30 July 2014

“I Think Icon, I Think Icon”

by Nelson Pressley


[The following article appeared in the Washington Post on 22 December 2013 in the “Arts” section (sec. E).  Nelson Pressley is a review writer for the Post and previously reviewed for the Washington Times. “I Think Icon, I Think Icon” discusses the work of actors playing roles in three well-known musical standards (Gypsy, A Funny Things Happened on the Way to the Forum, and The Kings and I) that a previous (and renowned) performer made famous.  Think about playing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady after Rex Harrison or Guinevere in Camelot following Julie Andrews.  It can be a daunting prospect—I, myself, have confessed that certain iconic roles are always associated in my mind with specific performances I saw as a youngster (see “A Broadway Baby,” 22 September 2010)—and Pressley interviewed three Washington-area actors who took on just such a task.] 


So, just how hard is it for actors to play characters made famous by other actors?

Ways you can tell a stage role is for the ages:

An actor just won’t let go. Take Yul Brynner and “The King and I”: From the premiere of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in 1951 through national tours in the 1980s (“Et cetera, et cetera,” as the King of Siam would say), he performed it 4,625 times.

The part is a prize magnet. In 1962, Zero Mostel won a Tony Award as Pseudolus, the wily Roman slave in Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” In 1972, so did Phil Silvers. In 1996, so did Nathan Lane.

“Gypsy” also delivered a Tony trifecta, with the ferocious Mama Rose paying off for Angela Lansbury in 1975, Tyne Daly in 1990, and Patti LuPone in 2008. Bernadette Peters didn’t win in 2003 — but then neither did the Mother of Them All, Ethel Merman, who originated the part in 1959.

All three musicals are currently on area stages, raising the question: What can an actor do that’s new? How do performers cope with the long shadows of movie versions, beloved cast albums, Broadway performances etched in lore? After all, there are no purists like show purists, like no purists we know . . .

“Anybody who plays that role is wrestling with the ghost of Yul Brynner in audience’s heads,” says Paolo Montalban, the current King in the Olney Theatre Center’s “The King and I.” 

“People are obsessed with the hair thing,” director Mark Waldrop says, meaning everyone wants to know: Will this king be as bald as Brynner?

“For me, that shadow was never there,” Joe Calarco says of “Gypsy” legends. (Calarco’s staging of “Gypsy” opened at Arlington’s Signature Theatre Dec. 17.) “And I think Sherri” — longtime Signature actress Sherri Edelen — “got over that very question way before rehearsal.”

Actors in revivable plays from Shakespeare to David Mamet deal with the issue all the time, of course.

“It’s not about reinventing it,” says Alan Paul, director of “Forum” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, with Bruce Dow ringleading the clowning as Pseudolus. “It’s about making it your own. . . . So much of the evening depends on the charisma of the leads. There are many great actors, but you can count the number of personalities out there who can fill the stage with life. I felt that Bruce had that.”

Here, then, are some of the ways to beat the nerves of tackling an iconic part — or, as the “Forum” lyrics put it, to stay “calm, controlled, so cool that I’m cold.”

‘Gypsy’ 

“I was scared,” Edelen says. “It’s pretty big. But I trust Joe with my life.”

To Calarco, Edelen’s triumphs as Mrs. Lovett in Signature’s “Sweeney Todd” and as Margaret Johnson in “Light in the Piazza” with the Philadelphia Theatre Company (winning a Barrymore Award, Philly’s Tonys) made Mama Rose a natural next hurdle.

“She has that powerhouse voice,” he says, “and she’s a fearless actress.”

So how do you deal with a long shadow?

“I try not to think about it, for one thing,” Edelen says. “And I try just to tell the story. The psychology of the story was what was interesting to me, not Mama Rose, or what a monster she is. I looked into the ‘why’ of the actions.”

“Monstrous” is indeed an idea that clings to Mama Rose, who thrusts her kids onstage and schleps them through fleabag theaters across the country.

“I don’t like that word,” Calarco says. “Everything she does, she does out of love — or she thinks she does. I like her very much.”

If “Gypsy” has a moment of truth for its leading lady — a signature scene or song that the audience will be waiting for – it’s the big breakdown number, “Rose’s Turn.” Calarco suggests that there may be scenic tactics to help illustrate Rose’s madness, but most of it will rest, as ever, on the performer’s shoulders.

“It is Rose’s show, and that is her soliloquy,” Calarco says. “Sherri says it’s King Lear, it’s Medea — and it really is.”

Some performers learn parts by listening to recordings, but Calarco reports that Edelen had this role memorized before the first rehearsal while steering clear of CDs and YouTube (except, she says, for background on Gypsy Rose Lee and her family).

“She wants to learn it the way it is on the page,” the director says. “She’s very pure about that.”

She knows the show, of course: She played one of the strippers in Signature’s 2001 edition. Yet she says she’s never seen a full stage production.

“Which is good, isn’t it?” Edelen says. “If people out there have a preconceived idea, I don’t know what it is.”

‘Forum’ 

An actor’s first thought about landing one of these formidable roles?

“I was terrified, because I certainly know I’m nothing like Zero Mostel,” says Dow. “It was originally written for Phil Silvers. It was offered to Milton Berle. I am more North American WASP than Borscht Belt comedian. So there was an element of terror involved.”

All that first hit Dow when he was cast as Pseudolus for a “Forum” at Canada’s Stratford Festival a few seasons ago. Dow dropped out of the show early when he suffered a virally induced paralyzed vocal cord; when the production transferred to Toronto, he alternated with another actor.

