27 March 2016

'Hold On to Me Darling'

I seem to be running into a spate of plays recently where I come away not knowing what the playwright is trying to communicate.  I might suspect that I’m losing my faculties, except that I haven’t been alone in my confusion: other’s in the audience have been confounded as well, in particular my companion, and when I check the reviews, I find that some of the writers express the same lack of understanding that I experienced.  It happened again the other evening when my theater partner Diana and I met at the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea to see the world première of Kenneth Lonergan’s Hold On to Me Darling.  Since Hold On was the first Lonergan play I’ve seen (the only films he wrote that I’ve seen are Analyze This and Gangs of New York), I can’t tell if this is a common characteristic of his dramaturgy or if Hold On is an outlier.

Hold On to Me Darling, which Lonergan reportedly wrote in 2004, started previews at ATC’s Linda Gross Theater on 24 February and opened on 14 March; it’s currently scheduled to close on 17 April, after a two-week extension from 3 April.  The production is under the direction of Neil Pepe, ATC’s artistic director (Speed-the-Plow on Broadway, 2008-09; Hands on a Hardbody, Broadway, 2013; for ATC: David Mamet’s Romance, 2005; Adam Rapp’s Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, 2011; Ethan Coen’s Happy Hour, 2011; John Guare’s 3 Kinds of Exile, 2013 – see my reports on the last four on ROT: 21 August 2013, 6 November 2011, 20 December 2011, 27 June 2013, respectively).

I included a brief profile of the Atlantic Theater Company in my report on Cloud Nine (26 October 2015), so I’ll proceed with a short bio of playwright Kenneth Lonergan.  Born in the Bronx in New York City in 1962, Lonergan went to the Manhattan prep school, the Walden School, where one of his classmates was Matthew Broderick (who later appeared in Lonergan’s 2009 play The Starry Messenger and his film Margaret, released in 2011).  Walden had (the school’s now closed) a strong theater program, and  Lonergan began writing plays there under the encouragement of the drama teacher.  He enrolled first at  Wesleyan University and then at New York University’s Playwriting Program; while still a student, his first play, The Rennings Children, won the 1982 Young Playwrights Festival Award and was produced at the festival founded by Stephen Sondheim.  Upon graduating in 1985, Lonergan joined Naked Angels, an Off-Broadway troupe, but he sustained himself by working as a speechwriter for the EPA and script-writer for corporate industrials for Weight Watchers and Fujifilm. 

The writer’s first stage success was the play This is Our Youth in 1996, produced by The New Group.  (The play was revived Off-Broadway by the Second Stage Theatre in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014 with Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin.  The Broadway production was nominated for a 2015 Tony as Best Revival of a Play.)  Along with his stage work, Lonergan also shared writing credit for the films Analyze This (1999) and The Gangs of New York (2002) and he wrote and directed 2000’s Oscar-winner You Can Count on Me and the problematic Margaret (filmed in 2005; released in 2011); the latter movie starred Broderick opposite Lonergan’s wife, J. Smith-Cameron (who both also starred in the stage production of the writer’s self-directed play, The Starry Messenger, 2009, The New Group at the Acorn Theater on Manhattan’s Theatre Row).  Hold On to Me Darling is only Lonergan’s sixth play in two decades.

Lonergan’s reputation is for composing “insightful” character studies and for finding drama in the seemingly commonplaces of life.  He also has mined his personal history for themes and subject matter.  Because the playwright’s mother divorced his father and then remarried, the playwright grew up in a blended family of siblings, half-siblings, and step-siblings.  Relationships among brothers, sisters, and other family members are important themes in his plays, as we’ll see is true of Hold On to Me.  Lonergan also drew on the struggle of his grandmother with Alzheimer’s for his play The Waverly Gallery (2000; nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001), based on his grandmother’s art gallery in Greenwich Village. 

Hold On to Me Darling focuses on Strings (né Clarence) McCrane, “the third biggest crossover star in the history of country music.”  He’s returned to Beaumont, Tennessee, his hometown, for his mother’s funeral and he’s planning to stay.  Strings (Timothy Olyphant) has started to question his celebrity life and his failure to become the settled regular guy he says his mother had wanted him to become. He’s decided to ditch his fame and his career in films and country music—but to do that, he has to quit a space-adventure film he’s making in Kansas City and cancel a world tour to promote his latest album, Ain’t No Time for Cryin’.  Needless to say, the producers of both the Hollywood movie and the concert tour aren’t pleased with Strings’s precipitous decision.

But however sincere Strings’s desire to return to his roots is, he has a problem leaving behind all the perks of his life as a star.  He can’t help making a play for every attractive woman he meets, starting the with the masseuse at the Kansas City hotel where he’s learned of his mother’s passing.  Nancy (Jenn Lyon) is married—not especially happily, it turns out—but though she resists at first—rather half-heartedly—she’s a really big fan of Strings, so it doesn’t take much for her to succumb by the end of the first scene.  Later, in Beaumont, he takes a shine to the young widow Essie (Adelaide Clemens, an Australian actress making her stage début), who’s his cousin (second, twice removed—so it’s okay, especially in Tennessee).  Strings also can’t do without his personal assistant, Jimmy (Keith Nobbs), who’s followed after the star like a devoted puppy for 12 years and later declares Strings can always find him “on the corner of Beck and Call.”  (The casting here is exemplary in terms of visually enhancing this need-filling relationship: Olyphant is six feet tall and Nobbs is all of 5′6″.  When they stand next to one another, that master-puppy dog allusion is all the more apt.)  Meanwhile, he’s pretty much neglected his relatives back home except to pay them lip service.  His half-brother Duke (C. J. Wilson) is swimming in debt with a wife and two hyperactive kids in a small house (“an ashtray with furniture in it,” Duke calls it) and he never paid any attention to the news that cousin Essie’s father and husband died together in a drag-racing accident even though she wrote to tell him.  Strings and his much-married mother—he and Duke have different fathers, and there’ve been several additional “step-daddies” since—were never as close in life (she was censorious and acid-tongued) as he appears to feel about her after death. 

Sitting with Duke after the funeral, Strings suggests he might like to work in Ernie’s feed store where he worked as a teenager.  Duke can’t take this seriously because, he reminds his brother, he didn’t do very well there before and he’d be getting up in the early morning to open the store and have to listen to the boss tell the same lies about himself day after day.  What Strings, who’s meanwhile married Nancy, the Kansas City masseuse, ends up doing is  buying the feed store from Ernie, with his brother as partner, and sets out to run it himself.  But the crowds that gather around the store, blocking the entrance to any potential customers, are there not to buy feed for their pets or livestock, but to get the famous singing and movie star’s autograph.  Duke and Nancy both urge Strings to go out and sign the damn autographs so the fans will leave, but the stubborn singer refuses and the store does zero business.  Only Essie comes by, on the pretense of buying a bag of cat food, but Strings’s return to his roots and the simple life isn’t working out the way he’d imagined—and Nancy’s none too happy about the situation, either.  While Strings and Duke sit around waiting for customers, Strings gets a letter informing him that his film producer and his record label are suing him  for breach-of-contract to the tune of $400 million; Strings tells Jimmy he’s only worth about $200 mil.  The star’s wife and brother press him just to go on and finish the movie and do the tour, but Strings continues to stonewall.  Out of nowhere, Jimmy arrives with an unexpected visitor in tow.

I warn you now that what follows is a spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you plan to see Hold On to Me and want to be surprised, for Lonergan executes a deus ex machine to finish the play.  Everyone, including Strings, has forgotten that back in the Kansas City hotel room, the singer got on the phone to one of his posse somewhere and ordered the lackey to find his long-lost father and get him to the funeral.  This little bit of business is never mentioned again for the rest of the two hours and 45 minutes the play runs until the last 15 minutes or so.  Of course, it’s Mitch McCrane (Jonathan Hogan), the father Strings believes ran out on his mother and him 31 years earlier when he was eight years old, that Jimmy has in the car outside the store.  Strings is tentative about meeting Mitch, whom Jimmy declares seems like a very nice guy, but finally relents.  Needless to say, the truth of Mitch’s leaving little Clarence and his mother isn’t quite what she had told her son, and as the lights fade, the two men come to a tentative reconciliation (although nothing else is resolved).

Considering how much attention Lonergan gets these days (the Broadway production of This Is Our Youth was eagerly anticipated and well received), Hold On to Me Darling was a disappointment.  As I admitted, I’d never seen his stage work before, so I can’t say if this is second-tier Lonergan or typical of his writing.  (According to Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, Hold On to Me “is as fine as its first four predecessors.”  The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney and New York’s Jesse Green disagree.)  If the basic plot line isn’t enough of a cliché on its own, Lonergan’s dialogue is full of canned phrases that sound like they were cribbed from every other version of that story.  What’s more, his characters repeat many of them almost verbatim throughout the play and each scene is basically a loop of all the others as the singer explains to a different character what he wants to do and why.  (This play did not have to be almost three hours; just cutting out some of the repetition would have shaved off half an hour.)  The character line-up is also contrived to create “conflict.”  To finish the dramaturgical problems I saw, the play doesn’t end, it just stops—and to make even that happen, Lonergan uses that near deus ex machina.  Mitch’s arrival doesn’t actually conclude the issues of the play, so it isn’t a full-fledged deus, but it makes the singer feel better—which itself is pretty contrived—and I suspect that’s supposed to please the audience). 

