(13 February 1989)
[In early July, I watched a cable broadcast of Mae West’s I’m No Angel (1933). I thought of a play based on West’s career that I’d reviewed years ago—25, it turns out—but didn’t go beyond that brief thought. Then West, who wrote the script for the film (which co-starred a very young Cary Grant, 29, who also starred in West’s previous movie of the same year, She Done Him Wrong), delivered one of her iconic lines: “When I'm good, I'm very good. But, when I'm bad . . . I’m better.” That’s a perfect paraprosdokian, a figure of speech on which I blogged on 12 July 2013, so I posted a short “Comment” on that ROT page with the quotation. (There was already a line—apparently actually a paraphrase—from another Mae West movie in the posted list of examples: “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before,” from 1936’s Klondike Annie.) Then I remembered my old review of the Mae West musical, Champagne Lady, and I thought it would be fun to look back at an oldie that predates not only ROT, but even the play reports I started sending some out-of-town friends in 2003.
[This review appeared as half of “Drinking and Driving” in the New York Native on 13 February 1989. (The second half of the column covered the French Canadian play The Cezanne Syndrome by Normand Canac-Marquis at Soho Rep.) I’ve revised the review and inserted some information in the version below that didn’t appear in 1989.
[Champagne Lady doesn’t seem to have left much of a footprint: there’s nary a mention of it (or the cabaret space where it ran, for that matter) on the ’Net and even the “Paper of Record,” the New York Times didn’t run a review. (To be fair, though the Times now covers Off-Broadway pretty extensively, Champagne Lady was more Off-Off than Off.) The venue was the cabaret room, dubbed the Trocadero Theatre Club, of a Greenwich Village restaurant. The play’s slugged as “A Bawdy, Intoxicating Musical Comedy Of The Prohibition Era” below the title in the program, and the setting is described as “New York City In The 20’s With Prohibition In Full Swing.” Directed by Jon-Michael Delon, Champagne Lady was written by Nelson Jewell and Richard Atkins and produced by Jonel, Ltd. (presumably for Jon-Michael + Nelson), at The Trocadero Restaurant, at 368 Bleecker Street, on the corner of Charles. (There were no set, costume, or lighting credits in the program.) The one-act non-Equity showcase, comprised of eight scenes and 10 musical numbers, opened on 5 January 1989 and ran Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays until 26 February.]
In a low-ceilinged room below the Trocadero Restaurant, on a tiny, nearly bare stage, Champagne Lady relates the story of Ruby Lil, who’s “never fully dressed without a man,” and the men who come up and see her sometimes. Taking its plot from the films of Mae West, it’s the tale of a bad girl who dupes the authorities while outfoxing the men who think they’ll take advantage of her. This little musical, set in the Prohibition ’20s, is performed in the restaurant’s cabaret, creating the small irony of drinking while watching a play which notes the illegality of that practice.
Irony’s in short supply in Champagne Lady. Ruby Lil (Tracey Morse) is a straight impression of West, her name taken from Diamond Lil, the title character in West’s own eponymous 1928 Broadway play, the basis for her 1933 film She Done Him Wrong. The plot elements that librettist Nelson Jewell’s borrowed from West’s films include the jilting of an unwelcome lover (John Combs), who then vindictively hales Ruby Lil into court for bootlegging. She appears before the judge (Paul Campana), a lecherous drunk who places Ruby Lil under his own protection rather than jail her. Despite Campana’s weak impersonation and intrusive New York intonations, Judge “Willy” Drakenfeld is supposed to be W. C. Fields (born, famously, near Philadelphia—not anywhere near New York City). Their relationship is right out of My Little Chickadee (1940), and I waited in vain to hear him ask Ruby Lil if she were trying to show contempt for the court so she could reply, “Ooh, I’m tryin’ very hard not to, Judge.”
The addition of a gigolo (John Patti) tangles the plot, but Ruby Lil unravels it assisted by her black maid, Beulah (Mari Briggs), a character and relationship taken directly from I’m No Angel. (In that movie, West has the line, “Beulah, peel me a grape.” In Champagne Lady, Ruby Lil orders some grapes, and Beulah responds, “Shall I peels ’em for ya?”)
All this is mildly amusing, even occasionally quite funny. Morse does a creditable Mae West, and Briggs, despite the stereotyped role, is very comical as squeaky-voiced Beulah (calling to mind Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, whom Briggs may have been channeling). Morse has a good belt, and, although Patti’s baritone has little personality, he’s the best singer in the cast. Richard Atkins’s music, though not particularly apt for either the Roaring ’20s or Mae West, is pleasant and Atkins and Jewell’s lyrics are often clever.
