30 May 2013

“Flaunting The Spirit Of Support For the Arts”

by James R. Oestreich
[The following article was published in “The Arts” section of the New York Times on 15 April 2013.  I’m rerunning it on ROT because it’s such a wonderful report on what public support of the arts can do for a community, especially when the community itself embraces it wholeheartedly.  I can only wish that we in the United States could see this value and benefit, though I know that a project like the Linzer Musiktheater am Volksgarten will never happen here in my lifetime.  (The very fact that “People’s Garden” is part of the theater’s name would be anathema to some elements of our society.)  Readers of ROT will know that support for the arts is a special interest of mine and I have published articles in defense of that cause on several occasions in the past (“Degrading the Arts,” 13 August 2009; “The First Amendment & The Arts,” 8 May 2010; "The Arts Are Under Attack (Again!)" by Paul Molloy (from Allegro), 22 May 2011, “Are the Arts a Luxury?” by K. C. Boyle (Allegro again), 29 January 2012).  I post this article as a sort of sad dream.  ~Rick]

LINZ, Austria — This industrial city of almost 200,000 midway between Vienna and Salzburg, and the capital of the state of Upper Austria, has long had a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to culture. So it seemed, at least, in a series of slightly defensive speeches by government and arts figures on Thursday evening at the opening of the new Linz Opera House, formally known as the Musiktheater am Volksgarten, referring to the public park it adjoins.

True, Linz can claim the composer Anton Bruckner, who was born in nearby Ansfelden and spent more than half his life in the region. But Salzburg can, and loudly does, claim Mozart, who was born there and stayed for more than two-thirds of his 35 years, however unhappily toward the end. And whom can’t Vienna claim? Myriad composers great and small ended up there, ultimately including Mozart and Bruckner.

Linz took a step forward in 2009, when it was named a European Capital of Culture. And now it is making a stronger bid to put itself on the international cultural map with its handsome new house, some 30 years in the planning and 4 in the building, at a cost of $236 million. Its centerpiece is a 1,000-seat jewel box of a theater for opera, orchestra, musicals and ballet, lavishly equipped with the latest technology and featuring, by early indications, excellent acoustics. It also contains a black-box theater, a rehearsal hall that can double for chamber concerts, a top-flight restaurant and grand, welcoming public spaces.

Public being the operative word. Amazing for Americans to hear, the financing was 95 percent public, with 20 percent coming from the Republic of Austria, 50 percent from the state of Upper Austria and 25 percent from the city of Linz. That left a mere 5 percent to be raised from private corporations and individuals.

And public spirit carries into the design. The site chosen (after a first location was explored and rejected) was an isolated plot in a down-at-heel part of town. But the design competition was won by the London firm of the architect Terry Pawson with a plan founded on the quixotic notion of displacing part of a major thoroughfare to allow the main entrance to open onto the park and draw the citizenry into those public spaces, providing what Mr. Pawson has called “a new, common living-room for the whole city.”

The complex poses a counterbalance to the old city and the Brucknerhaus, the former home of the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, on the Danube River at the other end of the Landstrasse, the main street. It has already stirred development in the neighborhood and, by all accounts, has begun to change the nature of the city itself.

So there was reason to celebrate on Thursday. In addition to speeches by the project’s prime movers—notably Josef Pühringer, the governor of Upper Austria; Thomas Königstorfer, the executive director of the Landestheater Linz, the agglomeration of musical, theater and dance companies that runs the Musiktheater; Rainer Mennicken, the intendant, or artistic and administrative director, of the Landestheater; and Dennis Russell Davies, its American chief conductor—the program offered performances calculated to show off the Musiktheater’s versatility and the Landestheater’s constituent elements.

The speeches were music to American ears (if not always fully understood) and seemingly justified in their self-congratulation. In addition to the one-time building costs, public financing covers 85 percent of the Landestheater’s $52 million annual budget.

“Culture costs,” said Maria Fekter, the Austrian minister of finance, “but a lack of culture”—Un-Kultur—“costs much, much more.”

Between speeches, with the Bruckner Orchestra in the pit, Mr. Davies conducted excerpts from Philip Glass’s 1992 opera, “The Voyage”; from operas by Mozart, Rossini and Strauss, and an operetta by Lehar; and from Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” The program also included a moving dedication of the house by the the Austrian writer Thomas Arzt, in a choral recitation by the actors of the Landestheater, and ended with a rousing version of “The Rhythm of Life” from Cy Coleman’s musical “Sweet Charity,” with, eventually, the entire company on stage.

But it was the next two productions—“Ein Parzifal,” by the experimental Spanish company La Fura Dels Baus, late Thursday night, and Mr. Glass’s opera “Spuren der Verirrten” (“Footprints of the Lost,” or, as it was referred to here in English, simply “The Lost”), in its premiere on Friday, each a spectacle in its way—that really put a stamp on the weekend and spoke to an adventurous artistic vision at the Landestheater. (What the choice of “Die Hexen von Eastwick”—the John Dempsey-Dana P. Rowe musical “The Witches of Eastwick,” in its Austrian premiere—spoke to, I hesitate to speculate.)

“Ein Parzifal,” presented in front of the Musiktheater for an audience of 12,000 in the park, by police estimates, is indeed “A Parsifal,” certainly not the “Parsifal.” To recorded excerpts from Wagner’s “Parsifal” (and, for some reason, “Walküre”), booming through the neighborhood, acrobats dangled from huge cranes or perched atop the building, acting out themes and gestures from the opera, which the uninitiated could only have found mystifying.

But it did not lack for entertainment and even edification. The group patterns were often beautiful and captivating, and some of the effects were breathtaking.

The depiction of Parsifal himself was less successful, seen through the eyes of a New Yorker. A huge puppet lifted by a crane and manipulated by handlers on the ground, he resembled nothing so much as a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And that was before he started turning colors.

Heavy with pyrotechnics, the production ended, as it almost had to, with fireworks. Given their proximity to the building, they may have struck fear in the hearts of those financiers. But for anyone who could stand a little humor in this most humorless of operas, La Fura’s fanciful take was welcome and occasionally revealing.

Mr. Glass’s new opera, based on a play by the Austrian writer Peter Handke, was scarcely less outlandish in its elaboration of an elliptical text. The libretto, by Mr. Mennicken, the intendant, carries an epigraph from Einstein: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” And the work circles back—in both its imaginative beauty and in its utter incomprehensibility at times—to Mr. Glass’s early collaboration with Robert Wilson, “Einstein on the Beach,” of 1976.

But more on that another day.

[When I lived in Koblenz, a small city in central Germany with no great claim to cultural prominence—well, Beethoven’s mother was born in a suburb across the river—I was mightily impressed with the Stadttheater, the city theater company, and even the small Stadtoper, though I’m not an opera fan.  (I’ve written before on ROT about my years in Germany, most recently in “An American Teen In Germany,” 9 and 12 March.)  Nearly every German town has at least an orchestra or an opera troupe, and larger towns, like Koblenz, had both, plus a ballet company and a municipal theater.  American artists come to these small companies to work when their careers are just beginning because the U.S. doesn’t have this cultural commitment so it’s not easy to find places to get started in those professions here.  It’s shameful to me that we can’t nurture our home-grown performing artists—and even welcome foreign artists to our own shores the way ours have to go abroad to hone their skills.]

25 May 2013

'The Trip to Bountiful' (2005)

[At the end of his New York Times review of the current revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on West 43rd Street, Ben Brantley mused about the 2005 staging by the Signature Theatre Company which starred Lois Smith as Carrie Watts.  Brantley had reviewed that production, too, and I saw it and wrote a short report on the performance.  Both Brantley’s and my responses to that revival were quite different from his assessment of the Broadway production which opened on Tuesday, 23 April (and is scheduled to close on 7 July), and I thought it would be interesting to look back at my account, written four days after I saw the performance, of the earlier presentation.  Of that production, Brantley recalled in the Times on 24 April: “The 2005 Signature Theater revival of ‘Bountiful,’ starring Lois Smith, left me drenched in tears.”