The play’s supposed to be an examination of the price of fame, fortune, and narcissism (according to the ATC’s publicity), and though my description makes it sound like a melodrama, it’s meant to be a comedy.  As a matter of fact, except for Diana and me, most of the audience laughed at the jokes (I couldn’t see why they were funny most of the time—it’s like the others all had a crib-sheet which we didn’t get) and stood at the curtain call.  Maybe you just have to be attuned to Lonergan humor and I’m not.  In any case, I found little in Hold On to Me Darling moving either to laughter or sympathy.  (I confess, the ending is a put-up little tear-jerker of a scene, but even there, it’s so artificial and disconnected from the rest of the play—Mitch, unlike Strings’s departed mother, isn’t a character in the story after that passing mention in scene one—that I hardly choked up.)  The entire play is so set up, from the situation to the characters’ personalities, that it defies belief.  Diana called it a situation comedy, and it bears many of the earmarks of that hackneyed form (which I stopped watching on TV back in the 1980s!): characters with established and immutable personality traits are plopped into a manufactured set of circumstances to which they react in predictable ways.  Like sitcoms, Hold On to Me has all the depth of a TV commercial; rather than “exploring” the burdens of celebrity and popularity, Lonergan’s play exploits them for cheap humor.  (I should probably count Hold On to Me Darling as a lesser example of Lonergan’s dramaturgy because his reputation seems better than my response to this play.  That means I should make a point of going to a production of another of his plays, ideally a revival of This Is Our Youth, before I declare that I won’t be a fan of his.  It may take an act of will to do that, though.)

I have to place some of the blame for this shallowness on the actors and, therefore, on director Pepe.  The acting is good, but not great; it all feels a little forced, as if the actors know it isn’t real and try extra hard to cover that up.  The entire cast (with the possible exception of Hogan in his cameo portrayal of Mitch) seems to be pushing hard, trying to be . . . what?  Believable? Truthful?  Sympathetic?  Whatever it is, they don’t seem to be able to get there and as a result, they all end up coming off as near caricatures of Southern or show-biz types.  (The Tennessee twang, however, was handled well under the coaching of Stephen Gabis—who also guided the other dialects.  I presume, though, that Olyphant mostly had to recycle his Kentucky accent from his five-year stint on FX’s Justified.)  I pretty much knew what the characters were all going to do before they did it!  The worst offender is Olyphant who seems to be working overtime to convince us, or perhaps himself, that he’s sincere (and, thus, that Strings is as well).  Pepe either guided them into these characterizations or didn’t pull them back when they strayed into that trap.  Granted, Lonergan’s dialogue is itself an impetus for clichéd acting if not conscientiously held in check, but that doesn’t excuse the director and cast from succumbing.  (This, too, is a trait of sitcoms: one-dimensional acting.)

The only standout, as I noted, is Jonathan Hogan’s estranged father.  Maybe because his one scene is self-contained and he has no obligation to meet a predetermined portrayal, leaving him independent of the sitcom curse, but his Mitch was not just a surprise in terms of the plot, but in terms of the quality of the performance.  This Mitch was honest, open-faced, sympathetic (without asking us—or his son—for sympathy), and genuine.  He is, in fact, the nice man Jimmy says he is.  When he pulls out his scrapbook of Strings’s career, it’s not a contrived, premeditated plea for a piece of his son’s success, but a simple expression of a plain man’s pride.  No one else in the play, least of all Olyphant’s Strings, comes close to this kind of stage truth.  (The closest, oddly enough, was Keith Nobbs’s Jimmy.  He’s written to be a suck-up, but his devotion to Strings comes off as real.  Why he idolizes Strings is unrevealed—it doesn’t seem to be just reflected glory—but that it’s real is not in doubt.)

The physical production was fine, with a multi-set turntable at the center with several rooms (at the Kansas City hotel, Duke’s den, Essie’s living room, the hotel room and bar in Beaumont, the viewing room at the funeral parlor, and the feed store), each a corner of an atmospherically, almost hyper-realistic place created by scenic designer Walt Spangler revolving into view for each scene.  These were all lit nicely by Brian MacDevitt with country-music recordings designed by David Van Tieghem (who also composed the original songs that Strings occasionally warbles on stage) covering the intervals; the character-appropriate costumes were the work of Suttirat Anne Larlarb. 

The reviews of Hold On to Me were mixed, though the majority were more positive than I’ve been (though nearly all the writers found the play’s length both unnecessary and detrimental).  Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News wrote, for instance, that the production “is flecked with laughs and some terrific acting but the nearly 3-hour play suffers from aimlessness.”  “Lonergan’s script isn’t toothy enough to work as a satire on celebrity,” the Newsman stated. “So it unspools like a low-stakes southern-fried sitcom.”  With objections to Olyphant’s performance (“radiates . . . little star power”) and Pepe’s direction, along with the script, Dziemianowicz complained that “the play loses sharp focus.”  Though he praised the rest of the cast, he closed by declaring: “Wish Lonergan’s new play gave us more to hold onto.”

In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer called Hold On to Me a “sprawling and marvelous comedy,” and though “[w]e really ought to be laughing at” all the goings-on in the play, it “keeps pulling us back from the edge of smugness.”  This, Winer explained, is because the dramatist “writes so gorgeously that familiar types keep surprising with the depth of their charm and humanity.”  Pepe directs all this “with gentle mercilessness” on Spangler’s “hyper-ambitious” set, adding that “the cast . . . is spectacular.”  Ben Brantley of the New York Times described Hold On to Me as “a poignant comic study of the bad faith and bad behavior of a narcissistic celebrity and those around him” and “a tragicomic commentary on a culture ruled by the religion of fame” by “a writer with one of the best ears around for the language of the morally challenged,” and praised Olyphant’s Strings as “entertainingly irritating.”  The Timesman explained that “although this production could still be trimmed by 10 or 15 minutes, the strength of ‘Darling’ is in its loquacity.  It lets its characters talk and talk, and the more we listen, the more we learn about how they hear themselves.”  He felt that Lonergan’s “dialogue—and the marvelous cast members that deliver it—endows them with spontaneous life.”  Spangler’s sets and Larlarb’s costumes, Brantley reported, “feed the show’s radiant verisimilitude.” 

Calling Lonergan “the most talented American playwright of his generation” in the Wall Street Journal, Teachout affirms that the playwright “blends satire with strong, straightforward emotion to complex and poignant effect” in Hold On to Me.  While the play “appears to be a comic retelling of the thrice-told tale of the corrupting effects of celebrity,” the WSJ reviewer contended that the “foolery has a smart, piquant screwball flavor reminiscent of Preston Sturges.”  Teachout remarked that Hold On to Me “would profit from some judicious tightening,” but added, “I don’t begrudge Mr. Lonergan a fair amount of discursiveness when the results are so involving—and so beautifully performed.”  The New York Observer’s Rex Reed reported that the play “is long and talky, but it’s worth a bit of patience just to see how imaginative the author of This is Our Youth can get.”  The “lengthy and meandering narrative,” Reed affirmed, “could be trimmed by at least half an hour with no damage to the continuity, but I guess Mr. Lonergan has earned his verbosity.”  The Observer review-writer asserted that the dramatist “writes full-length plays with humor mined from curious character observations, not punch lines, and in Hold On to Me Darling, director Neil Pepe leaves no opportunity for wit unexplored.”  The final surprise scene, Reed declared, “tenderizes everything that precedes it.  You go  away in tears.”  Summing up the play as “splendid, rollicking and thoughtful stuff,” Reed concluded: “With Kenneth Lonergan and ace production values in full focus, the time, effort and attention required offer their own rewards.”

In the “Goings On About Town” section of the New Yorker, the review writer was fairly dismissive of Hold On to Me: “With big accents, broad humor, and a satirical edge, it all plays like something from the Coen brothers, right up until a hard—and not entirely satisfying—turn toward sincerity at the end.”  Jesse Green, in New York magazine, called Hold On to Me “ lumpy and scattershot” and, comparing the play to “rural-slumming satires” like TV’s supremely silly Green Acres, asks: “But is it a satire?”  “Very little of Hold On to Me Darling is funny,” Green reported, and “the tone is too wobbly, and the pace too languorous, for its teeth to gain any purchase on skin.”  “On the other hand,” Green continued, “Lonergan can’t possibly mean to be serious; the story is too ludicrous,” adding disappointedly, “Nothing the director Neil Pepe tries to shape with the material can make a graceful exit of that.”  The New York reviewer lamented that it’s “all very mystifying, and a little sad” and that even the cast is bereft, “brewing what amounts to a tempest in a crockpot”; even Olyphant “spends most of the play leadfooting the accelerator, trying to make it go,” which Green asserted “it doesn’t.” 

In Variety, Frank Rizzo characterized Hold On to Me as “funny, beguiling but overwritten” and but for Olyphant’s performance, it “would be one long, achy-breaky night.”  Though “entertaining and engaging,” and “performed by a top-rate ensemble and directed with finesse,” Rizzo found “its long reach for political and social resonance is a stretch.”  Ultimately, the Variety reviewer felt, “the play veers into sitcom-silly and loses its sharpness, as quirky bromides, flashes of dark humor and delicious turns of phrases prove less and less effective.”  In the end, though, Rizzo found that in the final scene with Mitch, “suddenly Strings and the play find themselves.”