The approach was more cartoonish in Toronto, Dow feels, and is more heartfelt here. “What I hoped I could bring to it was a simple honesty and earnestness,” he says, adding that vaudeville shtick naturally then gets plopped on top.

Director Paul is an unabashed fan of the 1996 revival with Nathan Lane, but he doesn’t think “Forum” is quite like “Gypsy” or “King and I,” with songs that buffs know cold coming in.

“I think a lot of people know ‘Free,’ people know ‘Everybody Ought To Have a Maid,’ but they’re not waiting for it like ‘Rose’s Turn,’ ” Paul says. “So I think Bruce and I were remarkably free from a preconceived version of it.”

“Zero had a beautiful grotesquerie about him,” Dow says of the Mostel’s Pseudolus. “And Mr. Lane can have a Snidely Whiplash evil grin, but I think that is not in my wheelhouse. Grotesque I get. And I happily go there.”

To YouTube, or not to YouTube?

“I’ll watch whatever’s out there, sure,” Dow says. “But I think it’s important that I know what’s in my skill set and what isn’t. I’m not someone who likes to come in to rehearsal prepared. I like to come in and play.”

Like Edelen, Paul sees Lear in these kinds of roles — the material is rich, and it won’t be the author’s fault if the show flops. Dow knows that means some folks will be primed to see things a certain way.

“You have audiences who will want to see Dolly come down the staircase in a red dress,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do. If you want to see a live performance of ‘Forum’ starring Zero Mostel, you’re setting yourself up for a disappointment.”

‘The King and I’ 

Brynner won a Tony for the 1951 Broadway premiere and an Oscar for the 1956 film. Then he kept rebranding himself as the king, playing the role in the 1972 CBS sitcom “Anna and the King” and taking the musical back to Broadway and on tour into the 1980s.

“Yul Brynner still owns that role,” Waldrop says. “He’ll always own that role.”

He shaved his head for that role, and therefore so have many actors ever since. Montalban, best known for playing the Prince in the 1997 ABC/Disney TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” volunteered to shave his head, too. But research indicated that wasn’t how the mid-19th century king of Siam really looked.

“So that wouldn’t even be about the piece,” Waldrop says. “That would be about Yul Brynner.”

Along with “Miss Saigon,” “The King and I” is a cornerstone of the musical theater repertoire for performers with Asian backgrounds. Waldrop says, “There were certain times in rehearsal when it was really clear that everyone in the room knew the show better than I did.”

This is the Phillipines-born Montalban’s eighth spin through the musical, though only his second turn as the petulant king; previously, he played the young lover Lun Tha. It’s good to be the king, in the thick of the story all the time, he says — not that he watched other kings and murmured to himself, “If I ever get my hands on that part . . . .”

For Montalban, the aim seems to be to hit certain marks with authority, including the king’s physique – and yes, he is often shirtless and barefoot, though his dark hair is only slightly shaved on the sides and fully tufted on top. Also pivotal is the climactic waltz with the English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (played at Olney by Eileen Ward), “Shall We Dance?”

“You really have to deliver on that,” the actor says, “the chemistry that finally blossoms, that longing in the audience for them to get together.”

Montalban knows that the audience experiences a giant collective “Yul Brynner” thought bubble the moment he steps onstage. “I have those first seven seconds of them making all the judgments they want in the world,” he says. “Then I have the rest of the show to earn my own place in their attention.”

How effectively it works — well, as Paul says, it boils down to charisma. But it also depends on how deeply an original is embedded in any given spectator’s mind.

Montalban tells the story of a gentleman who recently approached after the show to say he enjoyed the actor’s performance.

The man added, “I would have liked it more if you’d shaved your head.”


25 July 2014

Words and Pictures?


Late last month, I went with my mom to see the movie Words and Pictures, which opened in New York  in May but hadn’t come to the Washington area until early in June.  I don’t normally write about film on ROT—the closest I’ve come, not counting some film pieces I republished but didn’t write, were “Everybody Comes To Rick’s” (17 May 2009), an article about the play on which the movie Casablanca was based; Der Illegale” (5 July 2009), a post about an old German TV miniseries that had been based on an actual espionage case; and Cinderella: Impossible Things Are Happening (CBS-TV, 31 March 1957)” (25 April 2013), a reminiscence on the original telecast of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical—and I’m not going to critique this one or analyze it as a piece of movie art.  I’ll say that it’s a perfectly all-right romance (some reviewers said “rom-com,” others, “rom-dram”) which many film journalists likened to Dead Poets Society because of some superficial similarities.  But I caught what I see as an ironic twist which doesn’t appear in that other (or any) prep school-sited film and I’m not sure it’s intentional.  

Directed by Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation, I.Q.) from a screenplay by Gerald Di Pego (Born Innocent, TV; Message in a Bottle), Words and Pictures recounts the story of Maine prep-school English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen—Gosford Park, Closer, Sin City, Hemingway & Gellhorn) who laments his students’ lack of interest in the power of the written word.  (I’m with him here: I’m a recovering writing teacher myself.)  Once a celebrated poet, Marcus hasn’t published in years and has taken heavily to drink, putting his job in jeopardy.  The editor of the Croyden Prep literary magazine, which had been a prize-winning journal in part because of his own contributions as well as the work of the students he published, he learns that the magazine may be dropped as an unproductive expense in this digital, on-line world.