[Bountiful started its life as an hour-long teleplay. Foote originally wrote it for Fred Coe, producer of NBC’s Goodyear TV Playhouse, an anthology series alternatively titled the Philco TV Playhouse (because the sponsor varied).  It aired on NBC on 1 March 1953 with a cast headed by the legendary Lillian Gish.  (Foote’s first choice for the lead actress, though, was Shirley Booth, later TV’s Hazel from 1961 to 1966 who’d just won an Oscar for 1952’s Come Back, Little Sheba.  She turned down the role because she said she wasn’t ready, at 46, to play an old woman.  Gish was 60.)  Also in the TV cast were Eileen Heckart (Jessie Mae), John Beal (Ludie), Eva Marie Saint (Thelma).

[A few months later, the Broadway début of The Trip to Bountiful opened in a Theatre Guild production at Henry Miller’s Theatre on 3 November 1953 and ran for 39 performances before closing on 5 December.  Carrie was again played by Gish and Jo Van Fleet (who’d had a small part on television) was Jessie Mae under the direction of Vincent J. Donehue (who also staged the TV version).  Van Fleet won a featured actress Tony and Eva Marie Saint got a Theatre World Award for her performance as Thelma.  Signature’s Trip to Bountiful, which launched the theater’s two-season 15th anniversary celebration, opened at the Peter Norton Space on 4 December 2005, after starting previews on 15 November, and closed on 11 March 2006.  The revival was staged by actor Harris Yulin and costarred Foote’s daughter (and frequent interpreter), Hallie Foote, as the daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae.  The sets were designed by E. David Cosier, the lights by John McKernon, the costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, and the sound by Brett R. Jarvis and Loren Toolajian (who teamed to compose the original music as well).  The production won 2006 Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Revival, Outstanding Director (Yulin), Outstanding Lead Actress (Smith), and Outstanding Featured Actress (Hallie Foote); the 2006 Obie Award for Outstanding Performance (Smith); the 2006 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play (Smith); and 2006 Drama Desk Awards for Best Actress (Smith) and Lifetime Achievement (Horton Foote).]

The Signature Theatre’s Trip to Bountiful, which I saw at the Peter Norton Space on 42nd Street near 11th Avenue on Friday, 9 December 2005, was quite excellent all around, and Lois Smith’s performance was superb.  I’ll describe it in a moment, but first, let me relate a true New York theater moment I had.

After the show, I made a pit stop in the men’s room.  When I came out, a line had formed and about three people from the door, I spotted Edward Albee.  Now, that alone is a New York theater moment—like the time I saw Colleen Dewhurst sitting alone, smoking in the upstairs lobby of the Uris Theatre (now the George Gershwin) during the intermission of Sweeney Todd.  But there’s more. 

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

I have no idea who the guy talking to Albee was.   Was he a director or a play reader or what?  No idea.  (It’s more fun to imagine . . . .  If the guy was a director, maybe he didn’t know that Albee himself had staged a Broadway revival back in 1976 with Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara.  I imagine the playwright feels he’d already “done Virginia Woolf justice,” don’t you?)  The man looked youngishsay mid-30s or soand I wasn’t even sure that Albee knew him.  I don’t know if Albee’s like Woody Allen and doesn’t like to be approached in public, but he looked a little uncomfortable.  Since I was just passing by on my way out, I may have caught only a momentary reaction and be misinterpreting the whole scene.  Albee didn’t say anything, in any case.

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

And now, the play: 

Readers know, I imagine, that I have long come to distrust Ben Brantley’s opinions in the New York Times.  I truly think he lives in a bubble of his own imagination.  He nailed this one, however.  (Even a stopped clock . . . .)  Diana, my theater companion, remarked that this play of Foote’s comes close to Tennessee Williams, though I don’t feel the lyricism of Williams’s writing.  Foote’s words are far more literal and realistic, but there is a kind of mysterious force at work in Bountiful that may have disappeared in Foote’s later, more prosaic treatments of his Texas homeland.  [I wrote this, of course, long before I saw Signature’s magnificent production of Foote’s three-part Orphans’ Home Cycle.  ~Rick]  In any case, the 1953 play (made into a film starring Geraldine Page in 1985) is tender and poignant—perhaps a little too sentimental for today’s cynical world, but clearly heartfelt and genuine.  (I’m not sure, but Bountiful may have been Foote’s first play—or his first to achieve significant attention.)  I’ve never seen it before (not even the film), so I may be wrong, but my sense is that its success depends greatly on how the actress playing Carrie approaches the role—and, of course, how well she handles it.  If she’s too mawkish or spacey or eccentric—a possibility—the play takes on a strident tone, as if we’re being forced to sympathize with a truly difficult person—like we’re being manipulated.  If the actress gets the idea right but can’t pull it off with subtlety and honesty, we just won’t believe it.  Lois Smith, as Brantley said, is a marvel on both counts.  Her sense of being imprisoned in the Houston apartment and besieged by her insensitive and selfish daughter-in-law (Hallie Foote, the author’s daughter), is palpable, but not overstated.  This is not Blanche Dubois grown into old age—Smith’s Carrie is just an old woman with a bad heart who’s made some sad choices in life and now just wants to go back to the place where she was happy, probably to die.  The fact that Jessie Mae, the daughter-in-law, pretty much treats her as an unwanted house pet—Jessie Mae won’t let Carrie sing hymns in the house because they get on her nerves—only makes this all the more credible.  Carrie’s not eccentric or crazy—which is what Jessie Mae calls her, the only thing she does that actually makes her husband, Ludie (Devon Abner), angry—just a little sentimental in her old age, and suffering from terminal cabin fever. 

Carrie has a history of running away, trying to get to Bountiful, whenever she’s left unwatched and alone in the cramped two-room apartment—she sleeps in the living/dining room—in Houston, and this infuriates Jessie Mae, who confiscates Carrie’s pension checks as much to keep her tied to the apartment as to pay for her own visits to the beauty parlor and her Cokes at the drugstore.  (Ludie has just gotten a real job after a long unemployment due to an unspecified illness.  Jessie Mae not only doesn’t work, but doesn’t seem to do much housekeeping, either; Carrie does the dusting and cooking, it seems—despite her bad heart.)  I actually rooted for her to break loose, and when Jessie Mae reveals that a pension check, due that morning, seems to be missing from the mail, you just know that Carrie has glommed onto it and is holding it in reserve for a break-out.  When Jessie Mae decides to take a chance and leave Carrie at home while she meets a friend at the drugstore for a Coke—she can’t get a beauty parlor appointment until 4 p.m., and she just can’t sit around all that time—I root again that Carrie’ll get away this time, just as she does, in fact.  As Smith plays her, Carrie just deserves to get back to Bountiful once before she dies.  (It may be a bit contrived that, first, the bus doesn’t go to Bountiful—you can’t get there from here!—and, second, it turns out that the town has in fact simply died when the last inhabitant, Carrie’s girlhood friend, whom she had hoped to stay with, died a few days before.  Contrived, but perfectly apt: the dream she has, after all, is also a chimera.) 

The fact that Carrie charms everyone she meets, except for her daughter-in-law, from Thelma (Meghan Andrews), a young woman traveling on the same bus, to the ticket clerk (Frank Girardeau) at the town nearest Bountiful where she gets off to the sheriff (Jim Demarse) who’s been ordered to hold her until Ludie arrives to take her back to the big city (the sheriff ultimately drives her out to her old farm in Bountiful and stays with her until Ludie comes) is only proof that Carrie’s really just a dear lost soul.  Smith captures this absolutely perfectly.  There’s not an eccentric, peculiar, or idiosyncratic element in her performance—it’s just solid and real.  She’s not even especially sad or pathetic; she’s just a little driven.  Once she gets “home,” you can see that she’s satisfied her itch, even though she knows she can’t stay, even to die.  She’ll go back to Houston with Ludie and Jessie Mae and obey all the rules her daughter-in-law lays out—because she’s been home and seen the sky and the soil and the birds.  That’s all she ever wanted—and now she’s content.  Ludie may have learned something, too, by coming home—he remembers everything Carrie had been telling him about his boyhood there, even though he pretended not to have.  But Jessie Mae hasn’t, and you can guess that she’s in for some surprises back in Houston.  (Ludie had been contemplating asking his boss for a raise at work that morning, and we learn that the boss was pleased to give it to him.  I took this as a suggestion that he’s getting back his self-confidence, and something of the spine he must have inherited from Carrie.)