Time Out New York’s David Cote called Hold On to Me “a scruffy, shaggy and touchingly earnest portrait of celebrity in free fall” with a script that’s “sharp and funny.”  The play, Cote acknowledged, “is almost defiantly overwritten and leisurely in its handling of character and plot. . . .  But even when Lonergan’s not sure of the way, he’s so damn fun to follow.”  Pepe’s directing is “perfectly balanced” and the cast is “firmly grounded.”  Cote concluded: “Strung out though you may feel, you won’t want to let go.”  Isabella Biedenharn of Entertainment Weekly warned that the description of Hold On to Me “sounds like a bummer,” but continued that “with Timothy Olyphant (Justified) anchoring a pitch-perfect cast, and with Lonergan’s absolutely uproarious script, it’s the farthest thing from tragedy.”  While act one provides “a grand wave of laughter,” during the “slightly too long” second half of the play, “the momentum slips a little . . . and the ending feels a bit anticlimactic.”  David Rooney’s Hollywood Reporter review of Hold On to Me began with his “Bottom Line”: “A lonesome cowboy ballad with too many verses and no chorus.”  He elucidated this capsule assessment: “There’s a much better play nestling in the almost three hours of Hold On to Me Darling, but Lonergan seems unwilling to find it, leaving most of the poignancy buried between his disjointed scenes en route to a conclusion of unearned emotion.”  “The chief compensation” for this, Rooney reported, “is very funny dialogue performed by a fine cast” and Pepe’s direction, which “brings a light touch to the material that maximizes the laughs, but it also confines this portrait of a crossover country superstar’s existential crisis to shallow depths.”  The HR reviewer lamented Lonergan’s “glib tone” which “makes him seem content to poke fun at his central character’s pain.”  Rooney also found the play “shapeless and baggy,” even though the production is “well-appointed” and “[a]ll the actors are attuned to the quirky humor.”  The HR review-writer asserted that in Hold On to Me, “Lonergan has crafted an acerbic satire of the social-media age, in which we live by inspirational platitudes and politician-like biographical narratives.” 

Turning to the blogosphere, I found that the opinions overall echoed those in the print media.  On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart, characterizing the play as “undeniably hilarious at points,” felt that the “laugh-out-loud comedy . . . has a tendency to drag, with the plot often wandering away with our patience.”  Stewart praised the way Lonergan “astutely captures the American habit of speaking in cliché” and marveled at how Strings “seems to think and speak exclusively in country music lyrics,” but complained that “the laughs start to sputter as the second act circles the runway, looking for a place to land.”  The playwright, Stewart asserted, “leaves the story tantalizingly unresolved, but by the time he does, we’ve lost all interest.”  Praising the sets, costumes, and sound, Stewart reported that Pepe’s direction, “great performances and first-rate design” don’t “completely compensate for a script in need of trimming.” 

On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer marveled, “I can’t recall an audience at one of [Lonergan’s] plays constantly bursting into gales of raucous laughter as they did when I saw Hold On to Me Darling.”  Despite being “self-indulgently long,” Sommer noted, the play “is easy to take thanks to the cast” and Spangler’s “eye-popping revolving sets.”  In the end, the CU reviewer declared that Lonergan was here at “the top of his game with fully rounded characters and a script with serious issues edging their way through all the laughs.”  On the Huffington Post, David Finkle dubbed Hold On to Me “one of the season’s most head-scratching plays” which is “not necessarily thoroughly helped along” by Pepe’s direction.  He characterized the first act as “little short of sensational,” but then reversed course and pronounced that in the second act, “not a lot makes sense”—including the introduction of a new character in the last scene, leading to an “unconvincing fade-out.”  The HP review-writer had praise for the cast and Spangler’s sets 

Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray, who described Hold On to Me as “a punchy, pointed comedy that lands with appealing ferocity,” quipped of the play at the outset of his notice, “Good luck finding a funnier play about a sadder subject,” the death of Strings’s mother. “Lonergan has so tightly interwoven the tragedy . . . with the absurdity of finding solace . . .,” Murray thought, “that at least half the time you’ll be embarrassed for not shooting out tears instead of cackles.”  With special plaudits for Olyphant, TB’s blogger complimented Pepe, who “hits all the required buttons, but never too hard,” and the cast for the way they “instinctively get what Lonergan is going for and deliver it with gusto.”  Though the “shape and scope of Hold On to Me Darling could not be better,” Murray asserted, “each scene could be trimmed by about five minutes.”  “Were it lighter and more streamlined,” he determined, “the play might not come as close as it does to running out of steam at the very end.”  On Broadway World, Michael Dale found that Lonergan’s play “seems to be searching for a meaning to be on the stage for nearly three hours.”  He summed up, “It’s a simple story that’s drawn out at a lethargic pace” and ended by lamenting, “HOLD ON TO ME DARLING offers little to hold on to.”

Brian Scott Lipton called Hold On to Me an “overlong, shaggy-dog story” on Theater Pizzazz, but found that “Olyphant’s sheer magnetism,” along with “the perfectly-calibrated performances that director Neil Pepe has elicited from his supporting players,” was enough to keep him in his seat.  “What we have here,” concluded Lipton, “is comedy-as-character study.  It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, but Olyphant has the sure footing that allows him to never take a misstep.”  Tulis McCall of the New York Theatre Guide reported that when she returned to her seat after intermission, she “marveled that any of [the audience] returned.”  She reported that she had found the first act “literally painful to watch,” though she was “pleasantly surprised by the second act,” despite the production’s “v-e-r-y long two plus hours.”  Though, with the exception of Olyphant, McCall was complimentary about the acting, she found that “excellent performances were not quite enough to rescue this play.”  (She did admit that she seemed to be in the minority among the spectators the night she attended.)

22 March 2016

The Nanny That Shouldn't Have Been Able To Fly

by Kirk Woodward

[Kirk Woodward, ROT’s most loyal (and prolific) contributor, returns once again with an interesting take on a familiar subject.  This time it’s Mary Poppins, the stage musical, the movie, and the books.  (If you didn’t know that both the beloved Disney film starring Julie Andrews as the eponymous nanny and the movical adapted from the movie are both derived from a series of stories by P. L. Travers, published between 1934 and 1988, which entertained children for generations, the subsequent Disney film, Saving Mr. Banks, starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers, should have clued you in.)  I won’t spoil Kirk’s examination of the three versions by saying anything about his point of view or his conclusions—his title gives some hint, of course—so suffice it to say now that you’ll find some unexpected ideas when you read “The Nanny That Shouldn’t Have Been Able To Fly.”]

The stage musical version of Mary Poppins first opened in London on December 15, 2004, and ran for three years. The Broadway production of the same show opened on November 16, 2006, and ran for almost six and a half years. The show has received at least fifteen international productions, in addition to British and United States professional tours and revivals. Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, the major producers, have made a fortune on it.

It should not have been a success.

I realize that saying this puts me in the position of the man who conclusively demonstrated that the bumblebee should not be able to fly, and perhaps my statement is too strong, since the very popular movie of the same name ought to have guaranteed the stage show a number of customers, no matter what. 

There are many factors working against my opinion, including audience figures, box office receipts, and the fact that I haven’t seen any of the professional productions of the show.

I did recently see one amateur production of Mary Poppins, however, and I maintain that sometimes a play’s strengths and weaknesses are clearer when the extraordinary production values of the West End or Broadway aren’t available. So I’m going to press on and indicate why I feel the show is deeply flawed.

My opinion can be expressed succinctly in a verse from the Bible: “You can’t put new wine in old wineskins” (Matthew 9:17, paraphrased) – in other words, you have to be careful how you mix the old and the new.

In the case of Mary Poppins, we’re dealing with quite a mix of wine and wineskins, so to speak. First of all, there’s the famous and celebrated movie (1964) starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. It was directed by Robert Stevenson, with a screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and a score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman – all experienced and dependable Disney veterans, and they produced a much-loved film.

It seems incredible that the movie is more than fifty years old; many people, including me, can recite whole sections of it by heart. I can’t think of anyone I know who can’t sing verses of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” or, heaven help us, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Then, previous to the film, there are the original stories about Mary Poppins, written in eight fairly short books by P. L. Travers, the pen name for Helen Lyndon Goff, who was born in 1899 and died, it’s startling to realize, in 1996. The stories are notoriously different from the movie. They are also wonderful.

Mary Poppins, in the books, is nothing like Julie Andrews, who brings a touch of acerbity to the role but clearly is “practically perfect in every way,” whereas Mary Poppins in the book is a most unattractive character, described in Wikipedia as “stern, vain, and usually cross.” One could add “homely, critical, and demanding.”

She also has magical powers of alarming magnitude. They are never explained and she always uses them for the ultimate good of the children, but she is not in any way a person to trifle with.

It is well known – and the subject of the film Saving Mr. Banks (2013), starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers – that Travers, a frequently cantankerous person, was particularly unhappy with the way Disney handled her stories, with an emphasis on the animation, which she abominated.