When Marcus meets Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche—The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Lovers on the Bridge, The English Patient, Chocolat), a painter and new teacher who was once celebrated for her canvases, he immediately finds her a challenge.  Delsanto, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis which is slowly but inexorably robbing her of her mobility and independence, hasn’t exhibited—or painted, for that matter—for a long time.  The art teacher disparages words as a conveyor of meaning and import—almost as if she knows that this will set Marcus off.  “A picture is worth a thousand words” becomes her mantra, and he responds with, “There is no frigate like a book” (Emily Dickenson, 1873/1894).

The two flirt and provoke each other with equal relish—à la Beatrice and Benedick of Much Ado About Nothing.  (Most reviewers saw an attempt to reflect Hepburn-Tracy and a couple compared the pairing to Ryan-Hanks.  But I instantly recognized Shakespeare’s witty middle-agers.)  When Delsanto is introduced in the faculty lounge, the two teachers immediately start needling.  Delsanto, a muffler artistically wrapped around her neck, tells Marcus she teaches honors art and Jack quips, “Hence the scarf,” and says he teaches honors English.  Delsanto replies without missing a beat, “Hence the hence.”  (That’s meeting cute at an elite prep school!)  The clash isn’t just between Marcus’s words and Delsanto’s pictures, of course, or between the eccentric and contrarian English instructor and the stand-offish and demanding painter.  It’s also between one teacher who treats the students as if they were his promising but slacker little brothers and sisters (or, perhaps, nephews and nieces), and whose students all call him “Mr. Mark” (except the class clown who calls him “Captain Jack” after Walt Whitman’s 1865 “O Captain! My Captain!”), and another who takes a sterner and colder tack, becoming known as “The Icicle,” “The Ice Queen,” or “Frigid Fresco. “  (Of course, this is a scriptual conceit: Owen’s Marcus is never really that cool—he wants to be liked, even loved, but his behavior and unrelenting iconoclasm make that difficult for colleagues, students, and family—and Binoche’s Delsanto—she wants to appear challenging and unaccommodating, “not the kind of teacher you’re going to come back and visit”—is more passionate, about her art, about her students, and about Marcus than she’s made out to be.)

Marcus conceives a plan to focus his students’ attention on their writing: he declares a contest between words and pictures and challenges Delsanto and her honors art class to prove which has “more worth.”  Marcus teaches his English students that writers evoke original images that pictures can’t capture because they exist only in the mind; Delsanto counters by insisting that a painting can convey feelings words can’t express.  Words are “lies” and “traps,” Delsanto warns her art students (some of whom are also in Marcus’s English class).  “Words are your gods,” the English teacher counters when one student of both teachers reports Delsanto’s pronouncement. “And somebody has insulted your religion.”  The best work of her art students and his writing students will be published in the next issue of the literary journal—which Marcus had insisted normally doesn’t run pictures—it’s all words.  (Ultimately Marcus proposes that Delsanto paint a picture about a poem he’ll write and both works will be published.)  Delsanto and her art students accept Marcus’s challenge, and the battle commences.  

Of course, it’s a silly debate, like the one over whether actors are creative or interpretive artists or whether Shakespeare wrote his plays, but buy the premise . . . buy the bit.  It’s a false dichotomy—who says we have to choose one medium over the other?  (Just before the final presentation of the Words and the Pictures to the assembled school, I had a brief thought about artists who use both words and pictures—like William Blake, for instance, a writer and a painter who integrated text into his images, or Jenny Holzer, who uses words as pictures—or at least visual imagery.  They didn’t choose.  The Dada poets, conversely, used words not so much for their meanings as for the pictures they could make on the printed page.  This idea never came up in the movie.)  It doesn’t help the argument that, first, Delsanto is as articulate and verbal as Marcus, though we don’t know if she writes as well as she speaks, and second, that Marcus, despite Di Pego’s characterization that he’s “an English teacher who loves language, worships language,” is as much focused on vocabulary as text.  He plays a game involving polysyllabic words that’s unrelated to their meaning or use (and at which Delsanto is the only faculty member who can keep up with him and even beat him) and he constantly specifies, no matter the circumstances, the etymology of words he or someone else uses.  In that last scene, in which the two sides rehash their arguments from earlier in the movie but in muted, less strident terms, Marcus ultimately declares that writers are also artists, so there’s not really a conflict since both—all—kinds of artists “take us to another place.”  (I can’t explain why it took anyone in the film this long to see that—except, of course, that there wouldn’t be a movie if the two artists had reconciled their pretended clash before the last scene.  I guess I blame screenwriter Di Pego for this bit of contrivance.  I wanted to put them in a world that challenged me,” he acknowledged of his characters.  “I wanted to be challenged with language.”)  

There’s also a secondary irony than the one on which I picked up: when “words fail” Marcus, he communicates his feelings to Delsanto via music, which is neither words nor pictures!  This idea isn’t developed, just suggested.  What’s central to the story, of course, is that the man of words can’t write and the woman of pictures can’t paint.  Delsanto fights back, devising mechanical contraptions to help her overcome the RA, while Marcus gives in to the blockage and takes refuge in the bottle, sinking so far into his debilitating morass that he, first, steals a poem from his son to pass off as his latest work (he comes clean before a public deception occurs) and, then, actually destroys Delsanto’s newly produced and best canvas in a drunken frenzy.  (Okay, the main characters lean toward cliché—the drunken poet and the aloof, antisocial painter—but Owen’s and Binoche’s vital, honest, and uncompromising performances humanize and redeem them and the film in the final analysis.  Sorry, but I couldn’t resist a little reviewing, especially of the acting.)  But all that aside, the real twist in Words and Pictures for me lies in the question, In what medium is this story told?  Cinema: a medium that depends on both words and pictures, pretty much simultaneously and equally.  

