it hadn’t happened many times before. (I can’t find any reference to Pryce having done any other Pinter plays before, though I only did a cursory search.) It seems such obvious casting—for almost any Pinter script you can name. And, after seeing the performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater on Friday night, 4 May, I know I’m right: Pryce was born to play Pinter. It’s only a shame that the dramatist didn’t live to see this interpretation, directed by Christopher Morahan and co-starring Alan Cox and Alex Hassell, brought to the stage by Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. He’d have to have loved it. (Pinter was around, however, for a BBC TV rendering Pryce did in 1980 in honor of Pinter’s 50th birthday. Pryce, who played Mick, was also with that staging when it was mounted at the National Theatre. Pinter, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2005, is reported to have supported the current revival, which went into planning just before his death in 2008 at the age of 78.)

The Caretaker premièred at the Arts Theatre in London on 27 April 1960, the same year the text was published in Britain. The original production starred Donald Pleasance as Davies, Alan Bates as Mick, and Peter Woodthorpe as Aston under the direction of Donald McWhinnie. It moved to the Duchess Theatre in the West End on 30 May 1960 and opened at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway on 4 October 1962 with Robert Shaw replacing Woodthorpe. The London run was over 400 performances, making The Caretaker Pinter’s first important success after five previous plays for stage and television. A film version (with Pleasance, Bates, and Shaw recreating their Broadway performances) was released in 1963 (1964 in the States) under the title The Guest, and revivals have been constant around the world both in English and in translation. The last major New York revivals were in 1986 in a Steppenwolf production at Circle in the Square uptown, starring Alan Wilder, Gary Sinise, and Jeff Perry directed by John Malkovich; and a Roundabout production directed by David Jones at the American Airlines Theatre with Patrick Stewart, Aidan Guillen, and Kyle MacLachlan in 2003-04. The production at BAM started at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool (where Pryce, now 65, débuted in 1972, joining the company after graduating from RADA) in October 2009 with Pryce and Tom Brooke as Mick and Peter McDonald as Aston; the presentation then moved on to the Theatre Royal Bath in November; it transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End in January 2010. Before lighting in Brooklyn, this Caretaker has made appearances in Adelaide, Australia; San Francisco; and Columbus, Ohio. It’s the first major revival of a Pinter script since the playwright’s death. (The current production, which began at the Harvey on 3 May, will remain at BAM through 17 June.)

The Caretaker is set in a single room of an old house, haphazardly filled with junk: a bed, paint bucket, discarded rugs, stacks of paper, a statue of Buddha, a gas stove, and a toaster; we know there are other rooms along the corridor beyond the door, but we never see them or learn much about them. There are also other houses along the street with residents visible through the windows, but we never meet any of them. When the play opens, Mick (Hassell) is sitting on the bed, looking deliberately at each object. He doesn’t say a word. When he hears the sounds of approaching voices, he silently exits the room, almost vanishing like smoke. Enter Aston (Cox) and a man we learn is using the assumed name of Bernard Jenkins (Pryce). While Mick is wearing jeans and a leather motorcycle jacket—he’s half a rocker (the time, unstated, seems to be around 1960, when the play was written)—Aston is in a suit and tie, looking like an office worker. Jenkins, little more than a homeless bum who admits later that his real name is Mac Davies (or maybe not), wears grubby, tattered rags of whatever he could find, steal, or cadge. (The set and costumes are by Eileen Diss, who worked on a 1964 mounting of The Caretaker at the Everyman, and Dany Everett.) The old man has just been thrown out of a café where he worked and was being given a beating by a “Scotchman” from whom Aston has just rescued him. Davies (as he’s called in the script, irrespective of the name he’s using at any moment in the play) isn’t the most tolerant Londoner you could meet: he denigrates the neighbors he sees in the next building, who appear to be Indian—“Blacks,” as Davies calls them—and worried that they may come into Aston’s building to use the bathroom. He goes on to have his say about “Poles, Greeks, Blacks.” Aston invites Davies to stay until he can get on his feet—for which he needs his “papers,” which he stashed with a friend in Sidcup. But he can’t get to Sidcup until the weather clears—and he can get a suitable pair of shoes to replace the remnants he’s got on now. Aston says he owns the building and is trying to fix it up with the help of his brother who’s in the building trade. He offers to let Davies stay on as caretaker for the premises, even though Davies tells him he’s never done any caretaking before. Act two starts with a violent confrontation when Mick surprises Davies alone in the room and confronts the old man about touching his things. Mick now claims he’s the building’s owner—he has the deed to prove it, he says—and that Aston, his brother, had no business letting Davies live in the room, sleeping in Mick’s bed. (Mick eventually makes the same offer to Davies, who never mentions that Aston has already taken him on.) Aston arrives just as Mick gets the upper hand and is about to thrash Davies. Davies plays one brother off against the other, though, curiously, Pinter almost never has both younger men in a scene together. (The play’s really a string of two-character scenes between Davies and one brother or the other, spanning about 2½ hours, including one intermission.) In the end, Aston tells Davies, “I don’t think we’re hitting it off,” and throws him out. Even then, Davies tries to get Mick to let him return, but Mick engineers a misunderstanding and both brothers leave Davies in limbo and the play ends with neither Davies nor the audience knowing his standing or his future.