It must be said that she had a point from her perspective, not particularly about the animation but about the approach of the film as a whole. The stories have a significantly different “feel” from the movie. There is little feeling of security in the stories; anything can happen, and often does, and the overall effect cannot be described as “cheery,” while the film definitely can.

On the other hand, particularly in the earlier books, the level of imagination in the stories is astonishingly high – evidence of which we see all through the Disney movie, though, to repeat, the tone is quite different.

Travers insisted that no Americans be involved in the making of a stage musical of Mary Poppins (she had given Mackintosh the rights before she died), so the book was written by Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey) and the half dozen or so new songs by the writing team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, perhaps best known here for Honk (first performed in 1997). So what did the creators of the stage musical of Mary Poppins do to all this material in creating their show?

What they did not do was create a new work. Briefly, they used some of the outline of the movie story (Bert, who does not play a large part in the stories, narrates the show) and many of the songs (frequently rearranged or reassigned, for the purpose, as far as I could tell, of being different). Taking from the stories, they made Mary Poppins sterner and less charming - but did not go all the way and make her frightening or unattractive.

They expanded the story of the parents – also not Travers’ focus - so that George Banks and his difficulties with his job become a major theme, and Winifred Banks, no longer a suffragette but now a former stage actress, struggles with her low rank in society (no one – no one! – will come to her party), and with her totally uncommunicative husband. (He is so remote that one wonders how they managed to have children.)

Then various new songs tell us things we can figure out for ourselves, as their titles indicate: “Precision and Order,” “Playing the Game,” “Brimstone and Treacle”, “Good for Nothing,” “Being Mrs. Banks,” “A Man Has Dreams,” “Anything Can Happen.” One can practically invent the storyline from the song titles. None of these new songs, I think it’s safe to say, rival their predecessors in interest, and all of them are melancholy.

And that’s my objection to the “new wine in old wineskins” – that where the film is cheerful, and the stories are startling, the new material is morose, a quality that reaches its nadir in a scene near the end of the first act where Mary Poppins brings all the broken and neglected toys in the nursery to life, and the toys stalk around in their deformed misery. All I could think of at that point was Night of the Living Dead. It’s true that zombies are popular these days, but in Mary Poppins?

And I’m clearly not alone in feeling this way about the scene, because in the London production, at least, children under the age of three were forbidden to see the show on the grounds that it was “too scary.” I found the scene upsetting, and it’s been a while since I’ve been a child; I can only imagine how the actual children who saw the show felt about it.

And then, to my astonishment, not only does George Banks not lose his job, as he does in the film, but, because of his wise and good-hearted decisions, he’s actually made a partner, with a quadruple raise in pay! At that point I began to wonder what I’d suspected so far was sentimentality wasn’t more specifically cynicism on the part of the writers.

All in all, I can’t think of anything the musical added to the film that didn’t undercut or diminish it. So why did the musical succeed? All I can imagine is that the memory of the film is strong, and that the stage effects – a great deal of flying, for example – were spectacular. Perhaps there were other factors involved in its success. I would love to know how much repeat business the show did.

In summary, then, my opinion – which for reasons I described earlier is highly suspect – is that the original stories are acerbic, the movie is delightful, and the new material in the stage musical is trite. It depresses me that the effort succeeded financially, because it seems to me to reflect a distressing attitude toward theater – that theater needs to spell out stories in stale ways, that it ought to be “realistic” in the sense of being drippy, and that audiences aren’t bright enough to grasp significances that aren’t, in effect, underlined, italicized, and set in bold-faced type.

When it comes down to it, however, the only real rebuttal to a poorer piece of work is a better one, so let’s get busy! And there are always the stories, and the film.

[Kirk’s most recent contribution to ROT was his 18 February article “How To Write a Play.”  Previous posts include “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks” (5 October 2009), “The Most Famous Thing Jean-Paul Sartre Never Said”  (9 July 2010), “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist” (8 January 2011), “Noel, Noel” (24 March 2012), “Reflections on Directing” (11, 14, 17 & 20 April 2013), and “Frank Kermode on Shakespeare’s Language” (26 January 2016).  Use the archive on the left of the screen to find more articles by Kirk Woodward.]

17 March 2016

Calvino Is To The Mind What Exercise Is To The Body (Part 2)

[This is the second part of my two-part article on Italo Calvino, my report on his novella, If on a winter’s night a traveler.  Readers who haven’t read Part 1 are urged to go back and read it as it contains some background on this remarkable writer.  It may help illuminate some of what I have to say about the book.

[“I feel suspicious about writers who claim to tell the whole truth about themselves, about life, or about the world,” said Calvino shortly before his death. I prefer to stay with the truths I find in writers who present themselves as the most bold-faced liars. My goal in writing If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel entirely based on fantasy, was to find in this way a truth that I would have not been able to find otherwise.   I, for one, feel grateful that he pursued this instinct.  Like his Neo-realist writing after World War II, however, Calvino’s fantasies are not undirected flights by any means.  An unnamed interviewer asked him : “The struggle between the man trying to be organized amidst randomness seems to be a theme that pervades much of your work. I’m thinking especially of If on a Winter’s Night and the Reader, who keeps trying to find the next chapter of the book he’s reading.” 

[Now, here’s my own opinion.]

(13 December 1988)

If, as English playwright and essayist Sir Richard Steele wrote at the turn of the eighteenth century, reading is the mind’s exercise, then Italo Calvino’s works are at least mental aerobics and his If on a winter’s night a traveler (translated by William Weaver; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981) may be an entire decathlon for the mind.  Calvino’s 1981 novel is, among other things, about reading as action.  For the Italian writer, who’s made the tale his vehicle and the fantastic his countryside, reading’s not at all a passive occupation, but a very active one, requiring great energy and attention and considerable effort on the part of the reader.  While the writer and even the publisher often struggle to make a book, according to Calvino, it’s the reader who must do the most work—and on whom the act of reading has the profoundest effect.

The specific action to which Calvino most often likens reading is traveling.  Books are worlds or universes, and reading’s a voyage into each new creation and from one to the next.  “I prefer novels,” one of his characters explains, “that bring me immediately into a world where everything is precise, concrete, specific” (30).  Later, another character describes his experience being read to: “Now, around you, there is no longer the room of the department, the shelves, the professor: you have entered the novel . . .” (69).

Calvino demonstrates his notion of reading as journeying by creating a novel that’s actually the beginnings of ten separate books by ten different fictional authors.  Between each of these incipits, as he calls them, we follow the ordeal of the Reader, whose name, like the identities of each story’s narrator, we never learn, as he tracks down the rest of each novel he’s begun but can’t finish.  As each of the novels evokes various far-flung worlds—a small European town, an East European city, a Japanese estate, a Latin American village, and so on—so does the Reader travel from bookstore to university to publisher to author to translator, “circling the world from book to book” (253).  His travels take him to Switzerland, Central America, and several imaginary places where books and reading are controlled by the state and fought for by underground organizations.  He encounters radical supporters of such strange associations as the Organization of Apocryphal Power (OAP) and the Organization for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works (OEPHLW).  He’s even attacked by a young gang who believes he holds the text of a book unknowingly dictated to its author by extraterrestrials.  The trail of unfinished novels has been laid, the Reader learns, by a mysterious translator, Ermes Marana, who’s flooding the world with incomplete works with false titles attributed to the wrong authors.  As soon as the Reader thinks he’s found the continuation of his last interrupted story, he not only discovers that it’s a different book from the one he’s left off, but that the one he was reading isn’t the one he thought he was reading at all.  Thus, he’s led on a treasure hunt into the world of reading, writing, and publishing.

But the Reader, who’s addressed in the second person throughout to make it clear that each of us is Calvino’s “reader,” also journeys into life as a result of his reading.  When he discovers that the first novel he’s bought, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, has been bound together with only the same first sixteen pages repeated, the Reader returns to the bookstore to replace the defective copy.  [To avoid confusion from here on, the full title If on a winter’s night a traveler will refer only to the fragment within the larger novel; the whole work will be referred to by the abbreviated title, If on a winter’s night. ~rick]  There he meets the Other Reader who’s come for the same reason.  Together, between the interrupted readings, the Reader and the Other Reader, whose name is Ludmilla, search for the completions.  The Reader’s voyage into reading literally changes his life as he and Ludmilla grow closer as a result of the search.  “This hunt excites you,” the Reader realizes, “because you’re pursuing it with her, because the two of you can experience it together” (93).

It’s inevitable that the Reader and Ludmilla make love since Calvino equates reading with this other act as well: “What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space” (156).  It’s a different kind of voyage, and when the Reader and Ludmilla take it they experience it as a reading: “Ludmilla, now you are being read.  Your body is being subjected to a systematic reading . . . .  And you, O Reader, are meanwhile an object of reading: the Other Reader now is revealing your body as if skimming the index . . .” (155).

In fact, Calvino acknowledges the relationship of reading and lovemaking in his own life.  In an interview with author Francine du Plessix Gray in the New York Times Book Review he says, “. . . I want to constantly add to the image that my reader has of me.  That is like being a good lover, that is definitely an erotic relationship.”  The relationship’s not always kind; it may even be sadistic, according to Calvino.  When the narrator of Looks down in the gathering shadow, one of the fragments, shoots his enemy Jojo dead, he has interrupted the man’s lovemaking with Bernadette who becomes the narrator’s accomplice.  The interrupted lovemaking, like the ten interrupted novels, must be picked up at the point where they left off.  Bernadette finds her completion with the narrator, though the Reader does not find his; the sexual climax is reached, but the narrative climax never  is.  Calvino admits, “In this new novel I may be a more sadistic lover than ever.”