Okay, yes, there are many films that are more visual than literary and others in which the language overshadows the images (not even counting the silents, which, despite occasional title frames, had no choice but to rely on pictures to communicate).  But by and large, a movie needs both the script (or at least the dialogue, whatever its origin) and the cinematography to work.  (Since I’m bringing up the visual aspects of cinema, I should credit Schepisi’s director of photography, Ian Baker, and his production designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein.  Their work was integral to the impact of Words and Pictures from the perspective I’m considering.)  In the movie, Marcus’s scenes are mostly verbal as we focus on the words he devises and the ones he quotes, but Delsanto’s scenes are strongly visual because we watch her struggle to combat the body that’s betraying her and her dynamic, highly physical method of painting (augmented by her inventiveness in overcoming the impediments her RA throws up before her creativity).  If Jackson Pollock was an action painter, Binoche’s Delsanto is a hyper-action painter.  While we need to listen to Marcus, we have watch Delsanto to get all of what Binoche shows us.  It’s telling, I think, that writer Di Pego, a former high school English teacher himself, rejoices that among the writers he chose for Marcus to quote were “some wonderful image-makers” and in the next breath recounts that he was awed by seeing On the Waterfront at 13.  “That movie just shook me,” Di Pego says, “and made me want to be somebody that could tell stories.”  (I guess it’s no surprise that this man became not just a writer, but a screenwriter—a man who composes in both words and pictures.) 

(It’s a tangential sidelight to Words and Pictures that not only did Di Pego select the writers Marcus cites in the movie—the screenwriter names novelists Ian McEwan, John Updike, and Jeanette Winterson—but that he wrote the poem at the center of the story, which Marcus passes off as his own latest work but had really been composed by his son.  Likewise, the paintings we see Delsanto create in the film were actually painted by actor Binoche herself—some before she made the movie and others expressly for the production.  It’s not so much art imitating life or vice versa as life and art getting all tangled up together.  Words and pictures.)

So, here’s a story ostensibly about the tension between words and pictures which is told in a medium that uses both, requires both.  As I said earlier, I don’t think this was an intentional consideration of Schepisi’s movie since nothing’s made of it.  I looked at a few reviews on line and no one mentions this and in the interviews of Di Pego and Schepisi that I saw, they don’t speak of it, either.  It’s possible that the writer, director, and others had the same thought I have, but it doesn’t feel as if they meant the idea to be part of the interpretation of the story or the production.  Nonetheless, it’s there.  Well, at least it is for me; no one I mentioned it to saw its significance.  Maybe it’s a little too “meta” for most moviegoers to contemplate.  

I’m not even sure how it would fit into an interpretation of the movie, which is probably too slight a vehicle to carry the weight of such a reflection.  Why, in the end, set up a conflict, however contrived and artificial, between words and pictures that’s played out in an art form, cinema, that inherently contradicts the notion that either language or imagery is primary in expressing ideas or feelings because it demonstrably works on both levels at once.  In addition, as I observed, a movie specifically about the dichotomy, false though it is, of the verbal and the visual must take conspicuous advantage of movie’s capacity to tell stories in either words or pictures, as well as both words and pictures.  So, by telling this story in a film, Di Pego and Schepisi, a film writer and a filmmaker, have, in a sense, sabotaged their own argumentative point.  

[I said I wasn’t going to assess the artistic worth of Words and Pictures, and I won’t (aside from my brief comment on the acting). I will say that I rather enjoyed the movie, even if it's not a great film, but most reviews across the country were cool to blah.  (The New York Post dispatched it in three short paragraphs!)  Some praised the work of Owen and Binoche even as they dismissed Di Pego’s script and Schepisi’s directing; others found the actors’ work unimpressive in contrast to their past films.  A few noted that for a summer movie, particularly in light of the competing films being released right now, it’s a passable diversion.  I don’t even disagree with much of the criticism offered, though I didn’t find the movie’s faults as devastating as some reviewers clearly did, but on the whole, I found Words and Pictures pleasant, fun, and enjoyable.  The two central performances are strong and sincere, often nicely nuanced (especially Binoche’s Delsanto) and the script is literate, if not profound.  It doesn’t hurt the film that some of Binoche’s paintings are quite powerful.]


20 July 2014

'Mount Analogue'


Quite a number of years ago, when I was doing some continuing research on the stage director Leonardo Shapiro (about whom I’ve blogged quite a bit over the years of ROT), I came across a reference that I couldn’t decipher.  In point of fact, it didn’t make any sense at all at first blush.  I began to dig around and eventually came up with a hypothesis, which I was able to confirm from a reliable source.  This, with some side trips and tangents, is the tale of that deductive process (actually mostly a series of SWAG’s—Scientific, Wild-Ass Guesses).