Pinter said, according to his authorized biography by Michael Billington, that the source of The Caretaker was his living conditions in the mid-1950s. He and his first wife, Vivien Merchant, were living in near poverty in a first-floor flat in an old house. The building’s owner was “a builder, in fact, like Mick who had his own van and whom I hardly ever saw.” The man’s brother, the building handyman, also lived in the house and had had electroshock treatments in a mental hospital like Aston in Caretaker. One night, the playwright told Billington, the brother brought an old homeless man back to the house and let him stay for several weeks. Billington said Pinter had “a certain fellow feeling” for the old man, with whom he spoke a little, because at the time, the dramatist recounted, the couple were living “a very threadbare existence . . . very . . . I was totally out of work. So I was very close to this old derelict’s world, in a way.” Pinter’s retelling of the events, though, was clearly influenced by the newly-emerging works of Samuel Beckett, especially Waiting for Godot, which had only had its London début five years before Caretaker premièred (at the same Arts Theatre, as it happens). (Coincidentally, this is the second play I’ve seen this season that was heavily influenced by Beckett and Godot. Back in February, I saw the first show at the Signature Theatre’s new complex, Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, reported on ROT on 28 February, which I said bore many echoes of the same writer and absurdist play as Pinter’s Caretaker.)

In addition, of course, there are hints, not yet fully developed, of the signature techniques and motifs of Pinter’s playwriting. There are fewer of the mystery-laden pauses than in his later, more iconic works, but the vague and unstated threat, the undiscussed menace is noticeably present. Mick, the rocker-manqué, is physically violent, but Aston exudes the potential for both psychological and physical aggression, and Davies, though he appears weak and easily intimidated, carries a knife and hints at past acts of force. Furthermore, the whole house could come down in a clump: the roof leaks into a bucket hung from the room’s ceiling, there’s a constant draft from the single window (which is right over Davies’s bed, not coincidentally), and the gas stove just upstage of that same bed may or may not be hooked up. The very emptiness of the house—most of it’s closed up—and the hint that neighbors may be coming and going at will are also unspecifically ominous.

Nonetheless, The Caretaker is quite funny, especially in the first half to two-thirds. There are even bits that resemble vaudeville routines (evocative of Godot as well: Beckett was very enamored of music hall comedy). In one elaborate (and exceedingly well-coordinated) bit, the three men pass around a tote bag the way vaudevillians might work a hat gag. “As far as I'm concerned,” wrote Pinter in 1960, “‘The Caretaker’ is funny, up to a point. Beyond that point, it ceases to be funny, and it was because of that point that I wrote it.” As the dramatist implies, the “funny” is double-edged, masking a serious implication or perhaps a threat. For instance, the bag-passing routine is a bit of silliness, though like a junior high school game of keep-away, it has an undertone of meanness, especially by Mick toward Davies (though the two brothers are none too gentle with one another, either). At the same time, the passing of the bag from hand to hand is a reflection of the way Davies passes from Aston to Mick and back, sometimes by his own machinations and sometimes by circumstance, and how the balance of power in the flat shifts from one character to another. Even as early as 1960, Pinter was a master of dramaturgical multitasking.