Having followed the tortuous path of his reading-inspired adventure, the Reader finally returns to his native city.  In the library, trying again to locate the ten unfinished books, he joins a discussion of reading with other readers.  One asserts, “In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and the heroine married, or else they died” (259).  Unable to finish the novels he’s started—all the library copies are unavailable, too—the Reader understands how his own story must end: “You decide you want to marry Ludmilla” (259).  The act of reading, having affected the Reader’s life at each turn, now effects its ultimate life change, still in terms of reading: “Now you are man and wife, Reader and Reader.  A great double bed receives your parallel readings” (260).

Like readers, the worlds created by reading aren’t passive, either.  Books and the worlds they create are living entities, too.  Describing Cavedagna, the publisher whose works have led the Reader on his chase into life, Calvino notes that “he sees books being born and die every day” (101).  Ludmilla’s ideal books, for instance, are produced “as a pumpkin vine produces pumpkins” (189): naturally, growing as if from their own source.  The illusion for her that these worlds are sui generis must not be disturbed by contact with the book-makers, the authors or publishers.  Authors, to be sure, have no existence for Ludmilla outside the books themselves.  When she meets one, she explains, “You are two separate persons, whose relationships cannot interact. . . .  I have no doubt that you are concretely this person and not another . . . but the one who interested me was the other, the Silas Flannery who exists in the works of Silas Flannery, independently of you, here. . .” (191-92).

Still, though the worlds of the books and the real worlds of the Reader and Ludmilla may be separate but parallel, they do occasionally meet, at least in Calvino’s cosmos.  First, each of the novels the two encounter share common elements which bind them together.  Each is the start of an adventure, tinged with danger and malevolence, and in each the narrator or main character, a man, pursues a woman for whom he undergoes some violence or threat of violence.  According to Calvino, “The existence of a mysterious, unnamed danger . . . exists in all my favorite American and British novelists. . . .”

In If on a winter’s night a traveler, the first incipit, a man sits in the café of a railroad station.  Gradually he learns of a vague conspiracy by “the organization,” possibly involving a spy whose place he seems to have taken.  He’s approached by the mysterious Madame Marne, but before he can learn anything about her or the conspiracy, he’s ordered out of town under threat of arrest.

In On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon, an erotic Japanese novel, the narrator’s trapped by unexplained circumstances in the estate and employ of Mr. Okeda.  Attracted to both Mr. Okeda’s wife and daughter, the narrator’s caught by Mr. Okeda making love to the wife while observed by the daughter.  The incident, rather than provoking Mr. Okeda to immediate violence, places the narrator deeper in the master’s power with less hope of escape.

Similar twists occur in each of the ten stories begun by the Reader and Ludmilla.  Tying them to the lives of the two searchers, Calvino has fashioned like circumstances for his Reader.  With each step in pursuit of the lost novels, guided by Ludmilla at each juncture, the Reader becomes increasingly involved in more and more fantastic adventures.  Rescued from arrest for importing a banned book into one totalitarian state, he’s protected by an underground that’s itself a conspiracy inside a conspiracy inside a conspiracy.  Imprisoned in another dictatorship where the books he seeks are banned, he’s enlisted to perform a secret mission in an opposing dictatorship where books are also controlled.  Books, it seems, are living things, and reading can be quite dangerous.

To make the connection between the stories and the Reader’s life the more clear, Calvino’s included in many of the novels he begins direct references to the act of reading.  If on a winter’s night begins, for instance, this way:

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.

Throughout this section, Calvino refers to “you, reader,” this time with a small ‘r’ to differentiate him or her from the Reader of the larger novel.  The interconnection of this story and the life of the small-r reader is constantly being reinforced by self-conscious references such as:

Watch out: it is surely a method of involving you gradually, capturing you in the story before you realize it—a trap.  Or perhaps the author still has not made up his mind, just as you, reader, for the matter, are not sure what you would most like to read . . . (12).

. . . then a kind of weariness settles on her, perhaps only the shadow of their weariness (or my weariness, or yours) (19).

. . . it isn’t clear whether I really say it or would like to say it or whether the author interprets in this way the half sentence I am muttering (21).

Several of the other novels include similar, though less striking references to the act of reading and reminders that what we are reading is, in fact, a written story.  In the second novel, Outside the town of Malbork, Calvino even invokes the translator:

Here everything is very concrete, substantial, depicted with sure expertise, or at least the impression given to you, Reader, is one of expertise, though there are some foods you don’t know, mentioned by name, which the translator has decided to leave in the original . . . (34).

Here again, Calvino reminds us of our status as Reader, which he now spells with a capital ‘R’ to further blend the lives of the Reader, the narrator, and us:

. . . perhaps I am thinking this only now, or it is only you, Reader, who are thinking it, not I . . . (38).

He also reminds us again that we are reading, not living this experience:

The page you’re reading should convey this violent contact of dull and painful blows . . . (39).

In In a network of lines that enlace, another fragment, Calvino makes the same point, keeping us alert to the fact that, though reading is an act, it’s not the same act as that which we’re reading:

The first sensation this book should convey is what I feel when I hear the telephone ring: I say “should” because I doubt that written words can give even a partial idea of it . . . (132).

Calvino explains this tactic in the Times interview: “My principal idea was to write a book in which the reader would not be reading the text of a novel but a description of the act of reading per se.”  Taken together with this technique, the interstitial chapters, particularly the early ones before the Reader’s adventure gets underway, show how Calvino sets up this description.  The opening chapter begins this way:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.  Relax.  Concentrate.  Dispel every other thought (3).

The rest of the opening is a step-by-step depiction of the process of getting ready to read, from choosing and buying the book to finding the right place and posture to read it to getting in the right frame of mind.  Eventually, Calvino projects the final moments as the Reader sinks into the story:

So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page.  You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. . . .  Here, however, he seems to have absolutely no connection with all the rest he has written, at least as far as you can recall. . . .  But then you go on and you realize that the book is readable nevertheless, independently of what you expected of the author, it’s the book in itself that arouses your curiosity; in fact, on sober reflection, you prefer it this way, confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is (9).

Even after the first disappointment, discovering that If on a winter’s night a traveler is incomplete and, in fact, actually a Polish novel called Outside the town of Malbork, Calvino describes pleasure in starting the new book, which the Reader hopes will be the rest of Outside the town of Malbork.  This book’s been bound with uncut pages, and Calvino describes the sensual joys of slitting them: “The pleasures derived from the use of a paper knife are tactile, auditory, visual, and especially mental” (42).  Even the frustration of finding that this new book, not the novel it was supposed to be either, is also defective, doesn’t negate the physical, emotional, and intellectual pleasures of reading.

In fact, the innate stimulation of the act of reading—coupled as it is in the Reader’s mind with Ludmilla—drives the Reader into the experience of life and the world of books.  Reading itself is erotic, believes Calvino.  His wife reports he told her, “Literature was the only aphrodisiac . . . .”  “Reading is a possession,” responds Calvino, “a march toward a possession.  It has many degrees of eroticism.  It can be a caress or a complete intercourse.”  In If on a winter’s night, Calvino leads the Reader—and the readers—on just such a march toward possession.  Of course, he never promises that we’ll reach our destination; as he’s already told us, Calvino can be a sadistic lover.

While exploring reading as an action, Calvino touches extensively on the work of the writer and less substantially on the function of the publisher.  Cavedagna, the publisher, is only a conduit for books to the readers.  The writer of one of the novels, Silas Flannery, however, expounds on writing at some length, but the process of creating the book is oriented toward the reader and geared toward what happens to the book when the reader gets hold of it.  Chapter 8 of If on a winter’s night, subtitled “From the diary of Silas Flannery,” begins with a scene Flannery sees out his window:

In a deck chair, on the terrace of a chalet in the valley, there is a young woman reading.  Every day, before starting work, I pause a moment to look at her with the spyglass.  In this thin, transparent air I feel able to perceive in her unmoving form the signs of that invisible movement that reading is, the flow of gaze and breath, but, even more, the journey of the words through the person, their course or their arrest, their spurts, delays, pauses, the attention concentrating or straying, the returns, that journey that seems uniform and on the contrary is always shifting and uneven (169).

In describing how the woman reads, Flannery reinforces the idea that reading is action, indeed more than action, a life force:

. . . I say to myself that the result of the unnatural effort to which I subject myself, writing, must be the respiration of this reader, the operation of reading turned into a natural process, the current that brings the sentences to graze the filter of her attention, to stop for a moment before being absorbed by the circuits of her mind and disappearing, transformed into her interior ghosts, into what in her is most personal and incommunicable (169-70).

Flannery is obsessed with the reader and what she’s reading:

At times I convince myself that the woman is reading my true book, the one I should have written long ago, but will never succeed in writing . . . (170).