Hallie Foote does what I take to be a good job on Jessie Mae.  It seemed to me she was written as an unchanging single note, and Foote manages to pull off the once or twice she appreciates Carrie without making it seem contrived (by Horton Foote) or begrudging (by Jessie Mae).  As selfish as she is, this suggests that there’s a human being back there, though it’s not much.  If Foote’s portrayal is one-dimensional, I think it’s the play’s fault more than the actresses (or director Harris Yulin’s).  Ludie, too, is appropriately meek and submissive.  Not abject: there’s some indication here also that he’s not only what we see here.  I don’t know Devon Abner, the actor who played the role (he seems to be mostly a writer for stage and screen), but I don’t think that the character’s one-dimensionality is his fault, either.  (This is why I say that the success of the play depends so much on the actress playing Carrie.  Even the best director couldn’t do much with the other roles, and the script is the script.  Not that Yulin did anything wrong at all.)

E. David Cosier’s set (lit by John McKernon) was kind of nice, too.  It sort of reminded me of a pop-up book in a way.  Bountiful is a long one-act (an hour and 50 minutes without intermission), so each scene is like a new page of the story in a sense.  Each time the scene shifted, the old set moved off and the new set moved on, courtesy of electrical motors with low-tech assist (that is, stage hands or actors moving set pieces on dollies).  It isn’t in the least innovative, but it worked, and, as I said, it was like each time you turned the page, a new scene popped up.  (Well, okay—popped in.  Let’s not quibble over prepositions.)  I never felt I was being made to sit too long, though, and I have at other, shorter shows.

I guess the summation is that while The Trip to Bountiful isn’t ever going to be earth-shaking theater (it’s more like William Inge than Tennessee Williams, I think), it’s lovely, truthful, and, in this production, nicely done.  After so much bad theater over the last couple of seasons—bad plays or bad productions or both—this was more than a pleasure.  And Lois Smith, whom I only know from TV (mostly) and film, was a true delight.  She’s too young for the role to have been written for her (she’d only have been about 23 when the play was written)—but if Horton Foote had come around to see this performance, I suspect he’d have wondered if he hadn’t been clairvoyant half a century ago.

*  *  *  *
The press response, with one glaring exception, was nearly ecstatic, particularly about Lois Smith’s portrayal of Carrie Watts.  In 2005, I didn’t do the review survey that I customarily do now, so I’ll recap the critical reception here.  The only wholly negative review was Bob Kent’s in Variety, which noted that “the new revival of ‘Trip to Bountiful’ at Signature Theatre Company is regrettably flat and underwhelming.”  Kent acknowledged, “At times this production nails exactly the right bemused observational tone” but continued that “director Harris Yulin’s production remains stubbornly average.”  The Variety review-writer did observe, “By herself, Smith nearly makes this a worthwhile ‘Trip,’ but concluded that “it feels more like a faintly tiresome holiday gathering.”  No one else I read agreed, it seems.

Since I started this revived report with Ben Brantley’s 2013 Times review (and alluded to his earlier one above), I’ll continue with his notice of the 2005 STC restaging, which he called “beautifully mounted.”  Yulin’s direction, said the Timesman, “finds the emotional authenticity” of Foote’s script that makes it “seem newborn.”  Praising all the elements of the physical production, Brantley made special mention of the set design: “What follows the opening scenes has an almost mystical seamlessness, as Mr. Cosier's sets float on and off the stage.”  (By the way, Brantley’s remarks in his review of the 2013 Broadway revival about being brought to tears were rendered thus in 2005: “[T]his production . . . finds the emotional authenticity in a 1953 drama often remembered as a tear-jerking chestnut.  This is not to say that you should attend the show without an ample supply of handkerchiefs.”)  In New York’s Daily News, Howard Kissel wrote, “The production . . . is pure joy.”  Having compared Foote’s dramaturgy to Chekhov’s, Kissel added that Bountiful “has been given a radiant revival by the Signature Theater Company” in which, “under Harris Yulin’s skilled direction, every moment resonates deeply.”  Calling the production “genuinely moving,” Sam Thielman of Long Island’s Newsday especially complimented Cosier, who’s “set shifts quickly into various instantly recognizable configurations.”  Dubbing the STC revival of Bountiful “touching,” the New York Post’s Frank Scheck declared, “Foote’s play is a marvel of economy, one in which numerous important themes are conveyed through the simplest of situations and dialogue” which “Director Harris Yulin has staged . . .  expertly.”  After observing that “there are stretches of obvious exposition and a melodramatic monologue or two,” David Sheward of Back Stage summed the revival up by pronouncing it “a journey well worth taking.”  Sean O’Donnell of Show Business asserted, “Director Harris Yulin successfully weaves a quiet tapestry of nostalgic yearning in a production that is nothing short of breathtaking” and that the performance “resonates long after the curtain has fallen.” In Time Out New York, Robert Simonson affirmed simply, “Yulin, Smith and company have achieved something of quiet excellence.”

The cyber press was pretty much in line with the paper-and-ink reviewers.  On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray wrote that “director Harris Yulin has lovingly interpreted Bountiful for the rich new Signature Theatre Company revival” and Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp said the “beautiful new production” was “a trip worth taking” that’s “remarkably timely.”  TheatreMania’s David Finkle reported that STC’s revival of Trip to Bountiful “is to be cherished” and that ”Harris Yulin has directed the play with compassion and tenderness.”  On nytheatre.com, Martin Denton described the production as “lovely, immensely satisfying, and . . . just about flawless,” a “fertile, generous, and lush a theatrical experience” that’s “about as perfect a production as one could wish for.”  Michael Dale of BroadwayWorld dubbed Signature’s revival “beautiful and tender,” having been “delicately directed with a selectively lazy touch by Harris Yulin.”  “Go and be enthralled,” he urged. 

It was the acting, though, that got most of the press attention, starting with TONY’s Simonson, who declared, “As for the rest of the ensemble, any aspiring actor seeking an object lesson on what can be made of a small role need look no further.  Even the nonspeaking actors shine—a tribute to the thoughtful, seamless rhythms Yulin has wrought.”  TheatreMania’s Finkle wrote that the production, especially the final scene, “is exquisitely acted by all” and, pronouncing the STC revival of Bountiful “acted with quiet skill by the best ensemble cast in town,” the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout added, “I doubt you’ll ever see it acted better, especially by Ms. Smith.”  As befits an actor’s journal, Sheward asserted, “Director Harris Yulin has assembled an ensemble of sensitive performers who inhabit Foote’s frustrated souls,” in Back Stage and Brantley of the Times found that the “supporting cast . . . never strikes a false note.”  And though most of the cast was singled out for mention in all the notices, Newsday’s Thielman praised Hallie Foote, who “wisely underplays one of her father’s least likeable characters,” and Kissel correctly observed that the actress “manages to catch  the humor of the daughter-in-law without making her an easy villain.” 

“But the evening ultimately belongs to Smith,” reported the Post’s Scheck, adding that “the actress seems to sum up the entire human experience in her memorable performance.”  The Postman declared, “Lois Smith creates magic of her own” as “the veteran actress delivers a performance that is at once heartbreaking in its pathos and uplifting in its spirit.”  Newsman Kissel described Smith’s singular performance as “incandescent,” specifying that the actress “does not minimize how difficult Carrie can be, but she also captures the poignance of precarious old age.” Asserted Thielman, “Smith’s sweet, sad senility as Carrie Watts gives Horton Foote’s ‘The Trip to Bountiful’ the tang it needs,” adding that in the end, “Lois Smith brings a real sense of loss to her part, making it sting as she discovers, bit by bit, that Bountiful, Texas, is barely on the map anymore.”  Back Stager Sheward characterized Smith’s work as “luminous,” and WSJ’s Teachout praised her acting as “so beautifully straightforward that you feel as though you’re eavesdropping on her.”  “Luminescence,” which is what David Finkle said Smith brought to her performance, seemed to have been a leitmotif in the reviews, though BroadwayWorld’s Dale used a near-synonym when he wrote that Smith “sparkles as Carrie.”  The Village Voice’s Michael Feingold wrote that “Lois Smith proves herself . . . with a performance that manages to be simultaneously feisty and moonstruck,” concluding that “Smith makes her unfulfilled goal as transcendent as Don Quixote’s knight-errantry.”  Feingold ended his praise of Smith with a gratuitous jab at our then-ruling family: “To watch her mingling of crab and saint is to feel a little of the wonder that Texas used to mean before the fake cowboys of Kennebunkport invaded.”  (I just had to include that little dig!)  While Talkin’ Broadway’s Murray quibbled about Smith’s portrayal in contrast to Lillian Gish’s, Sommer called her performance “solid gold” on CurtainUp. 