The humor in Caretaker may be the signal difference between Morahan’s interpretation of the play and the way most other productions of this and other Pinter scripts are directed. Playing up the comedy, which continues sporadically through the end of the production, simultaneously lessens the focus on the menace and threat that most spectators expect from Pinter now. What this shift in emphasis does, however, is make the twist at the end, the ambiguity with which Aston and Mick leave Davies, that much more confusing—and, I think, frightening. Furthermore, Morahan hasn’t violated the text in any way to effect this shift; it fits perfectly logically with what Pinter wrote. In fact, I suspect that when Caretaker was first presented, no one really knowing what Pinter was up to yet, the focus on the comedy may have been intended so that the twist comes as a shock at the end. After Pinter was hailed as a genius and his plays were discussed, analyzed, and interpreted, the idea that he implanted this unspecified threat in his plays became the one thing about his work that everyone knew going in. It was expected and anticipated, so directors and actors began to spotlight it. Morahan may just have gone back to a more naïve view of Caretaker and presented what audiences may have experienced in 1960, without the overlay modern interpreters have imposed on it. As David Sheward put it in Back Stage, Morahan’s revival “doesn't go for the surface Pinteresque clichés. Instead, it explores the loneliness and need underneath the weird behavior and dialogue.” In any case, his approach worked like gangbusters as executed by this excellent cast.

(I’m reminded of a possible historical parallel. Hamlet is seen as a melancholy brooder nearly always dressed in black. Virtually no one presents the character in any other way today. But that interpretation was the invention of Edwin Booth in the 1860s and was pretty much an outgrowth of his own morose and dour personality. Before Booth, an immensely popular actor who garnered an international following, Hamlet was not presented the way we think of him today, but Booth’s portrayal of the character that became his signature role has eclipsed any other viable interpretation. Morahan may have exposed the same kind of lost vision in Pinter that has been buried under years of “theatrical correctness.”)

The two young characters seem to evoke the youth movements that were popular among some of Britain’s young people in the late ’50s and early ’60s, mostly before the hippies took over the youth culture all over the west. Though neither young man is wholly a model for these once-recognizable types, they both hint at them enough to suggest some of the characteristics associated with the subcultures. It would have been a way for Pinter to suggest traits and tendencies for his characters without having to spell them out—a decided advantage if he wanted to intimate certain capabilities without demonstrating them. I’ve already said that Mick’s dress was a half-step towards the rocker boys who emulated the look and attitude of Marlon Brando’s character, Johnny Strabler, in The Wild One. He wears a leather jacket and pegged jeans, but not motorcycle boots and he doesn’t sport the typical hairstyle of the rocker, the greased-up DA. Mick’s in his middle or late 20’s, not a teenager, so the association with the rocker is possibly a passing one, but the look makes possible the threat of violence as well as the racial and ethnic bigotry that was common among rockers in the late ’50s. In contrast, Aston, who’s in his 30’s, dresses in a suit. It’s worn and “shabby,” as Pinter notes, but it was probably once stylish. It doesn’t have the flash and high-style outlandishness of the typical Teddy boy of the era, but it’s enough to suggest it, particularly when juxtaposed with Mick’s rocker attire. Unlike the third youth subculture of the period, the mods, Teddy boys were more than capable of violence. (Teds, like the rockers, also bore animosity for the Indian and Pakistani immigrants to Britain.) Aston’s a little older than the average Ted, even more than Mick is with regard to the rockers, which might account for the fact that he only approximates the look, but like Mick’s suggestion of rocker style, it’s evocative of his proclivities without baldly stating them.

Now, I haven’t done any research on this to see if there’s any documented connection between The Caretaker and the youth movements of the middle of the last century, and I’m not going to do any to confirm my impression. It’s sufficient for me that the impression was conveyed in the performance, and even if Pinter never intended it, it happened. I also acknowledge that the ’60s is half a century ago and perhaps not many in the audience—or in the production company for this Caretaker (except Morahan)—would light on this little cultural reference anymore, even if Pinter had intended to use it when he wrote the play. (As it happens, I’m not only of the right generation to have been around during the days of the mods, rockers, and Teddy boys, but I was living in Europe at the time, going to school with Brits of the appropriate age. I’ll even confess to having been something of a mod myself in those years.) Still, as far I’m concerned, it’s implicit.