 

Shapiro died in 1997, leaving behind several unfinished pieces of work, including some play scripts, an autobiographical poem, the libretto to a proposed opera about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the beginning of a show-biz novel, and, most significantly for me, scattered notes for a memoir.  After his death, Shapiro’s romantic partner, Rosalía, sent me many of these fragmentary documents and I began to pore over them, especially the sections of his memoir.  Over the months and years following that, I returned to many of those bits and pieces because, as I learned more about Shapiro’s life and work—I’d known him since 1986 but not terribly intimately—more of what he left behind came to mean things to me that I’d missed in earlier readings.  At one rereading of the memoir in 2007, I noticed a passage in the chronology he’d compiled, an entry for the year 1993:

 

London with Frankie, Peter James, Endgame in Calcutta, Varanasi, Bodigaya, Nepal, June: move to Mt. Antalog, Vallecito, New Mexico, summer with Rosalie, Spark and Heather, Snow White housewarming, Nov/Dec: radio script: Nothing is Lost, Dec: Mom sick with cancer, go to MN, nurse Mom.

 

Much of this was fairly straightforward to me: “London” was a trip he’d taken with some friends and colleagues; “Rosalie” is the name Rosalía went by in New York and “Spark” (for “Sparkie”) is his son, Spartacus, with whom he built the house in New Mexico; “Endgame” refers to a production he’d staged of the Samuel Beckett play (in Bengali) in Calcutta that February; “Snow White” was a community performance with a cast of neighborhood children he’d mounted in his back yard as a housewarming in July; “Nothing is Lost” was a radio play he’d written.  The mention of his mother being sick back home in St. Paul (where Shapiro was born) was also clear: she had lung cancer and Shapiro had gone to Minnesota from New Mexico to care for her (about a year-and-a-half before he, himself, was diagnosed with inoperable bladder cancer); Florence Shapiro died the following February.  Shapiro’d written me about most of these events and he’d sent me a copy of Nothing Is Ever Lost, or All in Good Fun with a few other scripts, including a teleplay and a play for children (which all remained unproduced).

 

The note that caught my attention this time, however, was the one about moving to Vallecito in June.  Now, of course, I knew where Shapiro’d gone—we were in touch and he’d even invited me to come out for a visit (though that never happened), and I’d already written a fair amount about his time there after leaving New York City (see, for instance, Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos),” 5 August 2009, and “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 31 October 2009).  Vallecito is the community where Shapiro built his retirement house, no more than a collection of houses outside the little town of Chamisal in Taos County, about 30 miles southwest of the city of Taos.  But what was “Mt. Antalog”?  I didn’t have a clue.  That’s when this brief journey began.

 

On Monday, 6 August 2007, I e-mailed my friend Kirk (now a frequent contributor to this blog) with some preliminary thoughts (I’ve fixed up the abbreviated prose a little):

 

A few weeks ago, when I was looking for some specific material, I went back over Leo’s memoir fragments and his chronology.  In passing, I noticed that he gave a name to the mountain on which his New Mexico house was built, but it didn’t seem pertinent at the time so I just let it go by.  Now, while I was working on that “American exceptionalism” stuff, I got myself sidetracked because I finally decided I had to recast all those present-tense verbs I had into past tense.  [I posted “American Exceptionalism,” based on that same work, on 10 December 2013.]  So, I put aside my task and just went thru each chapter to take care of all those verbs once and for all.  But as I did that, now and then something small caught my eye and I did a bit of tinkering along the way, usually a reference—or cross-reference—that I hadn’t spotted earlier, but now jumped out at me because I was skimming the whole book in order over a short time.  On Saturday, I started on the last chapter, which includes most of the material about Leo’s retirement to New Mexico and death, and Sunday afternoon I hit on the ’graph that described his move back, and I decided to see if that name he used for his mountain would be useful after all.  I went back to the chronology and found it, but it was odd enough to make me wonder if it was correct.  He called it “Mt. Antalog,” which just sounded strange.  So I looked it up.  There’s no such place, not in NM or anywhere else I could find—or any place with even a similar name that I could identify.  I was just about to drop the idea as impossible to verify when I decided to see what might show up if I tweaked the name a little.  (There is a word, or really an abbreviation, antilog: it’s short for antilogarithm, but that didn’t seem to be useful.)  I tried “Mt. Analog,” assuming that maybe Leo mistyped it (or Rosalía had—she apparently did the typing)—and lo and behold, I hit on a novel called Mount Analogue

 

Well, obviously, I had to look up the book, a French novel, and see if there was anything about it that lined up with what I knew about Shapiro, his epistemology, and his work.  I’d never heard of it, so I had no idea if it was a significant piece of writing or a piece of nonce junk no one ever read, so I did some exploring on the ’Net first.  My e-mail continued:

 

Now, it took me a little maneuvering to get this right and find out a little something about it—have you ever heard of it, by the way?  It’s not unknown and has something of a cult following.  Let me do the bibliographical history first, then do the content.  See if any of this connects up to Leo a little.  The novel is French and the author was René Daumal, who died suddenly in 1944 before he could complete the novel, so it’s a fragment.  (One account has it that Daumal was interrupted—in mid-sentence, the story goes—while writing the book and then died the next day without getting back to it.  That may be apocryphal.)  In any case, the novel was published [in French] unfinished in 1952 and then translated into English and published in 1959.  It was rereleased as recently as 1986.  Despite its unfinished state, it’s considered one of Daumal’s best works.

 

Daumal was a surrealist (among other things—he sounds like something of a mystic, too) and the novel is about the discovery and ascent of the invisible mountain of the title.  The book contends that “transcendental knowledge is attained through an understanding of reality and communion with others” [according to Contemporary Authors Online].  There’s more to this—it’s pretty complex from what I gather (there’s a Wikipedia page on the novel and one for Daumal as well)—and the fact that the novel is unfinished has imbued it with a sort of mystical appeal on top of everything else. 