He’s so obsessed, in fact, that he concocts an elaborate scenario in which two writers, one tormented and one productive, are each convinced that the absorbed woman in the deck chair is reading the other’s work.  Both writers set out to write a novel in the style of their rival in order to please the reader.  Flannery imagines several conclusions to the episode, each one a different failure in the eyes of the reader on the terrace.

Calvino’s apotheosis of the act of reading is, to be sure, a game, not a lecture or even an essay.  His device, in what he calls “a hypernovel, a novel developed to the 10th degree,” is to “play cat and mouse with the reader.”  The novel’s fundamental scheme is that the reader “realizes with a shock that he’s not in control, that it is always I, Calvino, who is in total control of the situation.”  Whenever we—not to mention the Reader—think we know where we’re going next, we end up someplace unexpected.

In the last full chapter, for instance, the Reader’s returned home and goes to the library to find the books he’s been trying to read.  All the books are listed in the library’s collection. but each is unavailable for various reasons—one’s at the bindery, another checked out, another stolen, and so on.  While he’s waiting in vain, he observes other patrons reading, each in a different and idiosyncratic way.  The reader gets into a discussion with seven men about reading.  As if in commentary on If on a winter’s night, one reader remarks, “The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, . . . even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages.  But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust” (254).  Another responds, “. . . At every reading I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. . . .  I experience different and unexpected impressions, and do not find again those of before” (255).  When another reader admits, “At times a title is enough to kindle in me the desire for a book that perhaps does not exist” (256), it’s almost ironic, for the ten titles of Calvino’s fragments, plus an eleventh title added to the list by one of the readers, form the opening sentence of yet another book:

If on a winter’s night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on a carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave—What story down there awaits its end?--he asks, anxious to hear the story.

Though Calvino’s exploration of reading sometimes gets convoluted and dense, the pleasure of the game he’s set up and the extraordinary diversity of the novel fragments he’s created for us make the winding, twisting, endlessly surprising path well worth following to its inevitable, but unforeseeable end.

“Well, what are you waiting for?”

[In that same interview I cited earlier, Calvino affirmed:

It is true that in the past, say over the past ten years, the architecture of my books has had a very important place, perhaps too important.  But only when I feel I have achieved a rigorous structure do I believe I have something that stands on its own two feet, a complete work. . . .  It can be said about If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler that it could not have existed without a very precise, very articulated structure.  I believe I have succeeded in this, which gives me a great satisfaction.  Of course, all this kind of effort should not concern the reader at all.  The important thing is to enjoy reading my book, independently of the work I have put into it.

[It’s undeniable that If on a winter’s night a traveler is tightly structured, even tough it seems haphazard when a reader first gets into it.  What defies my comprehension, since I’m not a writer of fiction, is how Calvino managed to keep all the apparently random events of the novel straight in his own mind.  I’ve been known to use an outline to keep the elements of a complex piece organized—but I can’t even conceive of an outline for If on a winter’s night a traveler.  Such a rigid and formal form could never contain such a free-flowing and seemingly formless piece of writing as this book.  And yet, it’s not hard to follow—or even to enter.  Indeed, it pulled me in almost from the very start.  As frustrating as the reading interruptus was, it was equally enticing to see what Calvino could come up with next. ]

14 March 2016

Calvino Is To The Mind What Exercise Is To The Body (Part 1)

[I read some of Italo Calvino’s books back in the ’80s and I wrote about them for various reasons.  Calvino, as you’ll discover, is a totally unique writer, so I decided it would be interesting to post those old pieces on a writer I don’t hear much about anymore, even though in his lifetime he was considered a likely Nobel Prize-winner in literature. (The Nobel rules don’t permit posthumous awards, so when Calvino died at 61, he became one of those astonishing artists who never made it to Stockholm.)  Of his own work, he said: “The conflict between the world’s choices and man’s obsession with making sense of them is a recurrent pattern in what I’ve written.”  I think you’ll see evidence of this in the books I discuss in this article.

[Covering some of  Calvino’s background and two of his books, Cosmicomics and If on a winter’s night a traveler, turned into a rather long article, so I’m publishing it in two parts.  Part 1, below, contains the writer’s bio and my remarks on Cosmicomics, a collection of astounding short tales.  (I won’t say more about them now; I’ll let you discover how remarkable I think they are when you read about them in the second section of this post.)  Part 2, to be published in a few days, will be devoted to my report on the novella If on a winters night a traveler, in its own way as unique as Cosmicomics.  I’ll only say that the like of neither book has come to my attention in my now 69 years.  Maybe you’ll agree.  ~Rick]

Italian novelist, short story writer, and journalist Italo Calvino (1923-85) was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, near Havana.  His parents, Mario and Eva, were essentially Italian expatriates, moving first to Mexico in 1909 and then, during the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), to Cuba in 1917.  Calvino has characterized his father as an anarchist in his youth, a follower of Prince Pyotr Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist aristocrat.  Mario Calvino, an agronomist and botanist, then became a socialist reformist, a movement that believed in gradual change from within (as opposed to violent revolution from without).  Eva, also a botanist, was a university professor.  In 1925, when Italo was not yet two, the family returned to Italy and settled on a small farm in San Remo on the Mediterranean coast.  Floriano Calvino, Italo’s younger bother (who later became a distinguished geologist), was born there in 1927.  Calvino’s parents maintained their political radicalism, espousing the tenets of Freemasonry, anarchism, and Marxism, becoming intense opponents of the National Fascist Party of Benito Mussolini (elected Italy’s prime minister in 1922). 

Mario and Eva Calvino were also believers in science over both religion and the humanities such as literature.  They inculcated in their children a life-long interest in science and nature (though, obviously, they didn’t dissuade Italo from eventually going into the humanities.)  The Calvinos refused to have their sons educated in the Italian Catholic schools, sending young Italo first to an English nursery school and then to a Protestant elementary school; his secondary schooling was at a state-run lyceum where he was exempted from religious classes at his parents’ request.  The family farm, however, was thickly planted with trees—Mario was a pioneer in growing fruit then considered exotic such as grapefruits and avocados—and the Calvino boys would climb up into a tree’s branches to read their favorite stories—one of Italo’s was Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.  This displeased the older Calvinos no less than Italo’s fascination with American movies, humor magazines, comics, and cartoons. 

He was also captivated by poetry, theater, and especially drawing; before he ever wrote anything, he was drawing caricatures of his friends and schoolmates.  Calvino’s first published piece, when he was 11, was a drawing.  When he started to write, he illustrated his own work—but decided that his drawing lacked style and he abandoned it completely.  The nascent writer listened avidly to the radio, which he felt was one of his links to the outside world, and he heard many radio plays.  Theater, he said, was his passion at that age, and when he turned to writing, at around 16, his first attempts were plays.  After World War II, Calvino found that Italian theater was barren, he asserted, but fiction in Italy was booming, so he shifted his focus from plays to stories.

Calvino’s mother was able postpone Italo’s entry into the Fascist Party’s youth brigade, but he eventually had to sign up and was forced to participate in Mussolini’s invasion of the French Riviera in 1940, before the boy was even 17.  The following year, Italo matriculated at the University of Turin in the agriculture department (where his father had previously taught agronomy), suppressing his literary ambitions to please his parents.  In 1943, Calvino transferred to the University of Florence, but by the end of that year, the Italians having overthrown Mussolini (who was later executed), Nazi Germany had occupied his home province and Calvino, refusing to join the military, went into hiding.  He continued to read extensively but, deciding that among the partisan groups the communists were the best organized, with his mother’s encouragement, he joined the Garibaldi Brigades of the Italian resistance in 1944.  Because Calvino had refused to join the puppet regime’s military, his parents were held hostage by the Nazis in their home; he recorded that the SS captors had three times pretended to shoot his father while his mother was forced to watch.  Calvino fought with the resistance until the Allied liberation of Italy in 1945. 

After the war, Calvino settled in Turin and returned to university.  He abandoned agriculture for the arts, however.  In 1945, he published his first story, “Gone to Headquarters,” a tale based on his experiences in the resistance.  (Though I’m using the English titles of Calvino’s works, the dates are all for the original Italian publication.)  The war had also strengthened his commitment to communism and he joined the Italian Communist Party and became active in post-war Italian politics as a supporter of the workers’ movement.  When he graduated with a master’s degree in 1947, he went to work in the publishing house Einaudi, which had been a center of anti-Fascism before the war.  Not only did this short stint give Calvino a grounding in the world of book publishing (which we’ll see he drew upon for his novel If on a winter’s night a traveler, which I’ll discuss in the latter half of this article), including the press and advertising, but it also introduced the young writer to many leftist intellectuals, among whom he found his closest friends and mentors.  When he left Einaudi, he went to work as a journalist for L’Unità, the communist daily in Italy.  That same year, Calvino published his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, the initial work in his neorealist period, which won a prestigious literary award and sold 5,000 copies, an impressive showing in post-war Italy.  (Italian Neorealism was a literary movement that flourished after World War II, dealing realistically with the events leading up to the war and with the social problems that were engendered during the period and afterwards.  Some critics have proposed that Calvino’s attention to detail, eye for symmetry, and scientific detachment were the consequence of his growing up in the home of two scientists.)  The next year, Calvino got to interview one of his literary idols, Earnest Hemingway.