The show’s set is placed far back on the Harvey’s stage, leaving a deep apron of dark wood between the cluttered (but light-floored) room and the front row. From our vantage point in the mezzanine, what my usual companion Diana and I saw was a sort of island of life in what looked like a sea of ambiguity. (It may be a mark of this uncertainty that Michael Feingold in the Village Voice thought the flat was in the basement of the house while Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News said it was in the attic.) While this reinforced the sense I had that the room was isolated and abandoned, it also distanced the action and the potential danger from us. I don’t know what kind of houses the other performances of The Caretaker were staged in, but I’d say that Pinter’s play—and perhaps all his work—does best in smaller, more intimate theaters. (I saw a pretty good production of The Birthday Party at the Guthrie a number of years ago. That Minneapolis theater is not only fairly large, but it’s also a thrust stage, which really isolates the performance area from the audience. I recall it being a somewhat chilly presentation.) Within the restrictions this set-up provides, though, Diss and Everett, along with lighting designer Colin Grenfell and sound designer Tom Lishman, provide a hauntingly Pinteresque environment. The set’s clutter is so eclectic that I found myself wondering where it had all come from and how it ended up in that room. (It raised the unanswered question of what the three men did when they weren’t in the room. We know Davies once had a job, but not anymore—and he does little “caretaking” in the house. Mick has a van, Aston tell us, but what he does with it and what Aston himself does when he’s out, we never get a clue.) The room is barely lit by the single bare bulb over Aston’s bed, leaving shadows and unlit corners; Grenfell occasionally spotlights one actor while darkening the rest of the room, making the isolation starker than ever. When the sun shines through the one window, it’s a cold, yellow light. (The program, by the way, gives no information on the season or time of day, much less the year, though the script says simply “A night in winter” and “A fortnight later.”) The regular dripping of the roof leak into the metal bucket suspended from the ceiling is like a very loud, slow clock ticking away the empty, unproductive hours and days.

This finally brings me to the acting, which I’ve deliberately saved for last. I’ll start with this: this production is unquestionably one of the very best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen, especially in recent memory. (I’m not generally a great fan of Pinter’s work, which I usually find frustrating and aggravating. In the words of Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, “[W]orking to solve the mysteries in Pinter plays would have to rank among the more maddening mind games you could set for yourself.” The Caretaker, however, is one of his plays I’ve always liked.) Individually, the three actors are marvelous, embodying the characters so thoroughly I can’t imagine anyone else doing them better. Pryce, of course, has been incarnating Davies now for a couple of years; I don’t know how long Cox and Hassell have been with this production, though they’re no less grounded. Pryce’s every moment is true and complex, conveying all kinds of subtle notes and overtones. I’ve mentioned before that I used to keep a mental list of the best individual performances I’d seen; I no longer keep the list, but if I did, Pryce’s Davies would go up alongside James Earl Jones’s Jack Jefferson (The Great White Hope), Alec McCowen’s Frederick William Rolfe (Hadrian VII), and Pat Carroll’s Gertrude Stein (Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein). He never once sounds a false or off-key note. (A musical allusion is apt for Pryce. Welsh by birth, he retains the lilting and melodic vocal quality of his countrymen which makes Pinter’s poetic prose dialogue simply float from the stage. Though some critics say that Davies is Welsh—it is a Welsh name—there’s no indication in the script and Pryce’s accent for the role was more London street speech, but there’s a lyricism to Pryce’s delivery that defies description or analysis. I must note, though, that at least two New York reviewers, Feingold of the Voice and Frank Scheck of the New York Post, found fault with Pryce’s Welsh speech, saying that it interfered with their comprehension of some of the lines.