 

This is where the potential connections with Shapiro began to occur to me.  By this time, after having known Shapiro for 11 years, interviewing him extensively in 1992-93 for an article in The Drama Review (which was published in the winter issue of ’93 as “Shapiro and Shaliko: Techniques of Testimony”), and continuing to do research on him even after his death, I knew quite a lot about the avant-garde director.  As I explained to Kirk:

 

Well, Leo said he was influenced by the Surrealists, he was into mysticism and spiritualism, and the whole atmosphere of the novel—including the fact that Daumal died in mid-sentence and so on—makes me wonder if [Leo] hadn’t read the book, maybe even when he was first in NM.  (It bears some similarities, from what I can tell, to other books I know Leo read and referred to, especially several of [Hermann] Hesse’s, and the mystical journey is a lot like some of the Native American myths with which he was taken.)  The connection to a magical mountain seems to clinch the association to Leo’s mountain home: the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where he was living, are sacred in Pueblo lore.  So I’ve concluded that Leo meant to call his new home “Mt. Analogue” in reference to the mystical mountain of the novel.  He did return there to heal and recover spiritually.  [Shapiro had previously lived in nearby Dixon in Rio Arriba County, a little over 25 miles southwest of Taos, in 1969-71.]  It seems so perfect as an explanation.  But the whole connection seems so serendipitous that I wonder if I’m not manufacturing it.

 

My own insecurities wouldn’t let me accept that I’d lit (so apparently easily) on an explanation to the enigmatic reference.  So I went on to check some more resources, looking for stronger links to Shapiro. 

 

René Daumal (1908-44) was known for writing about spirituality and perception.  In his early years, he founded a literary journal with three friends, poets known as Simplists, who took drugs and explored the psyche.  Daumal himself used carbon tetrachloride, which, while nearly fatal, inspired him to write “A Fundamental Experiment” (“Une Expérience fondamentale,” 1943), an essay he originally wrote in his youth (around 1930) on the expansion of his own “consciousness from simple awareness to drug-induced intuition to a renewed consciousness in which his perceptions were rationalized.”





The writer continued to delve into spiritual matters and altered states of consciousness in Le Contre-ciel (the title, which means “counter-heaven” or “anti-heaven,” is untranslated in the English version), a poetry collection about death, but not the death that ends life—the death that begins it.  By this time Daumal, a friend and student of Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau) artist Alexandre de Salzmann, a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff, had taught himself Sanskrit and had translated several sacred Hindu and Zen Buddhist texts into French.  (Gurdjieff believed that most of us exist in a state of “waking sleep,” which is possible to transcend through the “Fourth Way,” his method for rousing our consciousnesses.  De  Salzmann, whom Daumal described as a “former dervish, former Benedictine, former professor of jui-jisu, healer, stage-designer,” introduced the writer to The Work, Gudjieff’s name for his discipline.  The character of Pierre Sogol, the leader of the expedition in Mount Analogue whose name is logos spelled backwards, is modeled on de Salzmann.)  His greatest achievement from the 1930s, however, was probably Le grande beuverie (“The great binge,” 1938; translated as A Night of Serious Drinking), “a satire on French society in which the author poses the ascendance of a higher spiritual plane as an alternative to a superficial life.”  

 

Le Mont Analogue. Roman d’aventures alpines, non euclidiennes et symboliquement authentiques (translated as Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing) describes the discovery and ascent of the mountain of the title which can only be perceived by realizing that the climber has travelled further in going over it than she or he would have by moving in a straight line, and can only be seen from a particular spot when the rays of the sun strike the earth at a specified angle.  (The novel contains the first use in literature of the word peradam, which Daumal defines as something “the unaccustomed eye hardly perceives . . . .  But to anyone who seeks it with sincere desire and true need, it reveals itself.”  In the novel, the peradam is a precious gem found only on Mount Analogue.)  The seeker in the novel sails off in the yacht Impossible in search of Mount Analogue, real and charted but concealed, which reaches unmistakably towards heaven.  “Early in the story,” Roger Shattuck, translator of the 1986 American edition of Mount Analogue, explained, “we are given a picture of the most inhuman of environments: a monastic order corrupted by mutual distrust and denunciation.  Later, on the slopes of Mount Analogue, a sense of community emerges as one of the highest forms of knowledge,” which happens to be one of Shapiro’s most strongly held principles (which he’d learned from observing American Indian societies). 

 

The voyage is a fictionalized portrayal of the Daumal’s own spiritual quest, and in his translator’s note, Shattuck wrote: “His journey traversed some of the most exciting countries of the mind.”  Daumal, often characterized as one of the most gifted writers of 20th-century French literature, died of tuberculosis at 36 before completing Mount Analogue.  The author’s unexpected and premature death, possibly hastened by his earlier use of carbon tet which may have weakened his lungs, lent a cachet of mystery and spirituality to the fragment he left.  Though A Night of Serious Drinking and Mount Analogue are Daumal's best-known works, many of his other writings were published, like Mount Analogue, posthumously.