A collection of stories about the war, The Crow Comes Last, was released in 1949, after which Calvino returned to Einaudi, which had been publishing his literary work, in 1951.  He became a consulting editor, which allowed him to develop his own writing and to discover new authors.  He also became a “reader of texts,” another important aspect of If on a winter’s night a traveler.  Also in 1951, to enhance his position in the communist party, Calvino traveled to the Soviet Union as a correspondent for L’Unità; his articles and correspondence from that stay, published in 1952, were awarded the Saint-Vincent Prize for journalism.  While he was in Moscow, however, he learned of the 1951 death of his father at the age of 76. 

Between 1947 and 1954, Calvino published three new novels, but none was particularly well received.  They’d all been written in a realistic style, continuing his work from his first book.  But Calvino had grown dissatisfied and uncomfortable with what he’d been doing and taking stock after the second of the three books (Youth in Turin, 1950–1951), he produced the novella The Cloven Viscount in 1952.  He’d concluded that he should cease writing the kind of books he was expected to write and create the kind of work he liked to read.  The new novel, which brought Calvino international recognition, was a combination of fable, fantasy, and allegory and the writer became recognized as a modern fabulist, the genre in which he wrote for most of the rest of his life.  In 1954, the writer had been commissioned by Einaudi to compile a collection of Italian folk stories in emulation of the famous German tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm; it was published as Italian Folk Tales (1956) and in his preparation for composing the book, Calvino read such works as Morphology of the Folktale and Historical Roots of Russian Fairy Tales by Vladimir Propp which confirmed for Calvino his own ideas on the form. 

During this period, Calvino continued his work with communist and party publications.  When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, he became disillusioned and resigned from the Italian Communist Party in 1957.  Part of his decision was also based on the revelation of Stalin’s crimes during his tenure as Soviet communist party boss.  From that point forward, Calvino ceased his active political participation and refused to become a member of any other political party.  When the party and his supporters within it withdrew their support of the publication of a story that was a satirical allegory about the party’s inertia and aversion to change, Calvino found outlets for his short pieces in various other journals of literature and general interest.  He became co-editor, with Elio Vittorini, who had published Calvino’s first story back in 1945, of Il Menabò, a left-leaning cultural journal.  His next novel, The Baron in the Trees, was published in 1957. 

For six months in 1959-1960, Calvino visted the U.S. on the invitation of the Ford Foundation.  (This was somewhat unusual during the Cold War era because people holding pro-communist views were routinely denied visas.  I suspect that Ford brought sufficient influence to bear to get the Italian writer an exception to the practice.)  Though Calvino went to California and the South, he spent four months of his trip in New York City and found himself enamored of the city.  His letters to Einaudi about his travels were published as “American Diary 1959-1960” in Hermit in Paris in 2003. 

During a 1964 trip to Havana, Calvino married Argentinean translator Esther Judith Singer, whom he’d met in 1962.  He’d gone to Cuba to visit his birthplace and while there, he met Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a hero to revolutionary communists the world over.  Guevara was killed in Bolivia on 9 October 1967 and a few days later, Calvino composed a tribute to the Argentine-born revolutionary which was published in Cuba in 1968 and in Italy in 1998. 

After his Cuban wedding, Calvino and his new wife settled in Rome; their daughter Giovanna was born there in 1965.  He returned to work for Einaudi and began writing Cosmicomics, a collection of stories that each takes a scientific or mathematical “fact” (though some by today’s knowledge are not true) around which Calvino creates a fanciful narrative.  Originally serialized in Il Caffè, a literary magazine, before being published as a collection in 1965.  (I’ll be outlining this book a little further on in this article.)

After the death of his friend and mentor Vittorini in 1966, which affected Calvino a great deal, the writer and his family moved to Paris in 1967, just ahead of the cultural upheavals that included the massive student uprising of May 1968 in the City of Light.  Invited to join a group of experimental writers in 1968, he met Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss who would be influential in Calvino’s future work.  That same year, he rejected the Viareggio Prize for Time and the Hunter (1967) because he frowned on the institution making the award.  He accepted two other awards, however, in the following years. 

In the early ’70s. Calvino continued publishing short stories, including “The Burning of the Abominable House” in the Italian edition of Playboy in 1973, and contributing articles to Italian periodicals, becoming a regular contributor to Corriere della Sera, an important daily paper in Milan.  (A voice of the Fascist Party during Mussolini’s regime, the paper became staunchly anti-communist and pro-NATO after the war and aimed at a readership in the upper and middle classes of post-war Italian society.)  In 1975, the writer was named an honorary member of the prestigious American Academy in Rome and received the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1976.  He traveled to Japan, Mexico, and the U.S., where he delivered a series of lectures in several cities.  His later novels, including If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), employed innovative structures and shifting points of view to explore chance, coincidence, and change.

The writer’s mother, Eva, died in 1978 at 92 and Calvino sold the family farm in San Remo; he and his wife and children moved to Rome in 1980.  In 1981, he was awarded the French Légion d’honeur and was appointed jury president for that year’s Venice Film Festival.  In the summer of 1985, he was working on a series of six lectures for delivery at Harvard in the fall, but on the night of 6 September he was admitted to the hospital with a cerebral hemorrhage and died during the night of 18-19 September.  The lectures were published posthumously in Italian in 1988 and then in 1993 in English under the title Six Memos for the Next Millennium.  In his lifetime, Italo Calvino won many literary and writing awards and prizes; had he not died unexpectedly at the age of only 61, most scholars agree, he’d have won the Nobel Prize for Literature eventually. 

Given that Italo Calvino is one of the world’s most unusual, not to say idiosyncratic, writers whose work astonished me when I first encountered it, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at two of his books.  Clearly one of Italy’s most esteemed writers—in his lifetime, he was one of the most translated authors in world literature—Calvino blended fantasy, humor, and fable to illuminate 20th-century life.  At the same time, he gave new dimensions to the novel and the story.  Upon learning of Calvino’s death, writer John Updike commented, “He took fiction into new places where it had never been before, and back into the fabulous and ancient sources of narrative.”  First I’ll look at a collection of stories, Cosmicomics (Le cosmicomiche), which I noted earlier was first published serially in an Italian magazine.  I can tell you that the stories were unlike anything I’ve ever read, before or since.  (I’m not even sure I can describe them succinctly or accurately.  But I’ll try.)

The second book is If on a winter’s night a traveler (Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore), which has its own peculiarities. I won’t précis it here, so I’ll only say it draws on the writer’s experience in the world of books, publishers, and readers.

*  *  *  *
(4 April 1985)

Originally published as a series of stories in an Italian magazine in 1965 and then as a book in Italy the same year, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (Harcourt Brace, 1968) was translated by William Weaver, who became Calvino’s regular English translator.  After an earlier translator had disappointed the author, as Weaver tells the story, Calvino met Weaver in Rome and they struck up an acquaintance.  Calvino asked Weaver bluntly if the American would like to translate his new book.  Intrigued, even though he hadn’t read the book yet, Weaver agreed. 

Out of curiosity, Weaver wondered why his predecessor had been fired.  “One of the stories in the volume was called ‘Without Colors,’” Weaver recounted.  “In an excess of misguided originality, the translator had entitled the piece ‘In Black and White.’  Calvino’s letter of dismissal pointed out that black and white are colors.”  This collaboration was obviously a success as far as Calvino was concerned since Weaver went on to translate many of the Italian author’s works into English—but the translator’s intervention in the American publishing process almost scuttled the release of Cosmicomics altogether:

The American editor who commissioned it changed jobs just as I was finishing, and—on my unfortunate advice—Calvino followed him to his new firm.  But then the editor committed suicide, the new house turned down Cosmicomics, the old house wouldn’t have us back, and the book was adrift.  It was rejected by other publishers, until Helen Wolff at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich accepted it . . . .

The book went on to garner excellent reviews and the National Book Award for translation, and Harcourt Brace became Calvino’s long-time American publisher.  (All the stories in Cosmicomics plus those in a later collection, narrated by the same ever-present character as Cosmicomics, called t zero (1967), along with some others, were republished as The Complete Cosmicomics [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014].) 

Cosmicomics is a collection of 12 allegorical fantasy short stories.  The author’s chosen subjects, which include evolution, the distance from the earth to the moon, life as a mollusk, the last dinosaurs, messages from space, are handled with sharp wit and imagination.  No less a literary figure than Salman Rushdie, a dab hand at fantastical stories himself, deemed Cosmicomicspossibly the most enjoyable story collection ever written, a book that will frequently make you laugh out loud at its mischievous mastery, capricious ingenuity and nerve.”

The narrative, told by “old Qfwfq” about his childhood and members of his family circle in a series of anecdotal scenes, most very short, is set in an allegorical prehistoric past—primordial earth.  Qfwfq, an eyewitness to the creation of the universe who takes on different forms in each story—a speck of cosmic dust, a dinosaur, a seashell, and  a caveman, among others—relates a first-hand account of the birth of the cosmos.  Drawing on his interest in science, Calvino has invented his own creation myth, mixing whimsical character traits with both apparently accurate scientific or mathematical facts, presented as an epigraph at the start of each tale, and complete fantasy. (One critic, Jonathan Lethem in the New York Times Book Review, quipped: “Someone teach these books in Kansas, please—Darwin’s foes would be drowned in epiphanies.)  “The formation of the solar system,” observes sci-fi critic Ryan Britt on Tor.com, a science fiction blog, “is described less like a stellar event and more like a family gathering, which slowly breaks up.”  