Cox’s Aston is so subdued that I wonder if his pulse would even register. He’s not bland or characterless, but tamped down, as if he has to control himself tightly lest he go off. When Aston finally delivers a long monologue about his incarceration in a mental hospital and treatment with electric shock, Cox, while manifesting a detachment as if he were describing someone else’s experience, conveys such horror that I almost couldn’t listen without squirming in my seat. (I turned to Diana and whispered that we’d just seen a superlative piece of acting. I was flabbergasted.) Finally, when Aston quietly tells Davies they’re not getting along and Davies should find other accommodations, Cox somehow makes clear that this isn’t just a polite suggestion and that he’s more than ready to take action—and Pryce’s Davies reacts with the appropriate terror (Pryce’s eyes are an acting exercise in themselves in this performance). Mick, on the other hand, isn’t averse to using the threat of violence, as we witness early in the play, and it can be in the form of physical force or a little psychological torture, and in Hassell’s performance the younger brother fits the image perfectly. But Hassell shines as a performer when Mick describes in the most genteel terms the kind of interior decor he wants to install in the house when it’s fixed up. The incongruity of Mick in his Cockney-infused street accent uttering phrases like “teal-blue, copper and parchment linoleum squares” and “a beech frame settee with a woven sea-grass seat” is wonderfully set up by Hassell: it could have been just a joke the playwright slips in for our benefit or a way of mocking the character by making him use language he can’t handle or probably even understand, but Hassell makes it absolutely natural even as you know in your head that it shouldn’t be.

But the three individual performances, as magnificent as they are, aren’t the end of the acting prowess on display in The Caretaker. This is an ensemble production, though oddly structured, and even as each actor displays work of surpassing excellence, together they demonstrate how to meld their talents into a seamless whole at the same time. Even though Mick and Aston are rarely on stage together (and when they are, there’s little exchange between them), the cast creates a world inhabited simultaneously by all three men. Davies is the connective tissue that binds the men together, and the three actors never seem to lose sight of the fact that this little world, for however long it lasts, is shared among them all. Even when one brother is on stage alone with Davies, the two exude the awareness of the missing presence, if you will. Additionally, as exquisite as Pryce’s performance is on its own, he never overshadows Cox or Hassell when he’s working with one of the brothers. This Caretaker is no star turn with a couple of supporting actors to fill out the cast—and that’s thanks in large part to Morahan’s guidance. (Morahan’s bio includes some TV work I’ve seen, though I wouldn’t have recognized his name, but most of his credits are unfamiliar to me and judging from his work in The Caretaker, I don’t know why I don’t know his work better. Morahan, who’s almost 83, should have the rep of a Nicholas Hytner, Richard Eyre, or Peter Hall.)

In the press, most reviewers saw the production as I did, as an immensely gratifying theater experience—some with specific caveats (often the situation of the set as I described it). Only the Voice and Post writers found the production disappointing overall. Feingold, pretty much disparaging the whole effort, complains that Pryce “vitiates the play's effect” by, essentially, overacting. The Voice reviewer objects that “Morahan saps the script's strength further by trying to dodge conventional choices” and concludes that “Pinter comes through, but wanly.” Scheck opens his notice by averring that the production “proves frustrating, and not for the reasons one might expect” and adds that it’s “distancing in more ways than one.” The Post review-writer notes that “air of danger that is only sporadically achieved” and ends by asserting that the results are “respectable” but not “galvanizing.”

Alternatively, Dziemianowicz writes in the News that Morahan’s “take emphasizes jagged humor without erasing the ominous feeling enveloping this tragicomedy” and certifies that “if this production downplays the dread, it appears in clever ways.” In Newsday, Linda Winer, describing Pryce as “magisterial,” while noting the “lack of mystery,” calls Morahan’s staging “taut if straightforward.” In Back Stage, Sheward describes the production as “subtle” and says it “stresses [the] universal longing for contact.” Calling the production “potent” and “evocative,” David Cote of Time Out New York debates Pryce’s interpretation of the role (“the air of vaudeville comedian and an escaped mental patient—both perfectly suitable”) but ends by writing that the revival “stays faithful to the letter of Pinter’s world while rendering it freshly weird and ominous” as it “retains its unsettling mystery.” Finally, the Times’s Isherwood, in a review that’s a near rave, calls the revival an “excellent new production” directed “with a clarity that plays down the fog of menace that is sometimes laid on thickly in productions of Pinter’s work.”