The play, however, is neither a spoof in the vein of, say, A Night in the Ukraine (1980-81) nor a clever recreation like Little Mary Sunshine (Off-Broadway, 1959-62), but a vehicle seemingly written for the real West and Fields. There are no comments on the absurdity of the characters or the blatant racism and sexism. The producers, whose press release compares Champagne Lady to the Off-Broadway hits A Chorus Line (1975 at the Public Theater), Hair (1967 OB) and The Fantasticks (1960-2002), have hopes for a full two-act version that don’t seem justified. It’s not campy enough to be a send-up, nor reverent enough to be an homage; however, the availability of drinks and the cabaret atmosphere of Downstairs at Trocadero render Champagne Lady an enjoyable way to pass an hour and ten minutes.
[There were no other published reviews than my own in the Native that I could find 25 years after the fact: as I noted above, the Times didn’t cover Champagne Lady (though the paper did include it in its theater listings), and the other New York dailies didn’t, either. I didn’t find a notice in the Village Voice or the theater trade paper Show Business, but I did happen upon a column in the other trade weekly, “Bistro Bits” in Back Stage (3 February 1989), in which Bob Harrington wrote about the show because it was part of a trend of putting on theater productions in nightclubs like Downstairs at Trocadero. It may have been the only thing that passed for a review aside from my own notice. Characterizing the performance as “as much a backers audition . . . as it is a cabaret revue,” Harrington wrote that “at times, it actually approaches those vintage ’30s films, though the similarities are mostly in derivative imitations.” In addition, the cabaret columnist felt, “The whole production seems to teeter between a high camp spoof and a legitimate comedy, and it never seems to fall one way or the other.” Of Jewell and Atkins’s songs, as well as Morse’s “singing persona,” Harrington observed that they were “more Sophie Tucker than Mae West . . . . But what do the Tuckerish tunes have to do with the West plot and impersonation . . . ?” (Morse was a solo singer at clubs like the Duplex and Don’t Tell Mama before treading the boards in Champagne Lady.) “‘Champagne Lady,’” the Back Stage columnist concluded, “has some fun moments and possibilities as a high camp frolic, but it needs a lot of work.”
[As for Mae West (1893-1980), the ostensible subject of what Harrington dubbed a “mini-musical,” beginning with Sex in 1926, she wrote and starred in her own Broadway plays. Writing under the pen name Jane Mast (her birth name was Mary Jane West), the star was already famous for her double entendres and distinctive walk (which she attributed to a popular female impersonator on the vaudeville circuit where she got her start). “Discovered” by the New York Times at 18 in a Broadway revue (which closed after eight shows), West was already 33 when she began her playwriting career—and in 1927, after Sex was raided by city police, West was sentenced to 10 days on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island for “corrupting the morals of youth.” (Her morals trial was held at the Jefferson Market Courthouse at 10th Street and 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village—a beautiful red-brick building that’s now my neighborhood library!) She went on to write The Drag (1927), The Wicked Age (1927), Diamond Lil (1928), Pleasure Man (1928), and The Constant Sinner (1931). Hollywood called in 1932, when West was already 39. Despite her age, usually a disadvantage for women in Hollywood, especially a newcomer, West was the definition of “star”—and she controlled her own career, a rarity not just for women but for any actor in the days of the powerful studios and their bosses. In 1970, West came out of retirement to appear in Myra Breckinridge, and she made her last movie, Sextette, in 1978. Mae West died in L.A. at the age of 87.
[W. C. Fields (1880-1946), whose real name was William Claude Dukenfield and who made scores of comic films from 1915 to 1944, starred opposite West in My Little Chickadee in 1940. I used to howl with laughter watching his antics in the old flicks on TV when I was in college—Fields was a master of physical comedy of all kinds, but especially juggling, and an expert stick man in pool, doing his own trick shots, a routine he’d perfected in vaudeville, for many of his films. I’ve always felt a special connection to Fields because he died (at 66) on the very day I was born (a distinction I share with singer Jimmy Buffett).]
(13 December 2004)
[In a recent ROT report on an art exhibit, I made passing mention of an art show I’d seen previously at the same museum. When I was setting up my report on Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe (20 July), I noted that the last exhibit I’d seen at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was probably The Aztec Empire in 2004. I wrote about that show five years before I ever launched ROT, but because it was part of an omnibus report covering several exhibits and performances, it’s very short. Now, since I’m posting another archival report, I decided it would be interesting to combine the two brief pieces as a look back a decade or two (-and-a-half) at the theater and art scenes in New York City.