 

I wrote again to Kirk: on 8 August:

 

I went back and had another look at the bio and biblio stuff I found on Daumal and Mount Analogue—to see if I could make more of it.  There are a few other details that make it a philosophical fit for Leo:

 

  • Daumal used mind-expanding drugs (notably carbon tet—he was pre-LSD, of course).
  • Daumal taught himself Sanskrit and translated several Hindu texts.
  • Daumal became a scholar of Hinduism and Buddhism (Leo listed Buddhism as an influence; he was studying it himself, especially just before his death).
  • Daumal had been courted by André Breton (leader of the Surrealists), but rejected them and blazed his own trail (sort of the opposite of [Antonin] Artaud, who was a member of the Surrealists, but was booted out for lack of orthodoxy).
  • Mount Analogue recounts a spiritual journey, a search for truth; Leo read Hesse’s Journey to the East which describes the same idea.  Leo saw artists as people who take a journey to another place and return to tell the rest of us what they’ve learned.  The shalako ceremony is a mirror image of this—the gods’ messengers (that’s what the shalakos are) come to earth to collect the prayers of the people and return with them to the spirit world [see my ROT article “‘May You Be Blessed With Light’: The Zuni Shalako Rite,” 22 October 2010].  (There is also some of this journey/seeking for truth in [Hesse’s] Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, and Magister Ludi/The Glass Bead Game, all of which had been important for Leo).
  • Mount Analogue is considered, at least by some critics, as a sci-fi novel; you know how much Leo was into sci-fi. 
  • The mountain is also invisible except at a certain angle (and you don’t know you’ve climbed it except by measuring the distance you’ve traveled); this suggests that there’s magic in the book, as differentiated from spirituality, another important interest of Leo’s.
  • In addition to the 1959 (or ’60) and ’86 publications, which were just before Leo went to Windsor Mountain [a progressive prep school in Lenox, Massachusetts] (‘60) and moved the second time to NM (‘92), the novel was republished again in ’96, just before Leo died.  These were all propitious moments in his life, especially in terms of his reading.  (The novel has been republished yet again, in 2004.)

 

I still wasn’t sure of my ground, as I observed in the same message, but I was ready to make at least an equivocal commitment:

 

All of this comes without my having read the book, so it’s not definitive.  (There’s no New York Public Library copy in the circulating collection, tho’ other Daumal books are available.  I may have a look at the novel when I go to HSSL [Humanities and Social Sciences Library, former designation of what’s now named the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the NYPL’s main facility at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street] next.)  But if only half of it’s accurate, it seems inevitable to me that this book would have found its way to Leo.  He said he was reading a sci-fi novel or two every day as a preteenager in Miami [where Shapiro grew up] and that he’d exhausted the local library’s collection of sci-fi books.  He’s almost bound to have come across Daumal sooner or later that way.  When he went to Windsor Mountain, he was reading all kinds of unusual things—Windsor Mountain students were precocious readers—and he was using not only the school library, but the local public library in Lenox.  Obviously, I can’t prove it, but I’m convinced it’s probable that Leo read Mount Analogue either as a kid or later and made that reference to it as a way to express his feelings about his new mountain home.  (Rosalía told me he dictated the memoir and other stuff to her and she typed it into his computer.  She could easily have misunderstood him and/or made a typo.)  If there were any listing anywhere of some mountain in NM (or anywhere else) with a name like “Antalog,” I’d have some doubt, but since there isn’t any trace of one that I’ve found (and since antilog seems like such an improbable match), I’m privately satisfied that the novel is the explanation.  (I’d check this with Rosalía, as I did with American Exceptionalism [American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, the book by Seymour Martin Lipset I posited Shapiro had read before his death because of another reference in his memoir fragments], but I can’t reach her.  My theater e-mail came back as undeliverable and I tried to send her a message at her school e-mail address where she teaches, and that didn’t get thru, either.  I wonder of she’s quit work and moved and didn’t tell me.)

 

As I told Kirk, I had tried to reach Rosalía to see if she knew anything about a connection between Shapiro and the novel Mount Analogue and if the mention in Shapiro’s memoir could have been an allusion to the book, but I hadn’t gotten an answer to my messages.  On 21 August, however, I did finally hear from Rosalía, and she essentially confirmed what I had come to surmise (I’ve also edited her e-mail prose a little):

 

Now for Leo:  I actually have the answer to your question!  I have in front of me at this moment the copy of Mount Analogue (Daumal) that Leo gave me, which was put out in a tiny format by Shambhala Press in 1992.  As I recall, he had first read it at Windsor Mountain (doesn’t it sound like something they would have had for required reading?), and considered it one of his favorite books ever.  He referred to the house as Mt. Analog as a sort of play on the analog/digital divide, which was really just beginning in the ’90s (he equated the analog/digital with the old/new, country vs. city life that he was seeking, and also with the move away from spirituality that he perceived around him in the city at that time).  (I think I also became his Bitter-Rose at some point . . . .)   Now that I work so frequently in the digital world of 21st-century film, I think of both the book and Leo’s idea of analog vs. digital life often.   Last year, in addition to the Theatre program, I ran a Film Technician Training Program (FTTP) supported by the State.  NM has become known as the 3rd coast for film production, believe it or not!  And everything is digital now . . .  hmmmm. 

 

Rosalía, an actress, taught and directed theater at Northern New Mexico Community College in Española, which is near Taos and Chamisal/Vallecito.  Her reference to Bitter-Rose is to a story Daumal tells within the novel, “The Tale of the Hollow-Men and the Bitter-Rose,” which describes a flower that grows on Mount Analogue: “Whoever eats it [i.e., the Bitter-Rose] finds that whenever he is about to tell a lie, aloud or to himself, his tongue begins to burn.  He can still tell falsehoods, but he has been warned.”  The “analog/digital” dichotomy Rosalía writes about was a small theme I discussed in my study of Shapiro:

 

Shapiro equated digital measures with the new technology, the city, artificiality, while the analogue system was the old, spiritual, country, and natural world.  Digital is concrete and discrete, specific and devoid of connotations.  It cannot be interpreted or approximated, like the time on a digital clock—precise and exact, unequivocal.  Analogue is flowing, even fuzzy.   It has parameters, but, like the hour read on an analogue clock, is open to approximation, interpretation, and manipulation.  A digital clock may be practical, efficient, and unambiguous, but there is something elegant and graceful about an analogue timepiece.