In his review, the Times’s Brantley also called “that fine actress for all seasons” Lois Smith’s acting “luminous,” but he seemed possessed by her “cerulean stare.”  As if mesmerized, he confessed, “I had never before realized how blue and bottomless her gaze is.”  Later, Brantley observed the Smith’s eyes “brim with the expectation of a child on the morning of her birthday” and even compares the lighting of John McKernon and the music and sound design of Loren Toolajian and Brett R. Jarvis with “the glow in Ms. Smith's gaze.”

*  *  *  *
[There’d been speculation, including some in the press, that STC’s revival might have a Broadway run in its future.  James Houghton, the company’s artistic. director, sought a Broadway theater for a transfer of Bountiful after its run at the Norton Space but none was available.  Having already extended the revival at the Norton as long as possible, Houghton rejected a transfer to a larger Off-Broadway house because the expense was too great for the potential box office benefit.  As a result, a rep theater show that was both popular and well-received critically didn’t get a chance at a broader audience.

[The Signature Theatre Company’s 15th Anniversary Season was divided into two parts.  In 2005-06, the company staged plays by previous writers-in-residence: Foote’s Trip to Bountiful and John Guare’s Landscape of the Body.  In 2006-07, STC scheduled the delayed August Wilson season that had been postponed when the playwright died in October 2005.  Previously, STC presented its first Horton Foote season in 1994-95, including Talking Pictures, Night Seasons, The Young Man From Atlanta, and Laura Dennis.  But Foote is the only playwright to whom Signature has devoted two complete seasons, mounting that monumental three-part, nine-play autobiographical opus, The Orphans’ Home Cycle, in 2009-10.

[I got to see Lois Smith on stage again subsequent to this marvelous performance when I saw STC’s presentation of Tony Kushner’s The Illusion, a translation and adaptation from Pierre Corneille, in June 2011 (see my blog report posted on 1 July 2011).  Smith played the sorceress, Alcandre, usually a male role, in the final presentation of STC’s Kushner residency.  I got to see her briefly after the performance—playing opposite her as Pridamant was a former teacher of mine, David Margulies, so I waited by the stage door to say hello to him—and I got to tell Smith how much I liked her work in Bountiful and even in HBO’s True Blood on TV.]

20 May 2013

Theatre Alley

by Kirk Woodward

[A little while back, Kirk e-mailed me to ask if I’d ever done a piece on Theatre Alley for ROT.  I told him I hadn’t and was embarrassed to admit that I’d never heard of the place.  I wondered why he’d asked and he explained he knew about the little street downtown because it’s near his late wife’s office at Pace University and he was considering writing about it.  Of course, I told him to go ahead see what he came up with.  (I’m always open to anything Kirk dreams up—it’s always interesting and I have yet to turn down any contribution he makes to the blog.)  So, a week or so later, Kirk sent me the draft of this article and I didn’t hesitate to find a place for “Theatre Alley” in the ROT schedule.  Now, here it is. 

[“Theatre Alley” combines two recurring subjects on ROT: theater and theater history, of course, the rationale for starting the blog four years ago last March, and New York-iana.  The street itself has one other aspect that makes it a good topic for ROT: it’s about to disappear into the ether of New York City’s lost past.  Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” but in New York, he might have said there’s something that doesn’t like alleys: we have very few of them (despite the “evidence” of TV and movies).  Furthermore, like no other city in the world, New York remakes itself constantly, tearing down, rebuilding, repurposing, obliterating, converting.  The list of buildings and other sites that have disappeared, starting with the Trylon and Perisphere (from the 1939 World’s Fair), old Penn Station, and Ebbets Field, is too long even to contemplate.  Theater Alley’s about to join the list when a new high-rise goes up on its block.  Kirk even paid the alley a visit to write this article.  In half a decade, he wouldn’t be able to do that.  ~Rick]

For some reason the ideas of a theater and an alley seem to go well together. I’m not sure the association is all that complimentary to the theater, but personally I’ve always been a fan of alleys, and I also don’t mind the suggestion that there’s something backdoor about the performance arts. Maybe there really is something a little shady about theater people – after all, we’re always pretending to be someone else.

A number of theaters have “alley” in their name. The Alley Theatre in Houston is probably the best known, but there’s also the BackAlley Community Theatre in Grand Cane, Louisiana, and a Back Alley Theatre in Washington, D.C.; an Alley Theatre in Vancouver, Canada, and another in Louisville, Kentucky; an Alley Stage in Chicago; the Alley Repertory Theater in Garden City, Idaho; and so on.

In New York City, probably the best known theater/alley connection is Shubert Alley in the Times Square area of Manhattan, connecting 44th and 45th Streets between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Shubert Alley seems to have existed since the early 1900s, and it began to take its familiar shape when Lee and Jacob Shubert, the powerful theater owners, opened the Shubert and Booth Theatres in 1913, both with side entrances on the alley. Its location made it a natural gathering place, particularly for theater people. Today it’s a sophisticated pedestrian mall, barely recognizable as an alley at all, although the two theaters still form one of its two sides.

But few New Yorkers know about another theater alley in Manhattan, called, appropriately enough, Theatre Alley, located behind the huge J&R electronics store complex that fronts on Park Row in lower Manhattan across the street from City Hall Park, between Beekman and Ann Streets. Theatre Alley was once at the epicenter of drama in New York City, through the early years of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, not a century later that same area – but not the same buildings – would become the center of newspaper publishing in New York (The New York Times, The New York World, and The New York Tribune), until the papers, like the major theaters, moved uptown.

I first found myself becoming aware of Theater Alley when I would visit my wife, Pat, at the Pace University offices just north of the alley, where Pat worked on the staff of what was then known as the Speech and Drama Department, and also directed and taught for that department. Pat was well aware of the historic nature of the alley and made sure that the theater students in her University 101 class were, too. The site had to be pointed out, because if you didn’t pay attention, you could easily miss it.

A quick quiz: what is the oldest building still standing in Manhattan? There are houses in Staten Island and Brooklyn that date from the 1600s, but in Manhattan the oldest surviving structure is Fraunces Tavern, the famous site of George Washington’s farewell address to his officers, originally built as a house in 1719 and serving as a tavern, and later a restaurant, since 1762. The second oldest building in Manhattan is St. Paul’s Chapel, only a half a block from Theatre Alley. But although the much-more-recent New York Times building in the Park Row area – first constructed in 1858, remodeled in 1888 and 1905, converted to other purposes, and now occupied by Pace University – still stands, the theater buildings that formed one side of Theatre Alley have long since disappeared.

The first theater building in the United States was constructed in Williamsburg, Virginia, sometime between 1716 and 1718, and it functioned until 1745. The foundations of that theater have been uncovered, but the theater has not been rebuilt, apparently because it wasn’t much of a building in the first place, not much more than a shack, used by amateur companies from the area and in particular from the College of William and Mary. Newer theaters in Williamsburg were built in 1751 and 1760; they no longer exist either, although there are hopes of reconstructing the 1760 building.

For comparison, early theaters in Manhattan included the Nassau Street Theatre, built in 1750 very close to the later Theatre Alley, and the Chapel Street Theatre, also close, on what would now be Beekman Street near Nassau Street, in 1760. Then in 1767, the John Street Theatre, at what is now 15-21 John Street, was built, and it largely monopolized theatrical performances in New York until that theater became rundown and disreputable.

It is notable that the theaters of that time period were built within a few blocks of each other, as would happen in subsequent theater districts, including Broadway (few “Broadway” theaters are actually located on Broadway, but they are connected by, among other things, proximity). It is also notable that few theaters were allowed in Manhattan in the early years; some considered them breeding grounds for crime and immorality; some thought even one theater was more than enough.