The author has turned the formulae, molecules, and cells of creation into personalities. Many of the characters, some carried over from one tale to the next, are of varying ages, types, and descriptions.  All anthropomorphized non-humans, they’re allegorical and symbolic in the same sense that characters in the Bible and Greek or Norse myths are, though they have more contemporary personality traits than those ancient legends, infused, as reviewer Ted Gioia puts it on The Millions website, with “all the foibles and fancies of humans.”  They represent elements in the formation of the universe, the earth, and life.

The language, even in translation, is poetic, lyrical, semi-colloquial, and some of it, particularly names, is clearly meant only to be read on a page, not spoken, since it’s written as unpronounceable chains of consonants with diacritical marks and superscripts.  (How would you pronounce Qfwfq?  Or Ursula H’x?  How about Mrs. Ph(i)Nk0 or G’d(w)n?)  “Science fiction collides with wordplay on these pages,” writes Britt, “while a madman’s wit keeps the course steady.”

It’s not really possible to synopsize Cosmicomics accurately; you have to read it yourself.  Nevertheless, I’ll give it a try—as long as everyone understands that these stories depend a lot in your individual take.

“The Distance of the Moon”  This is probably the best-known story in the collection.  Calvino takes the fact that the Moon used to be much closer to the Earth, and conjures a tale about people who used to climb up a ladder from the Earth to the Moon to collect the Moon Milk.  The ending is a little sad because some lovers drift apart as the Moon recedes from the Earth.

“At Daybreak”  Old Qfwfq remembers the birth of the solar system.

“A Sign in Space”  Because the Sun takes a long time to go around the Galaxy, Qwfwq creates a sign so that once the sun has made its complete revolution, he can have an indication of his existence, “a point of reference.”  But by the time the Sun has come around to its starting point, Qwfwq forgets what his sign looks like.  In the interim, the world also evolves and life has begun so that when Qwfwq finally does find his sign, he doesn’t recognize it.  He concludes that “space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.”

 “All at One Point”  At the beginning of the universe, all matter and creation used to exist in a single point.  “Naturally, we were all there—old Qfwfq said—where else could we have been?  Nobody knew then that there could be space,” Calvino starts this tale.  “Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?”  Qwfwq goes on to describe what it was like when everything was contained in a single point.

“Without Colors”  Before there was an atmosphere, everything was “a dead, uniform gray,” like the Moon.  When a meteorite passes in front of the Sun, colors appear as the atmosphere envelops the Earth.  The change frightens Ayl, Qfwfq’s new love interest, and she hides from Qwfwq and this strange, new world.  

“Games Without End”  Qwfwq and his childhood friend Pfwfp play a cosmic game of marbles with hydrogen atoms, back when the universe was forming new hydrogen particles every 250 million years or so.  But the game turns into one of chase, as Qfwfq, in his galaxy, pursues Pfwfp, who in turn in his galaxy is chasing Qfwfq in an endless circuit around curved space.

“The Aquatic Uncle”  With “the water period . . . coming to an end,” creatures left the sea and went to live on land.  Qwfwq’s family was living on land except for their great-uncle N’ba N’ga who still lived as a fish, refusing to come ashore like “civilized” people.  There’s even a social hierarchy, between the land-dwellers and the water-dwellers, and even among the land-dwellers, with the more-evolved beings who came out of the water in the earliest period, such as Lll, Qwfwq’s fiancée, and her family, and those who came later and aren’t as advanced, like Qfwfq himself and his family.  When Qfwfq introduces Lll to his uncle, he’s confused that they take to each other so strongly, and, sadly, Qfwq eventually loses his terrestrial fiancée to his aquatic uncle as Lll returns to a life under water.

“How Much Shall We Bet”  One theory of galactic evolution states that “the galaxies, the solar system, the Earth, cellular life could not help but be born,” that the cosmic developments were inevitable.  But Qwfwq and his fellows couldn’t have known that, so he and his friend Dean (k)yK began betting on the long-term evolution of the universe.  Of course, as Qfwfq explains, they didn’t really know what was going on in the universe, or what any of it would lead to.  They “also didn't know what we were staking because there was nothing that could serve as a stake, and so we gambled on our word, keeping an account of the bets each had won, to be added up later.”  For Qfwfq and (k)yK, the cosmos was like an intergalactic Las Vegas: they could bet on anything.  And did.  As the universe evolves, and life on Earth develops, some of the bets become very specific: historical events, sports events, people’s life choices, and so on.  In the end, (k)yK says to Qfwfq: “‘You know something, Qfwfq?  The closing quotations on Wall Street are down 2 per cent, not 6!  And that building constructed illegally on the Via Cassia is twelve stories high, not nine!  Nearco IV wins at Longchamps by two lengths.  What’s our score now, Qfwfq?’”

“The Dinosaurs”  Qfwfq explains that some Dinosaurs lived after most of them became extinct, and the “New Ones” have become the new masters of the planet.  He recounts how it felt to be the last existing Dinosaur, accepted by the proto-mammals, who have no memory of what Dinosaurs looked like,  as “The Ugly One.”  Erroneous myths and legends about Dinosaurs grew up among the New Ones, not knowing that the Ugly One was, in fact, a Dinosaur himself.  Among the several themes Calvino treats in this story, one strikes me for its pertinence to right now: during a discussion of Dinosaurs, one of Qfwfq’s adoptive neighbors states, “I’m against anybody when we don’t know who gave him birth or where he came from, and when he wants to eat our food and court our sisters. . . .”  Does that sound like anyone we all know?

“The Form of Space”  As the unnamed narrator—this is one of the two tales told by someone not named as Qfwfq (though the tone is no different that those in which he figures)—falls through space, he cannot help but notice that his trajectory is parallel to that of a beautiful woman, Ursula H’x, and that of Lieutenant Fenimore, who is also in love with Ursula.  The story-teller dreams of the shape of space changing, so that he may touch Ursula (or fight with Lieutenant Fenimore).  The whole episode takes place inside the narrator’s mind as the three figures never actually communicate except, perhaps in the teller’s imagination.

“The Light Years”  The second unnamed narrator, looking through his telescope at other galaxies, spots one with a sign pointed right at him reading “I SAW YOU.”  Given that there’s a gulf of a hundred million light-years, even before he checks his diary, the narrator recalls that it was something he had always tried to hide.  Then he starts to worry, particularly about what others who had seen the sign, might be thinking.  Concerned for his reputation, the story-teller responds with his own sign, and soon the universe above becomes a literal multi-party conversation by signs in space.  Despite the fact that each round of discourse takes two hundred million years to occur, in the narrator’s telling, it’s a feverish exchange. 

“The Spiral”  Returning to Qfwfq as our guide, he recounts his life as a mollusk.  At first, Qwfwq is an eyeless mollusk clinging to a rock in the sea, just sucking up nourishment.  Eventually, he senses the presence of female mollusks, and though he can’t see them, he falls in love with one and his new-found awareness beyond himself inspires him to create a beautiful spiral shell.  Though none of his fellow mollusks can see it, his shell sends out vibrations which eventually make them develop eyes and evolve generally.  Qfwfq’s creativity prompts the emergence “five hundred millions years” later of the pyramids and Egyptian airlines, Spinoza and the “Spinoza” entry in a Dutch encyclopedia, a Neolithic mattock buried into a field and the mattock of the peasant that unburies it, Herodotus and those who read him in bilingual editions, a cloud of bees, coal, horoscopes, Cleopatra, and films about Cleopatra. 

The chief attraction of Cosmicomics, at least for me, is the wonderful mix of science and whimsy, the off-the-wall imagination, the very idea of it all.  Critic Gioia calls it “a kind of Einsteinian magical realism.”   I don’t know if there’s anything remotely like this out there, but I’ve never read any.  Well, maybe one, when I was a little boy—Calvino’s tales of the formation of the universe are a little like a more sophisticated take on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories—except based on some scientific truths.  This is about the freshest, most imaginative, wackiest, most engaging material I’ve ever read.  For me, it’s reminiscent in appeal (though not in style or content) of Theodore White’s The Once and Future King when I was 12 and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy back in the ’70s.  (J. K. Rowling’s Potter books probably come pretty close, too.)

[My initial contact with Cosmicomics and Italo Calvino happened when I was working with a woman who was starting a theater company and wanted to find new and original material that might be adaptable for performance.  She assigned me to read Cosmicomics and report on its suitability for stage adaptation; that 1985 report is the basis of this section.  That theater was never launched and the adaptation my boss contemplated was never written, but, despite the obvious difficulties in turning Calvino’s stories into performance texts—pronouncing the names is only the most obvious—there have been some stage presentations of this material.  The most recent of them included two 2014 productions: a multimedia adaptation by Ildiko Nemeth for Dixon Place and the New Stage Theatre Company in New York City and a rendering by Sky Candy in Austin, Texas , directed by Rudy Ramirez.

[Now I invite you come back to ROT in a few days to read Part 2 of this article and see what I have to say about what some critics deem Calvino’s masterwork, If on a winters night a traveler.]