 

The parallel is pretty strong, as Shattuck wrote in his introduction to the novel that “Daumal’s work [exhibits] its resolve to fuse body and Spirit, speech and sleep, logic and intuition.” 

 

Rosalía’s reference to a “move away from spirituality” that Shapiro had seen was also a theme in my study, though his foundation for the sense of loss was the Indian cultures he’d observed around him.  Shapiro was an admirer of Western and Native American author Frank Waters, who wrote in Pumpkin Seed Point (1969; for further discussion of this writer, see “Frank Waters,” 4 May 2012):

 

The monstrous paradox is that while we have created untold benefits for all mankind, we have impoverished ourselves spiritually in the process.  In achieving what seems to be a complete triumph over nature, we have established a machine-made society so utterly devitalized that it is anticipating the synthetic creation of life within a laboratory test tube. 

 

Well, that about clinched it.  Not only was I right that Shapiro had read Mount Analogue, I’d guessed he might have read it at either Windsor Mountain School in the ’60s or shortly after he moved back to New Mexico—and it turns out he’d done both!  What’s more, he found in the novel concepts and ideas that he related to his own life and philosophy, as I suspected he might have.  When I speculated that there were similarities between Mount Analogue and other novels I knew Shapiro had read and absorbed, as well as other influences he’d spoken of frequently, such as magic, science fiction, and Eastern religions, they seemed convenient and coincidental at first, as if I may have projected my assumptions onto the little of Daumal’s novel I’d learned, but after Rosalía’s e-mail, it all seemed inescapable.  I wrote to Kirk again on 27 August, a few days after hearing from Rosalía:

 

The Mount Analogue idea, especially because of what Rosalía said, has blossomed.  Aside from the obvious—the metaphor of the mystery mountain for Leo’s NM home and the city-country dichotomy, which is pretty basic for Leo—I developed a small point about the analogue vs. the digital: how the latter is precise, exact, hard, unyielding, uninterpretable—like the time on a digital clock—and the former is fuzzy, open to interpretation, connotative, like the time on an analogue clock.  Digital represents science, technology, the city; analogue, spirituality, nature, the country.  I’m speaking from Leo’s perspective, of course—and figuratively.  I’m interpreting how Leo seemed to feel when he moved from NYC to Chamisal (he wrote about this sense of freedom from fear and hostility and being part of nature [in a letter to me], so I’m not entirely guessing here).

 

The whole matter is little more than a grace note in the overall study of Shapiro’s life and work.  It shows up in one paragraph of one chapter, the conclusion, and makes no other appearances in the work.  Nonetheless, my deduction (precipitated, though it was, by having stumbled on the right reference entirely serendipitously) seemed like a huge accomplishment.  Having found Mount Analogue, everything I guessed after that was correct.  However small, the whole Mount Analogue allusion was revelatory and a piece in the puzzle that was Shapiro’s sense of himself and his world in New Mexico, particularly the way it compared to what he’d left in New York.  I also can’t help feeling that Shapiro appreciated the implication that Roger Shattuck identified, the notion that grasping the novel’s point is itself a significant accomplishment:

 

I cannot help seeing Mount Analogue as itself a peradam in the stony fields of literature.  The peradam possesses such perfect transparence that it escapes the notice of all except those who are inwardly prepared and outwardly situated to catch sight of its glint. . . .  And the peradam . . . can curve and uncurve space because of its unique index of refraction.  Mount Analogue, the novel, has the force of a curving and uncurving lens for our minds. . . .  And yet it is hard to look through it, for so limpid a substance almost escapes one’s attention even when it is right under one’s eyes.  One could conceivably read every word of the book without “seeing” a thing.

 

[I occasionally attach a list of sources or related publications to a post, and I think that “Mount Analogue” is one that calls for this treatment.  In this instance, I’ll list the works of René Daumal and other writers which I’ve mentioned above.

 

  • René Daumal, Le Contre-Ciel, trans. Kelton W. Knight (New York: Overlook, 2005).
  • ---, A Fundamental Experiment, trans. Robert Shattuck (New York; Madras: Hanuman Books, 1987).
  • ---, Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing, trans. and intro. Roger Shattuck, postface Vére Daumal (Boston: Shambhala, 1986). [This is the edition from which I quoted; there are other versions in print and in library collections, including, of course, the French editions.]
  • ---, A Night of Serious Drinking (La grande beuverie), Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2003.
  • Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (New York: Picador USA, 2002).
  • ---, Journey to the East, trans. Hilda Rosner (New York: Picador, 2003).
  • ---, Siddhartha, trans. Rika Lesser (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2007).
  • ---, Steppenwolf (New York: Picador, 2002).
  • Richard E. Kramer,   “Commitments and Consequences: Leonardo Shapiro and The Shaliko Company,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Performance Studies, New York University.
  • ---, “Shapiro and Shaliko: Techniques of Testimony,” The Drama Review 37.4 [T140] (Winter 1993): 65-100.
  • Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).
  • Frank Waters, Pumpkin Seed Point (Chicago: Sage Books, 1969).]