In any case, a new theater was needed as the John Street Theatre went downhill; it was built in 1765 and was called, again appropriately, the New Theatre, although it came to be known as the Park Theatre. Fronting on Park Row, its rear entrances opened into Theatre Alley, hence the alley’s name. It burned in 1820 and again in 1848, when it was torn down. By that time the Park Theater too had become disreputable, and the theater district had started migrating to the Bowery, Union Square, Herald Square, and Longacre Square (later Times Square), increasingly further uptown.

But while it was the premiere theater in New York City, the Park Theatre was host to some famous names. Charles Dickens spoke there; Edmund Kean and Junius Brutus Booth, father of acting brothers Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., Edwin Booth, and John Wilkes Booth, performed there, as did Tyrone Power, grandfather of the well-known movie actor. It was for decades the “best theater in town,” showcasing opera and numerous imported actors from England. The website Forgotten-ny.com claims that carriages entering the alley from both directions created traffic jams, causing Theatre Alley to become the first one-way street in Manhattan.

The Park Theatre faced no significant competition until the 1820s, and even then it maintained supremacy as the home of “classy” theater until demographic shifts – the wealthy, in particular, moving further uptown – caused the Park slowly to lose its appeal. Eventually it began to feature blackface shows and fairly crude melodramas, and when it burned the second time, it was not rebuilt.

What of the far past of Theatre Alley remains today? Really nothing – in particular, no theaters, not for the past century and a half. Nearby Beekman Street is named for John Beekman, a doctor, state senator, and banker, who with John Jacob Astor purchased the Park Theater in 1805. When I first saw the area surrounding Theatre Alley, in the 1980s, the only place to get a decent lunch was the Beekman Pub, just down the street from the alley. Beekman’s name on the restaurant and on Beekman Street do maintain the area’s connection to theater history, even if subliminally.  

The Beekman, incidentally, is still a good Irish bar and restaurant. If Theatre Alley has become The Alley That Time Forgot, the area around it has revived in the past few decades, and there are now plenty of other restaurants and watering holes around, all the way down to and including the South Street Seaport.

In modern times Theatre Alley has never been scenic, if it ever was, and therefore, interestingly, it has occasionally been used as a setting for a movie or television shoot that needed an intensely urban atmosphere. At the Beekman Street end of the alley you can read painted on a wall: 


Alas, there never was a “Victoria Theatre,” at least not in Theatre Alley; the words are from somebody’s film set decoration.

On the other hand, at least the drama department of Pace University is still in the neighborhood, maintaining a theater theme; it recently opened a beautifully refurbished seven floor facility a few blocks from Theatre Alley, down on William Street, and the department’s studio theater is still located in the Park Row block next to the alley.

Theatre Alley itself today is, well, just an alley. At least one source refers to it as a cobblestone street, but if so the stones are no longer visible. Another calls it the narrowest street in New York City, and it may be – I measured it as about twelve feet across, but what do you expect from an alley? On a visit in late April 2013, it was almost entirely covered with scaffolding while new construction was taking place on its east side, across from the rear of J&R, but it appeared that ultimately the alley would survive and perhaps even be more pleasant once the new construction was in place.

But part of the fun of New York City is imagining the town as it used to be. The theater is a continuing enterprise; even when history – that is, politics – interrupts it, it just goes underground, resurfacing at the first opportunity. And the art of performing on the stage is not all that different than it was on the stage of the old Park Theatre, given a few differences in technical equipment and performance style. A little imagination is all it takes to revisit the Theatre Alley of a long-ago day.

[In “Theatre Alley,” Kirk writes about the theater buildings and the streets in lower Manhattan where New York City’s first theater district developed in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  ROT readers curious about this period in U.S. and New York theater history might also be interested in the six letters by Washington Irving I republished on this blog in 2010.  The letters, posted here as “Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle“ (13, 26, 19, 22, 25, and 28 August 2010), were originally published in New York’s Morning Chronicle from 1 December 1802 to 8 February 1803, and Irving, just beginning his writing career, wrote about the plays and performances that went on inside the theaters down near Theatre Alley.  (In a stunning coincidence, the theater which Irving attended for this series of commentaries was the Park itself!)]