[The Aztec Empire, organized in collaboration with the National Council for Culture and Arts and the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, ran at the Guggenheim, on 5th Avenue at 89th Street, from 15 October 2004 to 13 February 2005. The guest curator for Aztec Empire was Felipe Solís Olguín, director of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, co-curator of the large-scale survey Aztecs at the Royal Academy in London in 2003, and one of the world's foremost authorities on Aztec art and culture. I’ve reedited this report slightly for posting on the blog.]
Both The Aztec Empire show at the Guggenheim, which my mother and I saw on 30 November 2004, and China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 A.D.at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (12 October 2004-23 January 2005), which we saw later in the holiday weekend, were good shows, but Aztec Empire, an exhibit of more than 440 works, many never before seen outside Mexico, drawn from both public and private collections—the first large-scale survey of Aztec art and culture to be seen in the United States in more than 20 years—was more interesting since we haven’t seen as much of that culture as we have China. (We did have a Maya exhibit in D.C. this year, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building from 4 April to 25 July 2004, which was magnificent-—another really huge show, by the way [see my report below]—but China gets a lot of attention all the time here.)
Slugged as “the most comprehensive survey of the art and culture of the Aztecs ever assembled outside Mexico,” the Guggenheim display, covering the 13th to 16th centuries but focusing on the 15th century, roughly the period of the Renaissance in Europe which it resembled in ancient Mexican culture, was more appealing as well as easier to access and traverse. Riding an elevator to the top of the ramp—though there is also a floor higher we had to walk up to and then return—then taking a leisurely stroll down the spiral is much easier than going from exhibit case to exhibit case and room to room while dodging the other viewers following some other self-defined route. (Actually, we did have to break the Aztec show part way through to grab a little lunch and then return to the spot where we interrupted our progress. Couldn’t be helped!)
A highlight of the exhibition are treasures only recently uncovered at the Templo Mayor archaeological site in Mexico City, including two monumental (both are about six feet tall) figures of fired clay, one of an eagle warrior (c. 1440–69), an elite Aztec soldier, and the other of Mictlantecuhtli (c. 1480), god of the dead. (I’m constantly astounded at shows like Aztec Empire—as well as at, say, American Indian exhibits—how some of the relatively delicate items made of wood or clay or porcelain managed to survive intact or nearly for hundreds, even thousands of years buried underfoot. Yes, many of the items were in tombs, but some were just buried. It’s astonishing to imagine.) The imposing Eagle Warrior depicts a standing man wearing a helmet in the form of an eagle, through whose beak the warrior’s face can be seen. The warrior’s costume also includes stylized wings with feathers made of stucco and a raptor’s talons. Portraying one of the two most prestigious Aztec warrior classes (the other wore jaguar costumes), this was one of two statues found flanking the door to a chamber where the eagle warriors met, and is believed to represent the morning sun. (In Aztec mythology, the eagle was the symbol of the sun, to whom all sacrifices were made.)
Mictlantecuhtli (Lord of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld), who craves human blood, is quite a grotesque image. The statue stands in a darkened corridor of the museum, the ghastly figure of a decomposing corpse, stripped of most of its flesh, its grinning skull cavernous, its hands in the form of huge claws, and its liver dangling from his exposed ribs.
Throughout the exhibit is a bestiary of naturalistically observed figures of the biosphere of Mesoamerica featuring wild beasts such as eagles, coyotes, jaguars, monkeys, rabbits, frogs, and snakes; insects like locusts, fleas, and a larger-than-life-size (over 7½ inches long), realistically detailed grasshopper (c. 1500), carved of orange, semi-precious carnelian stone, that looks like it’s ready to jump, as well as domesticated animals such as dogs and turkeys. As stylized as Eagle Warrior and Mictlantecuhtli are, the Mexican bestiary, even the tiny insects magnified dozens of times actual size, is as lifelike as a zoological study. (In Aztec mythology, animals play important roles in not only the human sphere, but the spiritual and celestial ones as well. That’s why so many of the Aztec gods are shown as hybrids of several animals, such as Quetzalcoatl, the famous “feathered serpent”: to emphasize the presence of characteristics of a combination of symbolic powers.) In addition to animal figures, Aztec Empire also includes images of plants and agricultural products.