15 May 2013

“My Mind Restore For Me”: Navajo Healing Ceremonies

“It is art that makes life,” wrote Henry James, adding that art “makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”  In many Native American cultures, my late friend Leonardo Shapiro, who spent most of his life learning about Indian art, religion, and culture, determined, “art was an ever present part of life, it was the connection between the sacred realms beyond appearance and the everyday necessities of survival.”  Among some Native American peoples of the southwest, the Navajo and the Zuni for example, life is inextricably bound to their ceremonial art and performances.  (See my article on ROT, “‘May You Be Blessed With Light’: The Zuni Shalako Rite,” 22 October 2010.)  Next to the Zuni shalako ceremony, the Navajo healing ceremonies, which also include prayers, sweat baths, and ritual bathing, are superb examples of this phenomenon.  Though there are several reasons for conducting sings, as they’re commonly known among the Navajo, and making sandpaintings, the Navajo ceremonials exist principally to cure specific ailments through songs, sandpaintings, and face- and body-painting: performance and art. 
Most Native American ceremonials involve the whole community so everyone participates in the artistry and performances; they’re not just the provinces of specialized groups, fraternities, or individuals.  Though Navajo singer-healers or Pueblo Black Eyes may belong to special groups within the society, most of the participants in these rites are ordinary members of the village.  (For a description of a Pueblo ceremony, the Festival of San Gerónimo at Taos, see my article, “Taos & Taos Pueblo: Background,” 24 May 2012.)  Some, like the Zuni shalako personators, are selected a year in advance and prepare extensively for the ceremonies; others simply join in as the familiar ritual unfolds.  Still others, including outsiders, participate merely by being present.  The Navajo sandpaintings are executed by volunteers under the guidance of the hataali, or healer, who’s a trained specialist but who mostly directs the work, making corrections and coaching from the sidelines.  The chants, too, are led by this healer, but the singers and dancers are just villagers—members of the community.  What’s more, the healing rite can’t even take place unless it’s requested by someone in the community who needs its power: the audience initiates the performance. 
Many American Indian societies don’t see disease as biological, physiological, or psychological maladies, but as a reflection of disharmony, hochxo in the Navajo language, in society or the world, which is then manifested in a person’s illness.  Healing requires repairing or restructuring this environmental disorder.  Among Navajos, transgressing the rules of behavior that keep society in balance disrupts individuals, their families, their goods, and their overall wellbeing, and, by extension, all Diné (‘human being(s)’ or ‘person’/‘people,’ the name Navajo call themselves).  Both elements of the healing ceremony, though they contain clear aesthetic and social aspects, are primarily transformative and communal.  All these Indian rites have a shamanistic aspect in the use of incantatorial magic to address the forces of nature and effect the world around us.  The healing chants, though specifically tailored to cure the illness of a particular patient—known as bik’i nahagha, ‘the one-sung-over’also benefit the patient’s family, everyone else who attends the ceremony, and the entire Navajo Nation.  The healing comes about because the ceremony attracts the appropriate spirits who return balance and harmony, called hozho in Navajo and includes concepts like ‘beauty,’ ‘blessing,’ and ‘holy,’ to the society or the world which has been put into hochxo, causing the illness.  The society is thus transformed by the performance.  The sick person is also transformed into a Holy Person by the application of the colored powders from designated parts of the sandpainting, which has been inhabited by the spirits depicted in it, to various parts of his or her body.
The elaborate Navajo sandpaintings, one art historian asserted, “reached a lofty expression in which ancient religious significance and high aesthetic value mingled.”  The art “probably reached its highest perfection in North America among the Navaho Indians,” declared another scholar.  Also known as dry-painting or ground-painting, the pictures drawn on the ground with colored sand are made from pigments crushed from minerals from nearby cliffs into white, blue, yellow, black, and red powder.  (Mixing these primary sands creates other colors: red and black makes brown; white and red makes pink.)  More than an art form, they are part of some healing ceremonies, serving as a temporary altar on the ground or the floor of the specially-constructed hogan, the traditional round structure of the Navajo people.  Varying in size, some sandpaintings may be as large as ten to more than 12 feet in diameter and can require the work of as many as 40 village men from dawn until midday.  Sandpaintings—iikaah in Navajo, meaning ‘a place where the gods come and go’—can include conventionalized and stylized images of Holy People and humans as well as other mythical or traditional elements such as arrows, lightning, snakes, earth, sky, wind, rain, clouds, sunbeams, rainbows, stars, comets, thunder, water monsters, animals, plants, herbs, seeds, pollen, and the underworld.   The complicated designs, which can appear as delicate as lace, are abstract, angular, geometric, and elongated representations of Navajo legends and the Diné’s creation story forming a symbolic picture of the hero of the myths that explains the particular ceremonial being performed.
As we’ll see, there are numerous healing ceremonials in the Navajo ritual life (Nightway, Blessingway, Mountainway, and so on), so every painting is linked to a specific one and the traditional creation narrative on which it’s based.  (Not all ceremonial sings include sand-painting.  Sings vary in length, but in an eight-day, nine-night ceremony in which sand-painting occurs, the paintings are made on the last four days of the ceremonial.)  The sandpainting is an image of a design the chant’s hero figure received from the spirits during one of his legendary adventures.  Sandpaintings depict the creation story of the yei (“the terrible ones”), Navajo spirits who emerged from the netherworld before the creation of the human race and then appeared as helpful advisers; Holy People, Navajo deities who have the power to aid or harm; the Earth Surface People; birds and animals; plants; and mountains, celebrating episodes in the legend of the hero.
For a sing that includes sand-painting, the hataali and his (or her—some hataali are women) helpers start at sunrise on days when one is made and work until noon.  The participants create the design by pinching some of the colored sands between their thumbs and index fingers and, squatting or kneeling next to the painting, dribbling it in the pattern dictated by the hataali onto the spot on the ground or the hogan floor prepared with a base of clean, tan sand.  The work, which demands exquisite dexterity, progresses from the center outward for practical reasons and in a “sun-wise” sequence (east to south to west to north to east again) for religious reasons.  Any man who knows how may work on a painting under the supervision of the healer-chanter who rarely participates himself aside from laying out some preliminary lines.  (Though some healers are women and both men and women can be sung over, only initiated males may make a sandpainting or chant in a ceremony.)  The volunteers, each of whom works on a different part of the painting, must have been initiated into the tribe but they don’t have to be priests or shamans.  There are as many as 30 patterns that can be applied to each healing ceremony and the selected sandpainting is replicated from memory by the healer.  Though each healer is permitted to make variations in small details, he must reproduce the image precisely without varying the sacred overall design the spirits taught the chant’s protagonist in the legend.  The healer must strictly follow tradition for composition as well as for the individual figures.  The Diné believe that the Holy People had made pictures, which they kept rolled up in black clouds, and the sandpaintings were imitations of these for the healing ceremonies.  If anyone makes a mistake, the error isn’t erased, but it’s covered with base sand and a new design is made with fresh powder.  Though a limited number of sandpaintings have been photographed by anthropologists and scholars, there’s no practical catalogue of the designs to which the healers can refer even though there are from 600 to 1000 existing patterns.
The painting designs highlight the four corners of the earth where the four sacred mountains stand (demarking Dinétah, the traditional homeland of the Diné in the Four Corners, where the boundaries of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet), the four seasons, and the four parts of day.  The colors in the painting are symbolic of many aspects of Navajo beliefs and culture, a few of which are:
·   white (ground from gypsum): represents the east, Tsisnaasjini (Sacred Mountain of the East: Mt. Blanca, near Alamosa in the San Luis Valley, Colo.), spring, day, dawn of life (birth/emergence)
·   blue (criscola): south, Tsoodzil (Sacred Mountain of the South: Mt. Taylor, north of Laguna, N.M.), summer, dawn, youth
·   yellow (ochre): west, Doko’oosliid (Sacred Mountain of the West: San Francisco Peaks, near Flagstaff, Ariz.), autumn/fall, dusk, maturity
·   black (magnetite): north, Dibé Nitsaa (Sacred Mountain of the North: Mt. Hesperus, La Plata Mountains, Colo.), winter, night, death
·   red (sandstone): sunshine, the spiritual life
When the sandpainting is completed right before noon, the healing ceremony begins as the hataali blesses the painting by sprinkling cornmeal on it in the four cardinal directions: east, south, west, and north (always following the ceremonial progression echoing the path of the sun). This brings the figures to life and attracts the Holy People depicted to look at their portraits. They imbue the painting with their power and strength. The person for whom the ritual is performed sits in the middle of the painting facing east and accompanied by singing, prayer, and ritual, the healer-chanter applies sands from the painted figures to parts of the patient’s body in the ceremonial sequence: feet, legs, body, and head. This identifies the one-sung-over with the Holy People in the painting, making the bik’i nahagha strong and immune to further harm like the spirits themselves and transfers the illness from the patient into the painting. In fact, the person in need of healing is turned into a Holy Person for a time and shares their power, replacing evil with good. This acquired power is dangerous and could harm others until it’s removed by prayer and other post-ceremonial procedures.
When the healing ceremony is completed, the one-sung-over leaves the hogan.  The painting has been destroyed in the process of applying the sands from the images in it to the healing subject, but the hochxo that caused the sick person’s illness has now infected the sands.  Because the powers manifest in the sands are unsafe if handled improperly, when the cure is complete they’re removed and returned to nature.  The singer obliterates the now-defaced painting and the hazardous sand is taken from the hogan before sunset and returned to the desert to the north where it can’t do any harm. 
When the Holy People taught the legendary heroes how to make the sacred paintings, they prohibited the people to make permanent copies of the pictures to prevent damage or contamination.  As a consequence, there are no actual sandpaintings that survive the ritual.  (In the 1930s, Navajo singer Hosteen Klah, 1867-1937, defied custom and wove a number of rugs using sandpaintings as motifs.  Though some Navajo even today see this as a sacrilege, Klah's hope was that this would be a way to record the tradition for posterity.)  The only renderings I’ve ever seen are either photos—mostly old ones, and therefore black and white or sepia, by anthropologists since taking pictures at the ceremony today is frowned upon (no permanent reproduction, remember)—or non-ceremonial replicas made as art and sealed in some kind of preservative gel or plastic treatment to keep them intact.  These aesthetic versions, much smaller than real ones, are sanitized of any spiritually powerful imagery and display little more than pretty colors for tourists and the curious like me.  The authenticity of the iconography is clearly suspect (for art objects and museum demonstrations, the painter often makes small, deliberate errors such as transposing colors or leaving out a figure so as not to offend the spirits), but combining in my mind’s eye the colors from the artificial paintings with the images of old photos have given me a vague idea of what a ritual sandpainting might look like.  
To the outsider like me, the paintings are little more than highly stylized, brilliantly colored, delicate images, however aesthetically stunning.  With some knowledge of Navajo heroes, legends, and creation story, someone like me might recognize some of the symbols and the references to the narrative, but to a Navajo, the paintings are said to be full of symbolically depicted movement and action.  The sand art has no aesthetic value for the Navajo who have no interest in preserving the paintings or reproducing them for artistic appreciation.  In the words of Frank Waters, a writer of Indian (Cheyenne) heritage himself and a chronicler in both non-fiction and fiction of Native American culture and life in the Four Corners, as an art form, Navajo sandpaintings are “perhaps the most transient the world has known.  They do not last a full day.”  (For more on Waters, see “Frank Waters,” posted on ROT on 4 May 2012.)  To Euro-American eyes, however, they’re unequalled on the continent:
No other indigenous American art surpasses it in unique technique, in purity of style and emotional depth.  Beside it primitive and pseudo-primitive art shows itself to be only crude and undeveloped.  Modern abstractions seem childish.  For these sand-paintings, so highly developed and rigidly stylized, are abstractions as pure as any ever known.  Always symmetrical, equated to the four directions and perfectly balanced with the four primary colors, they are strikingly original designs of form and color whose origin can be felt as far as they can be seen.  They are more sophisticated than the latest importations from the Beaux Arts of Paris and the newest innovations seen in the exclusive ateliers of Fifty-seventh Street.  And yet they are realistic pictures so childlike, simple, and direct that they defy description.
Sand-painting is only one part of the Navajo healing ceremonials that also include singing, dancing, pollen blessings, pressing of prayer bundles to the head and body of the patient, drinking herbal infusions, face-painting, masking, sweat baths, offerings, and prayer chants, among other ritual activities.  During these rites, music, theater, dance, poetry, and the graphic arts are brought together to prevent danger and restore hozho for the one-sung-over, everyone present, and for the whole Navajo people.  For the Navajo, the ceremonial sings have two main goals: purification—removing what are referred to as “ugly things”: ridding the bik’i nahagha and the community of an object, creature, or spirit that has infected them—and identification with the Holy People to promote spiritual harmony (hozho) between the patient and the natural and supernatural world around her or him.  Purification occurs from sweating, emesis, eating sacred food or herbal medicine, and ritual bathing; identification happens through the chants, sandpaintings, masking and body-painting, medicine bundles and prayer sticks, and other ritual actions. 
Among the Diné, singing and ritual are major parts of everyday living.  The Navajo have ritual songs for every life event: house-building, travel, the harvest, birth, marriage, illness, and death.  In the healing ceremonials, song, dance, and pantomime combine to make simple dramas—like most Native American cultures, the Navajo don’t have a traditional form of theater.  They didn’t have a written language, either (alphabets were invented for some Indian tongues in the 19th and 20th centuries), so the ritual songs and the ceremonies that go with them comprise a series of what Frank Waters called  “myth-dramas” which are passed orally from one generation to the next to preserve the legends and traditional history of the tribe.  The texts of the chants are long, epic passages about the legendary heroes, Holy People, and yei of the Navajo people.  Put together, all these separate sagas, each of which tells part of the Navajo evolutionary story, combine to depict the creation myth of the Diné.  These myth-based dramas are a kind of mystery or miracle play, but they don’t merely perpetuate the mythological history of the Diné.  They also inculcate the fundamental truths of Navajo religion and philosophy, not unlike the medieval morality plays of Europe or the myths of Greece, Egypt, and India, only in the vernacular of the Navajo tradition.  Waters expounded his own observations:
There is a great difference between such mystery plays and the European morality plays as we know them.  Navaho ceremonialism is not concerned with morality   But it is concerned with the fact that the deeds of individuals are not confined to their own spheres of social action; they vitally affect the earth, the waters, the mountains—the whole web of life.  Nor is the influence of a character restricted to the term of his physical life.  It continues through his ghost to be a psychical force.  This interrelation of parts within the solidarity of the whole living universe, the psychic effects resulting from physical causes, the correspondence of inner and outer forms of life, and the continuance of causal action through the realms of life and death, all combine to give meaning and validity to the sings as profound mysteries.
The chants, however, are also important for quotidian communal and tribal life.  They are enormous social events when the far-flung tribe comes together by the thousands.  (The Navajo Nation, the reservation in northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico, is a little under 25,000 square miles, the area of West Virginia.  There are over 300,000 enrolled members of the Navajo tribe, about 175,000 of whom live in the Navajo Nation.)  Between the ceremonial events, there are open meetings to discuss matters affecting the whole community and, during some chantways, young Navajos are initiated into the tribe.  A pervasive atmosphere of friendliness suffuses the community; everyone, even traditional enemies, is welcome and both public and private wrongs are forgotten for the duration of the ceremony.  It’s a time when Navajos share thoughts, gifts, and food with family, friends, strangers, and the spirits alike and a sense of generosity and hospitality pervades the Navajo Nation.  Celebrants say prayers for all Diné and even for Anglos (that is, anyone who’s neither Indian nor Hispanic) and Latinos.  All Navajos try to mend their spiritual connection to the Holy People and they pray for rain, crops, health, and general prosperity.  As the singers entreat:
In beauty (happiness) may I dwell.
In beauty may I walk.
In beauty may my male kindred dwell.
In beauty may my female kindred dwell.
But the sings are more than rituals and community gatherings; they’re great fairs, social events where friends and family exchange gossip, and renew their tribal commonality.  For every Indian child growing up in the Four Corners, they have the same allure as the county fair holds for a farm kid and a street fair has for a city child.  Alongside the solemn prayers and sacred songs and dances, there are gambling, games, horse racing, and great feasts.  Low humor and feats of daring are established parts of the ceremony.  Because their basic purpose is creating happiness, the clowns, also known as “delight makers,” have broad leeway for their antics.  Throughout the long, somber ritual, the clowns might satirize the visiting dignitaries (even from the Anglo world) or even the dancers themselves.  Other entertainers swallow arrows or perform a fire dance in which young men leap through flames and bathe each other in flaming torches.  The Navajo have the reputation for being great magicians and there are magical performances which have a serious religious foundation: the hataali does a solo dance with an enchanted feather that floats opposite him and another performer makes a yucca plant sprout, grow, bloom, and wither within a half an hour.  Later, when the children have been initiated into the tribal secrets and the boys can participate in the rituals of the sings, the childhood sense of celebration and delight never completely leaves them. 
The Navajo chantways are, above all, solemn religious ceremonies the main purpose of which is to heal the bik’i nahagha, who, with his family, pays all the expenses of the ceremonial.  (This includes the hataali, who gets a fee of from $500 to $1000 for a nine-night rite.)  That intention overrides all the others in the end.  By far the largest group of chantways is used for curing or preventing illness and for each physical or mental disorder there’s an appropriate healing ceremonial.  For instance, the two-night Blessingway ceremony, whose narrative recounts the Navajo story of creation after emergence (the arrival of the Diné on the Earth’s surface from the underworld), prevents disharmony and disorder and preserves hozho, or blessing.  Other chantways fall into three procedural patterns: Lifeway, used to treat injuries resulting from accidents (and usually simpler than other sings); Evilway, intended to exorcise indigenous ghosts (there is a specific sing, Enemyway, for dispelling the ghost of an outsider such as an Anglo or some other non-Navajo like a member of some other Indian tribe) and combating the effects of witchcraft; and Holyway, directed at the Holy People and concerned with the attraction of good and the restoration of the patient.  Most chants are performed according to Holyway rituals, which may be two, five, or nine nights long, frequently ending in a night-long sing on the last night. 
The hataali, who spends his life learning the tribe’s rituals as well as the healing properties of the plants and minerals in the Four Corners, is considered a man of great spirituality.  He’s a combination of priest; cantor and choir director; physician, especially diagnostician; psychiatrist; and showman and stage magician.  His ability to conduct each of the ceremonials, every last detail of which he must know perfectly by heart, comes from years of study and training at the feet of his predecessor.  As with the sandpaintings, there are no records of the texts and procedures of a chantway; the healer learned what he knows the same way he teaches it to his helpers and apprentices, a position that’s assumed in childhood and is a lifelong pursuit: by oral transmission.  Just as a skilled hataali probably only knows some few dozen painting patterns, however, he may know a handful of chant ceremonies, each of which may include hundreds of songs, from each type, perhaps two or three from the shorter, simpler rites and one or two each from the longer, more complex ones like the nine-night Nightway chant, arguably the best known beyond the tribe because of the spectacular dances and stirring singing of the last night and public performances of the dances as demonstrations outside of ceremonial practice.  In the Nightway chant alone, there are over four hundred songs, plus the sandpaintings, dances, and all the ritualistic details of the masks, prayer sticks, and other ceremonial trappings. 