In the end, the Aztec artifacts were the more interesting to me than the Chinese mostly because I have a thing for that art. When I visited the Yucatan a dozen years ago, which is the northernmost extremity of the Mayan territory, I couldn’t get enough of their carvings and statuary. I desperately wanted to find a really nice reproduction of something as my souvenir—but the ones I could afford weren’t nice enough and the ones I liked were just too expensive. (The Maya simply disappeared—no one really knows why for sure—in about 900 C.E. and the Aztecs, who were centered on what is now Mexico City—Tenochtitlan in Aztec times—far to the north of the Maya, were just rising at that time; nonetheless, there is an iconographic similarity between Mayan art and Aztec, though I don’t know how much actual influence the older culture had on the newer one.) Chinese art, especially the porcelain works, is beautiful—I brought home a fake Tang horse from China, as it happens (and my folks brought home a real one!)—but the imagery and style of the South and Central American Indians has always knocked me out.
[I have a similar response to the art of the Indians of the Pacific Northwest—Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Alaska—as my reaction to the Aztec and Maya exhibits. In my estimation, the northwest Indian art may be the most aesthetically magnificent of all so-called primitive arts. I didn’t even know about it until I went to Seattle back in 1989, and I just went nuts for it. I brought back a mask—a piece of signed art by an Indian artist, not a real religious artifact—and half a dozen or so prints that were made up as fancy cards for stationery. I had intended to give the cards away as gifts, but I only gave away one—plus one I bought specifically as a thank-you gift for someone who had been my host in San Francisco, where I had stopped before going on to Seattle—and have kept all the others because I can’t part with them! If you read my journal of my trip to Alaska (“The Last Frontier”; 26 March, 5 April, 30 April, and 10 May 2014) you’ll see that I still love that art and that this was part of the reason I went there.]
(11-13 May 2004)
[Since I made so much in my report on The Aztec Empire of the Maya show at NGA that same year, I think it’s worth adding the earlier short report I wrote on that exhibit as well. The coincidence of seeing the art of these two cultures within about seven months is enough to make the experience remarkable, but the fact that both shows so impressed me made the phenomenon all the more notable.
[As I recorded above, The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya ran at the East Building of the National Gallery from 4 April to 25 July 2004. My mother and I caught it while I was visiting her in Washington that April for her 81st birthday; I’ve revised this report, written about a month later, some for ROT. Kathleen Berrin, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, curator of the art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and Mary Miller, Vincent J. Scully Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, were the curators for Courtly Art.]
The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya is a huge show, 156 works of art from about 30 public and private collections in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Chile, the U.S., Switzerland, the U.K., and Australia. The exhibit, organized with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, focuses on the art of the various Mayan kings and queens and their courts from 600-800 C.E., a 200-year stretch during which they transformed Mayan art, “achieving a peak of dramatic expression and naturalism unmatched in the ancient New World,” according to the museum’s publicity. (The Mayan civilization, which extended from what is now southern Mexico into northern Central American—present-day Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—existed from about 2000 B.C.E. until after the arrival of the Spanish, but its classical period extended from about 250 to 900 C.E., after which, for reasons historians don’t understand, it went into a steep decline. By about 1000 C.E., the grandeur of the Mayan civilization had ended.) Like The Aztec Empire at the Guggenheim and exhibits of Native American art at the National Museum of the American Indian (as well as exhibits at the National Museum of African Art), the Maya exhibit’s focus is the artistic appeal of the items, not their anthropological value. The works in The Courtly Art aren’t folk art, but highly refined works by well-trained professionals in a Mayan court which made stars of its artists.
A second aspect of this show is also interesting, in addition to the aesthetic focus: much of the Mayan culture is under reinterpretation because their hieroglyphics have only recently begun to be deciphered. (It has been observed that the Mayan hieroglyphics took decades to decipher because there was no Rosetta Stone for them, which is true, of course. I recall, however, that the code was first broken at just about the time my folks and I went to Yucatan back in ’92. It had defied interpretation for centuries, leading to a massive misunderstanding of the Mayan culture.) I think the repercussions of the first approach is self-evident, but the second, the reinterpretation of what we know about this people, meant that even artifacts that have been on view for decades have come to reveal or exemplify truths only recently understood.
The most prominent of these reassessments is that the Maya, whom we used to believe were basically a peaceful people interested in the arts and astronomy, were warlike and bloody in the extreme. The Maya of The Courtly Art not only loved blood, but pain. This is borne out in the art on display at NGA, most clearly in the magnificent full-size modern reproduction of wall murals from Bonampak showing a king and court presiding over mutilated captives in “The Court at War” section of the exhibit. Among the many “courtly” activities depicted in the mural are prisoners being scourged and killed—some having their fingernails pulled out or their fingers sliced off, some pleading for mercy, and others awaiting further mutilation and death—as well as other gruesome scenes. (The mural is reminiscent of the work of a Mesoamerican Hieronymus Bosch, except that Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, for instance, portrays a grotesque fantasy world while the Bonampak fresco putatively represents a real one.) In an earlier part of The Courtly Art, a pair of relief carvings show individual captives with their arms tied behind their backs—one seemingly stunned, another crying, a third staring up in wild-eyed panic. In yet another carving, a limestone relief depicts the wife of a powerful ruler called Shield Jaguar pulling a thorn-studded rope through her tongue, the blood spattering on paper in a basket at Lady Xok’s feet. (In terms of the Maya, ‘courtly’ doesn’t equate with the common usage in the world of European chivalry. It refers to “the sanguinary horrors of Mayan imperial rites,” as the Washington Post said in an editorial review by Mark Jenkins.)
But the one thing that hasn’t changed—except in our own appreciation of it—is that the Maya made incredibly beautiful art. In that same relief of Lady Xok, the details of Mayan textile work is carved into the limestone in exquisite detail, showing the intricate weaving and delicate embroidery of the lady’s robes and Shield Jaguar’s form-fitting armor, replete with ornamental tassels, fringes, and elaborate edgings. In “Life at the Maya Court,” the first gallery of the show, the Portrait Head of Pakal, a 7th-century ruler from Palenque, is stunning in its beauty. (Beauty in Mayan culture was associated with the divine, in particular, with the Maize God.) A stucco carving with an elaborate feathered headdress, the sculpture depicts a handsome young man (Pakal ruled from 615 C.E., when he was12, until he died at 80 in 683—a Methuselean span in his day) with classic Mayan looks: an elongated head and prominent nose, full lips, and piercing eyes.
The Yucatan is the northernmost reach of the Maya territory, which is centered in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The sites we saw near Cancun (Tulum, Coba, and Chichen-Itza) were smaller and poorer—outposts really of the major city-states to the south—and even the carvings and sculptures we saw there were magnificent. [As I explained in the Aztec Empire report above, I tried in vain to find something I could afford—a replica, obviously, or a modern work that drew on the Mayan imagery—to bring home as my souvenir.] Along with the Northwest Indian art, the Mayan stuff is the most striking of any indigenous culture I have seen. The Courtly Art show, which has pieces small and large, even monumental—organized into six sections: “Life at the Maya Court,” “The Divine Model of Courtly Life,” “Women at Court,” “Word and Image in the Maya Court,” “The Court at War,” and “Palenque: An Exemplary Maya Court”—was breathtaking. And exhausting.
I was left with the question [which I reiterated recently in my report on Italian Futurism, 15 July 2014] of how to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of this art, which is undeniable, and not overlook the innate cruelty and brutality of the violence-loving, bloodthirsty culture that created it. Paul Richard, the Washington Post art reviewer, described Mayan art as “curiously unsettling, fabulous yet fearsome, opulent yet painful.” (The New York Times tellingly titled art writer Holland Carter’s review “A Mystique of Blood and Beauty.”) I haven’t reconciled this dichotomy for myself, so I can’t provide any guidance for anyone else. The remoteness in time is certainly part of the calculus; after all, the Dark Ages in Europe were hardly a benign era in human history, particularly in terms of humankind’s treatment of its fellow creatures, yet we can admire the art of that time (or there’d be no point in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s magnificent Cloisters). On the other hand, the Mayan art we see in The Courtly Art is not only the product of a brutal culture, but it openly celebrates that brutality and bloodlust. Whatever the answer is—if, indeed, there is one—The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya is an astonishing experience, the impressions from which will doubtlessly remain with me for a long time. Of course, as I’ve already admitted: I’m a sucker for this art anyway, so maybe I’m no gauge.
[It was only in the middle of the last century that museums, galleries, and the viewing public began to consider objects from the diverse cultures of Africa and the Americas as aesthetic items rather than sociological and anthropological ones. Some Western artists appreciated the beauty of African art and were even influenced by it in their own work as early as the 1890s and the 1920s, but most art from Africa and ancient North, Central, and South America was shown not in art museums in the West but in museums of ethnography. Big museums like NMAI and NMAA, opened in 2004 and 1986, respectively, were both originally small, private museums trying to break new ground in the world-art museum scene. The eventual acceptance of this perspective allowed the establishment of institutions like NMAI and NMAA and exhibits like The Aztec Empire and The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya.]