Each chant is concerned with the source of a specific disease or complex of diseases, such as eye, ear, and throat trouble; paralysis; distortion of the limbs; mental disturbances; and even bad dreams or “a troubled spirit.”  The ceremonial is intended to exorcise the underlying spiritual cause rather than to treat the physical symptoms of the illness itself, as in Western medicine.  One way to see the difference is that Western treatments cure the disease while the Navajo cures heal the patient.  The hataali determines what the origin of an individual ailment is, though certain circumstances are believed more likely to cause particular conditions, then selects the chant most closely associated with that imbalance.  (Chants traditionally offered for specific illnesses may be used for others if the hataali determines the etiologies are related.)  One chant (as transcribed by Washington Matthews, 1843-1905, an ethnographer and linguist known for his studies of Native Americans, especially the Navajo) gives an idea of the breadth of the curing powers of the sing:
My feet restore for me.
My legs restore for me.
My body restore for me.
My mind restore for me.
My voice restore for me.
While the hataali diagnoses the condition and chooses the appropriate chant, he may only provide what the patient requests.  The patient also decides what parts of the ceremony should be performed before the public on the final night of the rite—if any: the patient may choose to have a closed ceremony with no public exhibition.  So along with initiating the healing to start with, the one-sung-over has considerable control over its shape as well.
The sings usually take place in a ceremonial hogan, which is round like the horizon.  (Most hogans are also domed, which seems sky-like to me, though I’ve never read that symbolism anywhere.  It may, indeed, be insignificant since the Navajo, like many Indian cultures, believe that life began beneath the Earth’s surface and that the spirits live below rather than in a heaven above.  Among the Pueblos, who share many beliefs and practices with the Navajo—sand-painting is, in fact, a Pueblo practice that the Navajos refined—and the Hopi, the place through which both human souls and spiritual beings emerge is called the sipapu.)  Movement during a ritual, just as it is in sand-painting, is always in the direction the sun travels: east to south to west to north.  Men sit on the south side of the hogan; women sit on the north side.  Prayer sticks and other offerings are placed in the east and items that were pressed against the patient in order to remove evil are placed in the north.
Healing ceremonies usually last from one to nine nights, but the duration of a sing isn’t really fixed since a curing ceremonial continues as long as necessary to treat the patient.  Partial sings, a single event, or a few rituals from a chantway taking a few hours of a day or night may be performed as a kind of diagnostic to see if the bik’i nahagha benefits, then the entire ceremonial may be given for him or her.  Traditionally, a sing that’s cured a patient is performed four times.  The repetition of a sing, however, may be extended over many years or omitted altogether.  Failure to cure the patient is attributed to misdiagnosis and selecting the wrong ceremony.  Even tiny mistakes in the correct chant can damage its therapeutic effectiveness.  Certain rituals may only be performed at particular times of the year.  No Navajo believer will even sing songs from such a chant out of season for fear that bad fortune will befall him like being bitten by a snake or struck by lightning.  (In many Indian religions, the words of the rituals alone are considered so powerful that merely uttering them, even by an outsider and out of context, has potentially perilous consequences.  Chantway songs performed as demonstrations are, therefore, sanitized of their spiritual content, just as sandpaintings created for museum displays are, so as not to anger the gods.)
The procedure varies somewhat depending on which healing chant is being performed, of course, but a general pattern holds.  A typical sing starts at sundown the first evening with the consecration of the hogan. The participants include the singer and his assistants, the one-sung-over, members of the patient’s family, friends of the patient, and, of course, the Holy People; the public comes only to the last night of the sing.  In a nine-night ceremonial, the first night then includes one or two hours of singing and ritual.  Before sunrise on the first four mornings, when sandpaintings will be made, a ceremony announces to both humans and Holy People that a rite will be performed in the hogan.  The early hours of those days are devoted to sweat and emetic rites to expel evil and cleanse both the patient and all participants.  On the first four afternoons, prayer sticks are made, prayed over, and then placed at designated points to compel the Holy People to attend the ceremony.  At dawn on the fifth day, the hataali lays out the contents of his medicine bundle, praying over each object, and the one-sung-over touches each of them as they are placed on the altar.  The Navajo healing chants, like the sandpaintings, are transformative and these are ritual articles that will be pressed against the patient’s body during the cure to transform the one-sung-over into a Holy Person temporarily.  On each of the next four days, a sandpainting is made inside the hogan and the one-sung-over undergoes a ritual bath to purify him further.  When the painting is finished around noon, the sandpainting rite is performed.
A typical Holyway chant, the dominant type, consists of about a dozen ritual events separated by interludes (during which various communal activities may take place).  Certain procedures occur throughout all chants, most importantly, the singing led by the hataali but joined by all (usually men) who know how.  The singing, which accompanies nearly every Navajo ritual act and without which there can’t be a cure, continues every night during the rite, getting longer each night.  At intervals, prayers are offered.  On the final night, the singing lasts until dawn, summarizing all the purification, invocation, attraction of power, and identification of the preceding rites.  Throughout the vigil the patient concentrates on all the singing and ritual.  Early in the morning on the last day of the cure, the patient’s relatives help him shampoo his hair, bathe his body in suds made from yucca roots, and dry himself with ritually-ground cornmeal.  Then the singer paints the patient’s body from head to toe with symbolic designs to identify the one-sung-over further with the Holy People, as a mark of recognition for them and a guard against further danger, and ties symbolic tokens in his hair.   As the final dance begins, the yei enter, each shaking a gourd rattle in his right hand and holding two eagle feathers in his left.  These are masked dancers who personate the yei spirits, chanting an eerie song described as “piercingly powerful” with “hypnotic power” as the performers are “displaying almost acrobatic feats of bounding back and forth between octaves.”  (Yei interchangeably refers to the dancers, whose masks echo the colors and designs of the figures depicted in the sandpaintings; their dance; and the gods who live in rocks, caves, mountains, canyons, and are etiological factors in the bik’i nahagha’s condition.  The yei, who are speechless Holy People, are believed to visit the homes of sick people and perform over them to remove the cause of the illness.)  The public is admitted only to this culmination of all the sacred  ritualism of the preceding days and nights, considered the most dramatic of the Navajo rites, and visitors from all over come to share in the curative effects and the beauty of the pageant.  Clyde Kluckhohn (1905-60), an American anthropologist known for his field work among the Navajo, has described the peak of the “splendid public ritual” of the Mountainway sing, another nine-night ceremony which is, “if anything, more spectacular” than the more popular Nightway:
By the ninth day a huge crown has gathered and horses and covered wagons and (today) automobiles encircle the communal cooking shelter, and the  ceremonial hogan, the area in front of which has been leveled for the public exhibition.  All afternoon at isolated spots in the timber little groups gather to rehearse the ah leel, the vaudeville acts of the evening.  The performers are watched and encouraged by neighbors and relatives.  Meanwhile men and boys are cutting, hauling, and piling cedar and juniper for the great fires and to form the enormous corral with which the evening’s rituals will take place.
Just as the last lights flicker on the mesa, the song-priest marches around the corral, sprinkling meal and pollen and chanting prayers of consecration.  The waiting crowd throngs into the enclosure, carrying blankets and babies, coffee pots and food.  Complete darkness falls, and the tension grows momentarily more expectant.  At last the great piles are lighted.  Flames soar.  The heat scorches and the retreating spectators pack themselves close against the tree limbs which form the enclosure.  While the heat is still intense, the twelve Turn-to-White dancers rush in, their staves tipped with white eagle down.  They are twirling their staves tipped with white eagle down.  They are stripped to the g-string, but their bodies are plastered with white clay.  Nearer and nearer they circle to the blaze.  At last one dancer gets the tip of his stave in the fire.  “Turn to white!” shouts the crowd and he, quickly sliding the ring concealed in his hands down his stave, triumphantly exhibits the feathers that have just sprouted to replace those which were burned off.
There follows a series of ah leel.  A man rubs his hands, producing a sparkling, crackling flame; a turtle climbs a tree; there is the arrow-swallowing dance; feathers rise out of a basket and dance in the air before a young girl; green corn grows and yucca blossom, though it is December.  The plumed arrow dance is given by different teams to the whizzing of the bullroarer (which the Navajos call the “groaning stick”).  Here too, as in the Night Chant, there are elements of comic relief.  A dirty old man enters, stumbles about in the manner of the “low comedy”, disappears, reappears with a strapping man dressed as an hideous old crone.
As the first rays of the sun appear in the east on the last night, the rite culminates with an all-night singing of the dawn songs.  When the final song is completed, the patient leaves the hogan, faces east, and “breathes in the dawn” four times.  The healing ends with a prayer and a song to prevent bad aftereffects from any mistakes during the chant.  Following each ceremony, experienced assistants dispose of everything that served its purpose during the sing, just like the sand from the paintings.   For four days after the ritual, just as he must during the process, the one-sung-over observes numerous behavioral constraints such a ban on bathing to preserve the body paint, sexual continence, and, because he now possesses the powers of the Holy People and is therefore dangerous, care in everything he does so he doesn’t harm anyone. 
Washington Matthews summed up the Navajo healing ceremony:  “One idea the hymnist seeks to express is, that the gods, in response to prayer and sacrifice, descend from their lofty homes to cure the patient, and when they do so, assure the patient that his body is holy, i.e., that he is cured.”  Or, in the words of another song:
With beauty all around me, I walk.